Dombey and Son Is Pretty Long

dombey-oupI’m 337 pages into my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dombey and Son. It ends on page 925, which means I’ve read just over a third of the novel. Not all that much has actually happened–a birth, a few trips and some time at school, a misadventure or two, a death–but all of it has has happened at great length.

When people don’t like Dickens, a common complaint, in my experience, is the length of his novels. Just a few days ago–on Dickens’s birthday, in fact–someone I follow on Twitter said decisively that he thinks they are “too long.” I took a deep breath and obeyed Internet Rule #2 (You Don’t Have to Weigh In). I really wanted to, though, because like the question “but is it any good?” the assertion “it’s too long” seems to me to need a lot of unpacking before it means much. Just as “good at what” is the essential follow-up question to the former, surely “too long for what?” is the obvious follow-up question for the latter. Too long for our dwindling attention spans, perhaps? Too long to get through in the time we are able to allot to it? Too long to leave time for all the other books we want to get to? Too long to keep our interest? Aha: now we are moving away from things that might be wrong with us to things that might be wrong with the book itself!

The best kind of explanation for judging a book “too long” is that it is longer than it needed to be to accomplish its own purposes. This doesn’t end the matter, of course, since now we have to explain what we think those purposes are in a way that somehow disentangles them from the only form in which we have ever and will ever encounter them: the novel as is. Still, I think when most of us call a book “too long” (as I’ve certainly done myself) that is what we mean, or think we mean, or want to mean. We’d like to think we would never be negative about a long book just because we aren’t up to the job of reading all of it. No: if we’re finding it too long, if it feels too long to us, it’s the author who has come up short.

bleak-housseI actually don’t know yet if I think Dombey and Son is too long for its purposes. I hardly know what it’s about yet! Reading it, however, especially after seeing that emphatic criticism tossed out on Twitter with such confidence, I have felt very aware of its length. I’ve been thinking about the strategies I suggest to my students when we read Bleak House, which is even longer (976 pages), many of which have to do with managing the information overload that comes with a first exposure to so many characters before you know who really matters or how they are connected, and with multiple unfolding plots that don’t yet have a known shape. My first class or two for any long novel is usually spent providing what I hope will be useful and widely applicable guidelines: look for variations on this theme, think about these kinds of contrasts between characters, pay attention to who does this and who does that. Students need what one critic calls “rules of notice.”

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I taught David Copperfield in the fall, I addressed its length explicitly (the OUP edition is 944 pages). I always talk about length when teaching Middlemarch. “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly,” Eliot wrote: that’s a good starting point for discussion about what exactly she is doing and how those purposes make the novel’s scale an important element of its form. (Interestingly, at least in the OUP edition Middlemarch, at 904 pages, is shorter than any of these Dickens novels, though I don’t know if the font size or page layout is standard. It reads longer, I think, perhaps because it demands scrupulous attention in a way that Dickens’s exuberant excesses may not appear to.) With Bleak House, we usually tie the novel’s multiplicities to the scale of its critique: it isn’t about one house or one family or one sad crossing sweeper but about a whole society.

coppefieldWith David Copperfield, though, I found myself wanting to add another consideration, which is the particular ways Dickens makes his novels so long–when he does, because of course he doesn’t always, which is another reason to think about their length as meaningful rather than haphazard or (as those who object to Dickens’s novels as “too long” seem to imply) artistically lazy or inept. A lot of the length in Dickens’s fiction comes from what we might call “riffing.” (Merriam-Webster defines “riff” as “a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring.”) If you’re going to get impatient with Dickens, it is likely to be when he has clearly already made his point, or described his character, or played that particular rhetorical note, but he just keeps on going. And going. And going. “He just can’t stop himself!” expostulates the irritated reader; “I wish he’d just get on with it!”

But why should he stop himself? Dickens is not my favorite novelist, but my favorite thing about him is that it is everywhere obvious in his fiction that he is in love with words: he relishes them and their effects. He has so much fun with them! Think about his description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Any one (or maybe two) of these adjectives would have done the job, but all seven of them together make such an irresistible mouthful. In my classes on David Copperfield, we considered how his verbal excesses can be seen not just as pleasurable in this way but as representing an anti-Utilitarian aesthetic that values joy and abundance and inclusion over efficiency, that refuses to travel with the ruthless efficiency of a railway straight from Point A to Point B but revels in wandering byways and seeing the sights and having as much fun as possible along the way. It is a critical truth widely (though certainly not universally) acknowledged these days that less is more–but why? “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class,” Nick Hornby wrote (reflecting on his own experience of reading David Copperfield)

knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different.

