Enduring Fictions

Article excerpt

Although the Victorian period officially ended with the queen's death in 1901, its political and artistic cultures continue to have an unrivaled immediacy for us. In recent years, conservative moralists have praised the Victorian orphanage and recommended the Victorian virtues of thrift, cleanliness, hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, and national pride as solutions to American woes. At the other end of the political spectrum, university offices of moral sanitation issue pamphlets warning young women of date rape that recall Victorian manuals exhorting young women to avoid "vulgar familiarity." John Stuart Mill's schemes for flouting the tyranny of the majority by plural voting have been resurrected (albeit with the typical American emphasis on race) by the ill-fated Lani Guinier. In 1995, a magnificent exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings traversed the country, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington is now the site of a major exhibition of Victorian painters.

But most of all it is Victorian novelists who exercise over Americans an appeal unmatched by that of any other group of writers. In 1996, the Morgan Library organized a sumptuous exhibition of the Brontes' manuscripts and memorabilia. Television productions of the works of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad (following a run of Anthony Trollope adaptations) pour forth abundantly, and films based on the novels of Emily and Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy, though less abundant than those of the pre-Victorian Jane Austen, also proliferate. The Trollope Society, founded in 1987, boasts as a vice president the current British prime minister, John Major, and flourishes mightily: in the Seattle area, where I live, there are three separate branches. In the present euphoria, it came as little surprise to learn recently that Mary Thompson, who at 120 had become the oldest living American - she died in 1996 but did not make the Guinness Book of Records because, as the daughter of ex-slaves, she had no birth certificate - was reported by her son to have followed a strict regimen of reading Victorian novels every evening, and of having them read to her when she lost her sight.

The Victorians themselves would have found this strange; they believed the novel was the genre least likely to survive into the next generation, much less the next century. The essayist Thomas De Quincey, writing in 1848, shortly after the appearance of Wuthering Heights, lane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and Dombey and Son, declared the novel an inferior and ephemeral genre. "All novels whatever, the best equally with the worst, have faded almost within the generation that produced them. This is a curse written as a superscription above the whole class. . . . It is only the grander passions of poetry, allying themselves with forms more abstract and permanent," that, De Quincey said, could last. Mill deemed the novel an inferior genre because it could depict only outward things like manners and scenery, not the inner man: "The minds and hearts of greatest depth and elevation are commonly those which take greatest delight in poetry; the shallowest and emptiest . . . are . . . not those least addicted to novel-reading." Matthew Arnold told Stephen Coleridge that he had been offered [pounds]10,000 to write a novel, but would not soil his hands by doing so because, as Coleridge's famous ancestor Samuel had said, "Novel reading spares the reader the trouble of thinking . . . and establishes a habit of indolence."

Nor were disparaging opinions of this subpoetic genre limited to poets and essayists. "By the common consent of all mankind who ave read, poetry takes the highest place in literature," Trollope said. "In his own age, [the novelist] can have great effect for good or evil; but we know as yet of no prose novelist who has influenced after ages. . . . [T]he novelist can expect no centuries of popularity. But the poet adapts himself to all ages by the use of language and scenes which are not ephemeral. …