Nineteenth-Century Prose

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Vol 43.1 (Spring 2016)

Special Issue on Victorian Critics; guest edited by Laurence W. Mazzeno

D. Michael Kramp, “To Think Anew: Arnold, the Literary, and Social Justice” (11-28)

Contemporary attempts to assess the role of literary studies in the academic curriculum, especially ones aimed at linking academic study to efforts at achieving social justice, have an ally in Matthew Arnold. Although often branded a conservative, Arnold reveals in his essays a liberal view of democratic society and literature’s role in promoting solutions to social problems. Seeing the challenges as well as the benefits of the democracy emerging as the dominant form of government and society in the West, Arnold advocates caution in tackling issues, however, recommending patient study of social issues prior to engaging in reform. He views culture not as an élite, detached experience, but as an ongoing process that adapts and responds to changing social conditions. Literature can help us interact and respond to our experiences and assist us in developing new kinds of relationships. Similarly criticism, while not directly useful in resolving injustices and inequalities, can help us see challenges clearly and urge us to resist the temptation for immediate reactions. Careful study of literature has the potential to aid the work of social reformers who think freely and creatively.

Anthony Kearney, “John Churton Collins: The Critic as Pundit and Controversialist” (29-48)

Up to the 1980s John Churton Collins was mainly remembered for his quarrels with various late-Victorian literary celebrities – Tennyson, Swinburne, Symonds, and Gosse among them. This notoriety inevitably obscured his achievements as a critic, teacher, and campaigner for English studies in the universities. Though recently there have been efforts to view his career more objectively, his precise position in the literary and educational worlds of the time together with the ideas and values which inspired him still need further attention. In the present article a closer look is taken at his literary and pedagogic ideas in relation to figures such as Swinburne and Matthew Arnold who were important to the development of his thinking. Despite his reputation as a sort of Jack the Ripper of the literary journals, Collins deserves recognition today for leading the movement to have English literature taken more seriously, both in the universities and in national education as a whole, and for his constant battle for literary criticism backed by scholarship and the concern to inform and enlighten.

Michael J. Flynn, “E.S. Dallas, Mid-Victorian Individualism, and the Form of the Book Review” (49-64) 

Recent scholarship on Victorian reviewing has foregrounded the importance of E.S. Dallas and others, and provides a useful context for addressing Dallas’s work. Unlike a majority of reviewers who viewed their task as representing the work being reviewed in miniature, Dallas adopted a more critical stance, using the content and form of his reviews to engage in the public discussion of individualism that reached its peak in the 1860s. His reviews provide both literary advice on structure and proportion in texts, and ethical advice about how individuals should relate to the social whole that surrounds them. Dallas’s review of the biography of General Sir Charles James Napier, and several of his reviews of contemporary novels, reveal the principles he employs in critiquing works of different genres: where the former gives readers a sense of the individual subject whose life is being profiled, the latter evaluate the success of novels in depicting a well-proportioned social whole.

Tamara S. Wagner,George Eliot and the ‘Silly Novels’” (65-80)

Mary Ann Evans had been a renowned critic before she began writing fiction under the pseudonym George Eliot. Her articles for theWestminster Reviewincluded extensive reviews of popular novels of the time, which she used as a springboard to delve into aesthetic principles and cultural responses to literature.“Silly Novels by Lady-Novelists” (1856) was to become one of the most-often cited contemporary analyses of nineteenth-century women’s writing. While Evans was to define her own works of fiction against the trends she identified and condemned, her article not only provided a good overview of current literary developments, but also contributed significantly to the critical discussion of popular culture at a time when the social role and the aesthetic functions of both literature and of literary criticism were under debate. This essay critically reassesses the literary as well as larger cultural significance of Evans’ “Silly Novels,” situating it firmly amidst her oeuvreas a critic and revaluating its changing interpretation and influence.

