Shuffling off

John Sutherland

  • Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction by Garrett Stewart
    Harvard, 403 pp, £19.80, December 1984, ISBN 0 674 19428 4
  • Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction by Barbara Hardy
    Owen, 215 pp, £12.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0611 X
  • Language and Class in Victorian England by K.C. Phillipps
    Basil Blackwell in association with Deutsch, 190 pp, £19.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 631 13689 4

The Victorian novelists are commonly supposed to have been soft on the subject of death: ‘one would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell’ is the best-known of literary criticisms. In fact, succeeding generations, while following Wilde’s sneering direction, have generally misread or skipped the protracted death-scenes that multiply in Victorian fiction. If they do not amuse or embarrass, Colonel Newcome’s weepy ‘Adsum,’ the Tullivers’ ‘In death they were not divided,’ Jo’s creaking cart, or Father Time’s ‘Done because we are too menny’ are decently ignored as forgivable lapses.

This condescension has recently been challenged, particularly by contemporary Dickensians. Dickens’s morbidity was the main item on the agenda of the 1981 Santa Cruz conference, where a number of speakers (Garrett Stewart among them) paid respectful attention to death and resurrection in the novelist’s work. Coincidentally, in 1982, Andrew Sanders’s Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist was published. Dickens was the subject of Garrett Stewart’s previous book, and is the main author discussed in Death Sentences. But his line is different from Sanders’s, who locates the Dickensian ambivalence about death in Dickens the man. Stewart’s critical method is more ambitious and fashionably trusts the text rather than the tale or the teller. His main proposition runs thus: as a form, the novel is dedicated to knowledge, to talking, to communication; when it confronts that whereof it cannot know – namely, death – fiction is forced into a peculiar paroxysmic condition. Stewart particularly values these passages (‘death sentences’, as he calls them) because during them the novel inescapably confronts a contradiction in its literary condition. The nature of the contradiction is described in a typical sub-Derridean paradox from the opening section: ‘Death stands as a pivotal moment for language on the edge of silence, for evocation on the verge of the invisible, for narratability on the brink of closure.’ Stewart goes on to argue that death drives the novel into a state of ultra, or pure, fictionality: ‘Death in fiction is the fullest instance of form indexing content, is indeed the moment when content, comprising the imponderables of negation and vacancy, can be found dissolving to pure style. Death in narrative yields, by yielding to, sheer style.’ Stewart believes that the novel when confronted with the crisis of a death scene, resorts to various self-revealing tricks, tropes and devices. It sidesteps, elides or ‘transposes’ in order to cross the gap between garrulity and silence.

Drowning is the form of death which most fascinates Stewart. This is the moment when, as folklore has it, the whole of life narrates itself instantaneously before the drowner’s eyes, ‘a last flash of self’, as Stewart calls it. In the pure fictionality of death scenes, the drowning death is the purest end, a ‘psychological epitome’ or ‘agnostic epiphany’. Following this line, he goes on to analyse Quilp’s watery death and argues it to be more important for an understanding of Dickens’s art than Nell’s euthanasia. Stewart meets the main challenge of The Tale of Two Cities head-on with a long and exceptionally close commentary designed to redeem Carton’s ‘It is a far, far better thing ...’ from its melodramatic stereotype. The scene, in Stewart’s words, ‘is not just an exercise in but an exploration of the style of dying as a narrative act, the clefts of its alert and crafted prose activated across narrative time to suggest the evanescent momentum of traversed intervals’.

Death Sentences has three main critical aspects. On the level of theory, we have Stewart’s contention that death scenes are ‘not a separable element but a model for the entire fictional enterprise’. This is upheld by a series of readings which extend theory into practical criticism. Thirdly, the book has a literary-historical dimension. Before the Romantics, according to Stewart, there was death as a brute fact but no literary engagement with mortality. Before the 19th century, characters in British fiction exited without ‘style’. As the incorporator of romanticism into the British novel, Dickens is thus the logical (and for Stewart the Dickensian a very convenient) starting-point: ‘fictional identity from Dickens forward is in multiple ways founded on death, or figured by its extremity.’ Moving forward, the book covers the later Victorian rhetoric of death scenery, through Modernist modulations in Conrad, Forster, Lawrence (a romantic throwback) and Woolf, to a conclusion in the Post-Modernist and supra-national fictions of Beckett, Pynchon and Nabokov.

