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Book Review: The Nineteenth-Century Novel

The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol. 3: The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880

Edited by John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor

Oxford University Press, 2012

The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880 is the third volume in Oxford University Press’ ongoing “History of the Novel in English,” but it doesn’t take much time reading among this book’s three dozen essays before one paramount impression forms: in terms of the modern novel as we all understand it in the 21st Century, this anthology, edited by John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor, is really an origin story. The earlier two books may have dealt with the birth and torturous growth of long prose narratives in the English-speaking world, but virtually every aspect of the modern-day novel and publishing world was born during the period covered by this third volume. Here we find an explosion toward something approaching mass literacy (and, not incidentally, the explosion in cheap railway service to bring that literacy to market – and to bring the market to it); here we find novel serializations suddenly making stars out of previously unknown authors; here we find mass-marketing and wily publicity first becoming not only systematized but dominant in the world of letters; here we find mainstream fiction splitting and re-combining into one sub-genre after another (almost all of which chased ephemeral market success); here we find the ancillary (parasitical?) book-review industry blossoming into an even more enormous force than it had been in the 18th Century. Here we find new technologies such as high-speed presses and stereo-typing changing the ways books were made. And perhaps most of all, here we find the novel itself taking its first large steps away from the hortatory excesses of the previous century and toward the market-driven, market-shaped, and market-tested reality that’s obtained ever since.

Our editors anticipate some raised eyebrows at the date they’ve chosen for the start of their survey, but it’s wise: it’s based not on unthinking chronology but rather on the “tectonic shift” in the industry that happened in the wake of an earthquake named Walter Scott, whose “Waverley” novels invented the sub-genre of historical fiction and whose 1821 novel Kenilworth “set the standard for format and pricing of the three-volume novel that was to remain constant until the fin de siecle.” The run of that triple-decker format – the territory of this book – covers the age of Dickens and Trollope, of Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins and the inimitable (or is it imitable?) Edward Bulwer Lytton, of Margaret Oliphant and Mary Braddon and  W.H. Ainsworth and Charlotte Yonge and Charles Reade. This is heyday of the age’s two greatest writers, William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot.

It’s an age to rank with Elizabethan England and Periclean Athens, and despite the fact that Oxford University Press, the blinkered, hapless darlings, devotes absolutely no energy to publicizing this series (the volumes just sort of show up, with no fanfare and – the modern era’s real scarlet letter of shame – no online customer reviews), The Nineteenth Century Novel 1820-1880 is as intelligent, passionate, wide-ranging, and yes, boisterous a composite portrait of that great Victorian era as anything that’s been published in fifty years. The volume is expensive, yes, and since your local Books & Brew is mainly concerned with Fifty Shades of Smut, you’ll have to order it in – but any reader interested in the lively history of books should make the effort. This much fun should not be left solely in the possession of boring old academic Victorianists.

True, there are hazards to navigate. Both our editors and every last man-jack among their contributors are professors of one ilk or another, after all, so a certain amount of quagmire academy-speak is to be expected. Fortunately, our editors have been vigilant (and their contributors largely inspired): there are remarkably few quagmires here. Readers of a certain age and dyspeptic disposition might grumble at the apparently-mandatory presence of essays on such topics as “gender identities,” but the editors confound such readers in the only way guaranteed to work: with the sheer quality of the essays in question (in this particular instance, a look at “Gender Identities and Relationships” by Cora Kaplan that’s nothing short of astonishing in its breadth and insight).

Considering the balkanized state of much literary studies today, it’s a marvel Kucich and Taylor managed to commission so many superb general-interest essays. Great broad swaths of material are handled with adroit readability in these 500-something pages. Every major influencing factor on the fiction of the day – religion, nationalism, science, realism, especially commercialism – is given loving attention, and every reader of this volume (all three of us) will have favorite items in what is an extremely impressive roster. Lauren Goodlad’s essay on “Parliament and the State” of course gives very enjoyable heaps of attention to the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope, including this neat little aside:

At the close of The Duke’s Children, Palliser agrees to return to government in a largely symbolic role: it is as though the Duke, who enters the series as a ‘laborious man’ notable for his ‘industry’ (Can You Forgive Her? ch. 24), has become part of what Bagehot called the ‘decorous’ parts of the English constitution, like Britain’s monarchs, or the spire of a cathedral.

