Trust your senses? An Introduction to the Victorian Sensorium


  • Wendy Parkins University of Otago


Victorian sensorium


“Trust your senses not your neighbours.” – London Transport security notice. In the wake of 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, public safety campaigns in London featured signs with the above warning on the underground and at bus stops. The postmodern sensorium is now regarded as a trustworthy source of information as citizens are hailed to pay attention to their senses in order to protect their community. In the twenty-first century, it seems that sensory experience has become a valued resource in the fight against terrorism. What we may know of our neighbours through the more public proximities of urban everyday life is pitted against the private, interior knowledge provided by our senses: the look that seems hostile, or the infringement of personal space that causes our heart rate to accelerate with anxiety, apparently warrants reporting to the authorities rather than being dismissed as just another uneasy sensory impression that is part of the fabric of urban experience. Within the binary logic of this security campaign, your senses are reliable, your neighbours are not. What would the Victorians have made of this? Did they trust their senses? Did they believe the private knowledge gained from individual sensory experience to be more reliable than publicly-validated forms of knowledge? How typical, for instance, was John Ruskin’s assertion in Modern Painters that an error – of judgement, of perception – was “caused by an excited state of the feelings”? The unreliability of sensory perception was further emphasized by the troubling link between the sensory and the sensual, a recurring concern for some Victorian commentators, as the “Fleshly School of Poetry” controversy exemplified. In his review of Rossetti’s poetry, it will be remembered, Robert Buchanan described “Nuptial Sleep” as registering “merely animal sensations,” and condemned Rossetti’s work as a sign of the pernicious spread of sensuality throughout Victorian culture. For other Victorians, however, the senses could offer a valuable and different mode of knowledge not accessible through more rational means, such as a unique mode of sympathetic connection with the wider world, as William Cohen has compellingly described in his recent exploration of Victorian literature and the senses.