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.