(1830- 1900)



The “matter of England” in the postindustrial and postmetaphysical age. The movement away from the romantic tradition. Poetry as intellectual, public discourse. From self-expressionism to dramatic impersonation: Alfred Tennyson. Traditional narrative forms (Bildungsroman, the picaresque novel, Gothic romance) and their earlier Victorian transformations: Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, The Brontë Sisters. Victorian phenomenology. Victorian Gothic and the Grotesque. Robert Browning and the historicization of the human personality. The mid-century multiplot novel and the omniscient narrator: George Eliot. The other side of the coin: fantasy and Manippean subversion of Victorian orthodoxy. Lewis Carroll. The prophecies of art religion: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Charles Algernon Swinburne. William Morris. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Late Victorian literature. The fall from totality and unity: split personalities, paraxial realms, dystopias. The degeneration plot: Thomas Hardy. Aestheticism and Decadence. The nineties or modernism in the making


The amount of revaluations that have brought the Victorians up the wheel of fashion in the last thirty years or so are not only the expression of a generalized interest in a long-neglected range of textuality, apparently outdated against the background of modernist experimentation, but also a recognition of their present relevance in the new contextual frames within which modernism is being reconstructed. If a literary trend is no longer understood as only an expressive but simultaneously as an epistemological model, the deconstruction of knowledge which is a defining feature of modernism is a process whose roots go back to the nineteenth century. The revolving kaleidoscope of the texts produced during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-l901) displays, in its multiple hues, a variety unprecedented in literary history. Practically, no single or unitary definition is possible any longer. The Victorian mind is divided against itself, casting about for and failing to find fixed and universal categories of thought in order to bridge the radical Kantian divide: between the empire of nature and the empire of humanity (of meaningful, purposeful action), between art and technology, pure understanding and the demands of practical action etc. The brief summary heading this chapter is telling in this respect: realistic novels of manners coexist with Gothic romances; Victorian decorum fails to repress the id-centred approach to sexual drives; the logic of dreams, jokes and Freudian slips complexifies the exercises in mathematical logic. Victorian industrialists, bankers, landowners, politicians, with their language mannerisms, clothes, postures, exerting the overwhelming appeal of a tableau vivant, march into the unmistakeable London streets side by side with ghosts, doubles, vampires, animals enjoying their newly-licensed (by Charles Darwin) familiarity with humans Novels and poems giving a voice to the race and to the anxieties of the historical moment join in a chorus with haughty proclamations of the artist's independence in his ivory tower.

The “Re-reading of Victorian Poetry” – one of the essays published in Joanne Shatock's collection Dickens and Other Victorians [1] - is undertaken by Isobel Armstrong from precisely this vantage point. The political upheaval and the fundamental changes in the structure of the English society in the nineteenth century necessitate a redefinition of its nature. The ancient teleological world splits up into a fragmented history, metaphysics yields to the history of philosophy and culture, the fixed categories of thought and language ordained by God are replaced by belief systems and unstable series of representations. Universal truths make room for provisional conceptual frames, differing from one age to another, as from one geographical area to another. Art itself stands at a remove from practical experience, performing a mediating function, interpreting rather than representing life (Matthew Arnold: a criticism of life).

Is this a recent re-reading of the true spirit of Victorianism or were the Victorians themselves aware of their antinomic world frame of mind, which posterity reduced to a series of simplified representations: gross materialistic spirit, complacency, prudery, shallow notions of decorum, respectability, domestic pieties, imposed by the domineering spirit of the middle class ? John Stuart Mill, the supporter of the new ideas that brought about the 1848 revolutions in Europe, is unfailing in his diagnosis of the contemporary philosophical mind, torn between two opposite tendencies: the Kantian Coleridge and the “subverter” Bentham, who roots all categorical and a priori imperatives into the concrete ground of actual institutions and historical facts. Bentham had thereby worked a Copernican revolution in the philosophy of the society, comparable to that by which Darwin, at the climactic point of an argument concerning evolutionary theory, would place man in his proper place in the zoological series, offering up unrefutable proofs of the fact that Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin (The Descent of Man, Part III, Ch. XXI). In this postmetaphysical world, Bentham had created a new language for philosophy, substituting notions of interests and instincts for the traditional ones of will, intellect and virtue: We do not mean that his writings caused the Reform Bill, or that the Appropriation Clause owns him as its parent; the changes which have been made, and the greater changes which will be made, in our institutions, are not the work of philosophers, but of the interests and instincts of large portions of society recently grown into strength. But Bentham gave a voice to those interests and instincts (J.S. Mill, Bentham). As a social reformer, Mill is not primarily interested in Bentham's reversal of Kant's metaphysic of morals in his doctrine of utility, but in the Benthamite acceptance and, respectively, in the Coleridgean rejection of postindustrial England – that was the great crux in argumentation throughout the Victorian Age: Take for instance the question how far mankind have gained by civilization. One observer is forcibly struck by the multiplication of physical comforts; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition; the facilities of mutual intercourse; the softening of manners; the decline of war and personal conflict; the progressive limitation of the tyranny of the strong over the week; the great works accomplished throughout the globe by the cooperation of multitudes; and he becomes that very common character, the worshipper of our enlightened age. Another fixes his attention, not upon the value of these advantages, but upon the high price which is paid for them: the relaxation of individual energy and courage; the loss of proud and self-relying independence; the slavery of so large a portion of mankind to artificial wants; their effeminate shrinking from even the shadow of pain; the dull unexciting monotony of their lives, and the passionless insipidity, the absence of any marked individuality in their characters; the contrast between the narrow mechanical understanding, produced by a life spent in executing by fixed rules a fixed task... (Colerdige).

The urban sprawl of the Victorian city, with its black chimneys daring the sky, with its massive buildings and unshapely suburbs of slate and red brick houses for the working class, was the architectural mirror of a decentred humanity, fumbling their way in an ideological maze. In her enlightening book, Church, City and Labyrinth in Brontë, Dickens, Hardy and Butor, [2], Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg compares the amorphous, smokestack-cluttered city of nineteenth-century England to the shapely, steeple-dominated medieval town (at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, three fourths of the population lived in large cities, as opposed to one fifth of the population at the turn of the nineteenth century): Concomitant with the growth of the cities was the simultaneous impact on the place and authority of the church. Formerly at the centre of city cultural life, if not topographically as well, the church now faced the challenge of expanding with the city or stagnating at its displaced centre. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, cities no longer crystallized around their central religious edifices as they had in the Middle Ages. Then the church was the centre of city life not only topographically, but morally as well. It was the church that made and enforced the laws by which city life was ordered. By the nineteenth century, however, a heritage of Renaissance humanism, seventeenth century empiricism, and eighteenth century rationalism exploded in an industrialism that changed the face and manner of city life. The medieval town still preserved, still aimed at an imitation of cosmic order, or celestial archetype which the temenos of the ancient cities displayed. Geometrically, the square or circle was the preferred shape. The centre, or axis mundi, was considered a sacred space, forming the point of intersection for imaginary lines extending in the four directions of the compass. From this holy of holies the rest of the city received its orientation. It was considered holy because here communication was established between heaven and earth and the underworld of the dead.