The strongest element in Death Sentences, as in Stewart’s earlier Dickens and the Trials of Imagination, are the close readings, which are strikingly clever. The literary-historical coverage is conservative, and awkwardly national. Not to deal with American 19th-century writers (Melville, Hawthorne, Poe) seems perverse. And the Great-Traditional selection of British fiction ignores an array of minor works which it would have been well worth discussing. What, for instance, does Stewart make of the quite sizeable library of novels dealing with after-death experience? (I’m thinking of things like Mrs Oliphant’s A Beleaguered City, Arthur Machen’s tales, Aldous Huxley’s Time must have a stop, and a host of horror and SF.) But the main objection to Death Sentences is its self-consciously high-powered theoretical argument. The book was evidently written in the exuberance of the author’s conversion to the Derridean style. Often his sense of pleasure in his new deconstructive eloquence is infectious. But too often Stewart seems positively drunk on critical diction. This is how he sums up the death of Colonel Newcome: ‘To enact the absenting of presence which is any textual act, Thackeray alerts us to a sequence of assertions which are at the same time withdrawals: narrative regress as egress, all telling as sheer leavetaking.’ (Stewart means, I think, that Thackeray handles the tremendous scene reticently, and with few words.) In Nostromo, Stewart would have us believe that ‘beyond its parodistic Christology, Decoud’s last clause’ – ‘It is done’ – ‘is underwritten, which is only to say undermined, by an ironic grammatology.’ Jingling opacity is one kind of difficulty this book presents. Another is overloaded meaning, as when Stewart juggles three novels in one discriminating sentence: ‘If Jude the Obscure resembles Dickensian black comedy turned absurdist, the epitaphic aspirations of a John Chivery in Little Dorrit chilled to the bone, then the receding acknowledgment of Hades-bound presences in the narrative coda of The Newcomes provides the textual obverse of Amy Dorrit’s confidence in closural inscription, which seems for her the open-ended predication of a new “life story”.’ (If what?)

Barbara Hardy shares with Stewart a sense of the Victorian novel’s maturity, a maturity which exacts the full range of 20th-century exegetic skill. But in other respects the two critics are traditions apart. The gulf separating them in starkly evident in a long digression by the English Victorianist on the pervasive failure (in terms of taste and sensibility) of Dickens’s death scenes. For Hardy, these are often disastrous and never entirely risk-free. In her view, ‘Dickens’s representation of deathbed passions evolves, but he never entirely gets over a tendency to oscillate between crude rhetoric and subtle drama.’ Hardy’s extended discussions of the deaths of Nell and Paul Dombey are every bit as intelligent as Stewart’s, and designed to make a quite opposite point about troughs and peaks in Dickensian artistry.

The terms ‘form’ and ‘feeling’ have been refrains in Hardy’s criticism for the last ten years. Her starting-point here would seem to be George Eliot’s contention that the novel’s highest end is the extension of human sympathy. This noble purpose is the goal to which all the novel’s art (its ‘form’) is directed. Hardy deliberately employs the vague word ‘feeling’ in preference to more exact terminology available to her. ‘Feeling’ is not functional, like ‘sympathy’, nor is it necessarily finely tuned like ‘sensibility’, nor can it be classified, like the ‘emotions’. Hardy plots feeling, as it is notated in Victorian fiction, along an axis represented at the hard end by personification, and at the soft vague end (which interests her more) by the ‘topos of inexpressibility’. For Hardy, great fiction is engaged in an intolerable wrestle with words and feelings, a contest which it barely contrives to win. It is a mark of the Victorian novel’s maturity that at this historical period the form becomes ‘reflexive’ and analyses the nature of the feelings which it has always been able to articulate, and to generate in its readers.

Hardy conceives the masterworks of Victorian fiction as instruments (or formal constructs) which explore or utter feelings that otherwise lie too deep, or are too finely spun, for words. The novel is ‘an affective form’ which ‘at its best ... uses emotion to investigate emotion, in many forms’. She goes on to demonstrate this theorem by illustrative cases (‘particularities’, as she elsewhere calls them) taken from the fiction of Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, George Eliot, Hardy and James. As usual her commentary is essayistically loose. But one is struck by how good a reader she is. She is at her best when most closely interacting with the text, intelligently ‘feeling’ the novel, as it were. In the Dickens chapter, she illuminates the enlargement of Sikes in flight, with reference to the fire in which he strangely performs prodigies of heroism. To illustrate Thackeray’s complex serio-comic notation of feeling, she picks on the usually neglected Barry Lyndon. Hardy is on less good terms with Charlotte Brontë, a writer whom she seems to think rather too determined in her analyses of feeling (Brontë rarely uses ‘the topos of inexpressibility’). The Eliot chapter for half its length deals with allegory in the novels. The other half deals more freely with ‘narrators, actors and readers’, and the complicated webs of feeling set up among them. With Thomas Hardy, she concentrates largely on the Napoleonic Wars novel, The Trumpet Major, a work which she has elsewhere done much to raise in the canon.

