Why Victorian Literature Still Matters

Theory, even to a writer 'fed up' with it, is relevant, as the lessons of humanism show, says Carolyn Lesjak

January 22, 2009

Near the end of Why Victorian Literature Still Matters, Philip Davis asks: "Why can't one do without the Victorian reality-bump? Because I believe it is a proper default setting, a basic sense of the ordinarily real from which to start."

Reality bumps, the ordinarily real, "the reader" (not "the critic" or "the student" or "the scholar"), an in-betweenness in time, in faith, in the lived life, human thinking and human content: Davis' key terms all signal his desire to move beyond what he perceives as the tired mantras and stale jargon of theory-speak. He is "fed up" with kneejerk dismissals of sentiment and "vicarious literary feeling"; he can easily anticipate "the tiresome charge of undue essentiality"; and, throughout his study, he is concerned to make a case for Victorian realism, the genre least amenable to poststructuralist theory and its successors, given its assumed naivety vis-a-vis issues of representation.

The context for Davis' manifesto - which joins a series of "Blackwell Manifestos" that began with Terry Eagleton's The Idea of Culture (2000) - is the part-time MA programme in Victorian literature that he and a colleague, Brian Nellist, founded in 1986 for mature students. The programme, the first of its kind in Northern England, clearly prompted Davis to think, outside the confines of the profession, about why anyone should read Victorian literature and what it has meant, specifically, to him. One could say that this experience was akin to a (small) Victorian bump; like the processes of realisation that readers of and characters in Victorian novels undergo, such bumps involve a stripping away of the habitual or the institutional, at times a real "jolt", that catches us short and disrupts our tendency to take life for granted. This at base is the value of Victorian realism: it helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Why Victorian Literature Still Matters is at its best when it attends to the small detail, the odd or apt grammatical gesture, the minute editorial changes that produce meaning at the most micro of levels. Reading the commas George Eliot adds when she revises a passage from The Mill on the Floss, Davis shows how the presence of these newly created clauses does not so much cordon off the information enclosed in them as physically mirror the processes of thought that Maggie Tulliver and Eliot's characters more generally undergo as they attempt to assemble a meaningful life within necessarily limited circumstances. "If they could only stop, get out of the sentence in which they are subordinate, take a new direction of their own, be revised into a new paragraph!" Davis wittily writes. Likewise, the complexity of syntax in Elizabeth Sewell's Journal of a Home Life (1867) highlights the conflict between the general principles its protagonist Mrs Anstruther holds to and the concrete particularities of the environment in which she must function, a tension prevalent throughout Victorian literature as fiction and non-fiction writers attempted to come to terms with a society in transition. While the detail, gesture or edit may be small, the meaning of this "smallness" is anything but.

The physical or small takes many different forms, be it the "hard-wiring" Davis uses to refer to the harsh conditions and tough judgments that Victorian characters continually find themselves up against or the crisis of faith and what it means to "(want) to believe", which Davis makes material by way of "Charley", at once a conceit for the reluctant unbeliever and a character in George MacDonald's Wilfrid Cumbermede. Other chapters take on time, realist prose itself and the pressing question of vocation. Part of the impressiveness of Victorian realism, for Davis, lies precisely in its ambitiousness of reach. Davis entitles his last chapter "A few of my favourite things", but it could describe all the chapters, with their mix of authors and their shared emphasis on texts that Davis clearly finds moving and pleasurable (a politically incorrect concern in our low-affect society).

Davis' titular question frames a project in large part about looking back to the past in order to determine the specific relevance of Victorian literature for a 21st-century readership. In short, the "still" really matters. But this book also joins a larger discussion about why literature, more generally, matters. That discussion ultimately addresses the relevance of the humanities today. At one point, Davis characterises Victorian literature as a "holding-ground in which to think about life - for those who have no other place to go to, in order to do so", as a kind of "supportive humanism".

At stake, then, is the status of "humanism" as response to a techno-bureaucratic society in which the reading of literature has no clear raison d'etre or, worse, is perceived as utterly useless. On this terrain, Davis' humanism can be seen to share many of the positive attributes of older humanist accounts and, likewise, repeat some of its worst offences. His attentiveness to detail, to the everyday and the quotidian resonates with, to take just one example, the final chapter of Eric Auerbach's Mimesis. There Auerbach closely reads one passage from To the Lighthouse in order to show how Virginia Woolf's exploitation of "the random occurrence" brings to light "the elementary things which our lives have in common". Auerbach's humanism serves to unify and simplify a multicultural world by emphasising what all people have in common once their surface differences are stripped away. In like fashion, Davis finds in the realist tradition "the bedrock sense of common existence".

Recourse to "the human" also, however, masks differences - structural, cultural and otherwise - that matter. This absence is most telling in Davis' reading of Kim, which celebrates the rich and varied texture of Rudyard Kipling's India and its embodied "in-betweenness". Davis goes so far as to chastise postcolonial critics for finding imperialist ideology in the novel. Instead they should recognise its, and by extension, Victorian literature's, "stubborn and loyal structural commitment in the middle of things".

With this mystifying gesture, the contradictions of empire - its attractions and seductions, its systematic and brutal exploitations, the fantasies of space it engenders, the global structures it enforces and so on - are made unavailable or invisible. Why not follow the late Edward Said's brand of humanism, with its ability to simultaneously read the pleasures and the perils of a text like Kim, to see both the beauty and the ugliness of culture and let neither wholly cancel the other out?

In his 2004 presidential address to the Modern Language Association on "The Humanities in a Postmodernist World", Robert Scholes, like Davis, is equally concerned with "the heart and the mind", seeing the place where they "meet in language" as the locus of the humanities. But what Scholes recognises - and Davis suppresses - is the "multicultural and multitextual nature of the world around us" and the absolute necessity of properly honed theoretical tools with which to read this world.

As Scholes proffers, "We have a precious gift to give those who study with us: the gift of an understanding of textuality and ideology in a world in which people are bombarded with ideologically loaded texts from morning to night."

By constructing such a strong divide between readers and critics, affect and critique, Davis ends up denuding literature of half of its power. Rather than renouncing theory, why not retool it so that it can be accessed and used by Davis' MA students?

Don't they, after all, need the same kinds of interpretive skills all of us with a commitment to the humanities need, if we are going to combat the anti-humanism that threatens to make us all redundant?

Why Victorian Literature Still Matters

By Philip Davis

Wiley-Blackwell 184pp, £45.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9781405135788 and 35795

Published 9 September 2008

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