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Deconstructing the Victorian novel

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JYOTI NAIR BELLIAPPA

This anthology weaves together important themes in a historical narrative.

A Concise Companion to the Victorian Novel, edited by Francis O'Gorman, Blackwell, 2005, p.277, Rs.550.

THIS anthology of critical essays is an in-depth study of the cultural norms which prevailed over 60 years' of Queen Victoria's reign. Through stories situated in an imperial and often "Anglo-centric worldview", the tradition of the novel offers insights into some of the context behind the literary imagination of the 19th century. The first chapter by Cannon Schmitt deals with issues relating to Empire. He invokes Said in Culture and Imperialism: "Without Empire there is no Victorian novel". Ian Watt also connects the birth of the novel with the birth of a new economic system. Kate Flint in "Visuality and Victorian Fiction" discusses the works of Hardy, Henry James, Martin Miesel and Nancy Armstrong to show how Victorian writers made abundant use of visuals to draw parallels between the abstract and the real. The analogy between the art of the painter and that of the novelist is complete when she quotes Henry James: "the picture is reality and the novel is history"."Class in the Victorian Novel" by James Eli Adams speaks about the conservative dynamics of class, where secure class membership was reserved for those born in the relevant milieu. Ancestry divided individuals within the same economic group: class here is an elaboration of a way of life in contrast to the purely economic terms laid by Karl Marx. Clare Pettitt's "The Law and the Victorian Novel" questions the canons of legal evidence which come to govern the practice of story telling, delves into the conflict between the public and private versions of the "Truth".

Modes of production

Nicholas Dames in "Psychology in the Victorian Novel" traces the evolution of physical units of experience into perceptions and beliefs relating to consciousness into matters of metaphysics. Mark Turner writes of different modes of publication and the popular magazines that carried serialised pieces, forcing both writer and consumer into a habit of studied periodicity. Richard Salmon in "The Function of the Author and Victorian Fiction" cites an instance from Thomas Carlyle's celebrated The Hero as Man of Letters, where he celebrates the capacity of modern print culture to disseminate the divinely inspired words of the hero. The relationship between fiction and journalism was perceived to harm the prestige of the novel at a time when the novelist was rising as a professional. Carolyn Dever argues that Victorian culture worked to silence expressions of conflicting emotions and sexuality. Victorian conventionality polarised female identity into two neat categories — virgin and whore, angel and demon, associating goodness with asexuality and badness with hyper sexuality. In "Religion in the Victorian Novel", Michael Wheeler discusses the dramatic fall in levels of biblical literature and general knowledge of foundational Christian doctrines. In "Biology in the Victorian Novel", Angelique Richardson delineates how Darwinian notions of survival and difference became integral to the Victorian novel. What, after all, was to be done about the unfit at home or abroad? Were they destined to be subjected to imperial rule for their own good? John Rignall studies Europe as "One great confederation", and its impact on the Victorian novel. The revolutions of 1848, the unification of Italy, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, English morality, the naturalism of France and the moral sensibility of the Russians all found a place in the rich and complex social world of the Victorian novel. Thus the novel engaged adventurously with the contemporary European world.

Important insights

Francis O'Gorman reflects on the impact of high emotion in the Victorian novel. Emotional scenes appeared to set a moral challenge that would defy the arresting power of social decay, strengthening faith in the redeemability of human nature. Gorman recognises historical difference is a pre-requisite to interpreting the texts of the past. The anthology weaves together important themes in a historical narrative with attention to the different debates and critical positions in the field. This is undoubtedly an important text for students of both literature and history.


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