THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF VICTORIAN MEDIEVALISM Part VI: Literature by Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner, eds., Reviewed by Veronica Alfano
 


THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF VICTORIAN MEDIEVALISM Part VI: Literature
Eds. Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner
(Oxford, 2020) xx + 688 pp.
Reviewed by Veronica Alfano on 2021-06-12.

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Nostalgia can seem intrinsically opposed to progressive ideals. Indeed, Victorian medievalism has often been critiqued as self-indulgently escapist or regressive, at best a form of empty prettification--what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls "Charades from the Middle Ages" (The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon, ed. C. C. Abbott [Oxford 1955] 24)--and at worst downright retrograde. In this new collection of essays, Joanne Parker and Corinna Wagner have two ambitious aims: first, to illustrate the enormous scope, influence, and complexity of their subject by covering "every major aspect of Victorian medievalism [...] including intellectual history, religious studies, social history, literary history, art history, and architecture" (4); and second, to contest the persistent notion that medieval revival tends to be apolitical or merely nostalgic. They propose that nineteenth-century medievalists, "who sought to make things with integrity, to produce ethically, to conserve their built and natural environments, and who insisted that happiness, truth, and beauty matter," taught their contemporaries important lessons that still resonate today (19). The thirty-nine essays gathered here include discussions of "Medievalism Before 1750," "Romantic Period Medievalism," "Sources," "Social, Political, and Religious Praxis," "Arts and Architecture," and "Literature." While this review considers only the section on literature, these essays generally link their arguments very well to other facets of Victorian medievalism.

In ascribing what she calls "medieval modernism" (555) to Pre-Raphaelite poets, Elizabeth Helsinger ably supports the book's contentions about the intellectual seriousness and contemporary relevance of medievalist productions. Far from being dilettantish dabblers, she asserts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris were accomplished scholars of the Middle Ages who both translated and imaginatively reinterpreted primary sources in verbal and visual media. Helsinger thus demonstrates that the distant past paradoxically gains the "raw immediacy of the newly invented" (556) in their early work. By juxtaposing Rossetti's prose piece "Hand and Soul" with his poem "My Sister's Sleep," she brings a medievalist lens to a work set in the nineteenth century, showing that Rossetti's fixation on the essential strangeness of past and present "mental and representational habits" (561) mounts a challenge to Victorian realism. According to Helsinger, this same disorienting effect underlies not only the reader's experience but also the mutual estrangement of the lovers in "The Blessed Damozel," one of whom seems to inhabit an archaized world while the other remains in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Helsinger explains, Morris generates a related form of disorientation when he translates into verse two of Rossetti's watercolors, The Tune of Seven Towers and The Blue Closet. The leaping-and-lingering tactics of the traditional ballad, she writes, here create "a quite modern sense of psychological disturbance" (564) and elevate linguistic patterning over narrative trajectory. Thus Morris and Rossetti use medievalism as a source of stylistic innovation, rendering the past both thrillingly accessible and usefully alien. Throughout her chapter, Helsinger strikes an admirable balance between wide-reaching claims and keen-eyed engagement with the texts at hand.

Clare Broome Saunders's interest in gender prompts her to address the politics of medieval revival and to further complicate the charge of regressive nostalgia that Parker and Wagner mention. The Middle Ages, she observes, can be made to signify either female liberty and self-determination or the "duty, obedience, security" (568) needed to stabilize Victorian society. Queen Victoria herself deployed chivalric stereotypes of womanly passivity in order to bolster her power and influence. Similarly, we learn, writers such as Louisa Stuart Costello, Anna Jameson, and Charlotte Guest used medieval material to claim literary authority. While European travelogues and biographies of virtuous queens avoided trespassing on male territory, they let women establish themselves as scholars of medieval art and history; translation of medieval texts became a "screen for subversion" and for authorial ambition (571); and Arthurian legend inspired original work by writers such as Dinah Mulock Craik, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Violet Fane, who used female figures to offer both liberal and conservative commentary on contemporary issues. What, for instance, are the appropriate consequences for adultery? How should women navigate public roles? Like Helsinger, Saunders shows that the very pastness of the past is what makes it useful in the present, as it permits women to raise topical questions at a cautious temporal remove. This is especially clear in Felicia Hemans's and Letitia Elizabeth Landon's portrayals of women and war, where "the screen of medieval distance" becomes a "vehicle to safeguard commercial success" (575). Likewise, though Charlotte Mary Yonge longs for a return to chivalric values, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë all harness medieval forms and themes to critique the enforced submissiveness of Victorian women. This important contrast between backward- and forward-looking medievalism is epitomized by literary reactions to the Crimean War and by depictions of Joan of Arc, who may exemplify either pious patriotism or transgressive female strength. Since the other essays in this section largely highlight male writers, Saunders's feminist angle is refreshing. Her chapter covers an impressive amount of ground, and any mild disorientation at the pace at which she moves among texts and authors is counterbalanced by her consummate skill in weaving all the strands together.

