Herbert F. Tucker, “In the Event of a Second Reform”


Between the 1867 passage of the Second Reform Bill and that of the Forster Education Bill in 1870, Britain undertook its modern metamorphosis into an effectively secular and democratic state, in a legislative process concurrently abetted and assessed by contemporary productions in literature. Thick description of this process illustrates by example this entry’s framing questions about the nature and the scale of an “event.”

BRANCH timeline

Figure 1: BRANCH Timeline Screen Capture, Jan to Aug 1867

The BRANCH timeline of events – the spine or trunk from which entries like this one branch – forms a visual analogue for a conceptual orientation favoring unidirectionally linear chronicle.  To the extent that it does so, it tends to sideline poststructuralist interrogations of causal linearity that ask us to think in n dimensions, where quite possibly n > 4.   The present entry, respectfully declining to scale that extravagant trapeze (even if in practice it knew how), toes the chronicular line instead.  It tries to engage a simpler question about scale, one that looms with special salience when historiography on a one-dimensional plan walks the straight and narrow, and that may indeed be harder to perceive as a problem when it is approached from perspectives more acrobatically multidimensional.  What are the optimal, or the permissible, proportions for an event?   How far up or down may it be scaled without forfeiting intelligibility and usefulness, or turning into something else?  Event: what’s the long and the short of it?

The surprising elasticity that historical parlance has conferred on moment and crisis—terms that intuition tells us ought to specify shorter units of time than event does, but that are often invoked to cover decades—suggests that an event, too, may be allowed to go on for quite some time when the conditions are right (Zemka).  To grasp those conditions in principally formal terms is to adopt an Aristotelian or plot-based view of events in their historiographical constructedness.  Whether large or small, an event qua event possesses integrity because it coheres with itself more than it adheres to different events that antedate or postdate it, and also because it remains ordinally related to those different events in larger series.  Supposing an event to be more or less punctual, we know it to be such—we take its point—by locating it on a line comprising other points likewise lineally coordinated.  If we call an event an episode, we are hailing it, not as something that merely befalls, but as something that falls into place among other episodes, equally discrete, within some larger subordinating epos or narrative to which they all contribute.   Scaling reciprocally downward, analysis may subdivide an event into lesser constituent incidents, but then these should cohere into an intelligible process whose rationale is precisely to evolve the whole event the completion of which fulfills their imputed telos.  An event’s personnel and materiel pre-exist it; by the same token, an event at last exports its importance, transmitting consequential force to something else that ensues, and that probably involves a comparable dramatis personae and list of props.  In other words, antecedence and posterity are at once external and essential to an event’s intelligibility; they are, by definition, what it in turn is respectively posterior and antecedent to.  At all events, and in all the above respects, an event remains an Aristotelian thing, formally shapely because cognitively shaped to begin with: in just the Stagyrite’s technical sense, an event is Poetic (Butcher).  Events are where we find them, which is to say they are what we make of them.  And this is no truer of polychronic, radically discontinuous or master-narrative-scorning historiography than it is of the more traditional mode this entry will practice: a kind of thickened chronicle that, feeling each thread as it goes, lives along the timeline.

The event under consideration here, spanning as it does four calendar years, is offered to BRANCH as a sort of scalar test case.  Between the 1867 passage of the Second Reform Bill and that of the Forster Education Bill in 1870, Britain undertook its modern metamorphosis into an effectively secular and democratic state, in a legislative process concurrently abetted and assessed by contemporary productions in literature—that unacknowledged legislature (thus Shelley half a century earlier) for a nineteenth-century culture that became more responsive annually to the sway of the printed word.  (On the Second Reform Bill, see Janice Carlisle, “On the Second Reform Act, 1867.″) That the transformative process had been underway for a long time we know from the Reform Bill’s namesake of 1832, henceforth retroactively, and durably, redubbed the First (Brantlinger).  (On the First Reform Bill, see Carolyn Vellenga Berman, “On the Reform Act of 1832.″) The process of electoral Reform would not be complete until a Third Bill in 1884 enfranchised men of the unpropertied underclass; until women obtained the vote, by the same logic if at cavalier pace, well past the turn of the twentieth century; and until the middle of that new century witnessed the institution of widespread welfare provisions, maintained at public expense and subject to public oversight.  Still, within this long process, 1867-1870 marks a tipping point—or if you prefer, a tipping bar or tipping hyphen—between laisser-faire elitism and welfare state participation.  Whatever it was that happened during these years, the Britons who lived through them seem to have been aware of it as something unusual, cumulatively eventful, and inviting more and less direct forms of interpretation in writing.


