George Eliot, Joyce and Cambridge
For those outside Cambridge University who are curious about recent events in the English Faculty there, and who want to assess the ‘repulsiveness’ of either party, or of both, Colin MacCabe’s book on Joyce[*] is among the few pieces of hard evidence available. One tendency of the stories coming out of Cambridge has been to represent MacCabe as an irenic figure, peaceably intent on exploring and teaching European culture and English grammar while bayed about by his attackers. To read the Joyce book is to be quickly disabused of at least this impression of what is going on at Cambridge. It is a tremendously aggressive piece of writing. Its aggression is directed both at current academic literary criticism, and at certain texts or traditions in English literature itself. For MacCabe, the two targets are connected: the literary criticism he attacks is that which makes the same assumptions about language and reality as the literature he dislikes.
[*] James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word (Macmillan Press, 1979).
[†] Dickens and the Suspended Quotation by Mark Lambert. Yale University Press, 208 pp., £10.40, 19 February, 0 300 02555 6.
Vol. 3 No. 8 · 7 May 1981
SIR: Michael Mason (LRB, 2 April) seems on one occasion to provide evidence for the argument he is opposing. Discussing the conversation between Mr Brooke and Dagley in Chapter 39 of Middlemarch, he singles out George Eliot’s remark that Dagley was ‘only the more inclined to “have his say” with a gentleman who walked away from him’ as an example of her failure to respect any absolute distinction between what he terms dialogue and authorial text. He then comments on the different form taken by the quoted utterance (‘I’ll hev my say’) when it appears in Dagley’s fully reported speech, and ascribes the difference to ‘fuzziness’ on George Eliot’s part.
The second point deserves more time than Mason allows it and, I think, another interpretation. For the fact that the utterance has to be translated into ‘standard’ English before it can appear in the authorial text surely indicates a substantial difference between the forms of expression felt to be appropriate inside and outside inverted commas.
Throughout the chapter Dagley is portrayed as a captive figure, even at the level of incidental comedy. His house is called Freeman’s End ‘by way of sarcasm, to imply that a man was free to quit if he chose, but that there was no earthly “beyond” open to him.’ And his language – for example, the vocabulary of ‘Rinform’ which he has assimilated but cannot comprehend – enfolds him just as securely.
The authorial text, on the other hand, is committed to the proposition that ‘every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,’ and cannot afford to become associated with the views or the words of such a terminally intractable figure. Its capacity to move between idioms, to translate, asserts a freedom not available to the occupant of Freeman’s End, and implicitly judges him: although the judgment may not be an unkind one. I would suggest, therefore, that the distinction drawn between the two utterances (‘have his say’/‘hev my say’) reflects George Eliot’s desire to sharpen the ironies playing on Dagley, rather than what Mason fuzzily terms her ‘fuzziness’. This particular crossing of the metaphysical boundary separating dialogue from authorial text only enhances their separateness.
The episode can best be understood by referring to the theme of the chapter: Brooke’s attempts to preserve his self-esteem against a greater lucidity, on the one hand, and a greater opacity, on the other. Having with some difficulty seen off Dorothea – ‘Dorothea renewed the subject of the estate as they drove along, but Mr Brooke, not being taken unawares, got the talk under his own control’ – he is overwhelmed by Dagley. Indeed, the novel as a whole has much to say about the connections between mastery of language and mastery of experience. We remember how Dorothea wanted to learn Latin and Greek because ‘those provinces of masculine knowledge seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly.’ It can only explore such questions by itself occupying an ultimate standing-ground, from which the truths of Dorothea and Casaubon and Brooke and Dagley may be seen more truly.