Experimental Victorians

I have always viewed Victorian novels — at least my favorite ones — as profoundly strange, so I found such satisfaction in reading Elaine Freedgood’s Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel. Freedgood looks at how critics came to interpret the genre of the Victorian novel as more straightforwardly realistic and formally cohesive than it is.

Her argument is clear, her jokes, funny. I found the book particularly fun to read as someone who adores how Victorian novelists can make the world turn strangely, as Dickens does in Our Mutual Friend in a dinner-party scene that Freedgood addresses. She specifically examines J. Hillis Miller‘s critical interpretation of this scene in which the narrator looks down at events from the perspective of a mirror in the dining room. This mirror reflects the party’s two hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Veneering, and their guests:

The great looking-glass above the sideboard, reflects the table and the company. Reflects the new Veneering crest, in gold and eke in silver, frosted and also thawed, a camel of all work….Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly, mysterious, filmy—a kind of sufficiently well-looking veiled-prophet, not prophesying. Reflects Mrs Veneering; fair, aquiline-nosed and fingered, not so much light hair as she might have, gorgeous in raiment and jewels, enthusiastic, propitiatory, conscious that a corner of her husband’s veil is over herself. Reflects Podsnap; prosperously feeding, two little light-coloured wiry wings, one on either side of his else bald head, looking as like his hairbrushes as his hair, dissolving view of red beads on his forehead, large allowance of crumpled shirt-collar up behind. Reflects Mrs Podsnap; fine woman for Professor Owen, quantity of bone, neck and nostrils like a rocking-horse, hard features, majestic head-dress in which Podsnap has hung golden offerings.

That a mirror won’t — and can’t — stop reflecting is realistic, and so is the spinning world that its perspective creates. But Freedgood reminds us of the great gap between this narrating voice that inhabits a looking-glass and the authoritative human narrator that has come to be closely associated with the Victorian novel.

Ekphrasis in Fiction: George Eliot’s Influence on Vincent Van Gogh

After hearing scholar Ruth Livesey speak on George Eliot’s influence on Vincent Van Gogh last fall, I had to broaden my ideas of the possible effects that painters and novelists can have on each other. Livesey, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, came to the University of Tennessee last October to talk about how Eliot’s fiction shaped Van Gogh’s painting. Her fascinating scholarship on the subject is now available at 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Her article illuminates not only how Van Gogh drew upon Eliot’s fiction but also how Eliot found inspiration in Dutch realist painters, including Gerrit Dou and Teniers.

By analyzing Eliot’s and Van Gogh’s relationships to both visual and literary art, Livesey uncovers what she calls “the radical experimentalism” of Eliot’s earlier fiction. In general, critics solely recognize the clear experimentalism of Eliot’s later work. This less conventional, late fiction includes one narrative about the authorial ambitions of single-celled parasites (Impressions of Theophrastus Such) and a novelistic exploration of Kabbalistic beliefs about souls entering new bodies (Daniel Deronda).

Livesey, though, reveals the subtler radical choices that Eliot made in her early fiction, such as the 1859 novel, Adam Bede, which aesthetically represents peasants with unusual depth. According to Livesey, Eliot endowed her working-class characters with an inward consciousness that traditionally the peasantry had been denied in art. So from underneath a peasant’s dusty face, for instance, we can glimpse the blush of desire.

Livesey, referring to the scholarship of Ronald Pickvance, examines the association that Van Gogh made in his letters between Dickens’s and Eliot’s disparate versions of realism. Van Gogh connected Dickens’s realism with visual art rendered in black and white, while he associated Eliot’s with forms that integrated color with characters complexly bound to the landscape. Livesey analyzes how Eliot, unlike Dickens, believed that harsh social conditions shape the individual; Eliot’s working-class characters, therefore, are part of the harsh landscapes in which they live. But while these characters take on the grays and browns of their environment, they never lose the hues, such as the blush of a passionate thought, that reveal their individual subjectivity.

Livesey’s treatment of color, character, and social and natural landscapes is enough to recommend the article, but her analysis of perspective and narrative progression makes this scholarship even more valuable to those who, like me, use visual art to inspire their own fiction and their teaching of creative and critical writing.

Article in Dickens Studies Annual

I wrote an article about Dickens’s 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the US, American Notes. In the article, I discuss how Dickens uses the elements of the pastoral, a poetic genre usually associated with natural beauty and pretty lasses, to deliver a strong political message. The article is available on Humanities Commons; the abstract is below:

In his 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens used the pastoral mode to deliver a strong message about labor. To communicate this message, he employed the mode’s many traits, including its retreat into and return from the rural landscape and its focus on the country worker, traditionally the shepherd. This essay follows the novel’s pastoral retreat into the United States, where young Martin comes to understand the realities of manual labor through his physical interactions with the American landscape. His companion, Mark Tapley, meanwhile, performs the emotional labor of the servant by initially shielding middle-class Martin from this painful knowledge. Both men, however, must confront manual labor on a massive scale upon reaching “Eden,” a hideous landscape that Dickens constructed referring to passages from his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the United States, American Notes. The landscape in Eden documents the decaying atmosphere of slavery as recorded in Dickens’s travelogue. It also recreates for Martin the physical experience that Dickens had as a child of entering a vast, foreign world of factory work. Ultimately, Dickens’s uses the pastoral to uncover a horror that usually lies beneath a beautiful surface: that the civilized landscape demands enslaved or nearly enslaved labor for its construction.

Critical Article on George Eliot

For the past three years, I have been studying creative writing and nineteenth-century British literature at the University of Tennessee where I am a Ph.D. candidate. In my first semester, I began writing about kabbalistic astronomy and astrology in George Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda. I later expanded my study of Eliot’s mystical astral symbolism to include not only her last novel but her earlier epic poem, The Spanish Gypsy. In both works, Eliot offers Jewish mystics as characters: in Spanish Gypsy, she creates a Jewish astrologer who gives the hero advice; in Daniel Deronda, she has a kabbalistic visionary who emerges as an important figure in the novel’s middle and later chapters.

My completed article has just come out in George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies. In the essay, I explore how, in Daniel Deronda, Eliot moved the character of the mystic from the periphery to the center of the narrative. This change, symbolically equated within the novel to a shift from geocentricism to heliocentricism, affects time in Daniel Deronda both in terms of plot and historical focus. Not only does time slow as the mystic, Mordecai, assumes a central role, the astral imagery begins to draw upon a medieval past when Jewish thinkers explored interdisciplinary concepts of the heavens inspired by both poetry and the science of their time. I argue for the centrality of the astronomical imagery in relation to the Jewish themes of Daniel Deronda and show through my analysis of The Spanish Gypsy how Eliot employed kabbalistic ideas of the skies in an attempt to create a new vision of star-crossed love for literature.

To view the article, click here.

To read my earlier review of Anna Henchman’s book, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature, which also appeared in George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, go here.