Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the past, a collection of essays published in recent years (with one, on Richardson and Milton, dating from as long ago as 1968), is richly written, contains many sharp critical insights, and shows the author to have a good ear for nuances of language in the literary works she chooses to discuss. At the same time, she reveals some straining in her pursuit of the chief ‘argument’ – namely, that half-readings, ‘failed’ readings and forgettings of other authors can make up an important part of a writer’s experience and creativity.
This argument, an adjustment of Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence, is a reasonable one, best illustrated here in the essays on Virginia Woolf. Gillian Beer persuasively suggests that in her first novel, The Voyage Out, not only do Woolf’s descriptions of a South American forest echo those of Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, but also her characters talk of sexual evolution in terms drawn from a kind of generalised Darwinism. More original is the assertion that Woolf ‘remembers’ John Tyndall’s work on light and heat when describing the colour of the sky as ‘the blue that has escaped registration’ (Between the Acts) – Tyndall having established in the 1870s that the blue of the sky was distance, not colour. The very structure of The Waves, with its interacting life-histories, ‘parallels’, according to Beer, Tyndall’s description of the movement of a wave:
Every wave has a back and front, and, if you clearly seize the image of the moving wave, you will see that every particle of water along the front of the wave is in the act of rising, while every particle along its back is in the act of sinking. The particles in front reach in succession the crest of the wave, and as soon as the crest is passed they begin to fall. They then reach the furrow or sinus of the wave, and can sink no further. Immediately afterwards they become the front of the succeeding wave, rise again until they reach the crest, and then sink as before. Thus, while the waves pass onward horizontally, the individual particles are simply lifted up and down vertically. Observe a sea-fowl, or, if you are a swimmer, abandon yourself to the action of the waves; you are not carried forward, but simply rocked up and down. The propagation of a wave is the propagation of a form, and not the transference of the substance which constitutes the wave.
In her essay on Virginia Woolf, Hume and Leslie Stephen, Beer comes close to Bloom’s idea of literary ‘fathers’ when she discusses the importance of Hume, through Woolf’s own father’s work on him, for the characterisation of Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. As she points out, Hume’s description of mankind in general as ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’, (A Treatise on Human Nature) lies behind both Stephen’s pessimistic view of human nature and his daughter’s very method of fiction. Not surprisingly, Woolf disclaimed having read her father’s works. But, as Beer puts it, ‘her earlier familiarity with his work had taken the form of dipping, scanning, listening, a flighty and intrigued resistance which allows rereading and pillaging and avoids immersion.’
Actually, the argument here is less novel than its ornamentation. The essay ‘Carlylean Transports’, while interesting and locally very good on Carlyle’s linguistic strategies, remains merely suggestive and seems oddly truncated at the end. Beer analyses with avowed sympathy Carlyle’s ‘barbarian exuberance’, his ‘leaping across boundaries, heaping the spoils of language together in such a way that analysis is confounded, and social as well as discursive categories are in disarray’. Taking a footnote to one of Carlyle’s early articles, she shows how his extraordinary taste for metaphor breaks all known bounds. ‘Carlyle is determined to tramp down the encompassing fences. This activity can be viewed as vandalism or as liberation.’ Beer recognises the importance of German writers for Carlyle: not only Jean Paul Richter’s liberating (or vandalising) fantastic qualities, but also Kant’s more formidable ones. Beer suggests that Carlyle’s ‘balked reading’ of Kant made the latter ‘a vigorous figure within Carlyle’s intellectual dramas’. It is an interesting idea, but Beer is content merely to raise it.
The problem is that she is anxious not to write crudely about the intellectual or artistic influence of one writer on another. In avoiding crassness, she sometimes takes refuge in nebulousness. This is most apparent in her uneasy introduction. Determined ‘not to fall into the habit of assuming the evolutionist model of literary development, so often taken for granted’, she takes flight into the following baffling sentence: ‘Engaging with the difference of our past in our present makes us aware of the trajectory of our arrival and of the insouciance of the past – their [sic] neglectfulness of our prized positions and our assumptions.’ In the essays local excellences often jostle for space with oracular utterances which may be commonplace or comic. Thus on Middlemarch she rewrites Wordsworth: ‘Defamiliarisation is a procedure of englamouring the humdrum.’
