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Rethinking sentimentality in Victorian literature, art and culture

Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies (CNCS) has pioneered a reassessment of Victorian sentimentality, prompting the rethinking of a maligned cultural phenomenon. Its major impacts include contributions to understanding Dickens’s life and writings; and two recent exhibitions. ‘Victorian Sentimentality’ (commissioned by Tate Britain, 2012) and ‘Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century’ (with the support of RNIB and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, 2013), illustrate how CNCS has played an influential role in re-shaping public understanding and reception of Victorian literary and visual culture.

Birkbeck has a strong reputation in Dickens Studies and has led the way in rethinking sentimentality through the work of a succession of prominent scholars within CNCS, including Barbara Hardy, Isobel Armstrong, Steven Connor, Sally Ledger and Michael Slater.

Leading Dickens scholar, Professor Emeritus Michael Slater, has been in the forefront of revaluating Dickens’ life and work. He has been a pioneer in rethinking the standard dismissal of Dickens as sentimental, beginning with his groundbreaking Dickens and Women (1983), and continuing in his subsequent books including the highly acclaimed Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. Dickens’s legacy in relation to sentimentality has been an important theme for the annual Dickens Day in central London, which has been bringing together academics and a wide range of enthusiasts since it was set up by Slater in the 1980s. The focus in 2010 was ‘Mr Popular Sentiment: Dickens and Feeling’.

The issue of sentimentality and emotion in Victorian literature was central to the work of the late Sally Ledger and to Professor Emeritus Isobel Armstrong and an important focus of CNCS’s cutting edge online open access journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century set up in 2005. The work has been further developed by several scholars in CNCS including Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, Hilary Fraser and Heather Tilley who extended the reassessment of the role of sentimentality in Victorian culture, variously investigating the sentimental impulse to social action and the role of sentimentality in critical and historical judgements of the period. Their work has fostered multi- and interdisciplinary connections between literature, art history, aesthetic theory, cultural materialism and history of science.

Dr Nicola Bown, whose previous research on Victorian fairies highlighted interrelationships between literature and art history, edited 19’s special issue on ‘Rethinking Victorian Sentimentality’ (2007) and was commissioned by Tate Britain to co-curate a Focus Display on this theme in the summer of 2012. Through the exhibition, sponsored by BP, Bown showcased insights from her work.

The selection of paintings from the Tate collection, many of which had not been on display for decades because they had fallen so resolutely out of fashion, asked ‘Why has sentimentality come to seem so unforgivable?’ and tracked the ways in which ‘being sentimental’ developed a pejorative meaning in the course of the nineteenth century, having been so valued in the eighteenth. As Serena Trowbridge wrote in her review of the exhibition, ‘The exhibition … contained some Victorian giants, and was also immensely thought-provoking. … Of course, these “sentimental” paintings are rarely avant-garde; they tend to be well-executed but not particularly striking in artistic merit. But they were phenomenally popular, and perhaps our resistance to engaging with sentiment needs to be fully reassessed.’

It ‘was one of the best attended displays of 2012, attracting a large number of visitors (including school parties and tourists) at a time when few works from the historic part of the collection were on view.’ ‘The display also presented an opportunity for Tate's conservation department to examine and treat a number of works that had not been exhibited for many years such as MacCallum's Silvery Moments

Dr Heather Tilley’s exploration of constructions of visual disability in literature, which emerged out of her PhD research into the importance of visuality in forming sympathetic and sentimental feeling, led to an exhibition, Touching the Book: Embossed Literature for Blind People in the Nineteenth Century in Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery, July -October, 2013.

Focusing on culture’s role in constructions of disability, it was complemented by a well-attended two-day symposium ‘The Victorian Tactile Imagination’, with papers by Bown, Nead and Fraser, of the CNCS, and Solicari, Director of Guildhall Art Gallery. Supported by the RNIB and the Wellcome Trust, the exhibition was largely funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It displayed materials loaned by the Wellcome Library and RNIB: examples include the first classbooks printed for blind people in the 1820s-40, embossed bibles printed in a variety of raised types from the 1830s-40s; and early secular reading material.

The RNIB Heritage Services Manager writes: ‘Dr Tilley’s thorough research has resulted in an important and unique resource reflecting the historical development of reading formats for blind and partially sighted people in their correct social and cultural context. Additionally, the decision from the outset to adopt an accessible and approachable framework has successfully brought this diverse range of materials to life for both public and specialist audiences.’

Tilley also curated a display of prints and photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Facing Blindness: Visual Impairment in the Nineteenth Century’, November 2013-July 2014.