Barnaby Rudge

I just finished Barnaby Rudge, apparently called Barnaby Rubbish by Victorian people because they disliked it so much. I get that it’s a really weird novel, but I don’t know if it deserves all the hate. It’s *way* better than Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance.

I especially liked the ending of this historical novel, which focuses on the raven, Grip. The narrator writes in the final paragraph: “as he was a mere infant for a raven, when Barnaby was grey, he was very probably on talking to the present time” (688). The suggestion, of course, is that the events of the past are not really past as the conclusion moves between biographical, historical, and ecological time.

But I also liked the crowd scenes and its somewhat contradictory reflection on the law. At the peak of the riots, “The crowd was the law, and never was the law held in greater dread, or more implicitly obeyed” (521). Such a sentence shows the power of the crowd: rebelling against the law, the crowd becomes a law onto itself. But it also raises questions about what the law is for. Is it supposed to be held in dread? It is supposed to be obeyed?

Mr. Dennis, the hangman, has the strangest relationship to the law. He happily joins the riot and works to free the prisoners of Newgate, but stops short of freeing those prisoners condemned to die. As they beg to be released, he tells them, “laws have been made a’ purpose for you; a parson’s kept a’ purpose for you; a constitootional officer’s appointed a’ purpose for you; carts is maintained a’ purpose for you–and yet you’re not contented” (543).  His logic here is so familiar: think how much care the state shows you as it condemns you to death, how dare you desire to live? The phrase “laws have been made a’ purpose for you” is especially telling, suggesting that laws exist to produce criminals, for criminals. Contentment, here, means accepting a social order where you are doomed to die long before you commit a crime (Hugh’s fate seems to reinforce this point).

 

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The Uninvited

It has been such fun to read more fiction while on sabbatical. In addition to the regular nineteenth-century summer reading (i.e. Trollope),  I’ve read Maeve Kelly’s Necessary Treasons, Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited. I’ve enjoyed them all (probably Kelly the most), but Macardle is really sticking with me. It’s a story of a perfect house by the sea in England that ends up being haunted by two women: Mary, a ‘perfect’ wife and mother, and Carmel, a young foreigner who had an affair with Mary’s artist husband. Over the course of the novel [SPOILER], we learn that Mary is the dangerous ghost precisely because she upholds the social order in a violently repressive way. Knowing that Mary is threatening rather than angelic frees her daughter. As the narrator declares in a heavy-handed statement, “You can be yourself now, not [imitate] Mary any more” (303). It’s lovely to refuse what the novel calls “dead virtue, dead standards, dead taste” and favor living women, with all their flaws (134).

But the thing that sticks with me is that the novel sets up this home as the perfect house for the two protagonists–as fated–only to question the idea of ownership and property. Looking for a place to escape London, the protagonists have a series of disappointments until they stumble upon Cliff End. The narrator “was seized by covetousness” and they quickly buy the house (8). Their overwhelming desire to live and work in this house is rewarded–the narrator’s writing, long somewhat dull criticism, takes a thrilling creative turn–even as the haunting begins. When the haunting begins, the idea of “covetousness” looks differently: instead of an expression of connection or fate, it is a violent desire for acquisition, “an intrusion” (87). The narrator realizes, “It was an intrusion; this house was old; long before we were born it had its occupants, living and dying here. We were aliens and trespassers in their hereditary home” (87). The novel does a remarkable job of both banishing the ghost and authorizing it, of representing haunting as a threat and an important, necessary reminder. Mary may be a danger, but haunting is not: it shows that the very feeling of belonging and desire can be one of erasure.

