The English Novel in History, 1840-1895

The English Novel in History, 1840-1895

The English Novel in History, 1840-1895

The English Novel in History, 1840-1895

Synopsis

The construction of history as a social common denominator is a powerful achievement of the nineteenth-century novel, a form dedicated to experimenting with democratic social practice as it conflicts with economic and feudal visions of social order. Through revisionary readings of familiar nineteenth-century texts The English Novel in History 1840-1895 takes a multidisciplinary approach to literary history. It highlights how narrative shifts from one construction of time to another and reformulates fundamental ideas of identity, nature and society. Elizabeth Ermarth discusses the range of novels alongside other cultural material, including painting, science, religious, political and economic theory. She explores the problems of how a society, as defined in democratic terms, can accommodate political, gender and class differences without resorting to hierarchy; and how narrowly conceived economic agendas compete with social cohesion. Students, advanced undergraduates, postgraduates and specialists will find this text invaluable.

Excerpt

This volume refocuses in cultural terms a particularly powerful achievement of Victorian narrative: its construction of history as a social common denominator. ‘In’ history, all sorts of social problems - problems of corporate order and personal identity - appear in new light because they appear serially ‘In’ history, all sorts of social problems become susceptible to recuperation, restoration, revision, repair.

The cultural and intellectual tools for this achievement had been available for several centuries, since the era of humanist Renaissance, but they were long occupied in other media and at other tasks. The tradition of humanist representation, whether in art or in politics, or even in mathematics, already had flourished for more than four hundred years when, in the early nineteenth century, realist, historical narratives explore the social implications of that tradition. Novels especially constitute experimental laboratories for defining and exploring a new construction of corporate order.

Such a project positively requires multidisciplinary treatment in order to bring into focus the dimensions of the cultural discourse in question. The mutation in narrative sequence during the middle of the nineteenth century belongs to a large, dynamic, immensely varied field of practices and deflections across the whole range of cultural production. Perhaps it is no longer necessary to affirm this, although in many ways people tend to forget it. Cultural assumptions are, by definition, forgettable. An especially determined and delightful demonstration of this fact appears in Luis Buñuel’s film, That Obscure Object of Desire a film it is possible to watch from beginning to end without recognizing that the woman who obsesses the male protagonist is played by two entirely different actresses. How is this possible? It is possible, as the sly surrealist knew, because perception is three-quarters censorship; because when we ‘perceive’ something we rely to a larger extent than we allow upon certain markers, like class or gender role, that are culturally composed and that have nothing to do with the evidence in front of our noses. To locate those markers, and systems of markers that inform knowledge and project, requires, at the very least, comparison across conventional intellectual boundaries. The view from a single cultural site, or from a single academic discipline, obscures the breadth, the power, and the implications of such broadly functional cultural phenomena. This volume thus compares material not customarily related, in order to locate a problematic; it does not attempt other, quite different work such as determining exact influences or discovering neglected writers.

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