To Blaise Pascal (Preface pour du vid), the entire history of humanity along the centuries appeared as un même homme qui subsiste toujours, et qui apprend continuellement. When we descend into the nineteenth century, we are confronted with the myriad avatars of this Pascalian universal man. There is no longer one but several Victorian worlds, each walled in itself and conflicting with the others. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve (Matthew Arnold, The Study of Poetry, II Essays in Criticism)... we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust (Arnold, Preface of the first edition of Poems).  

Neither from an epistemological, nor from an economic perspective is the Victorian Age that homogeneous map drawn by its former detractors. Three distinct phases mark out the ascent and descent of Britain's imperial power. The 1832-185l period is one of tremendous changes and social upheavals, of important shifts in the power relations, starting with the 1832 Reform Bill which enfranchised the middle class and ending with the Great Exhibition which displayed the bourgeois triumph in Free Trade and manufacturing industry. The Age of Equipoise which followed, apart from the material prosperity ensured by the policy of laissez-faire (the manufacturer's pursuit unhampered) and by England's industrial supremacy, also knew a widely shared code of middle class moral values: work, piety, self-help, diligence, domestic fidelity. The Great Depression of the mid-seventies and the challenge to England's supremacy coming particularly from Germany put an end to an age of cultural consensus and general self-satisfaction. Social conflicts emerge to the surface of fictional works, doubts and anxiety undermine the previous lengthy depiction of a bourgeois leisurely existence. In 1880 Edwin Ray Lankester, Darwin's disciple, published a book entitled Degeneration, in which evolutionism is no longer synonymous with progress. The best adapted forms in nature are not always also the highest. Lankester gives examples of parasites outliving the host organism, which are inferior in structure. The ideas of regression, atavism and decline, which scientists had first drawn attention to, spread to biologized social theories, breeding political pessimism about the decay of the Empire. They are also underwriting the fictional works of Hardy, Gissing, Samuel Butler, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells. Social pessimism may have contributed alongside inner factors of aesthetic consciousness towards a literature of evasion, of fantasy, and programmatic divorce from the everyday towards the end of the century.

The Victorian age is an age of concern – social, political, educational, scientific – mostly aroused by the rapid progress made in science and technological equipment, by the changes occurring in the democratic frame of representation and by the alarming demographic growth. The empire expanded geographically and economically, the government encouraging personal enterprise as well as corporate capitalist venture. Between 1875 and 1900 the total area of the British Empire was increased by something around 5,000, 000 square miles, containing a population of at least 90,000,000 people. Within only twenty-five years Great Britain became forty times as large.

The political events and the economic processes leading to the creation of the Welfare State had a cumulative effect, shifting the centre of political power and making it possible for enormous masses of people to engage in the national venture of Victorian energetic action and success. The main steps along this process were the construction of the first railway in Britain (183o), the bills which granted women the right of association (1824-25), religious tolerance to Catholics (1829), vote to the middle class (1832), and to the working class (1867), the Trade Union Act (187l), acknowledging the unions as part of the political system. Enclosures and confiscation of land accompanied the improvement in communication through the railway system; the dislocation of huge masses of people and the repugnant sights of crowded suburbs, where people built at random and cheaply for the sake of a higher return in rents, were the effect of the urbanization of the countryside. The code of social responsibility associated with traditional landownership was being replaced by the amoral relationships based on money. The establishment believed in the value of self-help and thrift and shift in high or low estate among the doers of the age was not uncommon. The response to such Victorian tragedies or comedies, brought up by the Wheel of laissez-faire, was divided. The moral conscience of the age that usually works its way into the media promptly condemned the immoral system, which made it possible for an unscrupled upstart to rise to wealth and importance (see the Illustrated London News, 1849, portraying George Hudson, the former railway King). However, the defence of the more business-like ethics of the moneyed bourgeoisie could be heard with equal intensity, coming, for instance, from a reputed essayist like Samuel Smiles: National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness and vice. (...) Schools, academies and colleges, give but the merest beginnings of culture (...) Far more influential is the life-education daily given in our homes, in the streets, behind counters, in workshops, at the loom and the plough, in counting-houses and manufactories, and in the busy haunts of man (Self-Help). As becomes an advocate of homo faber, Smiles gives several examples of such self-raised men who had worked their way into the British House of Commons. The biography of Mr. William Jackson is one apt to comfort our contemporaries who deplore the debasement of knowledge into TV games and competitions: William, when under twelve years old, was taken from school, and put to hard work at a ship's side from six in the morning to nine at night. His master falling ill, the boy was taken into the counting-house, where he had more leisure. This gave him an opportunity of reading, and having obtained access to a set of the “Encyclopaedia Britanica”, he read the volumes through from A to Z (...) He afterwards put himself to a trade, was diligent, and succeeded in it. Now he has ships sailing on almost every sea, and holds commercial relations with nearly every country on the globe (Ibidem).

Such language – which will have aroused the roaring laughter of John Henry Newman, with his sophisticated idea of a university promoting the Kantian principle of knowledge as its own end, as well as Thomas Carlyle who saw the man of letters as the hero of his time – abandons, in the mouths of the economists, any trace of idealism. Cold-blooded theories reify and quantify the mechanisms by which human society assumes the laws of the jungle, proclaiming the survival of the fittest. Thomas Robert Malthus, in his Essays on the Principles of Population (1798) argues that the population tends to increase by geometrical progression but supplies of food only by arithmetical progression. Wars and pestilences, therefore, are justified in that they prevent universal famine through an efficient natural control. David Ricardo develops Malthus's law into a similar iron law of the wages: In the natural advance of society, the wages of labour will have a tendency to fall as far as they are regulated by supply and demand; for the supply of labourers will continue to increase at the same rate, whilst the demand for them will continue to decrease at the same rate... Like all other contracts, wages should be left to the fair and free competition of the market, and should never be controlled by the interference of the legislature.” (The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1817).

While taking note that each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio, Darwin feels reassured that the vigorous, the healthy and the happy survive and multiply. The foundation of the moral self is identified in social instincts, primarily gained through natural selection (Ibidem). With Jeremy Bentham, a jurist and philosopher who published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in l789, these social instincts are only two in number: pain and pleasure. Society is an aggregate of selfish individuals, pursuing their own happiness and avoiding pain. A legislation founded upon the “principle of utility” will weigh the quantities of pleasure for the majority against the quantity of pain for the minority and favour the former irrespective of such old-fashioned moral concepts as altruism, piety, or the sacred worth of each individual soul. Raging against the irresponsible tendency to leave human affairs at the mercy of folly and accident (thrusting at the “let alone” policy), Carlyle, just like Tennyson and the other Cambridge Apostles, cherishes an idea of the enlightened, true leader, the Goethean Noble Practical Man, guiding and teaching people in the kingdom of human ends (Ch. VI, Laissez-faire, of Chartism).