Kathy Rees, “Edmund Gosse Entertains: Gossip in a Library(1891)” (81-100) 

The appearance of Edmund Gosse’s From Shakespeare to Popein 1885 led quickly to its author’s vilification as a shoddy scholar, to the point where his name became synonymous for misrepresentation of sources. The strategy Gosse followed to redeem his reputation was to publish a series of articles in the New York Independentwhich were collected in Gossip in a Library(1891). Focusing on Gossip in a Library, this essay discusses the reception and context of Gosse’s criticism, revealing recurrent themes and stylistic traits in these essays, considering their impact on subsequent criticism, and evaluating their impact on Gosse’s subsequent reputation. Proceeding from the fiction that Gosse is sharing thoughts on books in his private library, Gossipcovers a range of topics and genres. In the essays Gosse manages to launch thinly veiled attacks on John Churton Collins, who had been particularly critical of From Shakespeare to Pope, and to discuss a number of minor figures whose work interested him. The positive reception of Gossipspurred Gosse to publish twelve more collections, rehabilitating his reputation to the point that, at his death, he was considered a leading literary figure among the Victorians.

Joanne Wilkes, “Elizabeth Julia Hasell and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” (101-114)

While the work of a number of women who contributed to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazinehas received critical attention, that of Elizabeth Julia Hasell has not. Yet Hasell was a frequent contributor from 1859 until 1888. The explanation for this neglect lies in the publisher’s policy of maintaining anonymity of contributors, a policy that worked both for and against Hasell and other women contributors: anonymity allowed her to write on topics normally thought to be the purview of men, but it also seemed to impact her relationship with publisher John Blackwood and his nephew William. Hasell’s unpublished letters to the Blackwoods reveal some of the frustrations she experienced in getting her work accepted (and even getting timely responses to her submissions) and illustrate some of the restrictions placed on her submissions. The letters also reveal the strategies Hasell employed to prompt responses from the Blackwoods and gain their approval to write on a wide range of topics, allowing her to make use of her erudition and talent to influence public opinion through her writing.

Jonathan Farina, “Allusive Tactics: R.H. Horne, Induction, and ‘Desultory Criticism’” (115-134)

While twentieth- and twenty-first century scholars have found only limited merit in R.H. Horne’s critical works, a substantial portion surpassed mere summary and evaluation that characterized much of Victorian critical practice. Horne’s work contains an occluded repertoire of critical tactics and a now outmoded but once conventional epistemology. Horne’s criticism was exceptional, then, not for originality or innovation, but for extraordinary representativeness. His New Spirit of the Agemarshals the whole catalogue of tropes animating literary criticism in the 1840s. Here and there Horne invokes organic wholeness, aesthetic autonomy, and other figures of depth, but his principal tactics are paradox, especially the idiomatic articulation of “particulars” and “generals” that evoked the aura of induction, and a threefold notion of tact: attention to the physiological feel or impression of a text, investment in a writer’s moral delicacy or decorum, and persistent tangential allusion, habitually “touching upon” without fully elaborating, various topics “suggested” by a text under consideration. Where modern critics produce arguments, Horne and his peers produced tactful, allusive, and “suggestive” descriptions.

Richard D. Fulton, “Richard Holt Hutton, a Retrospective” (135-150)

In the second half of the nineteenth century Richard Holt Hutton was widely regarded as one of the best minds and one of the most accomplished essayists of his generation. He wrote thousands of short articles while co-editing the Spectatorfor almost forty years, examining such diverse topics as non-conformist theology, parliamentary practices, Irish home rule, zoology, theater, literary criticism, and cultural concerns of the day. Although he has been ignored for the last several decades, and was in fact rarely referred to for much of the twentieth century (except, perhaps, as a sterling example of the shortcomings of much of Victorian prose), his arguments about the responsibilities of the literary critic and the nature of literary criticism make him an important source for understanding Victorian critical arguments. His opinions of the great voices of the Victorian period – Tennyson, Browning, Eliot, Hardy, Mrs. Oliphant and others – communicate to us over a century since the nature of their contemporary reception. Additionally, his essays on the ephemera of his time deepen and enrich our understanding of the Victorians and their world, making him a resource that should be embraced by any serious Victorian scholar.