“Where,” he demands, “would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.” What a shame that would be! That Dickens’s novels are too long is a feature, not a bug.dombey-penguin

I used a railway as my metaphor above because one of the most strikingly redundant but also most remarkable passages of Dombey and Son that I’ve read so far is set on a train. It is not a comic passage, and yet even here, where the subject is grief and selfishness and futility, there’s a quality of joyful exuberance in the writing that carries us–or me, at least–right along:

[Mr Dombey] found no pleasure or relief in the journey. Tortured by these thoughts he carried monotony with him, through the rushing landscape, and hurried headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies. The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Through the hollow, on the height, by the heath, by the orchard, by the park, by the garden, over the canal, across the river, where the sheep are feeding, where the mill is going, where the barge is floating, where the dead are lying, where the factory is smoking, where the stream is running, where the village clusters, where the great cathedral rises, where the bleak moor lies, and the wild breeze smooths or ruffles it at its inconstant will; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, and no trace to leave behind but dust and vapour: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Breasting the wind and light, the shower and sunshine, away, and still away, it rolls and roars, fierce and rapid, smooth and certain, and great works and massive bridges crossing up above, fall like a beam of shadow an inch broad, upon the eye, and then are lost. Away, and still away, onward and onward ever: glimpses of cottage-homes, of houses, mansions, rich estates, of husbandry and handicraft, of people, of old roads and paths that look deserted, small, and insignificant as they are left behind: and so they do, and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed, and to tend furiously backward, until a ray of light upon the wet wall shows its surface flying past like a fierce stream. Away once more into the day, and through the day, with a shrill yell of exultation, roaring, rattling, tearing on, spurning everything with its dark breath, sometimes pausing for a minute where a crowd of faces are, that in a minute more are not; sometimes lapping water greedily, and before the spout at which it drinks has ceased to drip upon the ground, shrieking, roaring, rattling through the purple distance!

Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of Death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened. There are dark pools of water, muddy lanes, and miserable habitations far below. There are jagged walls and falling houses close at hand, and through the battered roofs and broken windows, wretched rooms are seen, where want and fever hide themselves in many wretched shapes, while smoke and crowded gables, and distorted chimneys, and deformity of brick and mortar penning up deformity of mind and body, choke the murky distance. As Mr Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them. It was the journey’s fitting end, and might have been the end of everything; it was so ruinous and dreary.

Is the passage too long? Absolutely, and it’s also extraordinary. There’s something breathtaking, audacious, exhilarating, about its resistance to any economy of words: if you removed “every superfluous word” from these pages, there would be nothing left at all.

How to Read a Victorian Novel

a somewhat tongue-in-cheek contribution to the How-To Issue Tumblr

First of all, don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to. Middlemarch “kills book clubs”? Please! Unlike some highly-regarded classics, these novels were written to be read–by all of us.

But you do need to be properly equipped.

Bring both your head and your heart: these are books that want you thinking and feeling. While you’re at it, stock up on tissues. You may, like Oscar Wilde, consider yourself too sophisticated to cry at the sentimental bits, but you never know. It might be the tenderness of Silas Marner that gets you, or maybe silly Dora in David Copperfield will surprise you into sniffles–or maybe your downfall will be Mr Harding and his old friend the Bishop in Barchester Towers. If you think you’re immune, start with A Christmas Carol: Dickens has a name for people like you.

Don’t forget your social conscience, either–and maybe your checkbook. These are books that have designs on you, though in many cases they will be aiming at reforming you as much as (or more than) they aim at reforming society, so another useful accessory might be a mirror. If, at the end of the book, you can’t face yourself in it, I bet the book was Vanity Fair.

Post-Its are your friends. That passage that made you laugh or cry–the one you want to read to your friend, or copy into your commonplace book (or your Tumblr)–will rapidly be overwhelmed by all the other passages that make you laugh or cry: don’t lose track of any of them. A pen or pencil for jotting page numbers inside the back cover is handy too. You e-book users can take advantage of all the highlighting and bookmarking features your gadget provides.

Now that you’re properly equipped, your next challenge is time! You’re going to want to read, and read, and read–but modern life sometimes makes that difficult. What’s to be done?