The Chartist Movement, claiming rights for the emerging working class, rose into its full tide in the thirties or forties, a period of deep economic and political crisis, when, according to the Scottish geologist and journalist Hugh Miller (First Impressions of England and Its People, 1847) every tenth citizen of England was a pauper. Politicians (McCulloch's inquiry for the House of Commons into the emigration of English workers to escape the appalling poverty at home), as well as writers (Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, Mary Barton, North and South, Charles Dickens's Hard Times) offered their hearty support to the “least-fitted”. The idealist John Ruskin and the sentimental Dickens sensed the real danger threatening the labour faction even to a larger extent than the lack of bread: alienation in the work process, as the factory style turned them into animated machinery. Instead of creativity, it was fragmentary work and detailed concentration on mechanical execution that stifled their imaginative resources, reducing them to cogwheels and compasses (see Ruskin's essays, The Stones of Venice, Ch. VI and The Crown of Wild Olive).

If utilitarianism was the philosophy of the rising middle class, the counter, conservatist movement of the Tory tradition, rooted in Burke, Colerdige and Scott, revived in the works of Benjamin Disraeli (novelist and statesman), of Thomas Carlyle (esayist, historian and philosopher), and Matthew Arnold (poet, critic, and Inspector of schools). Adherence to past historical realities were, with them, not so much a romantic drawback as a natural need for stability in a world which witnessed the death of old values without the prospect of new ones in view. The Repeal of the Test Acts (taking vows of loyalty to the monarch and the Anglican Church by any person in office) acquired, in the public imagination, apocalyptic proportions: The King has virtually abdicated; the Church is a widow, without jointure; public principle is gone... (Carlyle, Signs of the Times). The passage from an age of status to one of social contracts had similarly traumatic consequences: two great existences have been blotted out of the history of England – the Monarch and the Multitude; as the power of the Crown has diminished, the privileges of the People have disappeared: till at length the sceptre has become a pageant, and its subject has degenerated again into a self... (Disraely, Sybil). Summing up the Characteristics of an age in which loyalty had become a phrase, and faith, a delusion (Disraeli), Carlyle sounds even more impressive for the highly tropical sermonistic discourse, only rivalled by Ruskin's. He employs ingenious metaphors and symbols, for instance, the clothing figure of speech in Sartor Resartus (the spiritual biography of Herr Teufelsdröckh, the author of a treatise on clothes), to render the sense of simulacrum, of the lack of substance, which Victorian orthodoxy could not escape, with all its formal orthodoxies. Andrew Elfenbein's recent case studies in the Victorian reinscription of Byronism points to Teufelsdröckh as an example of savage animalism in an intellectual dandy, expecting to be honoured, nourished, soft-bedded and lovingly cared for according to his merit by birth rather than by the professional, intellectual earnestness which was required in the new age of criticism and vocation. Like Byron's absent-minded and extravagant wanderers, Professor Teufelsdröckh gives public orations (no formal lectures) on things in general at the university of Weisnichtwo (Don'tknowwhereto)[3]. Although Carlyle's bête noire is Lord Byron's solipsism and spiritual malaise, while his declared idol is Goethe's programme of enlightened, active engagement with purposeful social action, we can catch, particularly in Signs of the Times, verbal echoes of another philosophical polarity: utilitarianism versus Kantianism. Man is said to have lost faith in individual endeavour for internal perfection (Kant: he... prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than to take pains in enlarging and improving his happy natural capacities [4]), in necessity and free will (Kant: reason's true destination must be to produce a will, not merely as a means to something else, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary [5]), hoping and struggling but for external combinations and arrangements. The picture of men as mechanisms, who construct or borrow machinery, looks quite familiar if compared to the individuals caged in the twentieth-century social routine of “mechanic furtherances”, Bible-Societies, public dinners, Academies of everything, committees and prospectuses… Even John Suart Mill, who saluted in Bentham the recognition of his empirical principle that there is no knowledge a priori, could not help feeling the danger lurking even in democratic societies, under the new circumstances of extending the franchise, of seeing the individual crushed under the power of the majority: If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of a contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (On Liberty). Discussion, public debate, the opportunity of exchanging error for truth are suggested as more humane alternatives to the reductive arithmetic of utilitarianism.

The attempts to give substance to the cherished spiritual institutions of the time materialized, among others, in marrying the “widowed” Anglican Church to the pre-Catholic Greek Church, by incorporating into services translations of Greek Christian prayers and hymns. The Oxford Movement, represented by Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman (cardinal and essayist), was meant to dig up roots in an ancient layer of tradition for a centre of Christianity isolated from the old European churches, and experiencing – like all Victorians – a crisis of identity. The experiment was as short-lived as Faust's Euphorion – the symbol of the failed attempt to unite the gloomy rationalistic spirit of the North to Mediterranean imaginative exuberance.


The Earlier Victorian



The first third of the Victorian age is partly one of subversive reinscription of the Romantic tradition. Nostalgia and deference mingle with a deliberate refutation and departure from romantic literary modes. Social problems – gender discriminations, women's education, the metaphysical crisis, the need for an enlightened government, the impact of the scientific revolution – penetrate even the texture of Tennyson's poetry, reputed for its musical structure, melodiousness and atmospheric imagery. Lyric expression is reorganised as drama (the dramatic monologue) and framed narrative, allowing of a particularization and objectification of subjectivity. The subject is an illocutionary source as well as an object of analysis, not an universal self but a provisional construct of consciousness.

The novel is still indebted to tradition: Gothic scenes and characters, the picaresque tradition, melodrama, the Bildungsroman (of the romantic developmental self), the I-figure claiming to be the real author – omniscient and omnipotent, a puppet-master, handling his characters with the charming ease of the eighteenth-century humorists, and finding himself in an overt relationship with the reader. However, the interaction between literature and society reveals the “condition of England” against a much wider social canvas (W.M. Thackeray), and in an increasingly complex narrative discourse. The novelist is less intent upon mirroring a world than on making sense of it. Orphanated children are left on their own in a society that invites interpretation, while providing them with no guide to do it. A more realistic novelist than the Brontës, whose “culture heroines” shape the world to their hearts’ desire, Dickens shows his Pip abandoning his childhood “great expectations”, while unconsciously adopting the prejudices ingrained in the power discourse shaping the individual.

On the threshold to the Victorian Age stand the two complementary figures of Alfred Tennyson (Poet Laureate from 185o) and Robert Browning. Although the former passes for a Romantic disciple, whose emergence upon the literary scene of 1830 with Poems. Chiefly Lyrical produced no disruptive effect, we would be grossly mistaken to label the age he inaugurated as Romanticism not only derivative but popularized and conventionalized [6].