The éclat of the 1870 Education Bill sounded like the other shoe dropping, a delayed echo from the Reform report heard in 1867 (Hughes 34-5; Adams 293). Robert Lowe, MP, having unsuccessfully opposed the 1867 Reform, lost no time in urging Parliament to groom for unprecedented duties the rough new electorate it had just empowered at the ballot box: “I believe it will be absolutely necessary that you should prevail upon our future masters to learn their letters” (Hansard 1549). In the meantime, and in a variety of ways, the years between were punctuated with rolling thunder. Here follows (cue to snare drum) a list of signal constituent events within the political and institutional world of our marquee event. The devolution of map iconCanada to commonwealth status rumbled back and forth in 1867 as news on the transatlantic cable laid just the year before, on the heels of that year’s map iconJamaican uprising and its opinion-polarizing suppression at the bloody hand of Governor Eyre. (See Sarah Winter, “On the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica and the Governor Eyre-George William Gordon Controversy, 1865-70.″) Corollary bills extended the franchise in map iconScotland and map iconIreland in 1868, a year for whose comparative institutional tranquility we shall see that a flurry of activity on the literary front more than compensated. 1869 saw the Anglican Church disestablished in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland, and the convergence of this bill with the nearly parallel Canadian devolution was reinforced at home by vanguard maneuvers of pre-suffragist feminism: agitation by a Ladies’ Association organized to repeal the demeaning Contagious Diseases Acts, the founding of map iconGirton College at map iconCambridge for women students, and a Municipal Corporations Act that gave propertied women a vote in local elections.  Then in 1870 came the Married Women’s Property Act (a more thorough sequel would carry in 1882), and within the summative Forster Education Bill a clause permitting women to stand for election to the local school boards that were fundamental to that act’s administrative machinery. (See Rachel Ablow, “‘One Flesh,’ One Person, and the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act.”) The Civil Service was also set up that year as an institution with a nonsectarian charter like the new elementary schools; within one more year the now only nominally denominational ancient universities would abolish religious tests as a qualification for faculty appointment. A Victorian observer who managed to look up from all this year’s business at home to glance abroad could find confirmatory omens developing on the Continent. Prussian armies routing French defenses evidently vindicated the superiority of an efficiently streamlined bureaucracy to an entrenched Napoleonic one; and lastly—in a development whose contravention of these secularizing tendencies threw them into high relief, especially for a national mind that remained in such matters doggedly anti-authoritarian—the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was promulgated by the map iconVatican.

The above items do seem to add up, even to multiply as coefficient factors, with a more forceful coincidence than would obtain with a quartet of years picked at random.  Constellating all these points of cultural energy into an event-in-progress unified by alignment of the spheres, we may go on to ask how the literary output of these years conspired with it, or against.  The early 1867 conjunctions are hard to miss.  Carlyle’s Shooting Niagara: And After? trained the hoary sage’s now fully conservative condition-of-England artillery on the Governor Eyre controversy: hysterical maybe, but undeniably on-topic.   T. W. Robertson’s hit of the season was Caste, a play manifestly staging the class relations that Second Reform had put on everybody’s mind.  On that same theme but in a very different mode, Marx’s first volume of Das Kapital, while few of the few who read German can have been equal to its subtle argument, exhorted those who were to think harder than ever about what classes were, how they were created and sustained, and what was implied by the inevitability of struggle between them.  Trollope no sooner concluded his hexalogy on the Church in 1866 than he turned, in 1867, to Phineas Finn, which is the first of his six Parliamentary novels to center squarely on Reform’s salient features: Parliament, politicking, and the election of Members.  Walter Bagehot’s insouciantly functionalist English Constitution dissected the actual from the apparent apparatus of government—parliamentary administration from royal display—in ways that reinforced the same year’s work by those odd bedfellows Trollope and Marx.  Even so distantly focused a publication as E. A. Freeman’s first book in The History of the Norman Conquest (finished 1876) gave British readers practice in imagining the layered social hierarchy of the nation as a body in changeful motion whose labors to grasp and resolve disparity were the engine of its betterment.