Take the book with you everywhere, that’s what. Bank line-ups, buses, bathrooms, those precious 8 minutes while the pasta boils — you know what to do! A few pages here, a few pages there, and next thing you know, you’re 500 pages in, with only another 200 to go.

Then there’s all the time you’ll save by not watching television. Remember: the most highly-praised shows in recent years are always compared to … Victorian novels! Some of them are straight-up based on them! Just read the originals. They are always better.

When you’re actually reading, it will help to put aside modern(ist) assumptions about what novels should and shouldn’t do, such as “show, don’t tell.” Victorian novelists show plenty, but they are absolute masters of telling. They’re also kind of chatty–they like to talk to you. Yes, you, the reader. Don’t be rude. You’ll make a lot of new friends: though some of them may seem a little intrusive, and some tend to belabor the point, while still others make pretty silly jokes, well, I bet that’s true of your real-life friends too, and unlike your real-life friends, these ones will always be there when you need some intelligent, sympathetic company.

Do you assume Victorian novels are “realistic”? I do not think that word means what you think it means. Have you heard them called “traditional” a lot? Hardly! These folks were experimenting all the time. Frame narratives, multiple points of view, time-shifting, unreliable narrators, women with mustaches, people named ‘M’Choakumchild’ or, more slyly, ‘Slope’…there’s nothing they won’t try.

Have you heard that Victorian novels are loose and baggy? Not always (try Wuthering Heights), and besides, so what? That’s only a fault if you think a good novel has to be taut and linear. There are other kinds of unity. Think themes and variations for instance: Bleak House? Housekeeping. Or fog. Middlemarch? Webs. Vanity Fair? Vanity (of course). He Knew He Was Right? Husbands and wives. And so on.

Finally, try not to let Victorian novels spoil you for anything else. Sure, the work of hip contemporary novelists with promotional billboards may seem thin and reedy once you get used to the rich symphony of the great Victorians, and you’ll be forever comparing mystery novels unfavorably to The Moonstone and muttering “but he’s just not Mr. Thornton” at the end of every romance. But as Henry James (who, frankly, would have benefited from this how-to guide) pointed out, “the house of fiction has not one window, but a million.” There are other novels well worth reading.


But if, once you get started, you never want to stop, you probably won’t have to. You think Trollope was prolific, with his 47 door-stoppers? He was a piker compared to Margaret Oliphant, who published 98. And we haven’t even talked about Bulwer-Lytton yet. Well, maybe we shouldn’t, actually. I’m trying to help you to read Victorian novels, after all, not scare you away. And to be honest, Bulwer-Lytton is a Victorian novelist I’ve never read myself. If any of you want to tell me “How to Read and Enjoy a Novel by Bulwer-Lytton,” I’ll be right over to read all about it.

Happy reading!

Blogging the Victorians

It seems like I haven’t been writing about much Victorian literature recently (except for my teaching posts, and even there, last term I didn’t have nearly as much Victorian content as usual!). Happily for us all, though, there are other bloggers who have lots of good things to say about the good stuff. Recently, for instance, Amateur Reader, over at Wuthering Expectations, had all kinds of fun with Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I particularly enjoyed his very savvy (and admirably terse–how does he do that!) discussion of Trollope’s sly and self-referential sense of humor:

Trollope has two comic modes, which he alternates.  He creates a cast of characters, types and more-than-types, two-and-a-half dimensional, not quite real people – I mean in the way that imaginary people like Elizabeth Bennet and Don Quixote and Huck Finn are real people – but really extraordinarily well-made marionettes.  Then he deftly bashes them against each other in ever-varying combinations.  See Chapters 10 and 11 of Barchester Towers, “Mrs. Proudie’s Reception,” for Trollope Mode 1 at its best:

“The German professors are men of learning,” said Mr. Harding, “but —“

“German professors!” groaned out the chancellor, as though his nervous system had received a shock which nothing but a week of Oxford air could cure. (Ch. 11)

That quotation has nothing to do with my point, come to think of it.  Still, I think we have all felt just that shock.

The other comic mode is the comment on the action, Trollope-the-narrator having his fun.  I’m back in Chapter 37:

A man must be an idiot or else an angel who, after the age of forty, shall attempt to be just to his neighbours.