Where J.S. Mill (London Review, 1835) saw beautifully typical... upholding, purifying imagery, assimilating to itself the grosser and the ruder, there was polemical intent. Whereas Wordsworth had modulated the narrative discourse of the ballad into lyric in order to talk about the world and himself (self-expressionism), Tennyson draws the reader's attention to some previously constituted language, to pre-existing orderings of reality, whose new, possible forms he explores by redirecting chiefly lyrical expression towards reinscription and drama. By cultivating traditional conventions and literary forms, retrospective motifs, medieval textuality, or by successively revising his own works, Tennyson finds himself perpetually immersed into a world of signs rather than in a direct relationship to the actual world. Marianna, Oenone, Ulysses, Arthur, Lancelot are not individuals in the real world, like Wordsworth's picturesque humanity of the Lyrical Ballads, but characters already endowed with meaning, figures in a network of cultural codes. They are inserted into symbolic systems which are collective, that is shared by everybody: When one takes as object of study not physical phenomena but artefacts or events with meaning the defining qualities of the phenomena become the features which distinguish them from one another and enable them to bear meaning within the symbolic system from which they derive. The object is itself structured and is defined by its place in the structure of the system... [7]. The romantics' worship of the individual as empirical subject, yields to the Kantian transcendental subjectivity (interpersonal cultural systems) and the outpouring of spontaneous feeling (Wordsworth), to reinscription in an image repertoire. The discourse of culture, Jonathan Culler emphasizes (Ibidem) sets limits to the self.

l. In counterdistinction to the romantics, Tennyson is less interested in the internal condition of consciousness (which is the object of psychology) than in the representations of inwardness, in the construction of the self, whereby consciousness is related to the external forms of culture (phenomenology). Isobel Armstrong (Op. cit.) identifies two concurrent poems in Mariana, and a doubleness of language which is not possible in a subject-centred discourse: the undivided condition of unified selfhood has dissolved into a framed soliloquy, a combination of narrative and dramatic expression which renders both the subject's utterance and the subject as an object of analysis. The framing provided by the motto from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Mariana in the mooted grange) urges the reader to construct the meaning of the character by exploring similitudes and differences in comparison with some previous text. In Shakespeare's play, Mariana stands in sharp contrast to the frigid, morally upright and pious Isabela, who is on the point of becoming a novice. Mariana does not refrain from the proposed bed-trick in order to trap her unfaithful lover into marriage. Tennyson takes up the theme of the woman as a victim of man's neglect, experiencing psychological and sexual frustration, making a Victorian reinscription thereof. Although the starting point is a figure against a background of textuality, Tennyson allows it to come to life in a portrait tinged with specifically Victorian hues. Marion Shaw's feminist approach to Tennyson is an attempt to tie the poet's range of early nineteenth-century female types down to the Victorian realities. Here is the description of a typical nineteenth-century family life: a harsh father, a kindly but ineffectual mother (educationally, inferior, legally and financially of no consequence), ten brothers and sisters, assorted servants, cramped living conditions and an emotional claustrophobia resulting from geographical isolation, and the self-sufficiency that characterizes large families [8]. In an age of hypocritical prudery, when even the legs of the chairs were covered with affected propriety, sexuality could only find release in what Michel Foucault calls (The History of Sexuality) “the talking cure”, which started simultaneously with the repression of sexuality by the middle-class spirit of thrifting diligence („Business is preferred always to love with the wise”, spells out Wycherley in The Country Wife). The language of the poem constructs Mariana as a prisoner in a solipsistic world, in which all natural objects are held in a stasis mimetic of her erotic dependence on a male-lover [9]. The mood of desolation is communicated through an atmospheric imagery of loss and decay. The deserted maiden, wasting her life in a meaningless existence, away from an active busy world, is apparently entombed beneath the weeded thatch, among the broken sheds, the empty flower-plots, whose general spirit seems to be embodied by the sun-flower hanging heavily, as if the skyward aspiration towards light and life had been replaced by a death drive. The unlifted latch suggests the absence of visitors, of any outward contacts, the repetition of the word “old' – steps and voices – reinforcing the feeling of a stale household. Victorian sexuality communicates itself not discursively but through processes of projection (unconscious wishes expelled from the self and attributed to another object) and introjection (qualities of external objects absorbed by the self). Elizabeth Wright (Psychoanalytic Criticism. Theory and Practice, Routledge, l984) mentions the subconscious identification of the male body with upright objects, of the mother's body, with enclosures. Mariana, a prisoner within the decaying mooted grange, symbolical of her body, experiences life through her senses: she is besieged by the shrieks of the birds during the night, the shadow of the poplar falling on her bed, the stir of the mouse in the wainscot. The mediations of the body materialize in a language apt to disturb the alphabet of culture, that dictated by the Victorian tabooing super-ego.

One step further towards the phenomenological constitution or the objectification of consciousness is the dramatic monologue. It is an imaginary utterance by some person other than the author in the presence of an implied listener or interlocutor. We would not presume to attribute to Tennyson a deliberate semiological awareness, unless we were able to provide textual evidence for the linguistic ontology of his imaginary characters. Does the poet construct his famous Ulysses as a character in a life-like situation (even if previously imagined by Homer) or as a text ? The monologue, in blank verse, begins with Ulysses' return to Ithaca, departing in several respects from the Homeric original: Ulysses finds himself matched not with a fatal woman, who does not know how to rid herself of her numerous suitors, but with an aged wife. Ulysses is singled out, like a true hero, and severed from all connections with the empire of nature. He cannot possibly commune with his subjects, who hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. There is no Eumaeus left among them, to recognize him even in disguise. His subjects fail to recognize him in the sense that they do not share the same spiritual needs, the knowledge transcending bodily needs. Like Du Bellay's Ulysses in “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage”, Tennyson's hero has come back spiritually enriched (plein d'usage et raison), the voyage without having nourished the voyage within. At the same time, he has gone through a Lacanian “mirror stage” [10], thanks to which he not only knows but is known by others, in that fusion of objectivity and subjectivity which conditions inscription in the semiological order. The recognition scene (identity defined not as one's self-consciousness but as one's image for others) occurs not in the real Ithaca but in that of “names”, in the linguistic texture of the Homeric epic:            

                        I have become a name;

         For always roaming with a hungry heart

         Much have I seen and known: cities of men

         And manners, climates, councils, governments,

         Myself not least, but honoured of them all (...)

         I am a part of all that I have met; 

Nor does Ulysses commune with his own son, who makes a great leader of men, improving on their ruggedness as an enlightened Victorian prince was expected to; yet he is centred in the sphere/ Of common duties, whereas Ulysses is inseparable from the saga or narrative of spiritual quest. He urges his mariners to set sail again and advance towards a newer world beyond the sunset. Ulysses's mariners had died by the time he came back to Ithaca, and the voyage under the western star can only be a metaphor of death. The “new world” is the new heaven and earth of the postapocalyptic Jerusalem, spirit, logos. Veracity or verosimility are only the impositions of the mimetic arts, representing the actual world, whereas Tennyson's metatext is meant to make one aware of new possible forms which the Homeric story may assume. What they reach is an immortality, nevertheless, the pagan paradise of the Happy Isles, where Ulysses joins the other Homeric hero, Achilles. While his physical strength and anger are capable to “move earth and heaven”, the wise Ulysses embodies the paradigm of spiritual strength: weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Tennyson seems to be correcting Homer in the light of an age worshipping culture and the moral will. If the hero is identified with infinite thirst for knowledge and adventure, the inner coherence of the action requires that he should not be abandoned to domesticity and a down-to-earth existence everafter. Tennyson provides his story not with a comical but with a heroic resolution, which greatly appealed to the Victorian energetic spirit (the last line was engaved on the tomb of the famous explorer Robert Falcon Scott).

2. Tennyson's poetic art in two obvious cases is a refutation of Byronic solipsism.

There is a striking similarity in versification between the enchanting Lady of Shalott and Byron's Prisoner of Chillon:  

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro' the room

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume

She look'd down to Camelot.

