Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning.
Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences.
The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.
From ancient Greece on, fictional narratives have entailed deciphering mystery. Sophocles’ Oedipus must solve the mystery of the plague decimating Thebes; the play is a dramatization of how he ultimately “detects” the culprit responsible for the plague, who turns out to be Oedipus himself. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines a successful plot as one that has a conflict (which can include, and often does include, a “mystery”) that rises to a climax, followed by a resolution of the conflict, a plot line that describes not only Oedipus Rex but also every Sherlock Holmes story.
A particular genre of mystery writing is defined by the mystery at the center of the story that is crucially, definitively solved by a particular person known as a detective, either private or police, who by ratiocination (close observation coupled with logical patterns of thought based on material evidence) uncovers and sorts out the relevant facts essential to a determination of who did the crime and how and why. The form of detective fiction throughout most of the 19th century was the short story published in various periodicals of the period. A few longer detective fictions were published as separate books in the 19th century, but book-length detective fiction, such as that by Agatha Christie, was really a product of the 20th century.
Most critics of detective fiction see the beginning of the genre in the three stories of Edgar Allan Poe which feature his amateur detective, Auguste Dupin, and were published in the 1840s. Although Poe’s 1840s stories as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which first appeared in the 1880s, are probably the most well known of 19th-century detective fictions, a number of other writers of generically recognizable detective fiction published stories in the almost fifty years between Poe and Conan Doyle, including a number that featured female detectives. Finally, from the 1890s into the early 20th century, a plethora of new detective fictions, still in short-story form for the most part, appeared not only in Britain but also in France and the United States.
Detective fiction has always been popular, but serious critical interest in the genre only developed in the 20th century. In the second half of that century, this critical interest expanded into the academic world. The popularity of the genre has only continued to grow. Both detective fictions (now nearly all novel length) and critical interest in the genre from a variety of perspectives are now an international phenomenon, and detective novels dominate many best-seller lists.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century
Troy J. Bassett
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing throughout the 19th century, circulating libraries became an integral part of the literary marketplace as the chief means of distributing books. Subscribers paid an annual or per-book fee to rent volumes: during the Victorian period, the typical subscription rate was one guinea (21s) per year to borrow one volume at a time. The relatively high price of books made circulating libraries an economical means for many middle-class families to access books: for less than the price of one three-volume novel (one-and-a-half guineas, or 31s 6d), a subscriber could borrow dozens if not more volumes. Hundreds of circulating libraries existed during the Victorian period, but the two largest were Mudie’s Select Library (1842–1937) and W. H. Smith and Son’s Subscription Library (1860–1961). Mudie’s, headquartered in London, had upwards of 50,000 subscribers, established branches in other major cities, and shipped books around the world. W. H. Smith added a library department to its pre-existing network of railway bookstalls with larger branches in major cities. Between them, Mudie’s and W. H. Smith became the largest purchasers of books and thereby had a direct and indirect effect on Victorian literature. In particular, the three-volume novel system—whereby the high price limited sales to the libraries who then had a monopoly on new fiction—encouraged British readers to become book borrowers instead of book buyers. The format of the three-volume novel led to certain generic conventions influencing areas such as characterization, plot, and style, which remained until the format was abolished in 1894. Since the libraries, especially Mudie’s and W. H. Smith, largely controlled the distribution of literature, they often exerted an informal censorship on literature which some authors, such as George Moore, advocated against.
Frontier colonial Gothic literature in Australia gives expression to the experience and aftermath of violent encounters between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier. This includes “hut literature” about shepherds in remote locations and the way in which these stories worked toward the establishment of colonial settlement and authority. Colonial development distances the Gothic from the frontier, to which it returns in belated and spectral ways. The post-frontier colonial Gothic can be considered in these terms, in stories by Francis Adams, Hume Nisbet, and Marcus Clarke. Clarke also provides examples of convict Gothic literature in colonial Australia, in particular with the serialization of His Natural Life (1870–1872). In Gothic bushranger narratives and some colonial Gothic poetry, the symbolic distance from the frontier brings with it an increased “occultization” of the bush. Marcus Clarke’s famous account of “weird melancholy” evokes spectral Aboriginal presences linked to the Lemurian novel in Australia, a popular version of the post-frontier Gothic. Some narratives by Rosa Praed, including the novel Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893) and “The Bunyip” (1891), offer images of frontier violence that produce a range of effects among settlers, from excitement to disorientation. “The Bunyip” in particular throws a shadow over the prospect of a settler colonial future; this is typical of the kind of melancholy project represented in later examples of the colonial Australian Gothic.
Monica F. Cohen
When Victorian writers talked about the home, they invoked a range of contested ideas and complex affects about the material and imagined space where self and society meet. Emerging as a fully developed ideology by the middle of the 19th century, domesticity organized beliefs about the family, gender identity, sexuality, subject formation, socioeconomic class, work, civilization, and empire. As an ideology, Victorian domesticity pivots on two figures: the figure of separate spheres and the figure of the domestic woman. The binary logic of separate spheres identifies a private domain where femininity, leisure, feeling, and an ethic of care coalesce in opposition to a public domain where masculinity, work, industry, endurance, and an ethic of achievement preside. Governing the private sphere, the idealized middle-class domestic woman exercises a moral authority that derives from her naturally self-sacrificial spirit, a socioeconomic authority in managing a labor-intensive household, and a creative authority in using the materials of private life representing the family’s social status as a matter of financial and ethical respectability. In this sense, the home provided a rhetoric and narrative form for mapping an individual’s accommodation of social categories and economic forces. For better or worse, the image of the family hearth’s comfort, coziness and good cheer—its status as a haven in a heartless world—presided over a large swath of the Victorian imagination despite ripped patches that exposed domestic violence, sexual transgression, gender subordination, and socioeconomic coercion. For every sentimental Dickensian Christmas feast displaying a repentant miser breaking bread with a disabled waif, there were equally popular stories in which children are beaten, wives incarcerated, and households blighted by industrial suffering and bureaucratic indifference. Victorian domesticity thus relied on both mythologizing and demythologizing energies.
Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices.
But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.
Robert W. Rix
From the 1750s until the 1840s, the interest in Icelandic manuscripts of mythology and heroic sagas, as well as various forms of Nordic folklore, entered a new phase. One of the central reasons for this was an emergent attention to vernacular, national, and even primitive literature associated with the rise of Romanticism. Investigations of the Nordic past had been carried out before this time, and a popular craze for all things “Viking” came later in the 19th century, but the Romantic period marks a major juncture in relation to providing the Old North with cultural meaning. If the intellectual history of rediscovering Old Norse texts (i.e., poetry and prose written in the North Germanic language until the 14th century, known primarily from Icelandic manuscripts) and medieval Nordic folklore (found in medieval ballads, sagas, and heroic legends) differed in various European countries, there was also a remarkable sense of common aim and purpose in the reception history as it developed during the Romantic period. This was because European scholars and writers had come to see medieval Nordic texts as epitomizing the manners and literature of a common Germanic past. In particular, Old Norse texts from Icelandic manuscripts were believed to preserve the pre-Christian religion, as this was once shared by Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and the Franks. Thus, interest in such texts circulated with particular intensity between Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain, as well as, to a lesser degree, France. Paradoxically, if medieval Nordic texts were seen as wild and unwieldy pieces, unaffected by classical learning and sophistication, they were also sought out as triumphant records of the vernacular and national. In addition to this, the untamed use of fantastic and sublime elements in these texts fitted into a new Romantic emphasis on the primitive and imaginative resources of literature.
There are three interrelated areas in which Nordic texts made an impact. The first of these was in the field of antiquarian studies. Scholars had taken an interest in the texts and culture of the Nordic past beginning in the 17th century, publishing their findings primarily in Latin. But efforts were redoubled after Paul Henri Mallet, a professor at Copenhagen, published a popular history of the Old North (1755) and a selection of Norse poetry (1756) in French. These works gained wide European traction and influenced the reception history in fundamental ways during the Romantic period. The second area of impact was the acceleration of translations and/or adaptations of original manuscript texts that began to appear in modern European languages. But, in effect, a relatively small body of texts were repeated and reworked in various national languages. The third area in which the interest in Nordic literature asserted its impact was among writers and poets, who trawled antiquarian works on Norse history and mythology as an ore to be mined for the purpose of creating—or rather reviving—a national literature. This was a literature that consciously broke with classical models and decorum to provide a new poetic orientation that was both more vernacular and imaginative.
The celebration of medieval Nordic literature cannot be treated in isolation, as if it were an independent phenomenon; it was part of a wider revival of ancient national/vernacular literary forms around Europe. To a significant degree, the attention to Old Norse texts was propelled by the phenomenal success that the Gaelic Ossian poetry enjoyed across Europe. Norse poetry was harnessed as a Germanic parallel that could match both the vigor and purported ancientness of the Ossian tradition. Sometimes the Nordic past was invoked as a larger legacy that represented a shared ethno-cultural past; at other times, it was used with a more focused nationalist aim. But, whatever the intent in individual circumstances, the rediscovery of the Old North took place through the circulation of ideas and key texts as part of a wider European exchange.
In the new middle-class world of 19th-century Europe and America, whose development parallels that of the realist novel, dress was a clear sign of order and hierarchy—key subjects of the genre’s concerns. In the shift from a traditional aristocratic order to that of the bourgeoisie, dress was of anxious concern to those who lived through this change. It was a minefield, and failure to navigate its codes courted disaster: Dress could conceal and flatter, but also betray, deceive, and seduce—all of which provided the novelist with powerful material. The quest for social and economic success was central to the novelistic plot, though this took one trajectory for men and another for women—whose goal was matrimony. The French Revolution, Honoré de Balzac explained, banished hierarchies, and in dress left only nuances, which became increasingly important to the novel: details were foregrounded, while outfits as a whole were understood.
In mid-19th century England, Charles Dickens, considered the quintessential realist, in fact used dress sporadically for comic effect or quirks to identify a character; the role of dress in William Thackeray’s novels, on the other hand, were more structured, often symbolic. By late in the century, men were less interesting in dark suits. As women were now more visible in work and in public spaces, their clothes became of concern to the novelist. Male dress was about hierarchy and status, female dress about cost, taste, and, above all, morality. Husband–hunting heroines advisedly wore white, but novelists grew less judgmental of the pleasures of dress.
In allegedly classless America, women enjoyed greater social freedoms than in Europe, producing more nuanced approaches to fictional dress. For Henry James, dress was a “brick” in his House of Fiction; sparingly deployed but crucial. Stereotypes were questioned, as was “proper” dress. Throughout the 19th-century novel, clothes and money interacted in relation to family and inheritance. Fin de siècle America was both immensely wealthy and class-conscious, and Edith Wharton, though a member of New York’s elite, confronted her consumerist society with what its frivolity could destroy.