Trollope was, at the time of the publication of Barchester Towers, forty-two.  He’s not an idiot.  Perhaps he is claiming to be an angel.  Perhaps something else.

My favorite joke, which might not look like much:

[Mr. Slope] had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne’s champagne to have any inward misgivings.  He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything.  It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie. (Ch. 40)

Mr. Slope is a first-rate comic character; Mrs. Proudie, who we met above, surely among Trollope’s finest.  At this point in the novel, they are enemies.  Why does the narrator think it a pity that the bold and tipsy Slope does not meet the grim Mrs. Proudie?  Because the scene would be really funny.  Trollope would like to write it, has perhaps even imagined it.  But they cannot meet.  The plot calls.  Such a shame.  And what a classic comedian’s trick, the joke about the even funnier joke he’s not allowed to tell.

Read more here, and here. (Read the comments, too. AR also gets some of the best comments threads of any blog I read. I credit his diligence in participating in them, as well, of course, as the engaging qualities of his posts themselves.) I really must not let my sabbatical go by without reading more Trollope. On my very first sabbatical I read the entire Palliser series straight through. At the time it felt a little self-indulgent, but in retrospect it was an excellent use of my time!

There’s more Victorian goodness at Tales from the Reading Room, where litlove has managed to bring Mary Elizabeth Braddon and (wait for this) Slavoj Zizek into the same post. Didn’t see that coming, did you? She does it by way of the anxiety on display throughout Lady Audley’s Secret about action:

But no, this is the Victorian period, and so women acting is WRONG, and must be stopped. And yet, if you look a little more closely at the narrative, it’s possible to see that anxiety surrounds all forms of action. Robert Audley’s story, for instance, is no better in this respect. . . . By the end of the story, Robert has reconciled himself to a degree of action, and looks back at his original lethargy with distaste. But Lady Audley… ah I will not tell you what happens to her, but those who know the story already will recall how her relationship to action unfolds.

The emotional conflict that surrounds action is by no means purely a Victorian problem. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests that the move to action is a fraught one because it involves leaving the comfort of our fantasies behind. After all, what do we do before we act, but think and dream and plan? When confined to our heads, we keep control over both our behaviour and its outcome, but stepping away from that reassuring fantasy and into the unpredictability of the real world often looks just too dangerous to attempt. . . . Žižek’s theories are not perfect, you can argue against them, but they do give pause for thought, and they do raise the question of why we feel so anxious about acting.

Perhaps we can trace our fear of action back to its manifestation here in Lady Audley’s Secret, where it is not secret at all but brought into the bright light of the narrative. . .

I have tended to begin my own analysis of Lady Audley’s Secrets from the Elaine Showalter line alluded to by one of litlove’s commenters: Showalter proclaims that Lady Audley is “not only sane, but representative.” But litlove is certainly right that the anxieties in the novel are not exclusively about Lady Audley.

Many of the posts from Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor are of Victorian interest, of course. Recently she has been “live-blogging” what sounds like a particularly deadly example of the Victorian religious fiction she reads (as she often says) so the rest of us don’t have to:

P. 42: “…we shall delight to hear your narrative, in which we hope you will tell us every particular.”  No.  Please no.

P. 44: Now, why is this novel, which seemed to be leading up to an attack on the Oxford Movement in the preface, actually set in 1788?

P. 48: “I find I have occupied your time longer than I at first intended, and I perceive also that I have but weakly expressed what was in my mind.”  The story of this novel’s life.  Luckily, the reader was distracted by the length of the letter: nearly five pages in print, which would make it how long in manuscript…? Our humble correspondent either wrote in really tiny print, or crossed, recrossed, and rerecrossed his letter.

P. 48: “I have many more interesting communications…” The innocent reader feels vaguely threatened by this announcement.

Complete, and completely gripping, details can be found here, here, and here. Oh, and also here:

P. 519: “Should the reader wish to hear of the Oxford Students, after leaving college, and to peruse the chequered events of their riper years, when they became settled and married, and the fathers of families, and vicars and rectors, they must call for the Second Series of ‘Truth without Fiction;’ or, ‘The Oxonians after leaving College.'”  Ha-ha! Good one, there!

…You mean you’re serious? Oh, my.

Recommended Reading

By popular demand–or, at any rate, at the request of ‘Robby Virus,’ of Blogging the Canon, one of my favorite sources for lively commentary and good drinks recipes–here is the list of ‘recommended further reading’ I offered to the students in my 19th-century fiction class at the end of term.

