Reading Cure

John Sutherland

  • The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals. Vol. IV: 1824-1900 edited by Walter Houghton, Esther Rhoads Houghton and Jean Harris Slingerland
    Toronto/Routledge, 826 pp, £95.00, January 1988, ISBN 0 7102 1442 1
  • Circulation: Defoe, Dickens and the Economies of the Novel by David Trotter
    Macmillan, 148 pp, £27.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 333 40542 0
  • From Copyright to Copperfield by Alexander Welsh
    Harvard, 200 pp, £19.95, December 1987, ISBN 0 674 32342 4

The Wellesley Index originated in its founding editor Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957), a manual which was influential among students of the Sixties. Houghton’s book took as its starting-point the fact of a collective Victorian mentality – a kind of public overmind. Although this Victorian mind might contain oppositions within itself (the so-called ‘Victorian debate’), it was nevertheless governed by structures of thought which, if not consensual, were in the largest sense rational and intellectual – a set of ideas articulated by a clerisy. Houghton’s book broke the Victorian mind down into its constituent parts, or ideas, under such headings as ‘Optimism’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Hero Worship’, ‘Hypocrisy’. The dominant ideas were principally extracted from the pontifical utterances of ‘sages’, in John Holloway’s expression, like Carlyle, Mill, Ruskin, Bagehot, Froude, Huxley, Morley, Arnold.

The team-written Wellesley Index project went on from this quest to anatomise the élite Victorian mind at a lower archaeological level than that of the pre-eminent sage: its grand aim is to bring under bibliographic control the principal Victorian framers of opinion – namely, the periodicals. Higher journalism, particularly the slow-rhythmed quarterlies and monthlies, were taken by Houghton as the medium in which Victorian ideas were formed and circulated. What we see in them is the Victorian mind in the act of thinking. Houghton’s project is now completed, the Index having covered 43 ‘representative ... high-quality’ periodicals, listed their dates of issue, tables of contents and hundreds of contributors. All that now remains to be done is a fifth-volume index to the Index.

The Wellesley Index represents a massive effort of collective scholarship in a field – literary history – where scholars are much happier devoting themselves to ‘my research’ than to ‘our research’. The work has largely been done by self-effacing individuals who do not appear on the volumes’ title pages but get their obscure billing in the cluttered text of the preface. Nor was their work mere catalogue drudgery. Most of the journals carried unsigned articles, and the task of cracking the codes of Victorian anonymity required skill, and inwardness with the period’s intellectual milieu. An 87 per cent success rate is claimed. These attributions (any one of which would furnish a neat little article for Notes and Queries) add a new dimension of usefulness to such periodicals as the Edinburgh Review and that previously impenetrable thicket, Fraser’s Magazine. The Index’s 43 entries are headed by descriptive notes which, if collected, would in themselves comprise the most thorough survey ever written of British higher journalism. Above all, the Index has been put together to tighter standards of scholarly accuracy than any comparable guide. All reference works contain errors, but anyone who has worked with it will agree that the Wellesley Index has abnormally few. Moreover, with extraordinary scrupulousness, the Index has corrected itself as it went along. Thus Volume IV contains as its appendix a 60-page list of corrections and amendments to the first three volumes. (This exhausting commitment to refining earlier work is cited in the introduction as one of the reasons why the Index will not be continued beyond Volume V.)

The Wellesley Index stands as a worthy monument to its founder and general editor, Walter Houghton, who died suddenly in 1983, during the preparation of Volume IV. It is certainly ambitious. But any product which takes two decades will inevitably be finished in a condition of anachronism. What the earlier period thought was needed is not necessarily what the later period finds it actually needs. And one of the main differences between then (1966) and now (1988) is the sense we have of the significance of Victorian ‘ideas’. For Houghton, they represented a master-plan – the age’s articulate consciousness. Victorian thinkers stood in relationship to Victorian culture as architect to structure. A venture like the Wellesley Index would thus lay down the royal road to knowing Victorian civilisation.

To be blunt, Houghton probably overrated the Victorian intellectual élite as makers of Victorian civilisation. This is evident when one looks at the important journals left out of the Index’s account. Alexander Strahan’s Contemporary Review and Nineteenth Century naturally find central places as founts of Victorian Liberalism. But Strahan’s Good Words and its stable of offshoot publications are missing from the Index. As Patricia Srebrnik’s recent biography of Strahan argues, Good Words was as formative a Victorian periodical as any. What the ingenious Strahan did was to package ‘entertaining’ material – notably illustrated fiction – in such a way that it could decently be consumed by the Evangelical readership of the age. The result was a monthly which at its peak in 1864 was selling 160,000, or about twice what the Cornhill managed (Wellesley Index, Volume I), and with almost as distinguished a panel of contributors. With its crude Sabbatarian address to the lower-middle-brow and juvenile reader, Good Words was felt to be beneath the notice of the Index – which can nonetheless find space for such Oxford University fringe publications as the short-lived and minutely circulated Dark Blue (1871-73). A similar mandarin prejudice probably accounts for the absence of Strahan’s fiction-centred Argosy or any of the myriad popular publications, such as Belgravia and St James’s Magazine, spawned by John Maxwell, or the vulgar publisher William Tinsley’s Tinsley’s Magazine, in which Thomas Hardy had his first success with the serial of A Pair of Blue Eyes. (Houghton’s explanation for not indexing these three journals is revealing: ‘they consist primarily of fiction, and fiction seems sufficiently represented.’) At times, the Index’s predilection for the austerely intellectual verges on puritanism. The New Monthly Magazine, for instance, is covered only from 1821 to 1854. The periodical did not cease publication in 1854, however: it continued for another thirty years. (Or about fifteen times Dark Blue’s life-span.) What happened was that in 1854 the New Monthly went downmarket and ceased to be a ‘quality’ magazine. It was not, even so, a negligible journal after that date. Its editor W.H. Ainsworth, for example, published Ouida’s first stories in its pages.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in