The Victorian Lives and Letters Consortium (VLLC) is an informal affiliation of teachers, scholars, researchers, students, and enthusiasts devoted to the goal of creating an interactive archive of life writing—autobiography, journals, letters, and diary notebooks—extending from the aftermath of the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I. The VLLC sites will offer students, teachers, scholars, and enthusiasts a unique open-access digital library housing complete collections of life writing, which until recently was a neglected and undervalued literary genre. Its recent rapid growth as a semi-autonomous discipline in the Humanities signals a new scholarly consensus about its value as a fresh source of historical insight into the hidden and silent dimensions of the past.
Perhaps no three examples better illustrate the complexity and elusiveness of life writing than the diary notebooks of John Ruskin, the diaries of Michael Field, and the personal correspondence of W. E. Gladstone. Each presents interpretative challenges and raises questions about the security of narrative, identity, and self-definition, and each does so in a rich and varied historical context. Ruskin’s notebooks illustrate the dizzying array of his interests, including environmentalism, botany, architecture, politics, economics, and art history. They also chart the path of his creative journey from the art criticism ofModern Painters (1843–60) to the more socially informed The Stones of Venice(1851–53) and Unto This Last (1860). Katharine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper, aunt and niece, wrote jointly as “Michael Field” and collaborated as poets, dramatists, and diarist. They began as acolytes of Ruskin but soon developed their own unique idioms drawing on history, aestheticism, and, often, a deep sense of spirituality in their creative work. Their notebooks record the formation of their aesthetic-paganism, their conversion to Catholicism, the color and culture of fin-de-siècle London, and record their encounters with the leading literary and artistic figures of the period, including Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Swinburne, Pater, and Bernard Berenson.
The correspondence and papers of William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98)—four times the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, and the greatest Liberal politician of the Victorian Age—are held in two remarkable archives, one at the British Library in London and the other at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales. While the well-preserved and catalogued papers held at the British Library have served as an indispensable resource for biographers and scholars, the equally significant collection at Gladstone’s Library remains a largely unexplored, partially uncatalogued treasure trove. Once digitized and published in the VLLC, the entire corpus of Gladstone’s papers (approximately 600,000 documents) will be made available to scholars for the first time in a fully searchable and eventually transcribed, encoded, and annotated form. This virtual archival reunification will create a newly visible locus for what Thomas Carlyle called the “conflux of two Eternities” by illuminating new insights into the past that fundamentally inform future biographical, political, and historical studies of Gladstone and his era.
The VLLC envisages its sites as “facets” of a digital library that will serve a wide variety of interests and disciplines that transcend canonical distortions of the past. Although the writings of major figures remain of great interest, they are not of exclusive interest. Not only will these sites serve as teaching environments for instructors of subjects such as transcription, encoding, annotation, literature, history, and life writing in the context of the great and the good of the Victorian age, but they will also allow students to explore significant collections of diaries and letters of lesser-known figures held by regional institutions. In addition to its digitization efforts, the VLLC plans to build an extensible infrastructure hosted on a common server and in a common content management system that will be used to create an evolving set of interoperable archives dedicated to the digital preservation of outstanding collections of life writing by both major and minor figures whose papers are held at both large and small institutions. Although the distortions associated with viewing the past from the present can never be eliminated, the goal of the VLLC is to make the view more inclusive and representative as more “facets” are digitized and incorporated into a unified set of disparate resources.