 

Bleak Liberalism

Amanda Anderson is an incredible scholar and writer–clear, purposeful, argumentative. Her book, Bleak Liberalism, shows these skills in action. It also shows just how depressing, and hella white, Victorian studies can be (Of course, the scope of this book exceeds Victorian studies).  What does it mean to engage in critiques of liberalism without engaging in critiques coming from critical race theory? What does it mean to read Ralph Ellison through Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling? What does it mean to say that Joe Cleary gives too much importance to imperialism, before cataloguing a whole series of historical events and developments that were also tied to imperialism? How can you talk about liberalism without discussing slavery? How can you discuss liberalism without considering how it emerges through theories of property (which, in turn, are tied to slavery, race, and settler colonialism)?

I ask these questions because I think it shows how disciplinarity, which separates out liberalism and postcolonial/critical race theorists’ critiques of liberalism, can be a way of protecting ignorance, of perpetuating old arguments, of moving to innocence.

The Odd Women

I just finished George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a novel I truly enjoyed.  The footnotes made me laugh about the gap between Victorian and Victorianist readers (how was I supposed to know that *that* signified alcoholism? My that pregnancy came quickly) and was struck by how characters that seem to be protagonists at the beginning of the novel (Virginia & Alice Madden) become minor over time, while minor characters (Rhoda Nunn) become protagonists. There was also a shout-out to the nutritional value of an Irish diet of potatoes and milk, which I loved (the particular woman who celebrated it is the one who takes to the drink later in the novel).

I was especially struck about the novel’s musing on the politics of visibility given the current political climate where killing people (directly and indirectly) seems to go relatively unchallenged. Rhoda Nunn, champion of odd women everywhere, wishes “girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at” (42).  But she notes that even gathering the bodies together may have no effect, “Perhaps they might only congratulate each other that a few of the superfluous females had been struck off” (42).

Her line makes me think about the mass grave ‘discovered’ at Tuam, which people knew existed long before, and the constant circulation of images and videos of Black people murdered by the police. Seeing does not mean knowing–it certainly does not mean intervening–and often it only intensifies the very logics that lead to mass death.

The Lesser Bohemians

I am sometimes a really bad reader of contemporary fiction.  It often takes me a while to get into it because I think about the real, living author and approach the novel as a set of techniques (or gimmicks) instead of a narrative to inhabit (which, of course, is also made from a set of techniques).

This was definitely the case in my reading of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians, but it pulled me in just in time so I could truly immerse myself.  Because I’ve been thinking a lot about Lukács this semester (why always Lukács?), I found the way in which naming worked in the novel really interesting.  At times, it felt like a gimmick, but I think, at the end, it really worked to show how individual character emerges in the novel, on the one hand, and how social life works, on the other.  For the majority of the novel, characters have no names.  There is the narrator, “I;” her lover, “Him;” her friend, “her;” her flatmate, “Flatmate.”  But by the end of the novel, some characters have names: Eily, Stephen, Grace, Marianne, David, Raf.  For me, this implies that they are no longer simply types, they are individuals.  But, the characters who remain unnamed, “her” and “Flatmate” among others, remain minor and remain types.  They play social roles, but never emerge as individuals within the novel (or to the narrator).  The fact that they remain types while other seemingly minor characters get names suggests that individualization is a result of intimacy and that intimacy is a way of unsettling typification.

More Moore

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to teach stories from The Untilled Field.  They are such good stories!  This time around I was struck by how the ending to “Some Parishioners” subtly echoes the ending to Esther Waters.  In Esther Waters, Mrs. Barfield’s son briefly returns to Woodview and becomes angry with his mother for hosting religious services at their (his) house.  But seeing his mother’s face as she describes the importance of prayer, he relents. Even if he thinks miracles no longer happen, there’s something to his mother’s religious feeling that matters.  “Some Parishioners” ends with the priest and a young man reflecting on Biddy’s religious visions:

“I suppose even miracles are inconvenient at times, Father Maguire. Be patient with her, let her enjoy her happiness.”

And the two men stood looking at her, trying vainly to imagine what her happiness might be” (115).

Moore, the man who, in the words of one Victorian reviewer, “described what should be left undescribed,” also documents what he cannot capture: belief, maybe even happiness, that can only every be an absent presence in the pages of new realism.