Does “Victorian” Really Have Any Meaning?
Now that we’ve tackled the semantics of Empire vs. Late Classical, let’s take a crack at something larger – the word “Victorian.” Does “Victorian” really have any meaning? Did it ever? There are those who would argue that the word has become a generic term with muddied applications, while others would say that it’s a valid one-word shortcut to conveying a great deal.
Regardless of your current opinion, it was probably inevitable that “Victorian” would end up overused and conflated. After all, the Victorian era began in 1837 and lasted until 1901, an incredible period of history to cover with just one term. Just think of the changes in those 60+ years: advances in industry, evolving concepts of medicine, dental care and health, massive changes to the European map. To allow one word to stand for all that happened during that time does seem to be more than a little oversimplified.
The issue is, as always, complicated by the fact that styles were in vogue in different places at different times, but in America, the Victorian era encompassed everything from the waning days of Federal/Neoclassical to the opening days of Art Nouveau. In between you’ve got Rococo, Baroque, Arts & Crafts, Anglo-Japanese and a whole lot more. When you add to that the fact that “Victorian” is a stand-in for architectural styles as various as Gothic Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne and Greek Revival, it’s easy to see how things ended up this way. Victorians, ironically, were only known for their restraint in the personal or emotional aspects of their lives, not in the decorative arts or architectural realm!
One could make the argument that “Victorian” is not acceptable or useful. First of all, Victorians themselves would certainly have differentiated between the styles. If we want to be historically accurate, should we not work hard to label things as they were labeled in the period? And further more, does a generic term like Victorian simply imply a lack of knowledge of the more detailed aspects of styles? Is it even possible for one word to accurately convey so many different styles and influences?
At the same time, when a style period does juggles so many influences, perhaps a generic term is called for. Should we not occasionally forgive people who, after a lengthy attempt to identify some stylistic roots, just throw up their hands and resort to something vague like “Victorian”? Some times the antecedents are straightforward, but more often than not, attempting to unravel whether some vaguely classical foliate design is more Italianate than Greek Revival is an exercise in futility. And “Victorian” does inarguably conjure up a certain image or a certain style. (Of course, the issue of whether or not this stereotypical image is harmful or helpful to Victorian-era decorative arts is another issue altogether….)
Personally, I think the issue might just be usage. Despite the fact that our language grows and grows, we’ve become a rather imprecise society, and as a result, the meaning of words becomes blurred. To me, the issue isn’t whether or not “Victorian” continues to be a useful term, but whether or not it continues to be used in a reasonable way. I would argue that words are inherently neutral; they are neither good nor bad, appropriate nor inappropriate, until they are used. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is nothing good or bad but usage makes it so!
But what do you think? Has “Victorian” been so overused and so incorrectly applied as to have little meaning? Or is it a valuable word that conveys accurately a sense of style and taste?