All these 1867 publications were mirrors, more or less angled or curved, that reflected the ongoing event that was the Second Victorian Reform; or, in other words more apt to our business here, their published reflections formed part of that event.  Major literary productions from the next year intervened in a different way.  Writings from 1868 strove less to represent the emergent phenomena of a swiftly changing national life than to exercise the diverse, mutually contestatory categories whereby such phenomena were brought to pass and indeed were rendered imaginable to begin with.  An extraordinary issue of major poems—Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Morris’s The Earthly Paradise, and George Eliot’s The Spanish Gypsy—converged not only in date but in the joint rehearsal of a radical literary pluralism.  In sharp contrast to Jean Ingelow’s univocal and patriarchal epic of the year before, A Story of Doom, and even to Morris’s own straight-ahead tale The Life and Death of Jason (also 1867), the three new mega-poems in different ways dismantled narrative authority by distributing it among a variety of delegated tellers and genres.  While only Browning’s may be nominated as a liberal celebration of human potential (and under densely documented historical and cultural constraint at that), all three epics nonetheless conspire, by force of an interior diversification of the narrative armature, in the enfranchisement of their reader.  These poems found a co-conspirator in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone, which, despite the ultimately monological purpose of the detection genre it inaugurated, achieves that purpose by the ostentatiously polyphonic means of evolving its plot in the form of testimony from a succession of multiple narrators.  The prolific Trollope’s 1868 contribution, He Knew He Was Right, carried an allied point by the withering satire on certitude that its title portends.  It warrants stressing here that an 1868 review of Morris’s first Earthly Paradise installment gave Pater occasion to formulate what became the classic “Conclusion” to The Renaissance half a decade later; the emphasis Pater laid on the quality and multiplicity of experience, and of aesthetic experience in particular, was fully in keeping with the imaginative literature that was contemporary with his review.  A like summons famously arose from the pages of Swinburne’s 1868 William Blake: A Critical Essay, where the aestheticist manifesto (“Art for art’s sake first of all”) joined hands, albeit behind the back, with Huxley’s assertion of the primacy of experience over authority in “A Liberal Education; and Where To Find It” (hint: not the hierarchical loft, but the empirical ground; the lab, not the lecture hall).  If by an all too familiar paradox the high degree of rhetorical positivity with which Swinburne and Huxley delivered opinions half undid their essays’ liberating effect, the same spirit of liberal reform they aimed to free was enjoying fuller play in the novels and poems that eventuated alongside them in 1868.

In the two years following, literature drank further from the sources just broached.  The scientific journal Nature issued its first number in 1869, and for what lay beyond nature’s domain the same year witnessed the founding of the Metaphysical Society, which spread a big tent embracing the eclecticism of the day.  The agnostic Huxley was a member, likewise the sardonic Bagehot; so was Tennyson, whose Holy Grail volume of 1869 recapitulated the narrative dissemination so striking in epic entrants of the previous year; so was Ruskin, whose contemporaneous The Queen of the Air discussed Greek mythology in terms largely consonant with the epic poets’ reliance on narrative’s mythic dimensions.  The year’s most eventful publications, however, were those that reflected most directly on long-range implications of a reformed national franchise.  Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy pondered what new elections portended for the state, and in consequence what need the newly constituted state had for “culture,” a still contested term whose several Arnoldian meanings spring from the root sense of education.  It was state-sponsored education, of course, that marked the telos to which our extended Reform event was tending, and with which it would culminate in 1870.  Meanwhile, the progress underway towards securing broader rights for women, and for their higher education in particular, evoked a prophetic exponent in  On the Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill (an atheist on whom in 1867 the map iconUniversity of St. Andrews had, remarkably for an ancient ecclesiastical foundation, bestowed the honor of its rectorship).  The different styles of forensic brilliance that graced Mill’s book-length essay of 1869 and Arnold’s expressed an intra-cultural difference that both advocates were bent on bridging; each of them, in a way symptomatic of the speculative fever of the time, displayed acute awareness of his role as spokesman for a class-transcending constituency—an aristocracy of ideas in the one case, British womanhood in the other—that had as yet only a confusedly acknowledged voice within a public sphere that was swiftly reorganizing itself.

Bids for high vantage in what circumstances had made an exceptionally politicized struggle—a campaign, as we are presenting it here, within a much longer culture contest whose termination exceeds our ken even today—brought down the curtain on the late-sixties happening.  When D. G. Rossetti published in 1870 a book of poems liable to bring a blush to the young person’s cheek, Robert Buchanan lashed out, and was lashed back at in turn by the poet, to no more improving issue, all told, than the resolution that woozily braced up Alfred Austin’s opportunistic jeremiad The Poetry of the Period in that same year: namely, that nobody on the contemporary poetry scene knew which end was up.  The secular thrust of national energy circa 1870 sponsored essays in religious psychology that approached the profundities of faith from opposite positions yet with an equivalently high seriousness.  The first was St. Paul and Protestantism, where Arnold staked his cultured claim against anarchy with a salvo of New Testament hermeneutics that was also his prolegomenon to a humanist trilogy recruiting the power of the Bible as not divine scripture but inspired literature.  The second was An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, in which Father Newman had so cooled his polemical guns—or taken dogmatic certitude so serenely on board—that he could now construct the superb edifice of belief over an abyss of reason, with breathtakingly candid concessions to skepticism and relativity as functional assists to faith (Herbert).