Lewis C. Roberts, “The Critical Response to Children’s Books in Geraldine Jewsbury’s Athenaeum Reviews” (151-170) 

Although Geraldine Jewsbury was known to her contemporaries as a writer of fiction, essays, and children’s books, her work as a reader for publisher Richard Bentley and her anonymous reviews for the Athenaeumhad significant impact on mid-Victorian book production, distribution, and consumption. One area of her influence often overlooked by critics is her work as a reviewer of children’s books for the Athenaeum. Jewsbury’s comments on children’s readings provide great insight into the books Victorian parents were buying for and reading to their children, and the values and expectations Victorians had for children’s books. Beginning in the 1860s, when children’s books began to appear in great number, Jewsbury became a prolific critic of the genre, helping to police, maintain, and advance notions of literary quality, morality, education, and cultural expectations about childhood and children’s literature. Often modeling the response she believed readers would experience, Jewsbury promoted the work of writers such as George MacDonald and Louisa May Alcott, whose books focused on adult/child relationships. Jewsbury recognized that children’s books also appealed to adult readers, whose nostalgic reaction to them reveals a manifestation of desire to revisit a childhood place of innocence and purity.

Julia McCord Chavez, “Julia Kavanagh, English Women of Letters, and Public Opinion” (171-192)

Using a trope from Julia Kavanagh’s writing, the public examination or trial, this essay examines the Irish writer’s evaluation of the literary qualities of women writers profiled in English Women of Letters. The conceptual alignment between public examination and literary evaluation underlies Kavanagh’s protofeminist approach to judging the work of Victorian women writers who were held to a double critical standard: they were expected to demonstrate qualities normally associated with women (refinement, sentiment, and high moral tone) but not to demonstrate ones associated with men, such as intelligence or power. Despite her conventional appeals to authority and acceptance of moral judgments and feminine norms, Kavanagh – the first to use the term “women of letters” – manages to claim for the writers she profiles a place in the literary hierarchy.

Kristin Mahoney, “Ethics and Empathy in the Literary Criticism of Vernon Lee” (193-210)

Although Vernon Lee’s literary theories and critical methodologies altered radically over the course of her career, her interest in relationality and contact with otherness remained a constant. From the beginning her critical work is a compound of aesthetics and ethics; for Lee, ethical feeling is intimately bound up with the experience of empathy. A transitional figure between the moral criticism of the Victorians and the formalist criticism of early twentieth-century practitioners, Lee moved between and integrated aestheticism, moralism, and formalism into her own criticism, bringing to each of these methodologies a concern with relationality and ethics and a belief in the ennobling effects of reading. An analysis of Lee’s assessment of the beauty, morality, and form of the literary experience reveals that her underlying concern remained a belief in the ethical relevance of that experience. And even though, early and late in her career, Lee was drawn to critical practices that seem to bracket ethics, her criticism demonstrates the malleability of critical methodologies, exhibiting a capacity to open into concern for and engagement with alterity.

Alexandra Lawrie, “David Masson, Pedagogical Reform, and the Victorian Novel” (211-226)

David Masson, best remembered by subsequent generations for his work on Milton, was a pioneer on two fronts in the advancement of letters in Victorian England. Masson’s reviews and his influential book British Novelists and their Styleslent gravitas to the novel as an art form. Masson’s survey of the English novel lays heavy stress on the relationship between authors’ biographies and their fiction, and privileges summary and appreciation over evaluation; in it Masson offers advice to novelists wishing to write works that will be of lasting value. While these approaches may be conventional, British Novelistsis notable for its serious attention to the works of contemporary authors. Masson carried that progressive approach into his teaching at University College, London, and at the University of Edinburgh, where his courses included analysis of contemporary fiction. That progressive spirit is also evident in Masson’s championing higher education for women; he was the first to offer an undergraduate course on literature exclusively for women, and its popularity – and the high marks women received on course examinations – were influential in convincing the University to admit women in later years.

Marco de Waard, “‘The Morality of Style’: John Morley as Essayistic Liberal” (227-244)

This essay explores John Morley’s understanding of “the morality of style,” a key evaluative tool that he employed throughout his career as a critic of politics and culture. Morley demonstrated a commitment to liberalism, which to him meant an acknowledgment of the importance of pursuing political agendas within a cultural context that prized sympathy, aesthetic education, and historical understanding. Morley believed the critic’s task was to focus on writers representative or typical of their age. An extensive analysis of his essay on Thomas Babington Macaulay demonstrates how Morley put his ideas into practice: the essay emphasizes the profoundly formative effect of a writer’s style on readers’ minds, and reveals Morley’s links to the late-Romantic lineage from which he draws his critical principles. Morley’s “essayist liberalism” shows the extent of his investment in normative models of political individuation and his efforts to balance this ideology with a commitment to pluralism and an open-ended view of historical process, grounded in practices of imaginative understanding and a culture of self-perfection.

