Against Generalizing: A Cautionary Tale

I’m often puzzled and annoyed by comments about “the Victorian novel” that purport to make a general – typically dismissive – claim applicable to all novels from the 19th century, often in order to praise “modern” fiction for being more experimental, various, risk-taking, or whatever. Sure, there’s plenty of pedestrian expository story-telling in 19th-century novels, just as there is in a certain class of fiction today, but put a paragraph of, say, Vanity Fair next to a paragraph of Wuthering Heights next to a paragraph of Mary Barton, all published in 847-48 (or pick your own examples if you prefer) and you will find your comfortable assumptions about Victorian “realism” – and just about anything else – grinding to a halt. Generalizations serve their purposes, but often these purposes are somewhat suspect, tendentious, or simply utilitarian.

I am thinking about this issue because I am currently reading two books from almost exactly the same historical moment: one was originally published in 1934, the other in 1936. In case I needed this lesson, they are teaching me to be every bit as wary about even the most tentative generalizations about “novels of the 1930s.” Here’s a characteristic excerpt from each:


‘But it’s not like any kind of life!’ she cried out, in a kind of helplessness and distressed reluctance. ‘Not like any that comes your way, I’m sure.’

‘How d’you know what comes my way?’

Not that kind of waking anyway and getting on a bus, and mornings with Anna; not bed-sitting-rooms and studios of that sort; not that drifting about for inexpensive meals; not always the cheapest seats in movies; not that kind of conversation, those catch phrases; not those parties and that particular sort of dressing, drinking, dancing . . . . Not the book taken up, the book laid down, aghast, because of the traffic’s sadness, which was time, lamenting and pouring away down all the streets for ever; because of the lives passing up and down outside with steps and voices of futile purpose and forlorn commotion: draining out my life, out of the window, in their echoing wake, leaving me dry, stranded, sterile, bound solitary to the room’s minute respectability, the gas-fire, the cigarette, the awaited bell, the gramophone’s idiot companionship, the unyielding arm-chair, the narrow bed, the hot-water bottles  I must fill, the sleep I must sleep . . .


Livia wrote the recommendation for banishment in very strong terms. It was composed in Augustus’s own literary style; which was easy to imitate because it always sacrificed elegance to clarity – for example, by a determined repetition of the same word, where it occurred often in a passage, instead of hunting about for a synonym or periphrasis (which is the common literary practice). And he had a tendency to over-prepositionalize his verbs. She did not show the letter to Augustus but sent it direct to the Senate, who immediately voted a decree of perpetual banishment. Livia had listed Julia’s crimes in such detail and had credited Augustus with such calm expressions of detestation for them that she made it impossible for him ever afterwards to change his mind and ask the Senate to cancel their decision. She did a good piece of business on the side, too, by singling out for special mention as Julia’s partners in adultery three or four men whom it was to her interest to ruin. Among them was an uncle of mine, a son of Antony . . . I believe that the charge of conspiracy was groundless, but as the only surviving son of Antony, by his wife, Fulvia – Augustus had put Antyllus, the eldest, to death immediately after his father’s suicide, and the other two, Ptolemy and Alexander, his sons by Cleopatra, had died young – and as an ex-Consul and the husband of Marcellus’s sister, whom Agrippa had divorced, he seemed dangerous.

I’m sure you recognize, or can guess at, the second: it’s from Robert Graves’s acclaimed historical novel I, Claudius. The first is from Rosamond Lehmann’s rather more obscure The Weather in the Streets. What a contrast between the pedantic literalness of Graves’s chronicle-like narrative (which has its own cumulative charm, but which feels not that much like a novel) and Lehmann’s idiosyncratically drifting voice. More reasons to proceed with caution: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves was published in 1931, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding in 1936.

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One Response to Against Generalizing: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Jo M says:

    The idea of a single classification for Victorian Literature is a bit laughable to begin with given the fact that it lasted for such a long time. Even the differences between Dickens and Gaskell would give someone a run for their money if they tried to generalize the Victorians!

    I don’t know if you’ve read South Riding, but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

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