I saw the white-walled distant town

And whither sails go skimming down;

And then there was a little isle

Which in my very face did smile

The only one in view.

Contemplating the “distant town”, Byron's Bonnivard feels alienated, choosing to remain a prisoner of his cell, symbolical of the mind, in which everything is familiar and bears the mark of his personality. The Lady of Shalott is another prisoner of the mind, who finds herself at two removes from reality. The first of the four parts of Tennyson's poem introduces the two ontologically distinct realms, divided by the river (reflection, cognition). The one is Camelot, of the Arthurian saga, yet conventionally assumed, like Telemachus's everyday, to be the transitory natural world (reality itself is constructed in Tennyson, it is the “effect” of “reality”...), with pastoral scenes of peasants going about their daily work, sowing and reaping their crops. The other is the island inhabited by the Lady of Shalott, who never shows up at the casement to take a look at the boisterous life unfolding below, in the valley. Neither is she directly contemplated by the people of Camelot, who only divine her presence from her songs, reaching down to them from her high recess. The lady knows of their existence from the reflections they send from the river into her mirror. The symbolism of the scene becomes transparent, if we read the codes carefully. In Plato, music represents metaphysical power, while the shadows impressing the cave of the mind come from the real world. The lady belongs to a transcendent spiritual reality, whereas Camelot is nature moving from one fertility cycle to another (images of life and death, the archetypal moments in life: a funeral, two lovers lately wed). If only the man in Plato's cave could go out and gaze directly on the world in the bright sunlight, instead of the shadows cast on the walls by the fickle fire within! If only the Lady could look straight at Camelot, without the mediating river and mirror, for she is so sick of shadows! But just like Orpheus, who is forbidden to gaze on Eurydice before he has taken her out of the underworld, she is cursed to remain a prisoner of an ontologically distinct realm. Reality and the mind cannot meet on mutual terms, but only through the mediation of the subject's objectified otherness: God and his creation, the artist and his work. The lady at her loom (Blake's looms of generation) is weaving a web which is twice removed from reality: the shadowy texture of the shadows of the world, the free play of the artist's imagination. Cannot they assume materiality? The third part of the poem introduces such a miracle of ideal yet substantial existence: Lancelot, the hero of the Arthurian romance. Tennyson's embroidery of medieval heraldry in all its splendour is a tour de force. The intoxicating rhythms, the alliteration, the interplay of sounds and colours actually give the impression of the tremulous effect of light reflected from a mirror. The reader cannot but feel hypnotized, like the lady, by the rich material texture of the pageant changing colours and sounds, at the same time freezing in the armorial bearings, as if the live flux of life itself were being arrested in perfectly wrought immortal patterns. Lancelot's emblematic shield presents us with an image strongly reminiscent of Keats's myth of immortality in Ode on a Grecian Urn: 

            A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd

            To a lady in his shield,

Although never reaching consummation, their love is perfect – for ever he will love her, for ever she will be fair –, for art is not touched by the devastating effects of time, by the transitoriness of life with its succession of weddings and funerals. The red-cross knight, in Spencer's Faerie Queene, is an allegory of holiness. Art is paradisal for being pure (of spiritual origin) and eternal, and yet realized into a palpable aesthetic object. It is to this living immortality and to Lancelot's song that the Lady proves responsive. As she looks down, the mirror cracks, for imagination and sense perception are mutually exclusive. The fourth part takes the lady in a boat down to Camelot. On entering the mortal world, her blood freezes, her eyes darken. Yet people can identify her in the words she has written about the prow of her boat: “The Lady of Shalott”. Logos incarnated (the spoken or written word, which is here the very title of the poem) is the vehicle that realizes the closure subjectivity/objectivity, spirit/reality. The lady, a phantom of the mind, materializes into the poem about herself: it is only now that she becomes an object of cognition for her previous object of contemplation. Tennyson well knew, as he put down in his diary, that to get the workmanship as nearly perfect as possible is the best chance of going down the stream of time. A small vessel on fine lines is likely to float further than a great raft [11].

That aloofness is a deadly sin of art reads between the lines of Tennyson's allegorical Palace of Art. Art personified builds herself a castle on a huge crag-platform where she might live apart from the rest of mankind: My soul would live alone unto herself/ In her high palace there. But solitude, so much cherished by the Romantic poets, has ceased to fascinate the Victorian spirit, only seduced by positive values. Art's ivory tower is symbolical of the fragmented, heterogeneous and blasphemous culture of Tennyson's time. The Luciferic ambition of rivalling God's creation (probably inspired by contemporary scientific challenges to traditional assumptions about the creation of the world) is ridiculed by the analogy with the evolution of the embryo as well as by mythical allusions (Prometheus, the gnostic pseudo-Demiurge mimicking heaven”, and Satan: Back on herself her serpent pride had curl'd). The pagan-Christian admixture, the kaleidoscope of Biblical, Greek, Islamite, Indian, Celtic myths and legends point to something worse than scepticism: the decay of a central sophia, of a central body of belief. In the spirit of early Victorianism, Tennyson seeks a reconciliation between science and the humanities. Art's mytho-poetic Pantheon absorbs recent theories developed by psychology about abysmal deeps of Personality. The metaphor is grimly literalised, as isolation causes art's... schizophrenia (divided quite/ the kingdom of her thought). The end of the poem displays the Victorian relish for moral castigation: art undertakes to expiate her guilt descending into the valley of common people and afterwards ushering them into her palace. In a culture collectively constituted, the response to a work of art has become as important as its creation, or rather, part of its creation.

3. Towards the middle of the century, when the shadows of the great romantics have shrunk into oblivion, the genuine sound of Victorianism is heard in poems widening into social, ethical, religious and political concern. The voices of anxiety are breeding a sense of psychic homelessness in the minds that wake up to a stark reality, with no new values to replace the traditional ones, now emptied out of any substantial support. The mind experiences the anguish of having outlived the heart. More than a modish topos, exile becomes an allegory of a fundamental crisis within a cynical and sceptical culture. The exhaustion of Tithonus or the homelessness of the Lotus-Eaters are symptomatic of a limbo psychology: the sense of being imprisoned in a paraxial realm, in a gap between two civilizations: one dead, the other powerless to be born (Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse).