By contrast, Marcus Waithe examines just one novel. Perceptively analyzing Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), he supports one of this volume's central aims: associating medievalism with revolutionary utopian thought rather than inert nostalgia. Morris's treatment of architecture, Waithe writes, "unites medieval and modern contexts in ways that affirm [his] aesthetic and political vision"--a vision that ascribes to the buildings of the Middle Ages an inspiring fusion of beauty and utility (584). Drawing on John Ruskin to transform the Gothic into a politicized spirit of liberty and cooperation, Morris--we are told--maintains that this spirit can emerge anew and animate a future society.

But Waithe notes that such quasi-historical recollection is highly selective. While Morris thought that the architecture of Nowhere must be "retrofitted with socialist principles," as Waithe puts it, he also thought that it should leave behind the "less palatable features of the medieval past, namely the sense of hierarchy, violence, and curtailed freedom" (589). Once again, the past is useful and accessible because of its distance, because it can be adapted and re-formed. The serious study of the Middle Ages undertaken by Morris and his fellow Victorians did not preclude strategic elision and forgetting. Indeed, the buildings described in News from Nowhere often hybridize medieval and contemporary styles in order to reflect a fusion of values (e.g. between communalism and secular democracy, or between vernacular tradition and dynamic adaptability). Giving his argument a shrewd literary twist, Waithe remarks that Morris's architectural descriptions turn what might otherwise be classified as scene-setting into revelatory event, recalibrating narrative itself (one is reminded of Helsinger's point about anti-realism). And he brings his chapter to a compelling conclusion by allowing a question to linger: can we reconcile this novel's fruitful and forward-looking "reconciliation of personal and communal need" with its embrace of "a kind of historical dead-end, a socialist version of the end of history" (596)? To what extent can the impulse to look backward accommodate genuine innovation?

Like Waithe, Antony H. Harrison brings ideology to the fore. Citing the work of Pierre Bourdieu, he shows that mid-to-late Victorian medievalist poems shape, reflect, resist, and reinforce cultural values. By displacing onto the distant past the nineteenth-century political contexts that inspired them, Harrison argues, Matthew Arnold's Tristram and Iseult and "Dover Beach" convert those contexts into myth or abstraction--ultimately disavowing medievalized amatory and spiritual discourses in favor of secular pessimism. Alfred Tennyson's epic Idylls of the King, however, is said to reveal that a more conservative reformulation of the tenets of the Middle Ages was "fundamental to the processes of middle- and upper-class socialization" (606). According to Harrison, the poem's unquestioned assumption is that Englishmen should emulate its heroic knights' loyalty to God and to the king, their support of imperialist ventures, and their elevation of women as chaste moral saviors.

Yet as Harrison notes, Morris's "The Defence of Guenevere" challenges Tennyson's Tory version of medievalism via an overtly sexual heroine who defies chivalry's patriarchal norms, and Rossetti uses "The Blessed Damozel" to aestheticize and even parody medieval images and themes. Echoing Arnold's concerns, Rossetti appropriates the language of both courtly love and Christian faith to establish the transcendent force of the artwork itself. A. C. Swinburne's iconoclastic "Laus Veneris" does more to integrate the ideological and the aesthetic; Harrison finds Tannhäuser's "psychological bifurcation" medieval in itself because it recapitulates "the opposition between poet-lovers and priests" that Swinburne associated with the thirteenth century (614). All in all, Harrison's take on medievalist retrospection is less optimistic than Parker and Wagner's. But although he believes that the poems he considers sometimes "devalue activity in the socio-political world" and foster "the illusion of transcending that world" (600), he concludes by underscoring their profound impact on Victorian culture. Despite the occasional slight flicker--his reading of "Dover Beach" as a medievalist text feels underdeveloped--Harrison's contribution is richly detailed and powerfully persuasive.

