Reviewers often say, with a sense of having delivered a telling blow, that this or that book was written by an academic for other academics. The inanity of this old wheeze is stupendous. Imagine saying “This book was written by someone besotted with flowers [or baseball, or cars] for others who are besotted with [fill in the blank],” on the assumption that this is a disabling criticism. There is a great democracy to reading. You can pick up a history of porcelain or of Railroads and the Transformation of China, a truly massive account of “the Pacific War,” a translation of poems by a long-dead Japanese practitioner of Zen, a book about the home-run boom in Major League Baseball, or anything else you want to investigate without having to show any certificate of expertise. By the same token, of course, you are free NOT to read this, that, or the other.
Time Travelers: Victorian Encounters with Time & History is a book written by academics who have in mind as their primary audience other academics (of whom there are quite a few, though their ranks are presently suffering great attrition). But this doesn’t mean that you and I and the very old man with white hair and bright blue eyes whose path I sometimes cross while walking in Wheaton are precluded from taking an interest in it. The book is not a conventional collection of essays but rather the fruit of a collaborative project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, “emerg[ing] from a long, shared conversation between each of the authors of our volume, who spent five years between 2006 and 2011 as members of the Cambridge Victorian Study Group.”
That’s from the introduction by Adelene Buckland, one of the two editors of the volume; in addition, she herself contributes an essay, as does her co-editor, Sadiah Qureshi. Another member of the study group, Mary Beard, supplies the foreword. According to the ritual for such projects, the introducer must exaggerate the novelty of the volume at hand in contrast to some old consensus. Alas, Buckland does just this (see for example the bottom of page xiv and the top half of page xv). But she is right to be proud of the “kaleidoscopic” sweep of these essays, sampling the “dizzying proliferation of pasts the Victorians present to us.” In this respect the book succeeds magnificently.
My favorite in the bunch is chapter 8, Michael Ledger-Lomas’s witty tour de force “On Pilgrimage.” Buckland observes in the introduction that for Ledger-Lomas,
that most sacred and ancient form of journeying, the pilgrimage, offers a metaphor for this book’s attempts to disrupt the neat teleologies we have previously attributed to Victorian accounts of the past. As Ledger-Lomas reveals, the pilgrimage itself—the journey—often became more important to pilgrims than the site to which they traveled, in ways that make single teleological lines impossible to trace.
Where Buckland errs, I think, is in concluding that in “their very materiality, Victorian pilgrimages often provoked or embodied a loss of faith in a single, unifying story of Christianity, often with painful consequences.” As any good historian of the faith can attest, there never has been “a single, unifying story of Christianity.” Ledger-Lomas’s essay has resonances with the present, which I hope he will someday pursue (perhaps in collaboration with another scholar): Think, for instance, of evangelical journeys to “the Holy Land” in the late 20th century and early 21st century, often via packaged tours.
This reminds me of the double meaning of this collection's title. We are invited, quite rightly, to think of the Victorians as “time travelers,” but of course the essayists themselves are time travelers, and we their readers must be as well. There is always a danger, when we visit the past, of seeing what we want to see or what we expect to see—even or perhaps especially when we claim to be unencumbered by the comfortable illusions of previous travelers.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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