Victorian pet peeves

The BBC Magazine published an essay on the legacy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and now has a follow up article with readers’ meanings. Most, if not all, of these responses are exceedingly well thought out and erudite, providing a full breadth of how Shelley’s novel can be interpreted. I just have a quibble with people who use the word Victorian to describe the whole nineteenth-century. Technically, the term refers to most of the nineteenth-century, roughly 1832/37 (the date of the First Reform bill or Victoria’s ascension to the throne) to 1901/1910 (Victoria’s death or Virginia Woolf’s arbitrary date for when the world changed). But Victorian scholars don’t specialize in the whole period. The first part is considered the beginnings of the Age of Reform, the 1850s through 1870s is the high Victorian period, and the 1880s and 1890s are the fin-de-siecle. Nor would a Victorianist claim that 1817 is part of the Victorian period. It’s during the Regency and during the Romantic literary period, although history of the novel studies tends to follow a different trajectory. Essentially, periodization is hard and involves a lot of hair splitting, but some of that hair splitting is necessary. We wouldn’t lump today’s social values with those of people in the early 1980s, would we? The roughly two decades difference between when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and the beginning of the Victorian period matters. The Evangelical revival, the emergence of the middle-classes as a dominant and now voting political force, the abolishment of slavery, and the establishment of England’s economic and military power all occur before Victoria takes the throne. It seems difficult to ascribe Victorian moral values to Shelley, when she didn’t live within that value system nor was responding to it.

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