Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch

  • Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance by Richard Jenkyns
    HarperCollins, 363 pp, £20.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 00 223843 8

There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose. The peculiar prestige of the Greeks (Roman civilisation – for reasons worth investigating – never acquired quite the same glamour in Victorian eyes) has come to seem pervasive and deep-rooted, forming the dominant aspirations of the period in varied and contradictory ways. Its romantic historicism had a great deal in common with the fashion for the Medieval. But its influence on Victorian preoccupations was more widespread than the taste for Arthurian knights and damsels, and its consequences were more enduring.

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