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Realism, Representation, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature.

Realism, Representation, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature.
By Alison Byerly. (Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature
and Culture, 12) Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University
Press. 1998. x + 231 pp. [pound]34;$59.95.


This is a splendid book. It is about the relationship between realism and artifice in the Victorian novel and about the way in which the novel, though it avoided the romantic and the fantastic elements of narrative, so often incorporated references, allusions, and even the physical presence of art objects into its structure.

The range of Alison Byerly's investigation covers the work of Charlotte Bronte, William Thackeray, George Elliot, and Thomas Hardy all of whose books are replete with explicit references to art objects or dramatic performances. Portraits, caricatures, charades, and musical recitals abound in their texts, as do metaphors which parallel the author's mode of representation with that of the visual or musical artist. The central paradox, as Byerly points out, is that these reminders of the disjunction between art and life seem on the face of it to undermine the status of the realist text. The introduction provides a succinct, intelligent review of the theoretical status of realism in literature, and the fact that it is usually defined by what it is not rather than what it is. This is reflected not only in current discussions of the term, but also in the spontaneous phraseology adopted by nineteenth-century writers such as G. H. Lewes who described realism as the antithesis to 'Falsism' and Thomas Hardy who distinguished it from 'copyism'.

Byerly goes on to show how in the earlier part of the period, in the work of Thackeray and Charlotte Bronte, there is a puritan distrust of artifice. The very name of Becky Sharp is synonymous with deceit, and the scene of Lucy Snow in the art gallery of Villette is one of the most memorable in the book. Byerly points out how many of George Eliot's characters offer themselves as though they were art objects often to disguise flaws in their character because for Eliot, theatre and painting are linked with delusion, whereas she viewed music as a true expression of spiritual integrity. Further into the century, Hardy's novels are filled with characters who are framed, silhouetted, and composed into groups while the narrator persistently 'outlines' their features, or 'draws' their body shapes.

Hardy's is the most curious and interesting case in this respect. Byerly points out that the most self-conscious and artificial heroines are rarely perceived in terms of art works, while the most unaffected characters, Elizabeth Jane, Marty, Sue, and Tess, are rendered in aesthetic terms drawn from the visual arts. It would seem that the parallels Hardy sets up between his characters and works of art or the perception in language of landscape through painting is a strengthening device. Byerly suggests that this technique is an important part of Hardy's realism (p. 152); I maintain that it is a deliberate anti-naturalist procedure which singles out certain important elements from the undifferentiated continuum of 'reality' and heightens their significance or intensifies their meaning. It is 'anti-naturalist' in the same way that Hardy's manipulation of his narrative sequence, or his use of unlikely or 'unreal' coincidence is anti-naturalistic. But I would not wish to quibble about this. Even if one would not agree with all her conclusions, Byerly's text is suggestive, rich, and thoughtful. Her argument is elegant and well-sustained throughout, and the book as a whole makes a significant contribution to the growing body of excellent interdisciplinary scholarship on nineteenth-century culture.
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Author:Bullen, J. B.
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:591
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