T.H. Green and the modern novel: English at Oxford



Publication Details

Dale, L. (2014). T.H. Green and the modern novel: English at Oxford. Modern Language Quarterly, 75 (2), 239-257.


In the histories of the teaching of English in universities by Terry Eagleton and Gerald Graff, the Victorian period is something of an embarrassment. Eagleton’s brisk chapter “The Rise of English” leaps from Romanticism to F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot, returning only to condemn Matthew Arnold’s mission to “ ‘Hellenize’ or cultivate the philistine middle class” (Eagleton 1987: 19 – 20, 21). Graff’s (1987: 75) more nuanced Professing Literature takes up Edmund Wilson’s assessment that historians believed in “the amassment of facts for their own sake.” Graff declares that “by the 1880s philologists had come to regard it as almost the only function” of those engaged in literary scholarship. Whether represented as cultural missionaries or as obsessive empiricists, Victorian intellectuals are a weight from which English studies must be freed. In these representations of the discipline there is an implicit progression from empiricism, language study, and conservatism toward a more sophisticated literary criticism underpinned by Continental philosophy. Yet the influence of philological methods did not simply disappear, not least because classics remained the dominant discipline at Oxford (measured by staff numbers) until the late 1950s or early 1960s. Meanwhile, English studies had developed distinctive forms before Arnold in universities in Scotland (Court 2001), India (Viswanathan 1990), and the United States (Graff 1987). Rather than following an evolutionary model in which English displaces classics, or literary studies displaces language study, in fact literary and language studies have competed and coexisted in universities across the English-speaking world for the last two centuries. In this context, a case study of ideas about literature in mid-Victorian Oxford is both anomalous and instructive. It is anomalous because the university’s resistance to the tertiary study of English literature is by now a cliché in histories of the discipline (see Bacon 1980); it is instructive because of the vigor of discussion about English literature and the profile of those involved outside the parameters of formal study and examination.

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