Dedicated to a company of Hardy’s fellow teachers at London University, this book seems to have grown out of her seminars and lectures. Together with its sensitive opening-up of Victorian texts, there is a presiding confidence in generalisation which only classroom authority could carry off – as when she observes that ‘bad novels represent the affective experience falsely, through lies and mistakes, while good novels try to know and understand.’ Contradict that if you dare.

K.C. Phillipps has written an older-fashioned, useful study. His starting-point is A.S.C. Ross’s seminal article, ‘Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English’ (1954). Ross’s learned observations inspired Nancy Mitford’s amusing game that had everyone in the 1960s self-questioning about whether they used a napkin at luncheon or a serviette at dinner. It is with Victorian U/Non-U that Phillipps is mainly concerned. And his principal source material is found in the great novels of the age. In the first section of Language and Class in Victorian England, 112 of the extended illustrations are taken from 19th-century fiction, 61 from non-fiction (mainly etiquette books) and only five from poetry. For Phillipps, the novel is the clearest mirror of Victorian English usage.

Phillipps’s method is to hoover over the novel of the period picking up class markers. He has not been systematic, either in reading or sorting his results. Instead, he has treated the age’s fiction as a great, juicy lexical pudding, and gathered his plums in chapters entitled ‘The Upper Classes’, ‘The Lower Classes’, ‘Pronunciation’ and ‘Modes of Address’. Phillipps is a linguist raiding literature and at times is somewhat inexpert with his findings. He often ignores sub-genre and intra-period boundaries: for him, the 1830s silver fork and 1860s muscular novel are indifferently ‘Victorian fiction’. He neglects a wide range of minor novelists whose linguistic reportage might well exceed their art. (The neglected Mrs Gore would have been especially useful.) Conceiving, as he does, Victorian fiction as so much inert linguistic ‘usage’, Phillipps plays down its leading role in forming fashionable speech. Just as 1930s hoodlums modelled their tough-guy drawl on Warner Bros movies, so young Victorian dandies picked up their style from Pelham, and public schoolboys their slang from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and its successors. In this respect, the novel is less the mirror reflection than one of the many generators of Victorian language.

Dipped into, Phillipps’s book is full of interesting facts about the fluid changes of English across classes, and across time. Some of this is on the trivia level of napkin/serviette, have/take a bath, toilet/lavatory. ‘In the course of the latter half of the 19th century,’ he tells us, ‘it becomes unfashionable to refer to the cooked flesh of poultry as fowl’. Disraeli was one of the last fashionable writers to refer to London as a ‘town’ and gents of his class often pronounced it ‘Lonnon town’. The Victorian middle class, like today’s proles, had ‘dinner’ as their substantial daytime meal, and afternoon ‘tea’ was unheard of until the 1840s.

Phillipps is dexterous in teasing out the curious social loadings in such terms as ‘fellow’, which were charged with contempt when directed to the lower classes but expressed comradely approbation between members of the same class. By the end of the century, even a woman could be a ‘good fellow’, just as nowadays they can be ‘good guys’. Oddly, middle-class Victorians, to judge by their favourite reading-matter, had no tender, childish words for their parents equivalent to our ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’. Even ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ had to be borrowed from the more demonstrative French, via the aristocracy. Phillipps notes the v/w confusion in Cockney English (‘He wos wery good to me, he wos’), a habit which disappeared so completely as to make Orwell wonder whether it had been only a novelist’s convention, a fiction within fiction. Phillipps is consistently entertaining on those linguistic paradoxes, by which at one period ungrammatical usage like ‘ain’t’ is fashionable in the upper classes, later to become the verbal stigma of the lower.

Language and Class in Victorian England suggests a number of possible points of entry into social and literary history. At times, Phillipps’s loosely glossarial approach resembles Partridge’s in his various dictionaries of English slang. Given the concordance-making power of the computer, comprehensive surveys of fiction language usage are now feasible. (A prospect which probably gladdens the linguist’s more than the literary critic’s heart.) On occasion, Phillipps shapes up like Raymond Williams, in Keywords, and one can foresee useful investigation into such Victorian load-bearing terms as ‘manly’ and ‘maidenly’. As suggestively, Phillipps touches on the shattering impact of the 1870 Education Act in a passing reference to Tess Durbeyfield, ‘who spoke two languages’: ‘the dialect at home, more or less; ordinary English abroad and to persons of quality’. Her dissociation of language looks forward to Mellors, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who talks like a coalminer when he makes love and like an LSE don when discussing coal strikes.