As it happens, the most successful essay is one which doesn’t really illustrate her thesis about non- or misreadings of past authors at all. It is a piece of astute criticism of the language of circulation in Middlemarch. Blood circulates, gossip circulates and money circulates, and George Eliot connects all these forms of circulation in the novel. As Beer says, not only are such words as ‘telling’, ‘retailing’ and ‘account’ common to both story-telling and banking, but credit too belongs to both concerns, while utterance has a specialised use in the City and legal circles: ‘it is bringing goods for sale; it requires a buyer as well as a seller for its meaning.’ An interesting comparison is made between George Eliot’s use of such language and Walter Bagehot’s contemporary analysis of the City panic of 1866, Lombard Street. On occasion Gillian Beer’s insights are expressed with pleasing brevity. Writing of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, she notes: ‘Before determinism, necessity required or fate struck.’ ‘But Fate’s interventions are selective; determinism is all-inclusive.’
Scattered throughout these essays are interesting references to Victorian science, a subject in which Gillian Beer is extremely well-read and which she rightly thinks important to our appreciation of Victorian novels. She makes good use of Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall. And how well they wrote, combining truthful observation with excitement and imaginativeness. Here is Darwin on his journeys in the forests of South America:
The forest was so impenetrable that no one who had not beheld it could imagine so entangled a mass of dying and dead trunks. I am sure that often for more than ten minutes together our feet never touched the ground and we were frequently ten or fifteen feet above it, so that the seamen as a joke called out the soundings. At other times we crept one after another on our hands and knees under the rotten trunks. In the lower part of the mountain noble trees with winter’s bark and the laurel-like sassafras with fragrant leaves, and others the names of which I do not know were matted together by a trailing bamboo or cane. Here we were more like fishes struggling in a net than any other creature.
Huxley writes lovingly about the extraordinary scale of living organisms, from the microscopic to the gigantic: ‘Again, think of the microscopic fungus – a mere infinitesimal ovoid particle, which finds space and duration enough to multiply into countless millions in the body of a living fly; and then of the wealth of foliage, the luxuriance of flower and fruit, which lies between this bald sketch of a plant and the giant pine of California, towering to the dimensions of a cathedral spire, or the Indian fig, which covers acres with its profound shadow, and endures while nations and empires come and go around its vast circumference.’ These writers had a sense of the marvellous, but it did not run away with them. They wrote of difficult subjects, and their language took the strain.
The meaning of Gillian Beer’s subtitle, ‘Essays in Narrative from Woolf to Sidney’, is revealed in the third essay, ‘Pamela and Arcadia: Reading Class, Genre, Gender’, which begins with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the Arcadia and proceeds to discuss the relationship between Richardson’s novel and Sidney’s romance. Retitled ‘Pamela: rethinking Arcadia’, the essay appears, in a slightly different form, in Samuel Richardson: Tercentenary Essays. Beer compares Sidney’s ‘directness and eroticism’ in the use of cross-dressing for seduction purposes with Richardson’s covert ‘titillation’ of the reader. Where Sidney is openly witty and unconcerned, in Pamela, as Beer succinctly puts it, ‘the combination of declared revulsion and uninterpreted sensation is deeply secretive, as was Richardson’s own position in the text.’
In a set of essays devoted to Richardson we might expect to find some discussion of the knotty problems, moral and aesthetic, raised by this secretiveness. The introduction, however, makes it clear that the contributors, though not homogeneous, all eschew ‘the old critical condescension towards Richardson’ as ‘bourgeois printer’ or ‘self-righteous moralist’. While more than one essayist refers to Ian Watt’s description of Pamela as a ‘mixture of sermon and striptease’, none admits the view to be correct. None, however, sets out to refute it. Instead, there are essays on the London locations in Clarissa (the Town is Lovelace’s arena, the City Clarissa’s); the connections between Clarissa and Richardson’s meditative work, Meditations Collected from the Sacred Books; And adapted to the Different Stages of a Deep Distress; Gloriously surmounted by Patience, Piety, and Resignation. Being those mentioned in the History of Clarissa as drawn up by her for her own Use (1750), of which only two copies survive; female Richardsonians; the illustrations to the novels; and Richardson’s letters.
Many of these essays are interesting. Tom Keymer’s on the Meditations is a valuable piece of original research, as is Isobel Grundy’s on Richardson’s female followers. Pat Rogers writes a lively essay about Richardson’s social standing compared to that of his contemporaries Young and Johnson, using a print of the assembled company at fashionable Tunbridge Wells in 1748, with Richardson’s description of his own part in the scene as a man apart, ‘a sly sinner, creeping along the very edges of the walks, getting behind benches: one hand in his bosom, the other held up to his chin, as if to keep it in its place: afraid of being seen, as a thief of detection’. This is a wonderfully sharp self-portrait to set against the puffed-up self-congratulation of the letters. Peter Sabor tells us that at least seven hundred letters still remain unpublished, and he argues that only publication of the complete correspondence would correct the received opinion of Richardson as a coy, self-satisfied, self-obsessed figure. I wonder if this is so, and if Richardson revealed would turn out to be any less elusive than Richardson hiding.