Phil Davis’s passionate defence of Victorian literature’s enduring impact and importance, Why Victorian Literature Still Matters (2008), has been reviewed in the current edition of The Cambridge Quarterly. Claire Charlotte McKechnie writes:
Perhaps it is Davis’s role as editor of the non-academic literary magazine The Reader that gives him licence to argue vehemently for the role of the reader in Victorian novels and poems… It is readers, he contends, who ‘go to the book to internalize it, personally, emotionally, as if they might just find revealed there a version of the secrets of their lives’… Essentially, Davis’s book is about a philosophy of literature; in it he expands the possibilities of what studying literature can mean, how we can expand our minds in order to reach new and exciting conclusions about things we often take for granted, about ourselves, about the past, about life… Readers – all readers – cannot ignore that they are emotionally moved by literature, and why should they?
So why does Victorian literature still matter? If we are to take part in attempting to respond to the title of Davis’s stimulating study, perhaps it is that Victorian literature is fundamental to understanding ourselves and our past. Like the Victorians, with their fascination with origins (culminating in Darwin’s Origin of Species), perhaps we too feel the need to trace who we are and where we come from. The Victorians left their legacy in our architecture and designs, music and art, politics and science, and even (or especially) our theories of life and death. Yet, most of all, perhaps we find ourselves in their literature.