If you liked Persuasion:

  • other Austen novels, but especially Pride and Prejudice (you never know, some of them might not have already read it)
  • for a similar combination of delicate social satire and affectionate domestic comedy, try some Trollope; I have a fondness for The Warden, but Barchester Towers is also manageable in length and delightful
  • for a novel that combines an Austen-like sensitivity to social and moral nuances with an intellectual range closer to George Eliot’s, Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel Wives and Daughters
  • for fun, Bridget Jones’s Diary (smarter and wittier than the adaptation)

If you liked Vanity Fair:

  • Tom Jones, if you have the patience for it
  • Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (Lizzie Eustace, Becky Sharp, and Scarlett O’Hara should be in some kind of “Literary Diva Survivor” show)

If you liked Jane Eyre:

  • Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (in some ways, I think this is a better-crafted and more subtle novel than Jane Eyre, with all its melodrama)
  • Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another one of those novels that ought to put paid to the idea that nineteenth-century fiction is all about naive realism
  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, if melodrama is what you like best
  • Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, because I never miss an opportunity to recommend it

If you liked Bleak House:

  • other Dickens, of course, especially Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit
  • or, if what you liked about it was its social conscience, then Gaskell’s Mary Barton
  • or, if what you liked about it was its capaciousness, then Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or He Knew He Was Right, for more multiplot madness

If you liked The Mill on the Floss:

  • Middlemarch. Actually, no matter what else you like, my recommendation is that you read Middlemarch.
  • Daniel Deronda, because once you’re done reading Middlemarch you’ll be temporarily dissatisfied with every other author, so you’ll go looking for more George Eliot to read.
  • Felix Holt (see previous comment)
  • Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

And some recommended neo-Victorian novels, if you’re interested in what smart contemporary novelists have done with this legacy:

  • Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Byatt, Posession and Angels and Insects (the latter might be of particular interest to the scientifically inclined)
  • Waters, Fingersmith (just go read it!)
  • Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that may actually deserve the adjective “Dickensian”

Pedagogy, Evaluation, and What We Look for in ‘the’ Novel

(cross-posted to The Valve)

Recent threads at The Reading Experience (including this acrimonious one launched by Dan’s blunt denunciation of Dostoevsky’s “cheap tricks” and “unrelenting tedium”) have had me thinking (again, and see also these posts) about the problem of literary evaluation. In The Death of the Critic, Ronan McDonald declared that “The first step in reviving [the critic] is to bring the idea of artistic merit back to the heart of academic criticism. . . . [I]f criticism is to be valued, if it is to reach a wide public, it needs to be evaluative.” As I’ve said before, I’m skeptical about this idea that aesthetic evaluation is the obvious fix for whatever ails academic criticism at the present time:

Once you’ve acknowledged the ‘problematics’ of literary judgment, how then are you supposed to answer what [McDonald] proposes is the common reader’s key question (“Is this book … worth my attention and my time?”)? For what it’s worth, I think most academic critics would in fact be quite happy to answer that question about any book, but first we would all want to develop the question further (along the lines I laid out here, for instance).

This time around, I’m particularly thinking about whether, or how far, my work as a teacher has committed me, not to relativism (which is where some people assume my reservations about ‘literary merit’ lead me) but to a kind of pluralism by which it’s not comparative measures of ‘worth’ that matter but seeking out the measures that fit the particular case. One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms–trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence (“good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from–and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge–the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.

Here’s another excerpt from a book I’m reviewing, itself written with a pedagogical purpose, that illustrates what I mean by “seeking the measures the fit the particular case.” The authors have just argued that the “complexity” in Jane Eyre is limited to Jane herself, and that as characters get further “removed from Jane’s immediate concerns,” they become increasingly “flat and stereotypical”; the extreme example is Bertha Mason, whose representation is marked by “familiar, and often virulent, national and racial stereotypes.” The authors note that the novel “has been justifiably criticized for its reliance on these stereotypes.” Though they acknowledge the grounds for these criticisms, they go on to rule them out of order:

Their use in the novel . . . is part of a larger pattern of flattening out the social world beyond the circle of Jane’s own immediate concerns. Jane Eyre, in other words, is simply not the place to look for compelling social portraiture or profound insight into social relations–any more than, say, Scott is the place to look for compelling psychological depth. (74)

In other words, objecting to Bronte’s ‘flattening out,’ even of Bertha, is a category mistake: it’s not the kind of novel in which Bertha gets her own ‘complexity,’ but rather is the kind of novel in which Jane’s complex interiority is (nearly) all that matters.