All this is to say that Phillipps has written what he obviously intended to write, an introductory essay, designed to stir rather than wrap up the subject. The main theoretical objection to what he’s done concerns his overwhelming confidence in fiction as the transcript of normal Victorian usage. Trollope, for instance, is one of Phillipps’s main authorities. But although Trollope is sound on upper-class slang, he is unreliable with dialect, or lower-class speech. When John Crumb, in The Way We Live Now, knocks the seducing Sir Felix into the gutter, then tells him to ‘Get up you wiper,’ the ear shrinks in disbelief. Yet when Sir Felix elsewhere talks of being a ‘gone coon’, one recognises the real idiom of the London club. Some authors, like Hardy, had an inborn sense of regional usage – when dealing with his native counties. But his Farfrae is about as convincing as Scotty the engineer in Star Trek. From its stilted feel, one often suspects that Hardy’s Queen’s English may have been similarly tin-eared.

Thackeray and Surtees are Phillipps’s other favourite sources. But good reporters of their age and class as these writers were, there are caveats to using them as this study sometimes does. Thackeray, more often than not, sets his action decades before the time at which he is writing. When, therefore, in Chapter Two of Vanity Fair, an officer of the Life Guards calls Amelia ‘a dem fine gal, egad!’ is Thackeray recalling the military speech and accent of 1813, or reflecting that of 1847? Phillipps assumes – wrongly, I think – that this is current Victorian usage because Thackeray was a Victorian. Surtees’s love of the hunting-field and stable raises other complications. There is no doubt that a novel like Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour reflects a range of the horsey slang used by men among men. But, funny as the expostulation is, can one accept as plausible the ‘hard-swearing’ Earl of Scamperdale’s ‘Oh, you unsightly, sanctified, idolatrous, Bagnigge-Wells coppersmith,’ when Sponge gets under his horse’s hooves? Surtees is constrained by what was decently permissible in the Mid-Victorian novel. One no more finds a plausible curse in his text than one finds a horse-dropping. As a form, Victorian fiction is neutered, still waiting for its liberating ‘not bloody likely’, and even more distantly its Maileresque ‘fugging’. Even ‘damns’, as Charlotte Bronteë complained (in her preface to Wuthering Heights), were expletives too strong for the Victorian public, ‘when printed with all their letters’. Can one credit that in Oliver Twist Sikes’s profanities (‘Wolves tear your throats!’) come from the London streets, rather than the theatre?

The laundered quality of Victorian literary language raises problems that Phillipps has generally passed by. Assuming, for instance, that the dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend are what Humphry House claimed, urban mountains of shit, is Dickens’s ‘dust’, the modesty of the novel, or the modesty of a man of Dickens’s class and time? One knows that Jo, in Bleak House, is a crossing-sweeper: but why are we never told what it is he is employed to sweep out of the way? (Horse dust, presumably.) So, too, with Mary Barton, when the narrator describes Berry Street: ‘It was unpaved; and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in which the street abounded. Never was the old Edinburgh cry of Gardez l’eau! more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter.’ Are we to assume that this coy circumlocution and inappropriate jokiness (a family is dying of cholera within) is how Mrs Gaskell normally referred to human turds in Manchester streets? Or is it a usage forced on her by the conventions of the novel? Trollope, early in his career, was obliged by his publisher to change ‘fat stomach’ to ‘deep chest’ in Barchester Towers. When, later in his career, he says of the big-bosomed Emily Trevelyan in He knew he was right that she has ‘a bust rather full for her age’, is the tailor’s euphemism a loss of nerve in Trollope, or a generic timidity in the Victorian novel as a literary form? The evidence of candid club diaries, like Henry Silver’s, is that the Victorian gentleman when not writing novels was free enough with his tongue. In one Silver anecdote Thackeray recalls that almost the first words said to him at Charterhouse were ‘come and frig me!’ and that boys would examine their flogging wounds in the school ‘bog’. It rings very true. But one will find no such candid record of schoolboy speech in the ‘Greyfriars’ that Thackeray subsequently invented in his fiction, and that was in turn taken over by Frank Richards. (Could Bunter ‘frig’ in the ‘bog’?)

A great deal human was alien to the Victorian novel. One looks in vain for defecation, urination or menstruation. No one belches, farts, picks their nose, or frontally vomits (though throat-clearing, spitting and tooth-picking are frequent enough). These tabooed human acts are those which most commonly force us to watch what we say, and to find refuge in code words and class euphemisms. If one wants the actual vocabulary of the streets, or of the club smoking-room, or even the whole range of drawing-room conversation, one has to look for it elsewhere.