Fifty years ago, Walter Houghton published a seminal work, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, that introduced what became the stereotypical description of Victorians. The book has had a vast influence on generations of scholars of the nineteenth century, and remains, in a way that is unusual for decades-old scholarship, the primary introduction to Victorian thought and culture that every student in the field reads. Even in the popular imagination Houghton’s vision of the serious, moralistic Victorian remains vivid. In The Victorian Frame of Mind, Houghton engages in a close reading of famous Victorians such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle to show how the Victorians were characterized by specific, common personality traits such as optimism, hero worship, and earnestness. Methodologically, Houghton believed that these traits could be seen especially well in the rise (or decline) in the use of particular words and phrases, such as an increasing use of “light,” “sunlight,” and “hope” as illustrative of their optimistic world view.
Despite the fact that Houghton spent decades working on the book, and cites hundreds of primary sources in the bibliography, it is largely a work of anecdotal, elite intellectual history. However, Victorianists have never been able to thoroughly assess the widespread validity of Houghton’s theses. Because of the sheer volume of material, no amount of additional reading can really determine whether Houghton’s analysis of word usage holds true for a much broader corpus.
The vast digital library of Google Books presents for the first time the possibility that we can conduct a comprehensive survey of Victorian writing—not just the well-known Mills and Carlyles, but tens of thousands of lesser-known or even forgotten authors—to see if the Victorians truly did use the kinds of words and phrases that Houghton thought were indicative of their character. Did metaphors of light actually increase in real terms between 1830 and 1870, or was this only true for the dozen prominent writers he chose to focus on in his chapter on optimism? Will a more complex picture emerge from the comprehensive index of Google Books as we study change over time? Can we refine the timeline for the emergence of his characteristics, moving beyond the disturbingly neat, rounded-year boundaries he set for his book?