One thing I find thought-provoking about that particular example is that (quite deliberately, I think) it sets two approaches against each other, one that reads from the inside out (setting interpretive limits based on the work’s nature, as it were), the other that brings a template of expectations to the novel and applies it as a test (a great deal of recent academic criticism could be seen as pursuing this latter course). So far at least, in this book (again, one with an overt pedagogical mission), the former approach is promoted and, as it happens, the novels defended against detractors. In the chapter on Scott, for instance, the authors cite Henry James’s famous criticism that “the centre of the subject is empty and the development pushed off, all round, toward the frame.” The authors reject James’s metaphor, which prioritizes and thus seeks “the portrait of an individual”:

But what if the subject Scott wishes to paint is not an individual human being, but instead . . . the way individuals interface with society and history? What if he wishes to reveal human nature, not from the skin in [as, they reasonably imply, James prefers], but from the skin out? then what James calls the “frame” . . . might bge more important than the individual. (37)

James’s theory of the novel, in other words, results in an inappropriate reading. I haven’t reached the chapter on Trollope yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised (or it wouldn’t be out of place) to find a similar objection to James’s dislike of Trollope’s narrative intrusions. In his 1883 retrospective on Trollope, James protested against his “little slaps at credulity”:

As a narrator of fictitious events he is nowhere; to insert into his attempt a backbone of logic, he must relate events that are assumed to be real. This assumption permeates, animates all the work of the most solid story-tellers; we need only mention . . . the magnificent historical tone of Balzac, who would as soon have thought of admitting to the reader that he was deceiving him, as Garrick or John Kemble would have thought of pulling off his disguise in front of the footlights.

Here, James confidently asserts that there is a right and a wrong way to write fiction–and Trollope is simply making a mistake when he “winks at us and reminds us that he is telling us an arbitrary thing.” But what if Trollope is not trying to write a Jamesian (or Balzacian) novel and failing, but writing a Trollopian novel? (I objected to a similar habit in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, in which at times a teleological theory of the novel seems to me to short-circuit Wood’s readings of fiction that ‘works’ differently than his favourites: ‘”Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot.” But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing?’) If we allow the author what James, in a more pluralistic moment, called his “donnee,” then we have to think about Trollope’s narrator quite differently, in terms of what it “animates.”

Now, I wouldn’t want to say that reading a novel on its own terms should always be the end point of criticism. I think it’s also important to consider that not all novels read on their own terms get more, rather than less, attractive and compelling. Further, there’s lots of room for debate when it comes to defining what those terms are–to return to the Jane Eyre example above, I can certainly imagine someone disagreeing with the dodge that makes Jane’s attitude to Bertha relatively insignificant in terms of the novel’s overall themes or literary strategies. The starting point for that discussion, though, would not be “great novels are of X kind; Jane Eyre is not of that kind; therefore Jane Eyre is not a great novel.” Not least because no two novels are the same (including among nineteenth-century “realist” novels, often the straw examples for ‘smug moderns’ in the blogosphere), that discussion seems, inevitably, to lead nowhere.

Suppose, however, that you take the attitude sometimes expressed by Dan Green in his posts, and certainly expressed by some of his commenters–that philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are unimportant (even undesirable) in the novel, or at least far less significant than aesthetic effects. Then suppose you read a novel in which philosophizing, politics, or social commentary are extremely important: Middlemarch, for instance, or to take an example in which the form and aesthetics are far less impressive, Mary Barton. (I think the assumption that we have aesthetic experiences that aren’t bound up in what, for shorthand, I’ll call the ideas of a novel is highly problematic, but I’ll set that aside for now.) A reader committed to McDonald’s “aesthetic evaluation” might well reject these novels as poor examples of the genre. But it could be argued that such a reader is simply making a category mistake (as James is with Scott or Trollope) and thus doing a bad job of reading (and thus evaluating) the books. As a teacher, I would not let such a mistake alone but would instruct the student who faulted Gaskell, for intance, for sentimentality, to consider the kind of book she’s writing–the purposes she has for her novel–and then how the form and artistic strategies of the novel serve those purposes. My purpose would not be to coerce the student into liking Mary Barton, but to help him or her achieve an appreciation of Gaskell’s accomplishment–an understanding of what the book is and does. That, to me, would be the basis of any responsible literary criticism. Even on aesthetic grounds, I would want to take into account the contingency of different standards, too, and to consider whether our affective response to something like John Barton’s death isn’t also a matter of art.