In a delightfully bookish move, the volume gives us a separate full essay on each of the eras main novel-fads – the ‘silver fork’ novel, the ‘Newgate novel,’ the domestic novel, and of course the historical novel. The best of these is perhaps Nancy Armstrong’s piece on the ‘sensation’ novel, complete with some surprising inclusions:

By perversely implanting predatory impulses where there was supposed to be tolerance if not affection, the sensation novel dealt a fatal blow to fiction that maintained the home as a little world apart from the cruelties and hardships of the world outside. By the 1860s, the domestic novel had become obsolete, and novelists who wanted to be successful had to write in relation to the sensation novel.

George Eliot was no exception. Remove the historical perspective that brings order if not purpose to the destruction of Dorlcote Mill and the Tulliver family, and it is easy to read The Mill on the Floss (1860) as a sensation novel.

Elaine Freedgood’s essay on “The Novel and Empire” is extremely thought-provoking (the full ramifications of her line “The massive transfer of bodies and goods between England and empire meant that England not only colonized places around the world, but that it was itself imperialized” had not previously occurred to me, for instance, Byron fanatic though I am), and John Bowen’s case-study “The Brontes and the Transformation of Romanticism” takes a much-traversed subject and makes it fresh again. And our editors account well for themselves: Kucich’s “Theatricality and the Novel” is bursting with offhand insights, and Taylor’s “Short Fiction and the Novel” stands with Rachel Ablow’s fascinating “Addressing the Reader: The Autobiographical Voice” as the two best pieces in the collection.

This was a period of superabundance: after Scott’s Waverley appeared in 1814, at least two novels were published every week throughout the remainder of the century. As is pointed out here, “Wonder and bewilderment at the sheer size or the fiction industry are among the more common notes in the repertoire of the Victorian critic.” One of the most enjoyable threads running throughout The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880 is the attention it gives to those Victorian critics and the booming critical industry they inhabited. Entrepreneurs – of however muddy a pedigree! – are also given their time in the spotlight, which is only fair, considering how much of these literary world was their own creation. Refreshing amounts of attention is given to figures like Henry Colburn, originating force behind such periodicals as the New Monthly Magazine, the Literary Gazette, and the Athenaeum. Colburn was “viewed by his peers in the book trade as an unscrupulous scoundrel,” but is “now recognized as a central figure in the history of publicity” – he paid dinner guests to talk up his books, withheld author names to increase the buzz of speculation, launched Bulwer Lytton’s novel-writing career (and Disraeli’s), spent liberally on authors, and helped to establish the dominance in the market of the fabled Victorian ‘triple-decker,’ and yet in most standard accounts of the time, he barely rates a footnote. This volume’s ecumenical approach never fails to please.

There’s a sadness that lingers over the whole enterprise as well – although our editors exercise some fairly rigid control over their own sentimentality, it’s pretty clear they view the close of their chosen period as the end of a golden age. In their general Introduction, they write beguilingly about the ‘sense of accountability’ that mid-century novelists felt toward a reading public that was still largely one body. Kucich and Taylor write, “Although the division between ‘light’ and ‘serious fiction begins to emerge by the 1860s, mass literacy had advanced to such a degree by the 1880s that it created a rising pressure among both readers and writers to differentiate sophisticated from ‘vulgar’ novels.”

In other words, as some of us have been crying in the wilderness for years (although our editors are too polite to say it themselves), Henry James ruined everything.

But before ‘the Master’ trundled along with his ‘sacred calling’ twaddle, readers got Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and The Way We Live Now and Middlemarch and dozens of other ripping good stories, and they and hundreds more are treated with endless affection and intellectual scrutiny and aesthetic shifting in this bookwormy-magnificent volume. So again the urging, doubled because of the obstinate obscurity of the series itself: rationalize to yourself, traduce your monthly budget, get your accountant drunk, but buy this book. It contains treasures.