Vol. 6 No. 2: Victorian Dirt
William A. Cohen, Associate Provost and Professor of English
(University of Maryland)
Every idea about our Victorian forebears is in some sense an idea about ourselves. Knowledge of the past is inevitably refracted through the present. The phrase “Victorian dirtâ€ invites consideration in part because it strikes us as an oxymoron: even with all we know about the range and variety of human experience in the nineteenth century, it is hard not to cling to the caricature of the Victorians as stuffy prudes who found the very idea of dirt alarming, not to say unthinkable. The phrase promises disenchantment, titillation, and defamiliarisation. With the presumed superiority of our own acuity and worldliness, and the privileges of hindsight, we harbour the fantasy that we may know the Victorians better than they knew themselves. What we learn from such investigations, however, is just how attached we are to values of cleanliness and sanitation, which makes the discovery of nineteenth-century dirt a perpetual experience of joyful disgust and self-affirming discomfort. Even more, perhaps, we learn how attracted we are to the experience of revelation itself: the unveiling of the hidden, the secret, the unknownâ€”even when the constituents of that knowledge can hardly continue to surprise us.