Dante Beyond Influence provides the first systematic inquiry into the formation of the British critical and scholarly discourse on Dante in the late nineteenth century (1865–1921). Overcoming the primacy of literary influence and intertextuality, it instead historicises and conceptualises the hermeneutic turn in British reception history as the product of major transformations in Victorian intellectual, social and publishing history. The volume unpacks the phenomenology of Victorian dantismo through the analysis of five case studies and the material examination of a newly discovered body of manuscript and print sources. Extending over a sixty-year long period, the book retraces the sophistication of the Victorian modes of readerly and writerly engagement with Dantean textuality. It charts its outward expression as a public criticism circulating in prominent nineteenth-century periodicals and elucidates its wider popularisation (and commodification) through Victorian mass-publishing. It ultimately brings forth the mechanism that led to the specialisation of the scholarly discourse and the academisation of Dante studies in traditional and extramural universities. Drawing on the new disciplines of book history and history of reading, the author provides unprecedented insight into the private intellectual life and public work of Christina Rossetti, Matthew Arnold, William E. Gladstone, and introduces a significant cohort of Dante critics, scholars and learned societies hitherto passed unnoticed. As it recaptures a long-neglected moment in Dante’s reception history, this path-breaking book illuminates the wider socio-cultural and economic impact that the Victorian hermeneutic turn had in advancing women’s access to literary and scholarly professions, educational reform and discipline formation.
What do we talk about when we talk about Dante’s reception?
The introduction lays out the aims and scope of the book and outlines its methodology. It begins by questioning the current models of representation of the reception phenomenon, exploring the effects of the systematic prioritisation of the analysis of the ‘aesthetically productive’ encounters with Dantean textuality in past and present scholarship. It introduces a new model of representation for the phenomenon, recovering the supple notion of “literature” set forth by Paget Toynbee’s Dante in English Literature (1909) in order to reaffirm the historical value and cultural significance of interpretive responses found in criticism and scholarship produced between 1865 and 1921. It illustrates how a material and book-historical approach can provide a detailed reconstruction of the contextual conditions that fostered the hermeneutic turn in Victorian dantismo.
The first chapter focuses on William E. Gladstone, four-time British Prime Minister and a central figure in the political and cultural history of Victorian Britain. Gladstone chronicled his lifelong private study of Dante in the daily entries of his diaries, pursuing it through reading, annotating and book-collecting as well as literary tourism and encounters with Italian and European scholars in the field. Using the large corpus of marginalia and reading lists found in his personal diaries, papers, and books, the chapter historicizes Gladstone’s reading practices, and illustrates how his personal path frequently corresponded with the one traced by the major trends of nineteenth-century scholarly practices and provide a concrete representation of the hermeneutic process through which Gladstone turned Dante’s Commedia into an object of serious, self-disciplined study. The diaries map the development of Gladstone’s reading habits and the simultaneous construction of Dantean knowledge from a chronological perspective, thus charting the growth of his interest from the primary text to secondary critical sources over a sixty-year period. The chapter illuminates the progressive refinement of Gladstone’s scholarly approach through the comparative close textual and material study of the marginalia recorded in three distinct copies of the Commedia: two nineteenth-century editions, and Cary’s English translation, bringing forth the creative and critical dialogue Gladstone had established with Dante throughout his life.
Matthew Arnold’s criticism in Victorian periodicals
The second chapter focuses on Matthew Arnold, arguing that his long-neglected relation with Dantean textuality is most representative of the initial phase of the Victorian hermeneutic turn, with the emergence of a coherent and conspicuous critical discourse in lectures, essays and reviews between 1853 and 1888. The chapter carries out the first systematic inquiry into the formation and development of Arnold’s Dantean criticism by reunifying the large, but fragmented corpus of general references and quoted passages from the Commedia found in his private notebooks and published prose-works. So far disregarded as unresponsive and unproductive, the chapter reinterprets these sententiae as meaningful hermeneutic signs revealing the inner mechanisms of Arnold’s critical assimilation and manipulation of Dantean knowledge within broader interventions in literary and cultural criticism. Such macroscopic investigation, however, is complemented and enhanced with a close-reading analysis of a uniquum in Arnold’s prose-works: a ‘Dante and Beatrice’, an article printed in the pages of the Fraser’s in May 1863, and representing the only existing/surviving piece of unitary and extensive piece of criticism entirely devoted to Dante. The chapter first retraces the composition and publishing history of Arnold’s review of Theodore Martin’s translation of the Vita Nuova (1862), and then discuss how the piece not only redefined the forms and intents of the Dante-debate in British periodicals and newspapers, but actively contributed to create the ideological conditions for the rise of Dante studies in late 1870s.