The feel of the age collecting from spiritual blockage is channelled by Tennyson in one of the few long poems of the age – actually a sequence of l3l elegies framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue –, composed during a long time span, and finally published in 185o. The title, In Memoriam, defines it as an occasional poem, meant to commemorate the death of his Cambridge friend, Arthur Hallam, who suffered a premature death in Vienna in 1833, just before the time fixed for his marriage to Tennyson's sister, Emily. The pain caused by his personal loss is sublimated into a generalised picture of confused humanity, striving to find a way out of the contemporary epistemological maze: It is not always the author speaking of himself, the author warns his readers in an account of his composition published by his son, Arthur Hallam, but the voice of the human race speaking through him. The lyrics figure a kind of Divina commedia, a spiritual quest representing the Way of the Soul. It starts with the funeral of Hallam and ends up with marriage bells, announcing the wedding of Tennyson's younger sister, Cecilia. Life has resumed its course; a Victorian poet will not anchor in the sea of melancholy to the end of time. The first 27 elegies voice the initial despair over Hallam's death; the next (XXVII-LXXVII) show the poet steeped in philosophic doubt, progressively yielding to hope (LXXVII-CIII) and the confident belief in salvation (CIV-CXXXI): the far-off divine event of mankind returning to unified spirituality (one God, one law, one element). Is Tennyson's background, in this most topical of his poems, historically and psychologically, or rather discursively constituted ? Once more the bricks of his discourse are provided by already structured elements: the topos of theodicy, with forced conclusions to fallacious syllogisms (Thou madest man, he knows not why,/ He thinks he was not made to die;/ And thou hast made him: thou art just), the pathetic language of psalms (Be near me when my light is low...), contemporary anthropological views of history (Our little systems have their day; / They have their day and cease to be), evolutionary theories about nature red in tooth and claw, catastrophist theories (Lyell's Principles of Geology) dispelling even hope in the survival of the fittest:

            So careful of the type, but no.

            From scarped cliff and quarried stone

            She cries, “A thousand types are gone:

            I care for nothing, all shall go.”

Unlike the romantic consensus of experience the relationship between man and nature proves now equally destructive: man disfiguring nature in his building frenzy, nature annihilating entire civilizations. Lyell's discovery that the fossil population of one geological stratum is not related to the next had generated doubt about there having been only one, unique Creation of the world. The belief in a teleological universe (Who trusted God was love indeed/ And love creation's final law) was gone. The collapse of the prospect of justice in a life beyond the tomb had removed the central ground of all values (the true, the just) and had rendered death, in its finality, unbearable. And yet, with Tennyson, it is not the absence of the original creative light but rather the inarticulate infant's inability to word his grief that causes the ultimate tragedy:

         ............... but what am I ?

         An infant crying in the night;

         An infant crying for the light;

         And with no language but a cry (LVI)  

The “promised event” is of a linguistic nature, the Incarnated Word,  Hallam's letters through which he is resurrected: So word by word, and line by line, / The dead man touched me from the past,/ And all at once it seemed at last/ The living soul was flashed on mine – XCV). The story about how an individual self is acquired through language (Elaine Jordon [12]) from XLV to XLVII is also Tennyson's Victorian transformation of Wordsworth's famous scene of the baby at the breast in the Prelude. Tennyson's baby, pressing his palm against the circle of the breast, thinks, “this is I”:

            But as he grows he gathers much

            and learns the use of I and me

            And finds I am not what I see

            And other than the things I touch

            So rounds he to a separate mind

            From whence a clear memory may begin

            And through the frame that binds him in

            His isolation grows defined.

This is not just a Hegelian separation of the self from the empire of nature (other than the things I touch) but a Lacanian acquisition of ego identity through language (Elaine Jordon, Ibidem). Nature is a world in itself (a circle), wheareas the human being is inserted into constitutive frames of culture. The language of this excerpt is exceptionally condensed and profound. The difference between the pronoun as a grammatical tool (“I”) and the full pronominal value of “me” is meant to suggest absence or recognition of identity. The interplay of the third and first person (And finds I am not what I see, referring to the same individual) expresses the objectification process of the recognition or mirror stage, when the subject begins to see itself as an image for others. Finally, the paradoxical association of the binding and isolation notions expresses the dialectic of identity, which is only possible through differentiation from all the others inscribed in the same semiological order.

4. I use gender to mean cultural assumptions about masculinity and feminity, rather than biological differences of sex, confesses the “poet of woman”, as Gladstone called Alfred Tennyson. The issue of feminism concerned Tennyson as early as 1832. In a manuscript fragment of A Dream of Fair Women, the poet muses idly on the possibility of the gentler mind assuming rule among mankind. When The Princess came out in 1847, it was part of a movement for women's emancipation, swelling even in aristocratic circles (e.g. the tournament staged at the Scottish baronial castle of Eglinton in 1839). Women claimed, among other things, changes in their legal status, the right to divorce their husbands and to maintain goods in their possession after marriage. Tennyson's modern social comedy cast in the guise of medieval romance is concerned with women's education rights. One source of the story is Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, where the King of Navarre retires with his “bookmen” into the hermitage of studies, taking vows, with his retainers, to abstain from any female company and avoid any entertainment and distraction. In a comical reversal, Princess Ida sets up a college for women, on the border of her father's kingdom, barring men from entry. In typically Victorian fashion, Ida's intellectual arrogance is finally broken down by the more humane demands of love and a practical life. This comes only after Ida's defence of women, battered like slaves or pampered like dolls, culminating in the century's supreme moral value, Kant's Good Will:

            Would this same mock-love, and this

            Mock-Hymen were laid up like winter bats,

            Till all men grew to rate us at our worth,

            Not vassals to be beat, nor pretty babes

            To be dandled, no, but living wills, and sphered

            Whole in ourselves and owed to none. (IV, l25-3o)

The poem reflects the spirit of the time in looking backwards and forwards, in combining the language of myth and the scientific record of geological expeditions and explorations, in fusing romance and concerns about scientific experiment and science deontology (the counter-utilitarian and anti-Darwinist urge of the feminist campaign that no one, including the lowest orders of nature, should be hurt). The attempted synthesis between science and the humanities was doomed to failure in the modern world, but Tennyson's other attempts at innovation – textual self-reflexivity and multiplicity of perspectives – were destined for a brilliant career. The poet was addressing a community divided on issues of public interest, therefore he chose the narrative device of telling the story from one speaker to another instead of a single-voice argument. The narrators are seven undergraduates gathered together during “one Christmas vacation at college”, the conclusion being voiced by a speaker – the author – who undertakes to turn the story into a poem. The poem reflects back on its genesis, being itself and the story of its own creation.

The encroaching social and economic concerns modify Tennyson’s early theme of the woman waiting for a lover to deliver her from patriarchal tyranny and captivity within family. In Maud (1855), a psychic monodrama, the love story is controlled by the values of moneyed power and economic success, which had replaced the more archaic ideals about chivalrous love and heroic defiance. The speaker fails to get Maud for his wife, because his noble father had lost the competition in a ruthless materialistic society, and because Maud's brother would rather buy for her “a lord, a captain, a padded shape”.


