Saturday, April 14, 2007
The Novel of Purpose: Guest Post by Paul Giles
This is a guest post by Paul Giles, author of two of the most important studies of transatlantic culture, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730-1860 and Virtual Americas: Transnational Fictions and the Transatlantic Imaginary. Giles is Professor of American Literature and Director of the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature.
I think the great virtue of Claybaugh’s book is the way that it complicates our received understanding of the 19th century Anglo-American novel. In Claybaugh’s eyes, the 19th century novel is not simply a more difficult field—something Miriam Burstein suggests in her post above to be characteristic of transatlantic studies in general—but also one whose formal properties are hybrid and overlapping. The 19th century novel oscillated not only between Britain and America but also between art and journalism, between comedy and moral reform. The theories of professional specialization which evolved in the period after the Second World War had the deleterious effect, as Scott Eric Kaufman notes in his introduction to this thread, of immobilizing the genre of the novel, of setting it apart as though it were some kind of rarefied aesthetic object. When “Middlemarch,” for example, was canonized by literary critics in the middle of the 20th century, they generally failed to observe how, in an era before professional areas such as sociology and political science had become established, George Eliot naturally saw it as her task to address a much more diffuse range of material than would subsequently come to be categorized under the narrow rubric of “literature.” The transatlantic circulation of texts adds another dimension to this model, so that, as Claybaugh notes, Martineau, Dickens and others become major players in reform movements on both sides of the Atlantic. “The Novel of Purpose,” then, is fundamentally a historicizing project, which seeks to reconstitute the modes of production and reception within which these writers were operating. In the wake of Meredith McGill’s work on reading cultures, there’s some very useful information here on booksellers and libraries—W.H. Smiths, Mudies, and so on—and the ways in these shaped the consumption of the novel in the 19th century.
Claybaugh also addresses here the ways in which reform as a general model for the novel raised difficult questions about the nature of representation. George Eliot’s own redefinition of “purposefulness as an attribute of realism itself” (121), for example, might be seen to be is at odds with the character of Will Ladislaw in “Middlemarch,” for whom “realist representations are at odds with reform” (126). Eliot thus raises doubts about the legibility of reform, the ways in which any idea of a future state might properly be described in art. This skepticism brings to mind Leo Bersani’s more radical proposition, in his book “A Future for Astyanax,” that literary realism itself is always an inherently conservative medium, since it closes down options rather than allowing for the possibility of progressive or transgressive spaces within the text. Indeed, one of the interesting questions Claybaugh’s book raises is to what extent we as readers need to take the agendas of these reformist novels on their own literal terms, or at face value. Most bien-pensant readers today would presumably not be unsympathetic to the causes addressed in these narratives—antislavery, temperance, women’s rights, a liberalization of the divorce laws—but in general these are quintessentially 19th century concerns which would tend to raise quizzical curiosity rather than activist passion in our own era.
What I’d suggest, then, is that these discourses of social reform operate as shadow narratives within these novels, just as Augustan humanism implicitly structures Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” or the ideals of courtly love inform Chaucer’s “Troilus and Crisyede.” And just as we don’t need to be devotees of courtly love in order to appreciate Chaucer’s poem, so we don’t need fully to engage with these reform agendas in order to read Twain or Hardy. In fact, it’s perhaps the contradictions in Hardy’s narratives that, on an aesthetic level, constitute some of their most interesting elements. Although “Jude the Obscure” might have been written with one eye on New Woman Fiction (194), for instance, part of Sue Bridehead’s dilemma is precisely that she’s caught psychologically between the competing claims of emancipation and social convention. In this sense, “Jude the Obscure” and “Huckleberry Finn” seem not so much novels of purpose as novels of meta-purpose, as it were, which brood reflexively upon the possibilities of reform and seek to test the more abstract theories of social betterment against the experiential conditions of 19th century life. Claybaugh’s book is alert to the multiple ambiguities and ontological limitations associated with the idea of reform in this era, and some of her most interesting observations in this book relate to those points in Victorian novels where reform agendas fail, where the realist logic of representation comes into conflict with something that can’t be encompassed within its benevolent orbit.
A hypothesis, then: “Reform is to Realistic Fiction as Utopia is to Science Fiction.”