Getting Started – Blog Post by Karin Koehler and Gregory Tate

by Karin Koehler and Gregory Tate

‘What would a four nations Victorian Studies look like?’ This question, raised during a panel on Victorian Scotland at the 2019 conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies in Dundee, was the starting point for this research network on Victorian Literary Languages. As Aileen Fyfe noted during the panel discussion and the Twitter conversation that followed, four nations approaches are well-established in some individual disciplines, especially history.[i] But the interdisciplinary field of Victorian Studies rests on an understanding of Victorian Britain that too often and too easily functions as a shorthand for England, while attention to the political, social, and cultural developments of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales remains the business of other, largely separate, fields. Utilising the expertise of researchers in a range of fields, this network aims to show how interdisciplinary Victorian Studies can engage more fully with the historical, political, and especially the linguistic challenges arising from a genuinely four nations perspective.

As Kirstie Blair notes, the ‘field of Victorian literature and culture has seen crucial, transformative work on global Victorian studies, world Victorianism, transnational, transatlantic, transcultural, and cosmopolitan Victorian studies’, but it has not always engaged adequately with ‘the complexities of national, regional and local identities within “Victorian Britain”’.[ii] The word Britain itself has come under scrutiny, with such alternatives as ‘four nations’ and ‘Atlantic archipelago’ gaining traction. But despite terminological changes, the field of Victorian studies continues to focus disproportionately on just one part of the complex geographical and cultural entity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1922).  Exceptions, like Matthew Campbell’s essay on Victorian poetry in the four nations or Oliver Betts’s work on poverty in the late nineteenth century, remain rare.[iii] Studies that focus specifically on Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – or ‘England and Wales’, a term with a fraught history – are more numerous, but tend to be underrepresented in the publications and conferences of our field.[iv] The Victorian Literary Languages network aims to build on and extend this scholarship by studying the four nations not in isolation from each other, but in the context of the debates about literature and language that crossed the borders between Victorian Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. The network will attend to the connections and intersections between the four nations, while also examining the widely differing political and cultural conditions in which these linguistic debates unfolded in each.

One of many possible answers to the question of how a four nations Victorian Studies might look (and sound) is: ‘multilingual’. But this brief answer raises many further questions; it also points towards some of the biggest obstacles in the way of a genuinely four nations Victorian Studies. The primary goal of the network is to explore the intersections between the linguistic history and the literary history of the nineteenth century, especially the Victorian period. In our view, this research question necessitates a multilingual, four nations approach. This network aims to model such an approach, placing strong emphasis on dialogue and conversation; it also seeks to consider some of the difficulties that attend it.

When we talk about the intersecting histories of language and literature in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland, an essential follow-up question should be ‘what language, and what literature?’ It is easy to forget – particularly for monoglot English-speakers living in monoglot English-speaking areas – that many Victorians did not speak or understand English; many spoke, wrote, and read English as a second language; and many more spoke non-standard varieties of English. While English was becoming ever more dominant and standardised, Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Scots, and Welsh were spoken by significant – albeit shrinking – proportions of the population. Cornish had become extinct within living memory for Victoria’s older subjects. Moreover, leaving questions about the complexities of distinguishing between a language and a dialect aside for the time being, English was never a homogenous language, but one characterised by richly diverse dialect cultures. It is partly due to this insistent multilingualism that the Victorians, across the four nations, were intensely concerned with debating and codifying language – and with creating distinctions between literatures produced in different languages.

During and beyond the three workshops of this network, we will ask how literature was instrumentalised in the ongoing project of affirming standard English as the language of modernity in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland; in turn, we will consider how this view, and the politics and policies it generated, affected writers and publishers of literature, literary critics, and reading publics. We will address specific questions about the ways in which writers, readers, and critics of literature responded to the definition and classification of languages in prescriptive discourse about language; the effects of educational policy on the production and reception of literature in English, Irish, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh; and the impacts on languages and literature of new modes of travel and improved connective technologies. But we will also be guided, throughout, by broader questions: How can a focus on the history and politics of language reshape our understanding of nineteenth-century literature? How do critical perspectives on nineteenth-century literature and its canons change when we take proper account of the Victorian United Kingdom’s four nations, numerous languages, and richly diverse dialect cultures? And finally, what does such an approach mean for the field of Victorian Studies more broadly?

As we are poised for our first workshop (programme here) we hope that this project will contribute, however modestly, to some shifts in the ways we work in Victorian Studies. The questions we ask as part of this network require collaborative answers, and they specifically require collaboration between different fields that have, for reasons partly related to the cultural developments and politics this network seeks to study, remained separate. To investigate the complex relationship between languages and literature during the Victorian period requires the combined methodological resources of literary criticism and historical linguistics, the close reading of specific texts and the analysis of larger-scale linguistic developments across the nineteenth century. And a four nations Victorian Studies needs to look beyond the English language and to learn from the insights of Celtic Studies, regional studies, Irish Studies, Scottish Studies, and Welsh Studies. This is especially true in a project focused on language, perhaps, but it should matter for any study that proposes to investigate a particular literary genre or form, cultural development, or social issue in ‘Victorian Britain’, ‘Victorian literature and culture’, or the ‘Victorian period’. This is not to say, of course, that every Victorianist needs to master multiple languages, or develop detailed knowledge of the complexities of each of the four nations, or that there is no place for studies that focus on a specific language, nation, region, or locality. Rather, we hope to model how much there is to gain from establishing a multilingual Victorian Studies that is rooted in collaboration and dialogue and that will expand the disciplinary scope of an already inherently interdisciplinary field.


[i] Aileen Fyfe (@AileenFyfe, 28 August 2019), ‘Part of my question was whether Four Nations looks different in (inter disciplinary, literary- dominated) Victorian studies (as against history). Thoughts?’, (accessed 16 May 2022)

[ii] Kirstie Blair, ‘Britain’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 46:3-4, 590-594 (590).

[iii] Matthew Campbell, ’Four Nations Poetry’, in Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, Antony H. Harrison, eds., A Companion to Victorian Poetry (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002); Oliver Betts, ‘Four Nations Poverty, 1870–1914: The View from the Centre to the Margins’, in Naomi Lloyd-Jones and Margaret M. Scull, eds. Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British History’ (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018), pp. 286-318.

[iv] For example: Jane Aaron, Nineteenth-century women’s writing in Wales: nation, gender and identity (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010); Kirstie Blair, Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Matthew Campbell, Irish Poetry Under the Union, 1801-1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Margaret Kelleher, The Maamtrasna Murders: Language, Life and Death in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2018).

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