Still in a Victorian world?

A major international conference which asks whether the Victorian legacy was so powerful that we are still living in a Victorian world was held at Cambridge University earlier this summer.

Entitled Past Versus Present, the three-day event was the biggest of its kind ever held in the UK, with more than 150 new and unpublished studies on the Victorian era  presented.

Its aim is not only to celebrate what the Victorians “did for us”, but to assess how far they rewrote history and, in doing so, created our own heritage as they struggled to cope with the huge quantities of information that the discoveries and inventions of the 19th century brought about.

Major archaeological finds – such as the remains of dinosaurs or the ‘lost civilizations’ of Ancient Egypt and Assyria – as well as fast-paced technological changes and potent new scientific theories, forced the Victorians to reinvent human history perhaps more than any previous generation. Concepts which would have seemed unthinkable to their ancestors, such as the notion that the Earth might be much older than the human race, were confronted for the first time.

In the process, however, they developed new ideas about history, identity, citizenship, government and education which some scholars believe were so powerful that 150 years later we still view the world through Victorian eyes.

“The Victorians were pivotal in defining the modern age and we owe a lot of the models which shape our society to them,” Dr Peter Mandler, from the Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, which is hosting the conference, said.

“Often they are portrayed as too romantic and nostalgic in their treatment of history, but in fact they had to make very brave decisions about how to deal with the huge quantities of new information which, in some cases, they were literally digging out of the ground.”

“They had to make choices about how to organise this new knowledge, about what to keep and what to throw out. In many ways, the ideas that they came up with have left their mark on every generation since.”

The conference is the first ever joint gathering of the British Association for Victorian Studies and the North American Victorian Studies Association, bringing together some 300 researchers who specialise in aspects of 19th century history and culture.

Dozens of workshops and seminars will take place over the course of the three days, alongside keynote lectures from historian Simon Schama, classicist Mary Beard, the novelist Philip Hensher and the Harvard historian of science, Peter Galison.

The discussions will touch on almost every aspect of Victorian life – their ideas about art and science, their fascination with fairies and folklore, and even what can be learned from the remains of the rubbish they threw away. Other presentations will cover topics including:

• Prehistory: As excavations for canals, sewers and railways propelled Britain into the industrial age, the 19th century public, weaned on the notion of mankind’s lordship over a 6,000-year Earth, had to confront startling new evidence of prehistoric worlds and ancient civilizations. Scholars will examine how the shocking idea of a “deep past” in which the earth was once stalked by dinosaurs, led the Victorians to fashion a new kind of history.

• Archaeology: A surfeit of new archaeological finds enabled the Victorians to understand the past as never before, but it also provided “evidence” for new political theories which would dominate the next century to come – such as feminism, socialism and Aryan supremacy.

• Architecture: Victorian “revivalism” tried to represent ideas about identity, morality, nature, government and education in buildings which still dominate many of Britain’s towns and cities. Historical models were used to convey these new ideas.

• The Bible: Victorian poets, novelists and even the general public often wrote on the presumption that their readers were conversant with Biblical scripture – but this is often ignored. Academics will examine how the Bible helps us to “decode” what the Victorians left behind.

• Darwinism: Scholars will examine both how the great scientist’s ideas left their mark in the most unexpected places – including the plot of Middlemarch, among others – and whether the argument that he single-handedly started a scientific revolution is really correct?

The event is part of a wider, five-year project being undertaken by the Victorian Studies Group at the University of Cambridge, also called “Past Versus Present”, which investigates the development and impact of different views of the past in 19th century Britain and asks just how far the Victorian draft of history has influenced the generations that followed. The project is funded by a £1million grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

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