Cheryl Wilson, “Margaret Oliphant Becomes a Heroine: Tracing a Literary Tradition” (245-262)

Throughout her career as a novelist and critic, Margaret Oliphant showed great interest in the emergence of a female literary tradition, and particularly the creation of the heroine. In her criticism she identifies Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot as innovators. Her commentary on these writers, scattered across several of her essays and reviews, reveals her admiration for the way these women advanced the female literary tradition. Oliphant’s critique of sensation fiction, the subject of much subsequent commentary, is actually directed not at the genre itself but at the focus on physical passion. Oliphant feared that readers, especially younger readers, might be negatively influenced by this skewed portrait of femininity. That same fear motivates her harsh assessment of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. While Oliphant the critic was establishing principles by which to judge women’s fiction, Oliphant the novelist was working to secure her own place in the tradition, crafting novels that are in some ways models for and critiques of the tradition in which she hopes to find a place.

Sara Atwood, “‘Do you, good reader, know good style when you get it?’: Learning to read with Ruskin” (263-282)

The thirty-nine volumes of Ruskin’sCollected Workscomprise a significant body of literary commentary, covering a wide range of writing, from the classical to the contemporary, and reflecting a lifetime of deep engagement with literature. His discussion of the nature and role of imagination; his explanation of the Pathetic Fallacy; his analysis of changing attitudes to the natural world and their expression in art and literature; his consideration of “The Nature of Greatness of Style” and the “two orders of poets”; his description of contemporary fiction as literature “of the prison house”; his explorations of the function of taste; and his examination of the work of numerous writers, are examples of Ruskin’s thoughtful attention to the craft and function of literature. A full study of Ruskin’s remarks about literature could easily fill a volume (or volumes) of its own; his wide-ranging ideas, on literature as on other subjects, resist narrow classification or definition. This essay explores the conceptual framework that shapes and supports Ruskin’s critical method, examining where his approach is most successful.

Barbara Leckie, “‘A New Departure in Biography’: Samuel Smiles’ Writing” (283-300)

Samuel Smiles has been credited with creating a new style of biography in Self-Helpand subsequent works. Captivated by the rhythm and pulse of everyday life, Smiles focuses on the lives of people who contributed to Britain’s rise as an industrial power. His stylistic innovations are linked not only to his focus on everyday workers but also on the readership he sought to cultivate. Viewing biography as an exemplary genre – one that could teach life lessons and serve as inspiration – Smiles downplays moments of crisis and qualities of genius, instead highlighting his subjects’ perseverance, diligence, application, and attention; he also stresses the importance of collaboration in the advancement of useful knowledge. The examples of Smiles’ new approach to biography are evident in Self-Help, notably in his repeated references to inventor James Watt. The anecdotal, fragmented, and repetitive approach Smiles employs, often cited as a weakness in his work, is actually a calculated strategy designed to appeal to modern readers who wish to capitalize on their few free moments to improve their lives and contribute to the productivity of the nation. The structure of Self-Helpresembles the railroad industry, which he admired: the vast railway network finds its narrative parallel in a book of unbounded, intense, and disruptive energy.

Gillian Fenwick, “The Enigma of Leslie Stephen’s Reputation” (301-320)

Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) is remembered as the most eminent late-Victorian man of English letters, father of Virginia Woolf, forerunner of the Bloomsbury group, and, most notably, founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Yet his work at the Dictionary occupied only seven years of his life, was stressful to him both physically and mentally, and all but killed him. He was unsuited to the work and detested it, yet it made his reputation. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, and obtaining the silent backing of one element of Victorian private enterprise made Stephen the man remembered more than a century later. The moment of the DNBwas the high point of Victorian nationalism, and Stephen was fortunate to be associated with it. The long view is that his DNBeditorship was an enormous success: day-to-day detail tells a different story.

