Challenged to find God in the novel

The Oxford English Literary History
April 16, 2004

Alice Jenkins delves into 19th-century writing to find realism in its heart.

Although Philip Davis claims that he has not set out to provide a radical revision of Victorian literary history, his book stakes out a territory for a distinctive and now rarely heard kind of criticism. The achievement of this accessible, superbly readable survey is to allow the multiplicity and complexity of Victorian literature to emerge in a series of set-piece chapters that give the 21st-century reader a foothold in the period without imposing 21st-century critical categories on the material. Davis seems to be constitutionally an ideal reader of realist fiction: he sees literature as the best means of expressing and understanding individual experience in a society undergoing the pressures of secularisation, and is deeply sympathetic to Victorian anxieties over this experience. The generosity that he praises in Victorian novels forms part of his own method in this book: he quotes frequently and widely, juxtaposing the canonical and the less well known, giving readers a confident and sometimes exhilarating sense of the interrelations of a large range of texts.

Davis places realist fiction at the heart of Victorian literary achievement and of his book's approach to the period. By its high-water mark in the 1870s, he claims, the realist novel "offered the most subtle, diversified, and complicated network of shifting interrelationships available to human thinking". Drama is allotted a single short chapter, and poetry, though often imported into discussions of prose genres, is given a dedicated space only in the final chapter of the main body of the book. The four opening chapters give accounts of urbanisation, science, religion and psychology, as providing a framework for Victorian debates about the individual in relation to history and society. Davis' picture of Victorian literature emphatically centres on the individual pulled in many directions by social, religious and economic pressures and finding expression in a literature that seeks to understand these pressures through exploration of the emotional life. His focus is not new, nor does he articulate it as an agenda-shifting move, but it provides the book with a great deal of its urgency and vividness. He rejects what he sees as doctrinaire critical readings of Victorian modes and genres and, similarly, privileges those Victorian authors, such as Dickens, whose work he identifies as occupying a ground between the extreme polarities of belief and unbelief, optimism and pessimism.

Davis is eager to let the reader hear the voices of Victorian literature and gives frequent and substantial quotations, chosen perceptively and contextualised illuminatingly. Many of these are accompanied by compelling close readings. Voices of post-Victo-rian critics are rarely heard, making the book more accessible to the general reader; similarly, footnotes are sparse, but bibliographies at the end of the book provide a very good guide to primary texts by each author. Suggestions for critical reading are aimed at the non-specialist. Davis has written an excellent guide to the major Victorians, but the book minimises direct engagement with current debates in Victorian studies.

For some readers, sceptical about the viability of literary history in the light of postmodern epistemology, the project of the book, and its series, will seem in itself controversially conservative, and not only because Davis chooses 1880 as a terminal date for The Victorians. Broadly canonical in its range of literary authors, this volume extends its reach into Victorian cultural history, with detailed references to a great number of 19th-century critics, scientists, divines and other writers. After the four historical opening chapters and one on book production and the rise of mass literacy, Davis divides his material chiefly by genre rather than chronology, with chapters on prose focusing on high realism and its alternatives in sensation and fantasy fiction, as well as on autobiography and the emergence of middle-class literature. His kind of literary history is refreshingly energetic, making rapid, compelling connections across diverse writers' work, for instance placing Edwin A. Abbott's mathematical fable Flatland alongside Samuel Butler's Erewhon and E. B. Tylor's anthropological study Primitive Culture as explorations of the possibility that we can understand the parameters of individual lives. His book, he suggests, is itself Victorian in the sense that its project mirrors, in miniature, that of the period it discusses: it strives for "an overview of an age constantly seeking and constantly failing to find an adequate overview or framework for itself". Davis offers no theoretical defence of literary history, but instead an immensely strong and highly successful commitment to demonstrating the variety and power of the literature itself.

Indeed, at climactic points this might almost be said to be an anti-history, when Davis argues not just for a continuity but for a community for our own time with the problems and achievements of Victorian writing: "The intuitive belief that the variety of books and writers that affect a reader strongly must somehow finally fit together - as in a novel before the eyes of the missing God - may not be a long-past Victorian delusion, but the great Victorian challenge that remains for those who use their literature in relation to their lives." At moments such as this, the book becomes explicit about the work that it does implicitly throughout: it offers a passionate restatement of the importance of Victorian literature for present and future readers.

Davis' ability to combine a wealth of detailed references and allusions with lucid overarching narratives means that the book will be of great use to students, general readers and non-Victorianists seeking a way into the central debates and major authors of the period. For subject specialists, it offers a confident updating of a humanist approach to Victorian literature. But perhaps its greatest strength lies in its sense of the excitement and insight to be gained from "the actual act of reading Victorian novels".

Alice Jenkins is lecturer in English literature, Glasgow University.

The Oxford English Literary History: Vol 8, 1830-1880 The Victorians

Author - Philip Davis
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 631
Price - £30.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 19 818447 6 and 926920 3

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