Marshy Margins

Frank Kermode

  • The True Story of the Novel by Margaret Anne Doody
    Rutgers, 580 pp, $44.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 8135 2168 8

Literary criticism seems to be putting on weight in its old age – Margaret Anne Doody’s book is well over three hundred thousand words and loaded with learning, which may appal the fainthearted, but they should take into account that throughout its length it is written with verve and wit, and is by any standard an extraordinary and idiosyncratic achievement. The closest comparison available is with Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, which caused such a stir almost forty years ago. Doody acknowledges a certain affinity with that formidable work, while insisting, quite rightly, that she is trying to do something different: for one thing, it is always relevant that she is a woman, laying down a different law from Frye’s or any man’s, and combatively aware of masculine (and also British-imperialist) presumptions that can now be contested even though they retain a vestige of their classic authority.

One of these presumptuous presumptions is the notion that the novel was invented by Englishmen in the 18th century. Doody repeatedly deplores the traditional distinction between novel and romance which, in her view, has served to reinforce this sample of English egotism. An arbitrary fad she calls Prescriptive Realism has taken hold. Instead of thinking of the novel as something that began about two thousand years ago, something of which we have many fine Greek and Latin examples, we choose to think of it as having started when Ian Watt said it did in The Rise of the Novel. Since Watt’s book is among the handful of postwar critical books that can comfortably be called classics of a genre that boasts very few, one sees that Doody is aiming high. She scornfully rejects the notion that the novel has something to do with bourgeois society and Protestant ethics; or that by a benevolently evolutionary process myth here finally gave way to realism, and we at last had the happiness of acquiring prose fiction that concerned itself with the life and development of the individual. On the contrary, she maintains that everything we value in what we, in our limited and arbitrary way, call the novel was already to be found in the ancient writings, and also in the medieval and Early Modern books they influenced. For example, what we call by the name of love is importantly present in those stories; true, you can’t deal with it unless you have some clear idea of what it is to be a person interacting with another person, but the ancients, contrary to what is sometimes asserted, understood that point perfectly.

Campaigning for these predecessors, slandered and decanonised by a deplorable modern critical coup, Doody thinks it necessary to call them not romances but novels. ‘A work is a novel if it is fictional, if it is in prose, and if it is of a certain length.’ Her view of the matter is similar to that of Pierre-Daniel Huet, a 17th-century French critic she greatly admires; he thought the novel came from Spain, after the Arabs had taught the Spanish ‘the art of novelising’. The rest of Europe learnt it from the Spaniards. ‘It is wonderfully refreshing to read Huet after reading Ian Watt,’ she remarks.

This is not only anti-Wattian but also anti-Jamesian, implying that there is no generic difference worth the name between, say, The House of Seven Gables and The Portrait of a Lady, or for that matter between Daphnis and Chloe and Ulysses. James admitted that there was no definite boundary between novel and romance, but he knew that in such extreme cases there was no problem telling one from the other. Of course you can argue that there is realism in Longus, and myth in James and Joyce, and decide to use the term ‘novel’ for everything that fits the minimum definition given above. And why not? Is this merely a question of nomenclature? If it were just that, it might seem slightly ridiculous to write a long and amazingly learned book about labelling.

No doubt a detailed case could be made against this rather dogmatic thesis of Doody’s, but the argument would probably not be very interesting. The real thesis of her book is so much bolder that it seems a pity that her redefinition of the terms has been signalled, by blurbists and in some measure by herself, as her main point and most exciting discovery. She has much more to say, and arguments much more surprising. Before she gets down to real theorising she recounts with much effect the history of the novel over its long span, finding its origins in Egypt and Italy, and spending many pages on ancient novels, especially on Apollonius of Tyre, the Aithiopika of Heliodorus, and the Latin novels of Apuleius and Petronius Arbiter. She finds in these books many qualities that the arrogant English claim as their own later inventions: enough realism, enough ambiguity, enough personality – altogether a high degree of narrative sophistication. And she enlists them all in the cause of the Feminine.

Women, she claims, were pioneers in the cult of Freedom, a concept that developed in slave-owning societies. It was always essentially at odds with characteristically masculine ideas of uniformity and authority. And the novel, in its nature opposed to those civic ideals, is naturally the realm of the Feminine. If this contention strikes us as being at odds with the tone of, say, the Satyricon, we are allowing ourselves to be misled by a confusion between the Feminine and the lady-like, and we are reminded, in a section named ‘The Case of the Tired Penis’, that by emphasising the frailty of male flesh the Satyricon ‘calls the bluff of the masculine ideal, the notion that male sexuality is easy, unspoken, authoritative, authoritarian’. And Apuleius, rightly read, also exposes masculinity as a ‘social-sexual construct’.

