George Eliot, Joyce and Cambridge

Michael Mason

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.

The episode in literary history which MacCabe deplores is a thing with uncertain boundaries referred to as ‘classic realism’. Not for the first time, it is George Eliot who is picked out for most attention as the author of classic realist texts. The specific point of comparison with Joyce is the two writers’ treatment of dialogue in their fiction. According to MacCabe, Joyce in Dubliners avoids setting up a viciously hierarchical relation between an ‘object-language’, the dialogue, and a ‘meta-language’, the authorial text, by declining to use inverted commas. In contrast is cited the conversation between Mr Brooke and Dagley in Chapter 39 of Middlemarch.

The argument breaks down at the first hurdle, as a matter of fact, because Joyce’s dislike of inverted commas (though interesting in other respects) is trivial for the purposes of MacCabe’s case. This is what Joyce had to say about the matter: ‘I think the page reads better with the dialogue between dashes ... I think the commas used in English dialogue are most unsightly and give an impression of unreality.’ Joyce rejected inverted commas, but he replaced them with a device, the line-initial dash, which discriminates the object-language of dialogue just as expressly as inverted commas do. What is more, the attraction of the dash for Joyce was the enhanced sense of the ‘reality’ of his fiction which it afforded. This is perhaps not directly inconsistent with MacCabe’s account of what Joyce was up to, but it certainly consorts awkwardly with his view that George Eliot’s treatment of dialogue indicates an (unJoycean) ‘conviction that the real can be displayed and examined through a perfectly transparent language.’

Mr Brooke’s conversation with Dagley is not quoted by MacCabe, but the reader who turns it up will find that George Eliot does not entirely respect the separation between language inside and language outside inverted commas. At one point in the passage, it is said of Dagley that he was ‘only the more inclined to “have his say” with a gentleman who walked away from him’. The representation of the words in inverted commas differs from that used when the same utterance (or is it?) appears in Dagley’s fully reported speech: ‘An’ I will speak, too, I’ll hev my say – supper or no.’ The stylistic and syntactic environment of the authorial discourse has exerted an influence on Dagley’s words, pushing them into a position somewhere between dialogue and description. MacCabe’s account of the distinction between quoted and unquoted discourse in George Eliot cannot cope with this example. It is admittedly a small one, but a damaging point for MacCabe’s argument about Eliot and Joyce may seem to ensue from it. In Dubliners, Joyce would never have permitted himself a fuzziness about an utterance of the ‘have his say’/‘hev my say’ type. In this sense, his practice is closer than George Eliot’s to that which MacCabe calls ‘classic realist’. Historically, George Eliot is transitional between a fairly loose convention for separating quoted and authorial discourse, and the stricter one that had come to preside in the period of Joyce’s early fiction. Hence her fiction contains only occasional instances of the older practice.

Many thousands of miles from Cambridge, at a much less famous centre, Bard College in New York State, Professor Mark Lambert has been noticing and thinking about quotation, and the presentation of quotation, in the English novel. He has written a short and remarkable book[†] on some aspects of the subject which makes MacCabe’s comments on Joyce and Eliot seem even more facile, and inadequate to this complicated feature of novel-writing. Simply on the question of punctuation and lay-out Lambert has a tangled situation to describe – which he does neither ostentatiously nor laboriously, but in typically observant asides and footnotes. Moll Flanders first appeared with no quotation-marks separating dialogue from narration. Richardson used them sometimes at the beginning of each line of a quoted utterance (a convention still used for verse), and sometimes dropped them altogether and assigned each utterance to a new paragraph. Conventions for punctuation and lay-out hardened around the 1830s, but in other respects the forms that quoted and unquoted dialogue took in the 19th century, and the interplay between them and between dialogue and narration, were continuously variable and inventive. The complexity of the subject can be suggested by setting side by side two examples from Dickens noticed by Lambert.

  Says the Coroner, is that boy here? Says the beadle, no, sir, he is not here. Says the Coroner, go and fetch him then. In the absence of the active and intelligent, the Coroner converses with Mr Tulkinghorn.