A conviction about the relativity of perspectives (one pillar, after all, of the rationale for democratizing the polity) continued in 1870 to feed creative literature as well.  Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s An Epic of Women by its conspicuous article An intimated that other works of the kind might be expected in years to come, and by its plan bestowed voice on a series of illustrious female speakers, each with her story to tell.  Such was also Augusta Webster’s plan in Portraits, a collection of dramatic monologues from the distaff side that ranks among nineteenth-century collections second to Browning’s alone.  It makes a nice illustration of our argument here that the ventriloquizing poet of Portraits should have gone on at once to become a member of the entering class of women who served on school boards appointed by the Forster Education Act.  And a most serendipitously crowning expression of Reform triumphant came with the posthumous publication of Dickens’ incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood: arguably no finished work could articulate, so well as did this enigmatic buildup to multiple potential outcomes, the apprehension of eventfulness with which at the juncture of 1870 the Victorian mind descried a shrouded future.


It is not hard to imagine a way of event-finding that would discern a different tendency in this quadrennium.  The historian of nascent imperialism, for example, might regard the complex cultural project of national reconsolidation sketched here as mere prologue, an exercise in collective conditioning that tensed the body politic for the British Empire’s increasingly shameless global leap.  Developments like the American Civil War and Italian Risorgimento would loom larger as backgrounds to imperial geo-politics, the Franco-Prussian War would wear a different aspect, and the racial overtones of Edwin Drood would loom more ominously, if with a shade less mystery.  (See, for example, Alison Chapman, “On Il Risorgimento.”) Stealing just a year’s forward march into literature from 1871, such an account would prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race and G. T. Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” to The Eustace Diamonds and Middlemarch, and Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise to Browning’s Balaustion’s Adventure, while the one-two punch of Darwin’s Descent of Man with E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture would be scanned for ideological components that a racialist theory might cannibalize in imperialist service.

This alternative packaging of concurrent events—­others may be readily imagined—shows how fungible events and their ordering are in the construction of histories.  It also invites a final reflection on the two-way viability of historical time travel even when confined to the comparatively strait gauge of a timeline.  To the degree we conceive an event as an outcome (which is what etymology tells us it is), we write it up as the result or effect of what or where it came from, pushed as it were from behind, expelled by the agencies whose force it manifests and signifies.  But to the degree we conceive an event as a coming-forth (and etymology supports this concept equally), that all-impelling background recedes in significance, and the event comes to us as much more a thing unto itself, a newborn necessarily dependent on its parentage but still instinct with promise for the future, which is where its meaning chiefly resides—and incidentally where we do too, being at the end of the day its posterity.  The trope of eventuation as birth, and of the event as a miraculous infancy, a possibility realized and realizing, verges upon Claude Romano’s meditation on eventfulness in L’événement et le monde, a richly ramified thought experiment that wonders what might happen if we substituted for the category of event that of advent, with its frank future orientation of our basic thinking about time towards l’avenir, l’avventura, the to-come (Romano; see also Brown). One likely benefit of such an adventualist orientation towards the past, towards whatever it was that happened then and lives again in our interest now, would be more candor about the motives that prompt us to shape history this way rather than that.

Herbert F. Tucker’s books include Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790-1910 (2008), Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (1988), and Browning’s Beginnings (1980).  His one claim to digital fame is the scansion website For Better for Verse (http://prosody.lib.virginia.edu).  When not preparing the second edition of A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture (1999) he summons visions of a book about Charm.   He holds the John C. Coleman Chair in English at the University of Virginia, where he is an associate editor for New Literary History and a series coeditor for the University Press in Victorian literature and culture.


published June 2012

Tucker, Herbert F. “In the Event of a Second Reform.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Brantlinger, Patrick. The Spirit of Reform: British Literature and Politics, 1832-1867. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1977. Print.

Brown, Kate E. “Futurity and Postponement: Christina Rossetti and the Meaning of Advent.” Intertexts 8.1 (2004): 15-23. Print.

Butcher, S. H. Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, with a Critical Text and Translation of the Poetics. London: Macmillan, 1898. Print.

Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. 3d series, vol. 188. London: Cornelius Buck, 1867. Print.

Herbert, Christopher. Victorian Relativity: Radical Thought and Scientific Discovery. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. Print.

Hughes, Linda K. “1870.” A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Ed. Herbert F. Tucker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999. 35-50. Print.

Romano, Claude. L’événement et le monde. Paris: Presses Universitaires, 1998. Print.

Zemka, Sue. Time and the Moment in Victorian Literature and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.


Janice Carlisle, “On the Second Reform Act, 1867″