Christina and Maria Francesca Rossetti’s Dante sisterhood
Chapter three argues that by the mid-1870s, the rising field of Dante Studies had become one of the new territories of endeavour claimed by a growing public of women of letters, actively negotiating their critical identity and scholarly authority as professional mediators of Dantean knowledge. Through an initial bibliographical survey, the chapter illustrates how a socially varied community of established and of lesser-known women writers played a pivotal part in launching the process of production, promotion and dissemination of Dantean literature among in late Victorian Britain, through a wide-ranging body of literary and pedagogic works. The chapter focuses on the paradigmatic case of Christina and Maria Francesca Rossetti for the way they negotiated with the forces of patriarchal authority represented by their male-centric “family dantismo”, to achieve authority as public and professional mediators of Dantean knowledge. The chapter first discusses on Christina’s periodical articles - ‘Dante, an English Classic’ for the Churchman’s Shilling Magazine and Family Treasury (1867) and ‘Dante, the Poet illustrated out of the Poem’ for the Century Magazine (1884) – and her work as editor Cayley’s translation of the Commedia: an activity documented in her personal edition of the work, now at the Houghton Library. It then moves onto the textual and book-historical analysis of Maria Francesca’s handbook A Shadow of Dante (1871) to elucidate the biographical dynamics through which she constructed her critical expertise and scholarly knowledge, gaining cultural power and public recognition as a pioneer Dante scholar on the Victorian literary market.
Philip H. Wicksteed and Victorian mass readerships
Chapter four explores Philip H. Wicksteed’s manifold, and yet largely unrecognised, contribution to the popularisation of Dantean knowledge in Britain achieved through an unconventional (and historically unprecedented) selection of topics, literary genres, target audience and institutions. Through a comprehensive biographical reconstruction, it retraces the evolution of Wicksteed’s scholarly persona: from Unitarian preacher interested in the spiritual and uplifting use of Dante’s theological message in his Six Sermons to Dante lecturer working for the University Extension Movement; from the translator and editor of the Dent’s Temple Classics to internationally recognised scholar with a large body of academic publications. In so doing, the chapter demonstrate that Wicksteed achieved authorship status and critical authority as a pioneering practitioner of what I term commercial dantismo: a materially affordable and academically accessible form of scholarship purposefully designed for the growing middle- and lower-class public, which fostered an unprecedented growth of the opportunities for dissemination and (creative and critical) appropriation of Dantean knowledge in British literary culture.
This chapter discusses how by the end of the nineteenth century Victorian dantismo began to be practised and understood as a form of public outreach and engagement as well as of political and cultural exchange on a national and international level. It retraces the dynamics of disciplinary specialisation of Dante studies from the perspective of the scholarly activities of the Oxford, London and Manchester Dante Societies established between 1876 and 1906, and the creation of Dante Collections at University College London and at the John Rylands Library. It illustrates how these professional institutions were responsible for catalysing the methodological turn from dantophilia to dantismo, and the institutionalisation of the teaching of Dante in academic (established and extramural) courses. This reconstruction rests on the perusal of archival holdings including the Societies’ records, minute books, teaching syllabi and transcriptions of lectures as witnesses of the diverse political, aesthetic, and ideological make-ups of the Societies as well as of the cultural exchange nationally and internationally. The chapter pays particular attention to figures such as Henry Clark Barlow, Edward Moore, Paget Toynbee, Charles Tomlinson and Azeglio Valgimigli for the way their personal trajectories exemplified the historical and socio-cultural evolution of the Dante enthusiast into a Dante scholar: a turn that fostered the conditions for the creation of one of the most eminent scholarly Dante traditions outside Italy.
From grande amore to lungo studio - rethinking the hermeneutic turn in Dante reception history
The conclusion revisits the key-claims of the study, drawing the central implications of having expounded the greater intellectual and material complexity of the mechanism of Dante’s Victorian reception. It emphasises how the mapping of the Victorian hermeneutical turn raises crucial questions on the importance of historical practices of reading, annotating and book-collecting for providing a comprehensive representation of the phenomenon and its manifold ramifications in nineteenth- and twentieth-century periodical and print culture.