English 9057A ~ Victorian Types: Temporality and Taxonomy 1850-1870

Professor Matthew Rowlinson

Fall Half Course.

The focus for this course will come from changes in the sense of the term "type" in English between 1830 and 1850. Before 1830, the term’s primary meaning—the principal sense in Johnson’s Dictionary—was theological. In typological exegesis, the type-concept made possible a strategy of historical interpretation that found in the text of history, especially Jewish history, prefigurations of Christian revelation. This way of reading was an important part of Victorian understandings of history, especially among Evangelicals and writers like Ruskin who were influenced by evangelicism. During the years after 1830, however, under the influence of German Naturphilosphie and of French naturalists, the term acquired its current familiar taxonomical sense. This sense of the term originated in the life sciences and quickly extended to geology and beyond. It played a crucial function in the racist pseudo-science of the second half of the century as in the development in sexology and psychology of the notion of character-types.

The course’s project will be to understand what might be called an interference-effect between the theological and the scientific ideas of type in mid-century. There is evidence that Darwin avoided the term "type," perhaps because of the term’s theological associations. The philosopher of science Ernst Mayr argued that Darwin’s theory of natural selection transformed species from ideal types into contingent effects of history. Nonetheless, Darwin does use the term "type" and in this course we will read The Origin of Species to examine the problematic relation between the ideal and the historical that the term locates in his work. We will also read Tennyson’s In Memoriam, a work where the natural historical and the theological senses of "type" are systematically juxtaposed and where the relation of different and incompatible forms of temporality is a major theme. From the same year, 1850, we will read Dickens' Bleak House, a work in which typology provides one principle of narrative organization, but in which the type as a figure is contrasted with allegory. Bleak House will provide a further occasion for study of the type as the location of a problem in Victorian representations of temporality and of history. The final field of our investigation will be the intersection of theology, sexuality, and the aesthetic in the uses of typology in poetry and painting by D. G. and Christina Rossetti from the 1850’s and 60’s.

View the course syllabus here: English 9057A.