Tonight was the first meeting of my department’s new 19th-century reading group. My current project will extend into the 19th century, so I’ve decided to use this group as an opportunity to reconnect with the period. I am reminded that, as an undergraduate, I specialized in 19th-century European history in my course work, and I took a few 19th-century lit courses as a graduate student. Last year, I chaired a search committee to hire a Victorianist. So, I look forward to this reconnection.

The meeting went very well. We read an essay about periodization and whether there really was a “Victorian period.” The conversation was a lot of fun, and I think we all look forward to our next meeting in January.

One of the things that struck me about the article was that many of the phenomena the writer discusses actually “began” (if debates about or issues of class, gender, empire, sexuality, science, state power, etc. can ever really be said to “begin” in any particular period) in the 18th century.

During the search last year, I frequently joked with my colleagues about the idea of the long 18th century, the idea that the 18th century extends from about 1649 or 1660 to about 1820 or 1832, depending on who’s making the argument. Now I wonder if the 18th century shouldn’t be even longer — perhaps to the 1850s!

Clearly, I like to perform the role of 18th centuryist. Most of my colleagues know that this is a jocular performance, but people who don’t know me as well aren’t always in on the joke. For example, at the end of the discussion I pointed out the sentence in this article where it becomes clear that the writer sees the Victorian period as the more sophisticated fruition of movements and ideas generated in the 18th century (develop is the word he uses). One of our colleagues from political science then asked about how contentious we really are about periodization and whether scholars in our field really quarrel over periods and look down upon each other’s area of specialization.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my period and part of me does kind of think that everything important about modernity began in the 18th century. But part of me is also jealous of my colleagues who write about and teach such authors as Austen, Keats, Browning, and Tennyson. I sometimes wish that Arthur Conan Doyle had written Sherlock Holmes a hundred years earlier. And one can’t help but be willing to trade Delarivier Manley, Samuel Johnson, or Christopher Smart for Emily Bronte, George Eliot, or Byron!

As I frequently tell my students, Foucault is truth. So what does he say about this? In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that western culture adheres to a myth that until the 1960s we lived in a Victorian society, where “Victorian” means sexually repressed. For him, this Victorianism never really existed or, if it did, lasted only a very short time. Maybe we all are still “other Victorians” — those of us in other periods hold up and envy (but are also repressed by) the myth of the greatness we call the Victorian period. But, according to Foucault’s argument, this would make us all sodomites, prostitutes, masturbators, etc., and I’m not sure that’s right either (though the 18th century did see the beginning of modern sodomy, prostitution, and masturbation!).

Maybe a more productive path would be to think more about the scholarly dialectic created by looking at the 18th and 19th centuries together, how one informs the other. Not as an either/or but as a conversation, an exchange, a blending. Since my project does cover a period from the mid-17th through the mid-19th centuries, these are questions that I will clearly have to address at some point.

Regardless of whether this reading group ends up informing or transforming my scholarship, I look forward to the intellectual engagement we’ve already begun. As Mistersquid (Happy Birthday, Mistersquid!) pointed out just before we left, our department needs more engagement like this. At least this “other Victorian” looks forward to that conversation.