Virtual Victorians:

​the digital annex

The Victorians have always already been virtual. They are constructed out of our narratives of historical change, out of our interpretation and interpellation of their material artifacts, and out of the cultural residue—ideas, tropes, and images—that still circulates today, making them both oddly familiar and familiarly strange. New Historicism and post-structuralism reminded us that we can never reach the Victorians themselves (or their texts as they knew them); instead we can only access representations, filtered and processed into a flickering simulacrum of historical actuality. This virtual Victorian reality is generated by our canons, syllabi, and library collections—engines that enable us individually, and collectively as a profession, to create what seems to be a fully-realized literary-historical understanding. Its terrain is limited in scope and resolution by the data (texts, images, objects) ingested by the hermeneutic process. If you have read only five Victorian novels in an undergraduate course, your personal virtual Victorian reality will be less detailed, less fully realized, than that of a well-read specialist. This is obvious. But as the collective virtual Victorian reality created and used by scholars, archivists, and curators becomes an ever-better simulacrum, it is easy to lose sight of the mechanisms that generate it. Our understanding of the Victorians depends upon resources that are made available by acts of selection.

Many humanist disciplines, including literary studies, have traditionally been suspicious of data and quantification for overly reducing complexity and producing deceptive notions of objectivity.1  Thus the kinds of data already available within our objects of study go largely unnoticed. Rather than setting data analysis in opposition to traditional humanist reading, I want to bring them together in what I call digital reading, in which humanist research and interpretation draw on computational analysis in order to surpass the human limits of vision, memory, and attention.2  In this essay, I explore two familiar forms of humanist data: the anthology table of contents and the library cataloging record. Treating these informational structures as data sources intentionally defamiliarizes them and removes them from their usual contexts of pedagogic and readerly utility. (Throughout this discussion, I focus on printed books, although of course tables of contents exist for periodicals and other codex forms, and library catalog records exist for numerous kinds of textual and media artifacts.) The mode of digital reading I demonstrate in this essay involves transforming quantitative information with visualization techniques in order to better understand two versions, past and present, of the cultural field of Victorian poetry. These cultural fields, constituted differently in the items cataloged in research libraries and in the poems gathered in anthologies, create our virtual Victorian reality.

 Both the library catalog record and the anthology table of contents locate specific information in conceptual and material space: the hierarchy of subject headings frames the topic of a cataloged item within a constrained universe of knowledge, while the item’s cataloging number indicates its physical location on a shelf. A table of contents instantiates a system of organization and subdivision that defines levels for perceiving meaningful items, so that poems may be indicated individually in the anthology’s table of contents, as well as inscribed within a larger work, an author’s oeuvre, or a time period. Each line in the anthology table of contents locates an item within a sequence of page numbers, just as a catalog record locates an item within a sequence of call numbers.

To treat catalog records and tables of contents entries as data points, instead of just location pointers, dislocates these familiar forms from their usual function, revealing expanded possibilities for analysis. In this essay, I transform the ordered sequence of a set of catalog records and the entries in a table of contents into relational analytic structures and use network analysis to examine the connections (visually depicted as edges, or lines) between entities (visually depicted as nodes, or points) in these complex systems.  Reimagining functional tools of scholarship like the library catalog record and the table of contents as stores of data opens up new paths for exploratory analysis. Data visualization can reveal complex relationships in large sets of data and help us better understand the structures of the cultural field of Victorian poetry. As we reconstruct the historical contours of that field and excavate the contemporary fields that shape our ideas of Victorian poetry, we add to the knowledge that generates our virtual Victorians.

1 Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London: Anthem Press, 2012), 7-26.

2 Natalie M. Houston, “Toward a Computational Analysis of Victorian Poetics,” Victorian Studies 56, no. 3 (2014): 498-510. 




The 24 figures for this essay are viewable in the gallery below. To view a single image in greater detail, right-click (or on a Mac, control-click) on it and select View Image.

The full set of figures is available here (figs. 1-12) and here (figs. 13-24) for download.

by Natalie M. Houston

from Visualizing the Cultural Field of Victorian Poetry