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David Deirdre, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel.

DAVID, DEIRDRE, ED. The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xxi + 267 pp. $60.00 cloth; $22.00 paper.

BAKER, WILLIAM AND KENNETH WOMACK, EDS. A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. vii + 445 pp. $94.95.

The only safe generalizations one can make about the Victorian novel are that it was popular and that it was abundant. "Everybody in the nineteenth century read novels, and to the collector it sometimes seems that everybody wrote them," in the words of that prodigious collector Robert Lee Wolff. Nobody knows how many novels were published during this great age of fiction; the number has been estimated from 50,000 upwards. It is true that for every special correspondent to posterity, as Walter Bagehot once dubbed Dickens, legions have landed in the dead letter office. Nevertheless, by now it is assumed that among the forgotten are some underrated and unjustly neglected names, and efforts have been made by scholars to bring some of the submerged to the surface. John Sutherland, for example, in his Stanford [Longman's in England] Companion to Victorian Fiction suggests as an "educated guess" that some 7,000 Victorians could lay claim to being novelists; he provides biographical sketches for 878 of them (566 men, 312 women), and synopses of 554 novels.

In the face of such statistics, it has to be said that these two "companions" under review cover but a fraction of their professed universes. Nor do they altogether reflect the latest trends in scholarship in the field. Significantly, the latest edition of the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, 1800-1900 (1999) under the editorship of Joanne Shattock has erased the traditional division between "major" and "minor" novelists. Yet both of these books, while devoting some space to so-called "sub-genres" like the sensation and detective novels, hew pretty close to the well-thumbed canon, with heavy concentration on the Brontes, Dickens, and George Eliot. One would not be aware from either of such developments as the rediscovery of a number of "New Women" novelists and other fin-de-siecle figures, or of a subculture of newspaper serial fiction. Also, the Victorian novel here is largely English; Scotland (except for Scott) and Ireland are virtually ignored. Moreover, if one goes along with the OED definition of "companion" in the literary sense as "a handbook or reference book to a specific locality, etc.," their very titles must be put down as misnomers. There are few fact-crammed entries of the kind one finds in Sutherland's book (or for that matter, others in the Cambridge Companion series); reference features are perfunctory; a spare Chronology at the beginning of the Cambridge volume, a "Guide to further reading" at the end which provides no guidance in the form of annotation or classification; a "Selected Bibliography" at the end of the Greenwood volume with no indication of the principles of selection.

These, then, are read-up rather than look-up books. What we have here essentially are two more collections of essays on various aspects of Victorian fiction, to add to numerous others that have been pouring off academic presses over the past decade, by a mixture of seasoned authorities and relative newcomers, British, American, Canadian, and Australian, one Swedish, who for the most part write a polished prose. The contents of these two gatherings confirm that Henry James's loose, baggy monster has proved a many-headed beast, defying taxonomy. The Cambridge volume is arranged under general rubrics (e.g., readers, publishing, aesthetics) and subject matter (e.g., industry, gender, sexuality, race, detection); the Greenwood, over a third longer, makes more of an attempt at an anatomy of the novel. It opens with a competent introductory essay, entitled "The Victorian Novel Emerges, 1800-1840," by Ian Duncan, recalling the dual influences of Sir Walter Scott (panoramic) and Jane Austen (domestic). This is followed by demarcated sections devoted to Literary Contexts, Cultural Contexts, Genres, Major Authors, and Contemporary Critical Approaches. The editors of both books appear to have given their contributors a free hand, to judge by wide variation in length and format of the essays, as well as in their cogency, fullness of coverage, and informativeness.

In the Cambridge volume, the handbook function is best served by Simon Eliot's "The Business of Victorian Publishing," a compact survey of the various formats of fiction production from the first Sir Waiter (Scott) to the second (Besant). Likewise, two chapters in the Greenwood volume: Graham Law's "Periodicals and Syndication" briskly traces the movement from monthly to weekly partial publication of fiction to the introduction in the 1870s of newspaper syndication by Tillotson's Fiction Bureau; Peter Shillingsburg distills his impressive knowledge of the economics, sociology, and technology of Paternoster Row in "Book Publication and the Victorian Literary Market Place." These are followed by Lynn Alexander's "Victorian Illustration and Illustrators," skimming the surface from Cruikshank to Beardsley. This piece is knowledgeable, but gappy, omitting the growing popularity of lithography and its typographical successor chromolithography, as well as the impact of technological innovations such as electrotyping and the gravure processes. The lone treatment of the audience for the novel, Kate Flint's "The Victorian Novel and Its Readers," which leads off the Cambridge Companion, zig-zags confusingly in time in its examination of attitudes towards fiction, which was considered infra-dig in some eminent quarters, as is well known. I miss any attention to the efforts by novelists to raise the prestige of the novel by assuming the role of high popularizer of culture and ideas, as witness Trollope's famous essay "On English Prose Fiction as a Rational Amusement."