I’m not altogether sure where I am going with these ruminations. I guess I’m wondering about the relationship between what I’m calling the “pedagogical” habit of trying to find the best reading tools, the right measures, for any given example, and other critical strategies or purposes. How typical is this pluralistic approach, among teachers or among readers? Is there a way in which such an approach really does disable evaluation? Or is it the means for an informed evaluation? Does evaluation inevitably imply prescription about what “the” novel should do, or what readers should prefer? What are the limits of the kind of sympathetic, ‘from the inside out’ reading strategies promoted by Case and Shaw’s book (which I find wholly congenial)?

Critical Limitations

I couldn’t have said this better myself. In fact, in the introduction I wrote for my forthcoming anthology of 19th-century novel criticism, I didn’t say it better myself, though this is pretty much what I was getting at:

In the early twentieth century, . . . [a] more “professional” and more self-consciously theorized discourse about novels arose, as part of the movement whereby authors of “modern” fiction (above all Henry James) attempted to break free from the line of fiction it is the purpose of the present book to illuminate. This more “professional” kind of criticism became, with the passage of time, the basis for criticism of the novel as it was presented to students in schools and universities. It was useful for many purposes, among them a focus on the craft of the novel, on how novels create their effects. But a criticism based on a set of aesthetic priorities that were developed as part of a rebellion against the nineteenth-century social novel would seem likely to have certain limitations for those who want to understand nineteenth-century novels, not leave them behind.

That, and the nineteenth-century critics who came before didn’t do such a bad job understanding “the nineteenth-century social novel” either.

George Levine on Vanity Fair

Unsurprisingly, eminent Victorianist George Levine writes well about “Vanity Fair and Victorian Realism” in his newly released How to Read the Victorian Novel:

In refusing the satisfactions of closure, Thackeray is implicitly affirming the importance of the realist enterprise; in rejecting the comic ending and the possibility of a satisfactory conclusion (“Which of us is happy in this world?” the book’s final paragraph asks), Thackeray is, with some fatigue, turning away from the literary forms that in fact give spine and structure to his own enormous book. Thackeray arrives at what might be seen as the ultimate attitude of the realist, something like contempt for the impossible enterprise and for the fantasies to which it aspires.

I’m reading the book in order to review it along with Harry Shaw and Alison Case’s equally new Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel, Austen to Eliot. So far I’m impressed with both books, though both also leave me puzzling a bit about their function. If I assigned either one as a companion in my 19th-century fiction class, for one thing, there wouldn’t be much need for me to be in the room! Case and Shaw more clearly have a student reader in mind: their language is deliberately non-technical and their tone is companionable and relaxed. (Perhaps their analysis also reads comfortably to me because Shaw was my thesis supervisor and I had the pleasure of working as the TA for his 19th-century fiction class once: the approach and the examples in many cases are familiar to me.) Levine’s text is denser and more overtly engaged with recent theoretical and critical approaches. I happily anticipate having my own ideas and habits refreshed as I work my way through both books.

When I get my hands on Philip Davis’s forthcoming Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, I think Blackwell Publishing will have met all my needs.

Go in!

Yesterday I finally mailed off the typescript (all 500+ pages) of the anthology of 19th-century novel criticism that I have been working on for…well, longer than I like to admit. In the end, will it be all it could have been, or should have been? Who can say? What would be the measure? Still, the experience of preparing it has been a learning experience and even, sometimes, a pleasurable one. In honour of its completion (to this stage, at least), here’s what has come to rest in my mind as my favourite excerpt from the 22 essays on the final list. There are many close seconds, including much of David Masson’s British Novelists and Their Styles, brilliant bits of Edward Dowden’s review essay on George Eliot’s novels, and, of course, many words of wisdom from George Eliot herself. But for sheer exuberance at, and generous appreciation of, the multitudinous possibilities of the genre, you can’t beat this conclusion to Henry James’s classic essay on “The Art of Fiction”:

But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. ‘Enjoy it as it deserves,’ I should say to him; ‘take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and don’t listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself. . . . If you must indulge in conclusions let them have the taste of a wide knowledge. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible–to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate, and then, in the vulgar phrase, go in!’

