About History 387 at Vassar College
History 387 Studies in Victorian Culture and Society: Prejudice and Policy

Taught by Professor A.S.Wohl


"That race in human affairs is everything is simply a fact, the most remarkable, the most comprehensive, which philosophy has ever announced. Race is everything: literature, science, art - - in a word, civilization - - depend on it." - - Robert Knox, The Races of Men. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations (1862)

Victorian England was rightly proud of its liberal philosophy and of the way it nurtured and developed the principles of representative government. During the Victorian era the parliamentary vote, hitherto confined mainly to the upper classes, was extended to the middle classes (1832) and to the working classes, both urban (1867) and rural (1884). The nineteenth century witnessed the implementation of democracy and the "emancipation" - - the granting of political liberties - - to both Catholics and Jews at home. It also saw dominion status granted to the "White Colonies" abroad and the abolition of the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire.

But an undercurrent of illiberalism - - of deep-rooted prejudice - - existed and it affected racial, class, and gender attitudes and relationships. This course, based very extensively on the superb library holdings at Vassar, examines the nature of prejudice in Victorian England - - its origins, its relationship with science, "pseudo-science", and medicine, its extent (did the undercurrents become mainstream attitudes?), and its impact, if any, on policy - - on legislation and modes of government.

A knowledge of nineteenth-century England, continental Europe, or America is desirable, but not essential, and I lecture for the first two classes, providing a framework for the course. As will be seen from the outline, the course revolves around the attitude of the ruling classes in England (the "In-group") to various "Out-groups" - - Catholics (England was staunchly Protestant), Irish (Anglo-Saxon-ism and stereotyping of"the Celt", their portrayal in cartoons, impact of evolutionary theory), Jews (were Jews stereotyped? How did their political "emancipation" or their immigration, following the pogroms in the Russian empire, affect attitudes towards them? How were they portrayed in novels and on stage?). How did imperial expansion and increased contact with Indians and Africans influence racial thinking? How did concepts of evolution and other scientific theories (craniology and phrenology, "arrested development", polygenism) influence ways of looking at Africans, West Indians, and Indians? Two other, and perhaps, you might think, more surprising, "out-groups" are also studied - - the lower working classes, and women. What did these two groups have in common with the others? In what ways could they, too, be portrayed as the "Other", that is, pathogenic and so harmful to the well-being of the state? In what ways were they regarded as inferior? What did science and medical science have to say about them?

The course as a whole is interested in the nature and definition of prejudice - - is "inferiority" the product of "Nature" (blood) or "Nurture" (society, environment, "circumstance")? What was the impact of Darwin and his cousin Galton? Was religious orthodoxy and belief in Scripture more a force for prejudice or for acceptance and equality? What was the role of the anthropological societies and the impact of native revolt in the Empire and the Civil War and Emancipation of the slaves in the USA? Was arrogance of mind or insecurity the driving force behind prejudice? Did the "In-group" hold these various "Out-groups" in contempt or were they fearful of them? Was "prejudice", or highly hierarchic descriptions, acceptable in public? How extensive was the "expressibility" of prejudice?

Had England been a repressive or reactionary society these questions would be important, but they take on even greater significance since the scientific racism and prejudice arose in a society that complimented itself on its liberalism and openness to diversity. In this regard, as in many others, the relevance of Victorian prejudice to our own contemporary society is apparent.

The course is in some respects an experimental course. The classes tend to be small and each student is responsible for one class, including the shaping of the assignment for it and directing class discussion. Visual evidence, (especially cartoons), is used, and several texts are "deconstructed" for the inner or hidden meanings. I generally teach the course at home, at the back of the campus, about five to ten minutes¹ walk from Walker Field House.

For specific assignments, see "Course Outline" file and for requirements see "Course requirements" file, or see me in my office hours or contact me by e/mail Username: Wohl. I would be happy to discuss with you any aspect of this course.

Class Discussion List

Central Issues and Topics for Class Discussion Leaders
The following are suggestions only (our actual class discussions might well take an entirely different turn or concentrate or different issues) and are designed to help you decide which class you would most like to design a working bibliography for and lead. You should follow your own interests and concentrate on the problems and questions which your own reading and research suggest.

Class I (Opening class) and Class II (Lecture: The Victorian background & National identity).

Class III The debate on the Catholic Emancipation Act; the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy; Papal Infallibility; the Murphy riots; the inspection of religious houses; the Maynooth Grant. The language and limitations of liberalism.

Class IV The Irish Famine; Fenianism; Irish Land Acts; Home Rule; Portrayal of the Irish immigrants in England. The role and power of caricature. Prejudice and humour.

Class V The London Anthropological Society; Robert Knox; James Hunt; the impact of Phrenology and craniology; Darwin; Galton. Science and pre-judgment.

Class VI [Punch cartoon exercise]

Spring Vacation: March 1-17

Class VII The Governor Eyre controversy; British attitudes towards the emancipation of the slaves and enfranchisement of Blacks in America; the "fitness" of Blacks for self- government and democratic rule. The role and power of caricature. Prejudice and humour.

Class VIII Travel literature as an anthropological genre; the evangelical and missionary view; the undifferentiated African; "bushmen and Kaffirs" in London; the "Hottentot Venus"; the Indian Mutiny of 1857; the Indian Aryan and ancient cultures; the Sikh.

Class IX Henry Mayhew; John Hollingshead; slums and slummers; the Himmelfarb thesis; the 1867 Reform Act; Charles Booth. The role and power of caricature.

Class X Opposition to female suffrage; marriage, property and divorce laws; female sexuality and reason; the female body; the "new woman"; education. Prejudice and humour.

Class XI The Jew in Victorian literature and drama; political rights (Emancipation); David Salomons; Disraeli. The "Jewish vote".

Class XII The Jewish East End ghetto; Goldwin Smith and E. A. Freeman (the role of the historian); William Wilkins; the Association for Preventing the Immigration of Destitute Aliens; the British Brothers League. British responses to the pogroms.

Class XIII Herbert Spencer; Walter Bagehot; Karl Pearson; Francis Galton; Anglo-Saxonism versus Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism; Race Degeneration; The Committee on Physical Deterioration. [Research Papers Due].

Back to Punch Cartoon Page