Some of the essays in the Cambridge volume centering specifically on fiction seem to me to be under-researched or to make untenable generalizations on limited evidence. I, at any rate, was not convinced by Linda Shires ("The Aesthetics of the Victorian Novel") that the aberrant Wuthering Heights or the exotic Lord Jim open up" a window on aesthetic and ideological transformation in the Victorian novel" (61); or by Nancy Armstrong ("Gender and the Victorian Novel") that "Victorian fiction offered the reader the figure of a feminine body--vulnerable to the forces of history" (108); or by Jeff Nunokawa ("Sexuality in the Victorian Novel") that "sexual desires are everywhere in the Victorian novel, either as an explicit topic, or as a subterranean force close enough to the surface as it may well be" (126). Far more on top of his subject is Patrick Brantlinger (editor of yet another "companion," still scheduled at time of writing as forthcoming from Blackwell); his "Race and the Victorian Novel" spans the century from Marryat to Kipling, marshaling examples from major and minor writers under incisive heads. Also authoritative on a smaller scale is Ronald R. Thomas's "Detection in the Victorian Novel," which relates the course this genre took through the century to reforms in criminal law as well as to the rise of forensic medicine. (The corresponding essay by Lillian Nayder in the Greenwood volume draws on Thomas as a source.) A broad retrospect, "Dickens, Melville, and A Tale of Two Countries," by Robert Weisbuch, with which the Cambridge volume concludes, starts off with a rather strained comparison between Bleak House and "Bartleby the Scrivener" and proceeds to hurtle us at breakneck pace through a half-century Anglo-American cultural war. This essay is stimulating, but needs more room to breathe.

Pieces in the Baker-Womack collection on Sociological Contexts (M. Claire Loughlin-Chow), Victorian Gothic (Peter J. Kitson), the Social Problem Novel (James G. Nelson), and the Sensation Novel (Helen Debenham) can be characterized as serviceable retreads over familiar ground. Some of the more ambitious seem to me to promise more than they deliver. Julian Wolfreys, in "The Nineteenth-Century Political Novel," usefully distinguishes definitions of "political," but in trying to pack too much into a limited space gets bogged down in abstraction and jargon. Martin Bidney brings the breadth of the comparatist to "Philosophy and the Literary Aesthetic," showing the impact of the continent on novelists from Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot to George Moore and Arnold Bennett. However, the influences he adduces are literary, rather than philosophical. (Missing: that most ardent of Francophiles, Thackeray.) Michael Whitworth, in "Science and the Scientist in Victorian Fiction," proposes to explore the impact of evolution and thermodynamics, but confines himself to Great Expectations and Middlemarch, forced in the first instance, more valid in the second. But, he ignores the research scientist closest to George Eliot, George Henry Lewes. Towering above all the Cultural Context essays is "Law and the Victorian Novel," by the appropriately named Elizabeth F. Judge of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa--the only contributor outside the field of literature. Her insider view of legal history and jurisprudence casts fresh light on trial scenes in novels of Dickens, George Eliot, and Trollope among others, which she views as "pedagogical devices to teach readers about human fallibility" (132).

The essays on individual novels and novelists represent a true variety of attempt. The veteran Dickensian Kenneth Fielding alone tersely epitomizes his author in a way suitable to the Oxford Companion to Dickens. Fielding concludes surprisingly that there is still something to be learned about this novelist who has already garnered the lion's share of critical attention. The lioness's share here goes to George Eliot, subject of a number of micro-critical pieces which at times, perhaps inevitably, repeat one another. Nancy Henry's essay on critical responses to Daniel Deronda gives undue space to the question of whether or not the hero has been circumcised. For the eminent Thackerayan Juliet McMaster, Vanity Fair becomes a paradigm of his snobbology. K. M. Newton draws on Barchester Towers to probe into Trollope' s narratology, subtler than he is usually given credit for. Among more holistic essays, the late Barbara Quinn Schmidt provides a workmanlike account of Elizabeth Gaskell's varied output. Edward Neill's hermetically written "Thomas Hardy" leaves this earthiest of writers stranded somewhere in the stratosphere. On the other hand, Margaret Harris's "George Meredith at the Crossways" manages to make this alternately brilliant and exasperating buzzfly of a novelist appealing and accessible. The best written and most original of the three concluding essays on Contemporary Critical Approaches is Eileen Gillooly's "Feminist Criticism and the Nineteenth-Century Novel," centering on Margaret Oliphant, Anna Jameson, and Julia Kavanagh. Versatile though she was, the ten-page entry on opium credited to Oliphant in the index is an editorial slip. Disappointingly, considering her rising stature over the past three decades, Oliphant is accorded no space as a novelist on these pages.

One sign of the burgeoning of the field is that there is no more than a ten percent duplication of titles in the two concluding bibliographies. I have noted a paucity of titles before 1970, suggesting a tendency to look to the latest books, or those closest at hand, rather than engage in a literature search. There seems to have been no coordination between these bibliographies and the shorter lists appended to articles. Two glaring examples: David Cecil's Early Victorian Novelists, singled out by K. M. Newton as "still a useful and challenging book," and Kathleen Tillotson's Novels of the Eighteen-Forties, referred to by James Nelson as "celebrated," are not listed in either of the long bibliographies. Richard Altick's The English Common Reader, only incidentally concerned with fiction, is among the few titles recommended by both books, but neither lists his The Presence of the Present, which thoroughly documents the topicality of the Victorian novel dealt with in essays in both books. Robert Lee Wolff's Gains and Losses: Novels of Faith and Doubt in Victorian England is listed in both bibliographies without so much as a hint that this title was intended to introduce a series of reprints of religious novels by Garland, and that these novels, in turn, came out of his vast collection that has been cataloged and is now housed at the University of Texas at Austin. This is one of several repositories of fiction ignored by the editors.

With all their shortcomings--conceptual, bibliographical--these potpourris make for diverting reading, though the editors do not make clear who is their intended audience. The sophistication of much of the writing indicates specialist addressing specialists. The paperback issue of Cambridge suggests an attempt to reach students. The price of Greenwood, making no such concession, is likely to confine their book to large university and research libraries.

ROBERT A. COLBY, Emeritus, Queens College, CUNY
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Author:Colby, Robert A.
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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