  Plornish became suspicious. Seemed to scent a creditor. Said, ‘Ah, Yes. Well. He didn’t know what satisfaction he could give any gentleman respecting that family. What might it be about, now?’

If the high Victorian novel is the leading example of classic realist writing, how are we to explain a crossing of metaphysical boundaries such as occurs at the end of this passage from The Newcomes?

  ‘How much a glass, think you?’ says Fred, filling another bumper. ‘A half-crown, think ye? – a half-crown, Honeyman? By cock and pye, it is not worth a bender.’ He says this in the manner of the most celebrated tragedian of the day. He can imitate any actor, tragic or comic; any known Parliamentary orator or clergyman, any saw, cock, cloop of a cork wrenched from a bottle and guggling of wine into the decanter afterwards, bee-buzzing, little boy up a chimney, &c. He imitates people being ill on board a steam-packet so well that he makes you die of laughing: his uncle the Bishop could not resist this comic exhibition, and gave Fred a cheque for a comfortable sum of money; and Fred, getting cash for the cheque at the ‘Cave of Harmony’, imitated his uncle the Bishop and his Chaplain, winding up with his Lordship and the Chaplain being unwell at sea – the Chaplain and the Bishop quite natural and distinct.

  ‘How much does a glass of this sack cost thee, Charley?’ resumes Fred after this parenthesis. ‘You say it is not dear ...’

Lambert’s main topic is ‘suspended quotation’: characters’ utterances which are substantially interrupted by the author’s discourse. One of the most famous utterances in English fiction affords an example:

— Good G—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?

George Eliot uses the device frequently in the Dagley-Mr Brooke conversation: ‘ “My good fellow, you’re drunk, you know,” said Mr Brooke confidentially but not judiciously. “Another day, another day.” ’ Indeed it turns out from some counting that Professor Lambert has done that George Eliot is similar to Dickens, and that both are distinct from their contemporaries, in their liking for this form. Adam Bede uses it as much as David Copperfield: that is, more than five times as often as Jane Eyre. Here is a surprising pattern of convergence and divergence in the Victorian novel which could not be registered in the kind of account offered by MacCabe (for whom the Dagley-Mr Brooke exchange is simply ‘surrounded by a meta-language’). Incidentally, the suspended quotation permitted a particular type of non-‘realist’ desegregation of quoted and unquoted material, through the repetition of the last quoted words of a character immediately after the author’s intervention:

  ‘I am proud to see,’ said Mr Carker, with a servile stooping of his neck, which the revelations making by his eyes and teeth proclaim to be a lie, ‘I am proud to see that my humble offering is graced by Mrs Dombey’s hand ...’

Lambert has a fascinating discussion, ranging from Keats’s ‘The Cap and Bells’ to Nabokov, of the function of this device of the ‘catch-word’ suspended quotation.

His book is clearly a very damaging document as far as MacCabe’s attacks on classic realism and academic literary criticism are concerned. The treatment of dialogue in 19th-century fiction is the starting-point for MacCabe’s hostile account of this part of English literature, and his remarks are shown, by Lambert’s examples, to be fatally simplistic – remarks inspired more, perhaps, by an already-drawn mental diagram of how literary history should be than by a look at the facts. Even if the diagram were correct, the attack would stand in need of justification. Indeed it would need rescuing from what seems to be a very serious contradiction at its centre. MacCabe’s position is that classic realist narratives ‘exhibit and repress the reality of language’. But a supposition is made which is never examined: namely, that this activity by these narratives, if it could be shown to take place, would be a bad thing. Why shouldn’t a novel or short story exhibit and repress the reality of language? Partly there must be at work here an assumption about the obligations of narrative which is, by a not excessive stretching of the term, itself ‘realist’. One could substitute alternative obligations. It may even be suggested as precisely a point of interest and value about traditional narrative that its relationship to language is peculiar.