5. By the time Idylls of the King came out (the first, in 1859), the Victorian scene was saturated with the decorative medievalism practiced by the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”. The tendency to work primitive scenes and feelings into sophisticated art was in fact the result of a Continental influence, ranging from the German Nazarenes to the French Impressionists. In Manet's famous Dejeuner sur l'herbe, the nineteenth century is intruding into the ancient scene populated by classical nudes through the muslin dress, the hat abandoned on the grass, and the gentlemen fully dressed according to the latest fashion. The painting takes the (Baudelairean) test of modern reality being fit for artistic representation. It is for different reasons that Tennyson joins the artists who diligently decorated with Arthurian themes the Houses of Parliament, public schools or Oxford University. The Prince Consort Albert was painted in armour, to symbolize his chivalry as a modern gentleman, and it is as the paragon of the enlightened leader that Tennyson reinscribes the figure of the fabled prince who would come again to rescue his people from the Victorian wasteland. No antiquarian interest to revive the past, as that which had prompted the romantics or which was spurring the medievalizing Pre-Raphaelites, lurks behind Tennyson's reinvention of the Arthurian romance. The literary mode itself – the Hellenistic idylls of Alexandria in the third century B.C. – is an acutely self-conscious medley. “Idyll” is the Greek word for “little picture” (eidos): a shape, form, figure. The twelve books of the Idylls are a deliberate reinscription of a figure. It is Hallam's reading of Malory's romance (which knew several editions in the nineteenth century), a linguistic event, that induces the epiphany of Arthur in the poet's imagination like a modern gentleman. The poet watching Arthur's bark from the shore in the midst of a multitude is the allegory of a type of consensus of experience different from that of the romantics of the Wordsworthian school (consensus between the self and the natural world): this is Arthur, a sign, a figure sailing down the river of textuality, shared by all of us through knowledge of culture's narratives. The Victorian reinscription of the medieval ethos means its transformation into a fine poise between the need to castigate a materialist culture through fantasy worlds and the equally justified duty to answer the demands of historical praxis.

             Where yet in sleep I seem'd

            To sail with Arthur under looming shores,

            Point after point: till on to dawn, when dreams

            Begin to feel the truth and stir of day,

            To me, methought, who waited with a crowd,

            There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore

            King Arthur, like a modern gentleman

            Of stateliest port: and all the people cried,

            „Arthur is come again: he cannot die.”

            Then those that stood upon the hill behind,

            Repeated – “Come again, and thrice as fair”;

            And, further inland, voices echo'd – “Come

            With all good things, and war shall be no more.”

            At this a hundred bells began to peal,

            That with the sound I woke, and heard indeed

            The clear church-bells ring in the Christmas-morn.

Heterogeneity of narrative modes and the polemical dialogue with tradition characterize the novelists who launched on their careers between the thirties and the middle of the century

The main strand of what is now known as “the golden age of the novel” is professed realism, foregrounding social rather than human types. “The Art of Novels”, according to Thackeray, is to represent Nature: to convey as strongly as possible the sentiment of reality.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born at Calcutta, India, where his father was in the service of East India Company. While Jane Austen had contented herself with a mildly humorous view of romantically inefficient characters, Thackeray extricates himself completely from romantic modes of vision and narrative conventions, while furtively looking back to earlier fictional modes of the eighteenth century. He starts on his career by burlesquing popular contemporary novelists for Fraser's Magazine. In Rebecca and Rowena, his parodic continuation of Scott's Ivanhoe, Thackeray shows the hero unhappily married to the frigid Rowena, and Robin Hood a tamed conservative. Sharing in the cynical view of the age, Thackeray has the destructive flow of time put an ironical end to any kind of human illusion. Life is understood in terms of change and development, the momentous patterns of history dissolving into a meaningless sequence and progressive decrepitude. As well as Stendhal, in La Chartreuse de Parme, Thackeray brings heroic history round to a dead end in Vanity Fair. The novel, with its Waterloo episode, is actually subtitled “a novel without a hero”.

Although not an innovation, the author developing an overt relationship with the reader brings Vanity Fair closer to our century. At the beginning of the novel, the intruding narrator who identifies himself with the author draws attention to the various narrative modes in which he could develop his subject: as a sentimental romance, a heroic romance, or a rogue story. What is going on has obviously become less important for the novelist (who was also a reputed critic) than how the events are narrated. The obvious conclusion is that form prevails over story, rhetoric and the structuring of events practically changing the entire meaning. In fact, there is no stable meaning embedded in a text, but only the provisional effect of a rhetorical play. The novel contains its own figure, mise-en-abyme: the fair with its circus is the emblem of the entire society as merely a delusive show of disguised intentions, and at the same time a mirror of its making. In the Prologue, the narrator refers to himself as the manager of the Performance, and to the characters as puppets of varying flexibility and liveliness. The dehumanised early Victorian society comes to life through the cynical vehicle of Thackeray's puppeteering. His humanity is one of types, not of individuals, so that, at the end of the novel, the narrator may conclude: Let us shut up the puppets, for our play is played out. The iron network of social relationships traps the individual, leaving him no option, no choice. What can a young yet clever orphan do in a society where money and rank prevail over individual achievement? I think I could have been a good woman, if I had 5,000 a year, confesses Becky Sharp, the energetic opportunist so characteristic of the nineteenth-century novel. Becky is not a wolf among innocent sheep but the very product of the ruthless capitalist mechanism. As an orphan, she is deprived of any honest means of acceding to an honourable social position. Her defiant gesture of throwing away Samuel Johnson's Dictionary on leaving school is symbolical of the demise of the Enlightenment humanistic and moral rationality. The new social grammar was such as to render the Dictionary useless: it could spell out no rules for social success. What follows is anything but Johnsonian learning, decorum and propriety. From Miss Pinkerton's School for girls, Becky accompanies her rich friend, Amelia Sedley, to her home at Vauxhall, where she meets her brother Jos. After an unsuccessful attempt to seduce him, she takes a position as a governess to two young girls in the household of Sir Pitt Crawley. She manages to see herself married to Rawdon Crawley, who is consequently disinherited by his jealous father. Even if dishonestly earned, their money (Rawdon's from gambling, Becky's from flirting with old aristocrats) allow them to live on a grand scale. Her scandalous behaviour makes Rawdon leave her in the end, and Becky finally manages to get hold of Jos Sedley. A few months after their reunion his family learns that he died at Aix-la-Chapele under obscure circumstances. Thanks to his insurance, Becky comes into a large sum of money, and the author does not rule out the sinister possibility that she might have poisoned him.

And yet Becky has something fascinating about her, in her revolutionary endeavour to change the rules of social games, arbitered by class and wealth. She does not passively accept her lot, manifesting herself as a disruptive social force in a society that had recently experienced the end of the age of reason and classical rigour and a progressive decay – material and moral – of the aristocracy.

The plot of narratorial action, doubling up the third person chronodiegesis in an authorial novel (with the author entering as narrator) in Vanity Fair is a nineteenth-century clone of Fielding's fictional strategy, which in the eighteenth century looked like a textual analogue of the Deists' God as original creator, but subsequently allowing the machinery of the universe to work according to its own objective laws. Similarly, Thackeray displays demiurgic omniscience and comments upon his creation, as it has a separate existence from its creator's, evolving according to the generic rules inscribed within romance, rogue story, etc. They are not arbitrarily invented by each individual writer but commonly shared with the readership.

