Victorian Studies by George Levine

One common characteristic feature of all the approaches, from interdisciplinary and historical to new historicism, is writing against the grain which means writing against the apparently explicit intentions or messages of the text. It also means the writing that inverts or resists dominant traditional reading of the text. So, the criticism of Victorian literature is basically oppositional in nature or it is produced as “writing against the grain”.

George Levine, the writer of the essay, believes that “one of the greatest ironies that has governed the Victorian criticism is that the approaches that gather the most powerful institutional endorsement are the ones most explicitly contestatory”.

Deconstructive reading inverts the dominant traditional reading of texts. These Deconstructionist critics basically try to show an irreducible tension in ostensibly organic novels. Hillis Miller’s Middlemarch turns an organicist, aspiringly moral and unifying novel into an aporetic one. Similarly, D.A. Miller finds irresolvable tension in normally coherent texts. His Narrative and Discontents puts forward a more explicitly deconstructionist argument. He produces remarkable and important readings of several novelists (including George Eliot) to demonstrate a tension intrinsic to traditional narrative form between the narratable and the closure.

D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police epitomizes the dominant tendencies of a quarter century criticism. It is an important and original application of Foucauldian theory to Victorian fiction. In this book, Miller writes against the grain in the sense of denying the apparent commitments of the work he studies, demonstrating in a Foucauldian manner that novels literally affirm the power of independent action but in the very language of their culture that controls their freedom. He shows how the writers unknowingly assert the dominance of social forms over individual acts and intentions. Miller argues that oppositional writers turn out to be complicit with the ruling ideology.

Feminist reading of Victorian literature too subverts the traditional readings of Victorian literature. Feminists challenge aesthetic criteria and the notion of a historical literary genius. They, at the same time, have also tried to revive women writers back to the mainstream. Traditional textual critics (New Critics) used to isolate literary text form historical and political situation but feminists like Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar have tried to show the role of specific social situation in the production of literary texts. Margaret Homan’s Bearing the Word is concerned with the language available to women writer and the ways in which the dominant language resisted the representation of women’s experience. Thus, such critics as Homan do not simply raise the issue of language or mere form but its political implication too. That is why there are writing against a dominant tendency of excluding political dimension from the literary text.

New historicism like feminism raises the issue of language and representation. Its most radical tendency is to blur the distinction or the boundary between literary and non-literary texts. It makes a parallel reading of history and literature to show that both of them are the product of same ideology. This means new historicists challenge the idea of autonomous boundary and unique quality of literature. Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots demonstrates the interplay between science and imaginative literature. It reads Darwin’s scientific documents as literary texts. Similarly, Rose Mary Jann’s Art and Science of Victorian History shows history as implicated in the tradition of artistic imagination. The creation of truth in history is like that of fiction. David DeLaura’s Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England tries to show intertextuality between fiction and non-fiction. It explicates how fictional and non-fictional discourses play into each other. Thus, DeLaura’s recognition of discursive relations among apparently unrelated disciplines becomes common to criticism of Victorian literature.

Interdisciplinary and historical approach also counters the merely formalist approach dominant up to late 1950s. The critics of this approach derive ideas form Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Here, the attention has shifted from canonical text to the activities of working class and political writer. The texts which, in the past, were not thought to be subject of serous studies are now studies and analyzed by bringing them back to the main-stream. Thus, they blur the distinction between “high” and “low” art. E.P. Thompson’s Making of English working Class, along with some of the writing of Eric Hobsbawn, was of enormous importance in shifting attention of literary scholars form the most obvious canonical works to the activities of writer concerned with the working class and, indeed, to working-class and political writers.

Thus, all the critical approaches are oppositional; they either question the explicit message of the text and the writer’s intention, or invert the traditional reading of Victorian novels. Ostensibly, organic novels have been turned into aporetic and presumably apolitical into political, supporting and propagating the dominant ideology of the time.

Interdisciplinary and Historical Approach

New Critical formalism was dominant in the field of literary criticism up to late 1950s. Its basic tendency was to judge a literary text on the basis of formal criteria that a good literary text was thought to possess-formal integrity or coherence. By adopting predominantly formalist approach it discounted the role of historical or social situation in the production and reception of literary text. Seen from this perspective Victorian literature, especially novels turned out to be loose and baggy monsters. Furthermore, the writings of working class people and other socially marginalized groups were totally disqualified as literature basically because of their commitment to politics and their exploration of specific problems and issues of a particular section of society. But the critics of interdisciplinary and historical approach that begin with the founding of the journal Victorian Studies in 1957 shifted their attention from canonical texts to the writings of working class people.

The writer of this essay, George Levine, opines that true and serious studies of Victorian literature began with the founding of Victorian Studies. The contributors of the journal were influenced by Raymond Williams’s idea of culture, that culture is not something universal and ahistorical rather it is specific and peculiar. All cultural artifacts, William believes, are located in particular social and political situation. So, the founders of the journal Victorian Studies try to show the peculiarity of Victorian culture and its association with the social situation of that period. A text, therefore, should not be read in isolation.

These critics shifted their attention from the consideration of individual canonical text to the activities of working class and political writers. They re-discovered working class writers and blurred the distinction between high and low arts. Even the writings of lower class politically included writer could become subjects of serious studies. This tendency can be easily seen in E.P. Thomson’s Making of the English Working Class.

The critics who belonged to this approach emphasized on interdisciplinary reading, reading of literature along with or in association with social spirit. They tried to blur the boundaries between literature and other forms of discourse. So, they studied purely literary texts by locating them in specific historical and political situation. But they did not imagine the denial of generic boundaries. This means that they did not question the autonomous generic boundary of various disciplines. They simply anticipated Foucauldian ideas of discourse, that all discourses are constructed.