‘Repress’ is of course a strong word, and deliberately used by MacCabe. He wants to imply that the traditional narrative’s unfaithfulness to linguistic reality is bad in the way that any repressiveness is bad. Unfortunately (and here the contradiction comes in), the object of repression in his scheme is associated with language itself. This topic is dealt with in some of the most robustly pretentious sections of his book, and the argument is consequently hard to follow. Desire, through De Saussure’s idea of the importance of ‘difference’ in a linguistic system, becomes identified with the basic workings of language. But if desire is intrinsic in this way to language – essential if words are to bear meaning, for example – how can a classic realist text ‘repress’ it any more than any other text? This difficulty is perhaps catered for in the notion that such a text ‘exhibits’ the reality of language as well as repressing it, but in terms of the argument the two things cannot both occur. If they did, Middlemarch would be written in English, and also in gibberish.

MacCabe’s case against classic realist literature is so careless in its description of the facts, and so unsatisfactory in its argument, that the associated attack on academic English is disabled. It does not make sense to ask, ‘Is MacCabe correct in chastising the academic critics of Joyce?’ – when his contribution to the field is to discover, for example, an attitude to dialogue in Dubliners allegedly less strict than that in Middlemarch.

Professor Lambert is accurate and subtle about dialogue in Victorian fiction (and his book amounts to much more than an enumeration of devices – this is the groundwork for a persuasive argument about the psychology of Dickens’s authorship). His territory is limited, however; productive because it is fairly new. The important presentational features of English printed narrative could be inventoried quite quickly by a handful of academics, even at normal rates of productivity. Lambert’s investigations in Victorian literature are like the work John Sutherland has issued over the last decade on the publishing history of Victorian fiction: a fresh, vigorous and definite line of attack, which couldn’t possibly occupy the energies of a whole academic establishment.

That establishment does not look very propitious in its arrangements. Colin MacCabe is struggling for tenure, but it is tenure at Cambridge. Professor Lambert has tenure, but at an inconspicuous Liberal Arts College. His book is better than MacCabe’s, though less confident. Lambert writes almost apologetically; his book is full of nervous jokes, and is colloquial and avowedly personal in its approach. I can only remember one occurrence of the first person singular personal pronoun in MacCabe, and there are certainly no jokes. But the most worrying element in the picture offered by these two books relates to the way in which MacCabe’s falls short by measures that he, like any academic critic, would acknowledge. The business of Joyce and inverted commas is not the only error or massaging of fact in the book, but I believe this says more about academic criticism in general than about any particular branch of it. I was struck by one remark of his concerning George Eliot, because of a personal interest. He finds in Middlemarch a ‘view of science as a matter of experiment’. In 1971 I published an article which argued that George Eliot’s account of science in this novel is a much more complicated affair (being, roughly speaking, one deriving from William Whewell in which priority is given to hypotheses). The article seems to me to be broadly correct, and it was published in a well-known academic journal. But English studies do not work like other academic disciplines, although, through the trappings of journals, footnotes and so forth, this is the impression sought. There is nothing odd in MacCabe’s neglect of my article or anyone else’s, for, English being what it is, it seldom matters if you know what others have said. English is uncertain about what constitutes a reasonable chain of inference (except in the case of some inferences about authorship, historical influence, textual detail and linguistic meaning), and this makes its conclusions uncertain. There are scarcely any generally shared principles in the subject, apart from elementary factual ones.

English academics know this, and it gives them a great deal of anxiety. In no other university subject, probably, do the practitioners so habitually express (among themselves) fundamental doubts about what they are doing. Yet a great deal is expected of English. It is a major academic institution, and in the public eye. Many recent schools or lines of thought about how it should proceed look like desperate responses to a requirement for intellectual certainty from a subject which does not permit much certainty. The meaning of a text seems to involve the intentions of the writer, but since there is generally no possibility of identifying these, and we aren’t even sure what we are looking for, it is proposed that intentiality should be discarded. Again, we haven’t the slightest idea about the probabilities, or the psychology, of apparent ‘borrowings’ in literature; strained but non-corrigible deductions about influences are made from similarities between texts; so it is proposed that such similarities should be Considered without reference to causality. Even MacCabe’s book (antagonistic though it is to academic English), with its strange severity about the unfaithfulness of certain, novels to the ‘reality of language’, and its wish to make them perform like other texts rather than do something which they are peculiarly good at, may be seen as the response of an academic subject which is having too much respectability urged upon it.

[*] 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.