Heather O'Donoghue examines an aspect of Victorian medievalism that is frequently overlooked: the reimagining of Icelandic saga narrative. She carefully tracks the ways in which adaptations of this narrative intersect with and diverge from the storylines and styles of their sources. In "The Saga of King Olaf," for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow surprisingly chooses neither to dilute nor to denounce his Christianizing hero's brutal behavior. Cannily amplifying "a sexual undertone only just evident in the original" (622), Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Waif Woman" demonstrates his sensitive understanding of saga narrative precisely through his ability to rework it. While imitating medieval dialogue and narrative style, H. Rider Haggard's The Saga of Eric Brighteyes (1890) is likewise Victorian in its focus on the inner lives of characters and its exaggerated contrasts between virtuous and vicious women. And W. G. Collingwood's Thorstein of the Mere (1905) uses nineteenth-century dialect to emphasize the continuity between Norse settlers and the contemporary inhabitants of the Lake District. As O'Donoghue observes, "[t]hese authors recognized in Old Norse literature something of their own ethnic or national heritage"; moreover, "[t]he abiding concerns of saga authors chimed with distinctly Victorian interests," including "the relationship between paganism and Christianity, social and sexual mores," and "familial and social complexities" (630-631). At the same time, she adds, saga conventions could baffle Victorian writers rather than inspiring them. Their work thus negotiates the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of medieval narratives. O'Donoghue's examples are well chosen and brilliantly analyzed, and though one could sometimes wish for bolder generalizations about these texts, her concluding synthesis nicely supports the collection's goal of dissociating medievalism from escapism.

Taking up one of O'Donoghue's most prominent themes, Joanne Parker convincingly argues for the centrality of another understudied facet of Victorian medievalism. According to Parker, Anglo-Saxonist novels such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Harold, the Last of the Saxons (1848) and Charles Kingsley's Hereward the Wake: Last of the English (1866) "question and investigate simplistic notions of national identity" by highlighting "the mixed ancestry of the English" rather than relying on jingoistic "racial determinism" (632-633, 637). Probing both the roots and the afterlife of nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxonism, Parker questions the common assumption that this movement originated with the work of Walter Scott; instead, she traces a much deeper and more varied history. Although Scott's Ivanhoe was indeed influential, she writes, the novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Kingsley stay closer to primary sources and do less to distance readers from the long-ago past.

Nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxonist literature, Parker goes on to explain, also reflects such historical developments as the Napoleonic Wars, the coronation of Victoria, the philological theories of Max Müller, and the rise of Chartism. It illuminates Victorian social issues, ranging from anti-Catholicism to parliamentary roles to shifting perceptions of the Norman Conquest. As several other essays in this section confirm, faithfully recalling the past while selectively reinventing it can make it a valuable ideological tool in the present; Kingsley, to give just one example, is said to impose a framework of "mid-Victorian morality" on his hero (650). In the end, Parker takes her claims about the Anglo-Saxonist legacy well beyond the Victorian era. Questions about "the hybridity of English identity and the complex processes of nation-building," she astutely concludes, are more meaningful than ever in the age of Brexit (653).

To complete the section on literature, Inga Bryden circles back to the Arthurian Revival, as exemplified by the work of Tennyson and others. She strengthens the volume's links among literary medievalism, material culture, and the visual arts by using noteworthy objects (Excalibur, the Holy Grail, the Round Table) to assess depictions of King Arthur's return. Especially in light of the rise of historical archeology, she argues, this return is echoed in the Victorian reproduction and commodification of medieval items. Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur and "The Coming of Arthur" wrestle with the question of whether to preserve Excalibur, tapping into debates about how to represent Britain's historical heritage. The sword itself is repeatedly recreated in the period, by Edward Burne-Jones among others, and is often framed as a patriotic icon. Similarly, the Holy Grail is both a gorgeous treasure and a spiritual symbol. In Joseph Henry Shorthouse's novel Sir Percival (1886), it is associated first with fetishistic materiality and then with an anxious need (in an increasingly industrial country) to imagine the English landscape as "historically and spiritually continuous" (664). Finally, the Round Table is domesticized and democratized in (e.g.) Christiana Douglas's novel Arthur (1870); it is understood not only as a locatable physical object but also as a metaphor underlying the chivalric code of the "Victorian gentleman-knight" (665). Bryden's original and thought-provoking chapter, which reminds us that Arthurian tales continue to be told in contemporary fiction, games, and films, drives home the book's argument about the rich (and ongoing) cultural significance of medievalism.

As Bryden writes, "[t]he process of historical recovery [...] was itself a reminder of the impossibility of recreating a cohesive or definitive Arthurian past" (660). Excalibur, whose twin inscriptions read "Take me" and "Cast me away," aptly calls to mind the refashioning that inevitably underlies revival (662). Serving as far more than wistful nostalgia or colorful set-dressing, Victorian medievalism encapsulates the way in which strategic reappropriation of the past lends revelatory insight into the hopes and fears of the present. Parker and Wagner's impressive volume, then, will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholars of both the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century.

Veronica Alfano is a Research Fellow in the Discipline of Literature at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.


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