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Victorian Literature and Culture





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SERIOUS PRACTITIONERS OF THE HISTORICAL discipline in late nineteenth-century Britain mistrusted their culture's practice of framing the nation's contemporary greatness in terms of former glories. In the view of the new professional historians, it was essential to negotiate a boundary between their own professional work and that of amateurs, with science on one side and literature on the other. The stakes were high. John Robert Seeley thought the writings of men of letters, particularly Macaulay and Carlyle, had “spoiled the public taste,” by being so delightful to read that “to the general public no distinction remains between history and fiction….deprived of any, even the most distant association with science, [history] takes up its place definitively as a department of belles lettres” (“History and Politics” 292). He and others wanted a new generation of students whose work would appear in serious publications which would no more appeal to the general public than Newton's Principia. A scientific training would prepare historians not only to research, write, and teach British history properly, but also to encounter the work of their peers as critical readers and knowledgeable reviewers. The boundary between popular and professional history (or between narrative and scientific approaches to the past) was often invoked by people like Seeley. A sharp dichotomy made for a compelling rhetoric of modernization and improvement. Earlier histories had been written inaccurately though patriotically, by gentlemen of letters for the general reader. Macaulay's essays, for example, had first appeared in the Edinburgh Review, and the great quarterlies continued to publish historical narratives that were unsatisfactory by modern standards. Equally unacceptable was the tradition of introducing children to their nation's past with such romanticized narratives as Little Arthur's History of England. Maria Callcott was the anonymous author of this much-reprinted and often-maligned work. Now, applying to the discipline the principles of Leopold von Ranke and a newly rigorous approach which resonated with the broader contemporary culture of science, history-writing was to be limited to trained professionals, so that it might be made precise, verifiable, and reliable, even at the expense of narrative appeal. One colleague paraphrased Seeley's views pungently: “To make sure of being judged by competent judges only, we ought to make history so dull and unattractive that the general public will not wish to meddle with it” (Freeman 326).


This article was originally published in Victorian Literature and Culture ( Copyright Cambridge University Press.

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