The ontological uncertainty generated by the metaphysical crisis steals gradually in, also bearing upon narrative, which undergoes multiple mediations: removed in time, framed, perspectivised. In the novels written in the later half of the century, J. Hillis Miller (Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch, 1975) notices a passage from objectivism to perspectivism: the limited vision of a single person is destabilised. In The History of Henry Esmond (1852), not only is the protagonist's third-person narrative framed as “memoirs” by his daughter, Rachel Esmond Warrington, and by a first-person ironic statement on the “Tragic Muse”, providing the wising up perspective of old age, but the narrator himself alters his mode of vision. This is not an authorial (omniscient) but a figural novel (focalized through one of the characters). There is also a bid for realism in the shift from historical to ethical (See Terry Eagleton, From Criticism to Ideology, 1976) and in the characters' disenchantment with heroes and romantic feelings. The narrator sizes up history like Winslow Homer, the American painter who turned his back on David and Delacroix in his homely representations of historical action and characters. Esmond remembers having seen King Louis XIV – the Sun King, “the type and model of kinghood” – in his old age, as a “little wrinkled man, pock-marked, and with a great periwig and red heels to make him look tall”. However, Thackeray departs from Hogarth and Fielding, acknowledged as masters, in his sketch of the near past. It is a Whig version of the attempt to reinstate the Stuarts on the throne in the person of James III. The “Old Pretender” is a ridiculous personage, a narrative device serving Thackeray's political agenda of debunking the pretences and the unreasonable claims of the absolutist monarchy and of the bloods and dandies brought into his train. James passes a night writing a madrigal for a typically “Cruelle Belle” of the eighteenth century, a pastime whereby he loses both the girl and the cause, vainly fought by his old-fashioned loyalists.

Social satire broadens into a bitter realisation of the narrow ken of life's resources in fulfilling an idealist's cravings. The protagonist's disillusionment in love, religion and politics works as a “realist operator” (Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language), i.e. effecting an impression of realism through the representation of common characters and unheroic actions. Rachel, the wife of the fourth Viscount of Castlewood, is forced to admit that her Francis is no Jove or other “supreme ruler”, but a coward, a sensualist, and, occasionally,  a blundering drunk. She forsakes (initially, in her heart) the “god of the honeymoon”, and falls for Esmond, the much younger “tutor” of her daughter. Esmond himself, educated as an ardent catholic, lives out the disappointing experience of discovering in Holt, who had intoxicated his childhood with stories of martyrdom, a scheming Jesuit priests, more interested in politics than in religion. He is a master of disguises (also in a literal sense, as an “expert practitioner”, ready to exchange a military coat and cloak with a farmer's smock).

Consequently, the hero turns from faith to... trade, assuming the cassock and bands in the mind of someone who “mounts a merchant's desk, for a livelihood”.

Disappointed by the beautiful but heartless and shallow Beatrix, Esmond settles down in a marriage with her mother, Rachel, the dutiful wife emulating the Biblical model, and yet with a Dulcinea figure lurking behind her in the dark hues of the canvas...

It is the chiaroscuro of a new genesis: the realist tradition in fiction.

In the heaven of lately resurrected Victorians, Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) is the brightest Nova. Gabriel Iosipovici included studies in Dickens in a collection entitled The Modern English Novel, and critics approach his works in the light of such postmodern concepts as “the decomposing self” or “dialogic fiction”. What strikes critics today in his mature novels, when Dickens has outgrown his taste for picturesque characters and the loose concatenation of events in the picaro tradition, is no longer the wide social canvases, the galleries of vivid characters, individualized by comical eccentricities, phrases or mannerisms, so that readers could remember them over the long span of their serialization before publication in the bulky three-deckers. It is his concern for architectonics that is of more appeal to the contributors of academic case studies: the carefully wrough parallelisms, the presence of what Barthes (S/Z) calls the 'symbolic code”: basic dyadic pairs, repeated contrasts, binary polarities, contrasts or pairings with thematic and archetypal resonance.

What Walter Bagehot could notice as early as 1858 in his essay on Clough's Poems was the disappearance of the Voltairean self and view of reality. The arrogant, universal, rational Voltairean ego had been replaced by a multitude of individual selves constituting reality in a particular, incomplete linguistic frame: We frame to ourselves some image which we know to be incomplete. Bagehot's contemporaries could no longer write Voltaire's sentences (Mr. Clough's Poems), as the finite beings living in the world can only construe imperfect, halting, changing images of the universal, divine subjectivity. Writing on Dickens, he also notices that his perception of city life takes stock of its being fragmented, disconnected, the enlarged multiplied and grotesquely animated attributes of his characters being the phenomenological effect of the distorted growth of industrial mass production, with its uncanny blending of multiplicity and repetition. It is not the novelist's realistic, objective view that identifies mannerisms but a vivification of separate attributes as the result of a prioripetrification”, lethal reductiveness of life. Dickens's characterization is not of a mimetic but of a hermeneutic, interpretational nature. In l953 Dorothy Van Ghent resumed Bagehot's criticism into a more markedly historical (i.e. construing the individual as the product of the environment) approach: The English Novel: Form and Function. She comments on Dickens's strange process of interchange in which objects in the material world acquire a malicious and unnatural vitality, while human beings are reduced to the condition of inert objects or endlessly repeated mechanical processes. Dickens's art is viewed as a direct response to the processes of nineteenth-century reification, or the reduction of processes to things: People were becoming things (the things that money can buy or that are the means for making money, or for exalting prestige in the abstract…were becoming deanimated, robbed of their souls, and things were usurping the prerogatives of animated creatures [13]. The thwarted and distorting patterns of life bear on the patterns of fictional characterization. Dickens's are no longer rounded characters but abstracted and enlarged incidental characteristics. The cultural critique demanded by Arnold materializes into the structural artifice requested later by Henry James: an aesthetic isomorphism.

In our opinion, what really changes in Dickens is a new phenomenology of perception. The romantic consensus of experience between self and world brings the two realms together ensuring their communication, while allowing them to keep their separate identities – idem, selfhood. With Dickens, this selfhood dissolves. In his mature novels, we witness a process of what Merleau-Ponty calls “the becoming-nature of man... the becoming-man of nature[14]. It is not a nineteenth-century industrial reality that modifies the idea of selfhood but a new outlook on the interpretational nature of the human body. Dickens's character is a decentred subjectivity, an embodied interpreter. Things have become correlative to his body, perceived with his body. The perceptual world is “laid-out” by an encoding body schema. Things are no longer a meaning for the understanding but a structure to be perceived by the body. Victorian society is mapped as a prison, school, as a taming game, the need for evasion, as an illusionary circus.




[1]    Dickens and Other Victorians, Essays in Honour of Philip Collins, Edited by Joanne Shatock, Macmillan, 1988

[2]     Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Brontë, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor, Peter Lang, 1993.

[3]     Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, Cambridge University Press, 1995

[4]     Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., The University of Chicago, 1952, p. 269.

[5]     I. Kant, Op. cit., p. 257

[6]     G.D. Klingopulos, in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, 6. From Dickens to Hardy, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 62

[7]     Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, Linguistics and the Study of Literature, Cornell University Press, 1975.

[8]     Marion Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988, p. 16.

[9]     Ibidem.

[10] Jacques Lacan, Écrits, I, Editions du Seuil, 1971, pp. 125-135.

[11] Christopher Ricks, Alfred Tennyson, Second Edition, Macmillan 1989.

[12] Elaine Jordan, Alfred Tennyson, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[13] Dorothy Van Ghent apud Steven Connor (editor), Charles Dickens, Longman Critical Readers, 1996.

[14] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Physiology of Perception, VI..



* As we are tracing Browning's evolution in an epistemologic picture of Victorian literature, we stick to the original chronology and division into volumes.



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