The leading idea, then, is that the novel, largely considered, is always under the rule of the Feminine; even the most perceptive of men seem always to have missed this point. Doody informs us that the Neo-Platonist Porphyry, in his famous study of the Cave of the Nymphs in the 13th book of the Odyssey, was masculinely limited in taking the Cave to represent ‘the degradation of material existence, the contamination of the pure soul by the damp and dirty flesh’. But Porphyry was an allegorist, and like other male allegorists, such as Kerényi, failed to see what the feminine-dominated Daphnis and Chloe makes plain: the cave is the cave of genesis, the womb; the nymphs ‘symbolise the female genitalia’, which is very much what Freud learnt from Dora’s reaction to a painting showing a thick wood and nymphs, though Freud seems to have found this ‘symbolic geography’ – pubic hair and labia minora – ‘a more hostile terrain’ than the ancient novel did.

The presiding goddess of the novel is Isis: ‘every ancient novel is a sort of Midrash on the story of Isis,’ and so, presumably, however remote the connection, is every modern novel. This line of descent gives the novel a religious origin, and Doody has much to say about the relation of first-century Christianity, with its cult of chastity for both sexes, to the ancient novel. But Isis dominates, and consequently the novel, throughout its history, is opposed to male civic ideals, is dangerous, volatile and disturbing. ‘If we let it all in’ – ancient as well as modern – we shall see how strongly it resists those ideals; if we ‘let in’ only novels bound by the rule of Realism we shall find them supporting inhumane prescriptions about the proper conduct of women. There is in this book a not especially well concealed notion that erotic activity is primarily the province of women, and that this endowment gives them power over much more than sex – reading, for instance, reading being ‘an erotic activity that mimics and reinforces the fundamentally erotic desire of living itself’. Our preferences concerning what we look at and what we eat are also represented as aspects of erotic desire; which explains why novels which truly represent these activities (and are therefore boldly feminine) are often so strongly deprecated; and also explains why the presiding goddess of the true novel is the ambiguous figure of Isis, who has so many manifestations, some chaste, some erotic.

After a great deal of fascinatingly tendentious argument, Doody settles in the third part of her book to working out the operations of Eros as the servant of Isis in one or other of those manifestations. This section is an adventurous and sometimes impassioned thanksgiving to the goddess for her assurances that ‘individual life matters – that very fundamental belief that lets readers take an interest in characters, in actions, in stories’. Isis is ‘the looming up, the crystallising, of the religious sensibility and passion that allows the Novel itself to be’. Her influence on narrative is here given theoretical expression in an extraordinary system of Tropes or ‘symbolic places’. There is, at the outset of a story, the Breaking – a sort of bursting into the story – then comes the Mending, followed by the Trope of the Margin, represented by the collocation of land and water, ponds, ditches, pools, all referring ultimately to the female genitalia (‘We make a not unimportant spiritual and political as well as personal move when we open a novel and become initiates, entering upon the marshy margins of becoming.’) Other tropes are the Tomb, the Cave, the Labyrinth.

Doody acknowledges some indebtedness to Jessie Weston and to Jung, but in some ways her book more strongly recalls the once famous though now I think forgotten work of Maud Bodkin, who is not mentioned here – which is rather surprising in a book that reflects such an enormous range of reading, and habitually tempers or supports its novelties with ample reference to other authorities. Of course Doody’s book is more outspoken than women scholars could afford to be sixty years ago; such insistence on a direct link between the novel, the goddess Isis and the female genitals is one that older critics, had they perceived it, would have been glad to ignore.

I find it difficult either to give a fair idea of the exuberance, intelligence and boldness of this book, or to explain why writing about it seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that one doesn’t really believe what it says. It is true that in some form, with a certain allegorical stretching, many novels have the sort of smashing opening Doody requires, and others have marshes and labyrinths and so on. And one can always say that if some can be found that don’t have these tropes, that is because they are victims of Prescriptive Realism or male censorship, or that they have forgotten their religious origins, or fatally chosen the failed penis rather than its fertile counterpart. Despite her immense reading, this author cannot discuss possible counter-examples, any more than she can relax her almost religious single-sex approach to the whole topic.

It is quite an achievement to make men the enemies of sexual pleasure, and of all that is dangerous, volatile and exciting in narratives as in life. One notices some high estimates of women writers that might be, and are meant to be, questioned – such as the elevation of Mme de Scudéry to almost Proustian heights – and also some virtual omissions. There is only a passing allusion to Les Liaisons dangereuses, which might have taken some of the shine off Eros, and no mention of the Princesse de Clèves, where chastity, a form of erotic behaviour after all, might not quite fit the somewhat Euripidean image of the relations between the sexes suggested by this book: every man a Pentheus, official and officious, but henceforth doomed to fall under the power of inspired women.