Undisciplining Victorian women - Imogen Marsden

When I needed to find a job over the holidays, I was expecting to find myself stuck with a generic and unfulfilling summer job. What I did not expect was to find a job which closely aligned with my interests as a student of literature and was also an incredibly rewarding and challenging experience.

Blurred view of a corridor of books on shelves

This summer, I was lucky enough to secure a paid internship through the School of English, working on a research project called ‘Undisciplining Victorian Women’. The idea for this project came from an essay titled ‘Undisciplining Victorian Studies’ by Ronjuanee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong (2020).

This essay addressed the historical lack of representation and engagement with topics such as empire, race, colonialism, postcolonialism, gender, sexuality and religion in Victorian society and literature. This made me realise how we can still engage with Victorian studies in the present by making critical connections between the past and the modern day.

Now, you may be wondering: why should I care about this? Well, why would you not want to be challenged to explore literature from a completely different perspective? As literature students, we are always being asked to integrate perspectives and theories which require us to address difficult and sensitive subjects to broaden our thinking.

One thought that I want to share with you in the hope that it will deepen your understanding, and perhaps even challenge your attitude towards addressing the gaps in Victorian studies, is from the poet Dionne Brand.

Brand argues that the only way we can address these gaps is by ‘sitting in the room with history.’ I read this quotation in the ‘Undisciplining Victorian Studies’ article and it immediately felt important to me because it articulated, very powerfully, why we need to utilise Victorian studies to form critical connections between the past and the present.

For me, this highlights how much we can learn by acknowledging our inheritance from the past as we uncover and recognise the importance of the forgotten, the neglected, and those who have been written out of both history and literature. Whether you are a student of English Literature like myself, an academic researcher, or someone who simply enjoys reading Victorian literature, we can all stand to learn from doing exactly as Brand suggests.

If I asked you to think of famous Victorian writers, who immediately springs to mind? Charles Dickens? Charlotte Brontë? Lewis Carroll? H. G Wells? Notice anything they have in common? They are all white and predominantly male! Therefore, I want to share with you a few examples of some texts I found which I think truly reflect how we can integrate the Victorian past into the present, working to decolonise Victorian studies.

These texts are featured in a reading list which I collaboratively produced for students who are taking two Victorian women’s writing modules at Sheffield. I hope that these works spark intrigue and excitement in you, just as they did for me, and even inspire you to conduct some of your own research on how we can further ‘undiscipline’ Victorian studies.

Two texts that link the history of colonialism and racism with its legacy in the present are Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History (2020) and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016).

These important works inspired me to reflect on the deliberate and vindictive erasure of people of colour throughout history and how the after-effects of this impact the lives of people of colour throughout the world. This was powerful because it strengthened my understanding of how our Eurocentric views of Victorian society place whiteness at its very centre.

Another insightful work, entitled ‘The Missing Chapter: Black Chronicles’ (2017) is a powerful, visual resource: a photography exhibition which unearths hundreds of photographs of black Victorians, many of which have never been seen before.

This encouraged me to reflect on how we live in a society that privileges whiteness above anything. The only way we can dismantle the historical structures that have enabled the continuation of such power dynamics is through collectively unlearning the racism that has been entrenched into our society.

By considering how we can integrate decolonial, postcolonial, queer and intersectional feminist theory into Victorian studies, we can bring Victorian literature into a close relationship with modern debates and concerns. So, if you’re wondering what you can do as an individual, reading some of these works would be a great place to start.

I hope this ignites, rekindles or enhances your appreciation for Victorian studies in the same way it did for me!

Referenced works:

  • Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong, ‘Introduction: Undisciplining Victorian Studies’, Victorian Studies, 62.3 (2020), 369-91, <http://dx.doi.org/10.2979/victorianstudies.62.3.01> (p. 369), University of Sheffield students can access this article via StarPlus.
  • Chatterjee, Ronjaunee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong, ‘Introduction: Undisciplining Victorian Studies’, 62. 3 (2020), 369-391, <http://dx.doi.org/10.2979/victorianstudies.62.3.01>
  • Otele, Olivette, African Europeans: An Untold History (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2020)
  • Sharpe, Christina, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)
  • Musai, Renée, ‘The Missing Chapter: Black Chronicles’, The Missing Chapter, 2017 <https://themissingchapter.co.uk/project/> [accessed 12 August 2021]

Written by Imogen Marsden on 20 September 2021.

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