Nicole Fluhr, “Swinburne: Criticism as Perversion” (321-338)

Although influential and provocative in his own time, Swinburne has not been accorded critical acclaim. One reason is the daunting scope of his work; another is the resistance his work shows to easy classification. One way to appreciate his achievement as a critic is to approach it through the concept of “perversity,” a term that in Freudian psychology implies deviation from a sexual norm. Because the term implies a form of pleasure that it heterogeneous, dispersed, and non-(re)productive, it is an apt way to approach Swinburne’s literary output. Swinburne’s perversity led him to blur genre lines, writing poetically in essays and using poems as a form of literary critique. These points are illustrated in an extended analysis of his poem “Anactoria” and the commentary he composed as a defense, published in his Notes on Poems and Reviews: the perverse physical and emotional landscape of the poem is defended in the Noteson the grounds that it is eminently normal. The “perverse aesthetic” of Swinburne’s criticism foregrounds the nonutilitarian qualities of art that he promoted most famously in his pronouncement of the doctrine of “art for art’s sake.”

Odin Dekkers, “John Addington Symonds and the Science of Criticism” (339-356) 

Among late-nineteenth-century critics, John Addington Symonds was both one of the most outspoken and most unlikely advocates of a scientific approach to literary criticism. This article examines the ambiguities in Symonds’ advocacy of scientific literary criticism, starting from the question of how far he appears to have held a genuine belief in science as a way to solve certain problems criticism was struggling with at the time. One such widely debated problem was the question whether literary judgment could – and should – be based on objective criteria or whether it should be left to individual aesthetic preference. Symonds’ fascination for and unbounded faith in evolutionary thought ostensibly led him to propound a scientific approach along evolutionary lines that tended toward the exclusion of subjective judgment. However, as this article demonstrates, while on the one hand embracing objective science, Symonds on the other sought ways to reconcile science with individual human experience. This ultimately led him to the paradoxical conclusion that criticism could only ever hope to be placed on a scientific footing through an awareness of the imperfections of science as a critical instrument.

John Kijinski, “H.D. Traill: Championing the Man of Letters” (357-370)

Although H.D. Traill is now considered a minor figure among Victorian writers, he deserves to be remembered because his views on literature, culture, and the responsibilities of the literary critic epitomize the most respectable strain of professional literary life in late-Victorian London. Furthermore, he was much less quirky and complex than some of his more accomplished colleagues, such as Andrew Lang, Edmund Gosse, and George Saintsbury, all of whom admired Traill. As a journalist, leader writer, literary critic, imaginative writer, and editor, he presents an argument for the utilitarian function of the professional man of letters who serves to guide middle-class readers in a time of cultural uncertainty. 

Beth Sutton-Ramspeck, “Mary Augusta Ward on ‘The Peasant in Literature’” (371-384)

Mary Augusta Ward, author of the acclaimed novel Robert Elsmere, was also a critic of some note and influence. In the later years of her career she focused her critical faculties on the figure of the peasant in literature, although she published little on this topic – notable exceptions being comments in her prefaces to the seven-volume Life and Works of the Sisters Brontëand a headnote on Irish writer Emily Lawless inThe English Poets, a multivolume work edited by her husband, T.H. Ward and containing her uncle Matthew Arnold’s introductory essay, “The Study of Poetry.” Ward was influenced by Arnold in her own critical endeavors, but she shows on several occasions a willingness to challenge some of the principles of Arnold’s critical theory. Unpublished materials in the Honnold Library at the Claremont Colleges indicate that Ward believed the best literature dealing with peasant life presented a realistic portrait of the hardships these men and women endured. Hence, Ward has mixed feelings about the genre of pastoral, and finds in the work of the Brontës and Thomas Hardy more compelling portraits because these novelists are able to describe the inextricable links between the people and the countryside. Ward was also influenced by Walter Pater, and at times displays a willingness to let impression guide her judgment of literary value. But she is careful to link these feelings with her pity and anger for people subjected to such harsh living conditions.

Sondeep Kandola, “Rereading Oscar Wilde’s Intentionsfor ‘The Importance of Doing Nothing’” (385-402)

Although Oscar Wilde’s criticism has received little attention, a close reading of the essays in Intentionsreveals that these seemingly languid and playful critical writings is a serious defense of the importance of critical thinking and its power to develop not only the individual but also national life; they also expose Wilde’s sense of the importance of the act of criticism for reshaping global politics along more equitable lines. The essays in Intentions repudiate an instrumental mode of criticism, instead championing the critical act as a defense against all forms of social coercion. Hence it may be possible to employWilde’s Intentions, with its utopian vision of critical thinking, rejection of social coercion, and formal strategies to evade the censoring effect of consensus, to construct a reinvigorated defense of the Humanities today.

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