VICTORIAN VULGARITY by Susan David Bernstein and Elsie Michie, eds., Reviewed by Ariel Gunn

Eds. Susan David Bernstein and Elsie Michie
(Ashgate, 2009) x + 259 pp.
Reviewed by Ariel Gunn on 2011-02-06.

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This collection of essays joins an established body of scholarship on the power and role of taste in the nineteenth century, notably Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall's Family Fortunes (1987), Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), Elizabeth Langland's Nobody's Angels (1995), and more recently Deborah Cohen's Household Gods (2006) and Marjorie Garson's Moral Taste (2007). But with few exceptions, these books focus on the tasteful middle-class woman and her fictional counterpart. While her taste played a vital role in establishing the cultural authority of the middle class, and while the middle-class woman herself plays a major role in Victorian fiction, so too does the parvenu, the snob, and the nabob--just a few of the many kinds of vulgar characters inhabiting Victorian novels. "What happens," Bernie and Michie ask, "if one takes [vulgarity] seriously as a critical category and seeks to understand the complex and contradictory processes by which it acquired its present meanings?" (11).  By isolating vulgarity, the collection clarifies even as it complicates what vulgarity meant for Victorians, who are shown to be preoccupied with as well as shaped by their awareness--and wariness--of it. 

The charge of vulgarity was not something invented by Victorians. As Robert W. Jones demonstrates in Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain (1998),  eighteenth-century elites used the discourse of taste to  exclude the commercial middle classes both socially and politically. But this collection clearly shows that nineteenth-century debates about vulgarity pervaded a variety of cultural expressions, including art, non-fiction, and fiction. With a primary emphasis on the novel, contributors examine a wide range of authors both canonical (Eliot, Dickens, Anthony Trollope) and non-canonical (Anglo-Jewish writers Amy Levy and Israel Zangwill, New Woman writers Ella Hepworth Dixon and Emily Morse Symonds). The essays chiefly examine what vulgarity meant to the various layers of the middle class-- the commercial class, the emerging professional class, the nouveaux riche--and sometimes to the lower classes.

The collection is divided into four sections. The first focuses on language and how linguistic choices reveal much--and sometimes more than some would like--about social status. The second section explores responses to democratization and its increased access to public spaces and institutions, particularly the anxiety and even disgust some felt as boundaries drawn by class, gender, and religion became blurred. The third section shows how middle-class domesticity, in particular the materiality of the home and corporeality of its inhabitants, was represented as vulgar, though with a vulgarity sometimes embraced by the realist novel. The fourth section surveys aesthetic debates about vulgarity, especially as modernism destabilized established hierarchies. Finally, John Kucich's afterword provides a critical response to the collection, forging connections between essays and making suggestions for a wider historical framework for the study of vulgarity.

What then is--or was--vulgarity? The collection provides no definitive answer. Instead it compellingly shows that providing one is all but impossible. For two centuries, as we learn from the editors' introduction, vulgarity denoted the state of  being common or ordinary until, in the mid-seventeenth century, it came to mean--among other things--meanness, coarseness, and poor taste. However, as the editors note and the subsequent essays demonstrate, the definition of vulgarity was constantly shifting, its "myriad meanings" (1) dependent on subtle changes in context. For example, as the middle class grew, vulgarity became not just a matter of too little but also too much refinement. Beth Newman argues that as the socially mobile adapted upper-class speech habits, diction considered refined a century before came to be viewed as a linguistic betrayal of affectation. Using Middlemarch as one example, Newman shows that Latinate words indicated snobbish vulgarity and homely Anglo Saxon words polite gentility. In another treatment of exaggerated gentility, also in Middlemarch, Joseph Litvak shows what happens when characters try to distinguish themselves by openly scorning vulgarity: they only confirm their own vulgarity. This "vulgar anti-vulgarity" (177)  indicates that they "value social distinction over moral discrimination" (169).

While some contributors to this collection confirm the well-established link between vulgarity and social or moral inferiority, others  demonstrate that vulgarity could be revalued as a form of resistance, fulfillment, and even liberation for those marginalized by class, race, or gender. Ellen Bayuk Rosenman argues that in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1851/1861), members of the working class used vulgarity as a shield.  Though considered biologically vulgar, they deployed vulgarity to fend off middle-class surveillance.  Vulgar speech,  writes Rosenman,  was an "oblique protest against the would-be hegemony of bourgeois standards and a defense of their own territories, customs, and traditions" (55). This point sheds a new light on Mayhew's work: while Mayhew may have objectified and stereotyped his subjects, he also captured--even if unwittingly-- their "articulate self-awareness" (56).  For Indian nationalists likewise, appropriating the discourse of vulgarity provided a compelling means of political resistance. Indian culture and society had long been charged with vulgarity, polluted by "decay, degeneration ... and racial inferiority" (223).  But at the turn of the twentieth century, as Julie F. Codell explains, Indian nationalists fighting for independence turned the tables by labeling Europeanization vulgar, especially in its influence on and commercialization of Indian art.  European influence, they claimed, was the "violation or pollution" (236) of this art.

Women embraced vulgarity for a different reason: the possibility of personal and professional fulfillment. In her essay on Ayala's Angel (1881), Deborah Denenholz Morse argues that it presents romantic love and sexual desire as a corrective to a marriage market that debased human dignity. Embracing her desire for a less than refined but certainly worthy suitor, Morse contends, is "the lodestone" by which Trollope's heroine "will find her authentic self" (159). Other women found themselves as common readers in the British Museum's Reading Room, where men and women mingled in ways portrayed as vulgar by the popular press and male novelists like George Gissing. As Susan David Bernstein shows, the Reading Room gave women writers not just access to public space but also opportunities for work outside the home. These writers created heroines, themselves writers, who found the Reading Room capable of "stimulating collisions" (115).

This book links vulgarity to a variety of socio-economic developments--the rise of consumer culture and the expansion of women's rights--but chiefly to debates about social mobility. In his afterword, Kucich questions this way of explaining Victorian vulgarity. "However compelling," he writes, it "can oversimplify demographic shifts and overstate the specificity of Victorian class antagonisms, even if those shifts and antagonisms were, indeed, significant" (243). Vulgarity, he suggests, may be viewed through several other historical lenses, such as "uncertainties about national identity, political discourse, popular culture, and gender roles" (248). Additionally, says Kucich, tracing the history of vulgarity in England further back--it extends to at least the sixteenth century--would enhance our understanding of its meanings and significance in the nineteenth century. In turn, a fuller understanding of the history of vulgarity would make an interesting lens through which to view changing assessments of the Victorian era over the past century: the anti-Victorianism of the Bloomsbury group; the mid-twentieth-century reassessments, or "revival," of the Victorian era; and the more recent intersection of cultural and literary studies and a newfound interest in the everyday life of the nineteenth century.

Victorian Vulgarity is not a comprehensive guide to nineteenth-century English vulgarity, nor was it intended to be. Instead, it provides a clear call for future research on a topic that has not yet  been sufficiently explored. While it may chiefly interest scholars of the middle classes and the novel, this fascinating collection also offers something to Victorian scholars as a whole. It helps us see how our own understanding of vulgarity informs our reading, and it may also help us to catch more nimbly the shifting meanings of Victorian discursive practices.

Ariel Gunn, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida,  is writing her PhD dissertation on the consequences of poor taste in Victorian Literature.  

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