In this way, these interdisciplinary critics re-drew/ remapped/reconfigured the boundary of Victorian literature by incorporating hitherto ignored and marginalized writers from the lower working class. Similarly, they challenged the ahistorical notion of literary texts.

Postmodernist or Poststructuralist or Deconstructive approach

Postmodern critics try basically to show the unstable nature of a text. Their attempt is always to show an inherent contradiction in a text. Meaning is always indeterminate. Postmodern critics of Victorian literature themselves are proto-postmodernist.

Most of the postmodern critics of Victorian fictions are narrative theorists. In the beginning, they thought Victorian literature to be merely conventional with narrative conclusiveness and interpretive closure. But when they made it a testing ground for their theories, they ironically found Victorian literature itself to be postmodernist because in their readings they discovered with in Victorian fiction the sorts of instability, discontinuity, and skepticism as in the postmodernist fictions. So, Victorian fictions are similar to postmodern fictions.

One influential example of such reading is Peter K. Garrett’s Victorian Multiplot Novel which uses Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism to define the peculiar qualities of the great Victorian novels whose looseness and bagginess have long been a trial to formalists. He locates an irreducible tension in the novels between opposing perspectives, a tension built-in to their language and form. His reading looks a lot like demonian deconstruction but it misses the way in which the particular tensions of these fictions are embedded in particular social and historical situation.

Another example is D.A. Miller’s Narrative and Its Discontents. It is written from a deconstructionist perspective. D.A. Miller tries to fine irreducible tension in ostensibly united novels. He shows a tension intrinsic to traditional narrative form between the narratable and the closure. Novels turn out to be interested in insufficiency, incompleteness, dissatisfaction, instability, and deferral but the writers impose completion or conclusiveness to the narrative. So, in the great Victorian novels the ends are at odds with the condition of the quest that is of the narratable.

Thus, the very literature that postmodernism first defined itself against turns out to be proto-postmodernist. Such criticisms have further tried to obliterate the wall between modernism and Victorianism that the modernists had constructed. This is how the modernists challenge the notion of periodicity itself.

Feminist Approach

One of the most important critical developments out of Victorianism is feminism. Feminist critics have made Victorian culture and society a ground for the development of their theories because Victorian society was highly patriarchal. Feminist criticism of Victorian literature has redrawn or remapped the field of Victorian literature by rediscovering and incorporating marginalized women writer into the mainstream.

Early feminism was less theoretically complex and more empirical. Such criticism focused on context and historical interpretation. The feminist tried to show and re-examine the representation of women in canonical text or men’s text. Their job was to dismantle the stereotypical images of women, women as emotional, passive or mysterious being. All those stereotypical images were very much restrictive to the free development of women. They re-read canonical texts to reveal the functioning of patriarchal ideology. They also shifted the attention from canonical text to the discovery and analysis of the texts of women writers by Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Gaskell. This marked the reconfiguration of the canon. Good examples of such readings are Elaine Showalter’s Literature of Their Own, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwomen in the Attic, and Nina Auerbach’s Communities of women and the Demon.

Slowly they started raising the issues of language and literary standard for aesthetic criteria. They meant to say that language and other measures used for judging literary texts are not neutral or something natural. They found that language itself was villain, that it was a barrier for the expression of women’s vision and voices. So, they became aware about the need of constructing their own language that best help them express their feelings and emotions. Literary criteria like objectivity or impersonality were the construct of the males that reduced writings of women to non-entity. So, feminism combined textualism with historicism in such a way that it was pre-occupied with social history, was alert to the material basis of aesthetic criteria and was equally aware about the extra individual pressures of ideological forces. This is how feminism towards its later phase turned to cultural studies. The interest in particular text was replaced by an interest in cultural forms and political changes. This line of development can be seen in the journal Victorian Studies under the editorship of Martha Vicinus. The volume Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age gathered essays from different disciplines like medicine, psychology, literature and politics. It basically documented the stereotypes against which the feminist struggled. It became a space to locate the assumptions from which the feminist struggle. It became a space to locate the assumptions from which first-wave feminist criticism developed. Another good example is Margaret Homan’s Bearing the World. The book analyzes the language available to women writers and the ways in which the dominant language resisted the representation of women’s experience. The project is an attempt to open the way to a representational language that can be used for feminist project. Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments truly exhibits the ideas of new historicist approach. In this book, she discusses not only literary representation of women but also how they were treated in other fields like medicine. But, she does not limit herself to the issues of gender rather she goes up across it to talk about the issues of race and class. Poovey’s method of going across generic boundaries is representative of new historicist approaches.

Thus, feminism, taken as a whole, represents the tendencies of almost all theoretical readings of Victorian literature by blending historicism with textualism.

New Historicist Approach

New historicism is a method that is based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts of the same period. It neither elevates literature at the cost of history nor the other way round. It puts literature and non-literary texts on the same ground because both of them are after all the product of the same discourse or ideology of the time. That is why; they take a literary text and non-literary text to show intertextuality or discursive relations between them.

These new historicist turn all text into discourses and obliterate the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. David DeLaura’s Hebrew and Hellen in Victorian England shows intertextuality between fiction and non-fiction. It exposes the waves of intertextuality among Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Similarly, Rosemary Jann’s Art and Science of Victorian History shows how history itself implicated in the tradition of artistic imagination. It tries to show that creation of truth in history is like that of fiction. Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots reads Darwin’s scientific and imaginative literature. Thus, this recognition of discursive relations among apparently unrelated disciplines becomes common to Victorian studies and this is the central tendency of new historicist approach.