We other Victorianists*

Posted by September Blue Friday, 15 February 2008

Something curious I've noticed when telling people I work on nineteenth-century literature is how many of them assume I'm looking at gender and sexuality. I'm not really working on either, at least as a central issue to base my analysis around; I even steered away, quite deliberately, from one particular interpretive path which would have focused my PhD thesis on women's bodies and women's agency. It would have worked fine, don't get me wrong - there's some great feminist criticism already done in my little subfield - but there were other paths, too, and I picked one of those instead, making the occasional textual nod to the landmarks my colleagues on those paths had discovered as I went. Which is how we work, after all.

And yet, and yet. People assume things. It's a bit weird to be introduced to people as 'working on women's writing' when I'm not, to say the least, but mostly the assumption's more subtle than this: people recommend things to me ("you should look at this poem - it's doing really interesting stuff with gender dynamics!"), or ask me general things about my work ("The eighteen-whens? Oh, right. So, were there many women writing then, or have you found it difficult to find stuff?"), or, most often, just vaguely steer conversations into areas where I'm - well, not so much out of my depth as in a completely different swimming pool. Academics and non-academics alike (except for other Victorianists, which may or may not be significant), there are a whole lot of people who either think I am working on sex and gender in Victorian literature, or who want to talk to me about sex and gender in Victorian literature anyway.

That's why I'm lumping them together here, although there's a lot of space between, say, 'working on lesser-known female authors of the 18-whenevers' and 'working on transgressive sexualities in the sensation novel' (both of which are equally distant from what I'm working on). The assumption isn't that I'm either looking at the portrayal/position of women in Victorian literature, or looking at what kind of discourses of sexuality existed in the literature of the period; it's that I'm working on, or at the very least interested in, both. Like an Amazon package deal. Does scholarly interest in one denote scholarly interest in the other? Well, I suppose so, at least to a point; you can't really talk about sexuality without talking about gender, can you? But even so, I suspect the conflation of the two isn't entirely fair to either, and not least because it's very possible to work on women's writing without working primarily on sexuality. And I think there's an assumption at work here, floating wispily around in the ether, about what it means to work on sex and gender and what underlying motives and interests would point someone in that direction.

I'm also wondering whether it's an assumption about the field, or about me. Because I'm shallow sometimes.

Either way it's sometimes a tricky one to deal with, because I don't want to get inadvertently recruited into someone else's personal crusade: "God, I'm so GLAD you're doing REAL work! These people are just obsessed with sex, and it says more about them than it does about the books," and so on, and so on. I won't dispute that there's some pretty awful scholarship out there on gender and sexuality, and that we're perhaps a leeetle too fond of the word 'transgressive' sometimes, but, seriously, the whole field? I think not. And the good scholarship out there on gender and sexuality is a necessary and interesting part of the field, and I have no interest in writing it off as the collective neuroses of repressed academics.

To be fair, though, that one comes up a lot more often outside academia. Within academia, it's a more positive thing, something like "well, naturally you're working on these interesting and valuable areas! You're a Victorianist!" But I think it's the same assumption, even if it's coming from a different perspective.

So, I wonder. Is that the general, unspoken, floating-around-in-the-ether understanding of what's to look at in nineteenth-century literature? That, since we spent so many decades conveniently ignoring most female writers and setting the Victorians up as a monolithic society of repressed prudes, our task now is to fill in the gaps? And, coming back to shallower waters, how much does me being young and female affect what people think I work on?

(Apologies for the rambling, here; I'm still thinking out loud on this one. I was going to move on to some reflections on how my students view Victorian sexuality, and on how they think they're supposed to view Victorian sexuality - but that'll have to wait for another post.)

* This doesn't really work as a title, I know, when one of my points is that Victorianists work on plenty of stuff other than sexuality and gender issues. Forgive me. I couldn't resist.