The Best [Victorians] of 2007

Amidst the flurry of ‘Top 10’ and ‘Best Of’ book lists that the end of the year inevitably generates (and after reading several dismissals of Victorian novels in various insistently modernist blogs), it’s nice to see some people proclaiming how much fun is to be had with Dickens and George Eliot (both via The Millions):

From Bookdwarf: “First, I’ll get George Eliot’s Middlemarch out of the way. It’s simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. I expect to read this again in a few years and still feel the same, it’s that good. It’s the kind of book where you’re not certain you can make it past the first 100 pages, but what a treat if you do!”

From novelist Jess Row: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my favorite books read in 2007 were Little Dorrit and Daniel Deronda. But almost as much fun as the novels themselves were the copious endnotes (in the Penguin and Modern Library editions, respectively). I wonder: in a hundred years, will any novels from our era get the same treatment? And if so, what will the endnotes ‘say?'”

This Week in My Classes

1. 19th-Century Novel. We’re still on Great Expectations this week, moving through the phase that I lecture on as “Great Revelations.” While I tend to emphasize the moral pressures of the novel in class, while re-reading it this weekend I found myself pleasurably reminded of what an emotionally powerful and intensely literary book it is. Here’s Pip confronting Estella and, indirectly, Miss Havisham, after he has learned the truth about his benefactor and been forced to reconsider the kind of ‘gentleman’ he has become:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since–on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’
In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got those broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from a wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered–and soon afterwards with stronger reason–that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse. (Vol. 3 Chapter V)

Of the many things that could be said about this passage, I’ll just point to the way Pip’s impassioned speech associates Estella with the evocative landscape he describes to us much earlier in the novel, the horizontal lines broken only by the beacon and the gibbet–symbols that seemed to oppose hope and death, beauty and despair, love and crime, Estella and Magwitch–oppositions that by Volume 3 have proved not just illusory but dangerously so, as Pip now sees. Contemporary novelists are often described as “Dickensian,” usually for writing long, diffuse novels with lots of plots and characters and a bit more emotional exhibitionism than is the norm in ‘serious’ fiction. I rarely think they deserve the label, because to me it’s moments such as this one, combining dense symbolic allusiveness, rhythmic and evocative language, high sentiment, and urgent moral appeal–all bordering on the excessive, even ridiculous, but, at their best, not collapsing into it–that distinguish Dickens from other novelists. I’m not sure any modern novelist takes such risks.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here it’s week 1 of Jane Eyre. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is trying to approach the novel in any fresh way, given not just how familiar it is to me after many readings, but also how dense is the accretion of criticism around it. Just selecting a handful of critical articles to assign was an incredibly fraught process: at this point, what are the most important things to be known or said about it? So much of the discussion, too, is ultimately all about us, the critics, and how what we have seen in this novel, how we have read it, reflects our own assumptions or desires about literature, feminism, romance, realism, narration. And how to find something new to say? Find something that others have neglected or misunderstood, point out what this tells us about those other readings, and posit your own, corrective analysis. You thought it was a happy ending? Think again! Rochester’s still a patriarch, Ferndean is unhealthy, Adele is exiled, it’s really a revenge story, Jane’s narrative strategies undermine what she appears to be saying about living ‘happily ever after.’ The key to the novel’s themes or politics is not Jane but Bertha, or Grace Poole, or Bessie. Miss Temple is barely an improvement on Brocklehurst. Bertha is Jane’s repressed double, or is she the oppressed Other? You thought the novel was a woman’s (or a woman writer’s) declaration of independence–look how you failed to see that version of feminism as complicit with racist exclusion, or reliant on imperialism. Or, look how you have subjugated the novel to your own theory about race or empire. And on and on it goes. It’s not that I don’t find some of these readings interest or compelling, but after a while, it starts to seem odd that one book should attract such a weight of other people’s ideas, should stand for so many things. While recognizing that there can be no such thing as “just” reading the novel (any more than what I’ve said above is “just” about Great Expectations “itself” in some transparent way), I do find myself thinking that, especially in some of the more ‘suspicious’ readings, those that go most determinedly against the grain, we have left the novel behind, refusing, as Denis Donoghue says about another text, to let it have its theme.