Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

E.S. Dallas, Mid-Victorian Individualism, and the Form of the Book Review

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

E.S. Dallas, Mid-Victorian Individualism, and the Form of the Book Review

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship on Victorian reviewing has foregrounded the importance of E.S. Dallas and others, and provides a useful context for addressing Dallas's work. Unlike a majority of reviewers who viewed their task as representing the work being reviewed in miniature, Dallas adopted a more critical stance, using the content and form of his reviews to engage in the public discussion of individualism that reached its peak in the 1860s. His reviews provide both literary advice on structure and proportion in texts, and ethical advice about how individuals should relate to the social whole that surrounds them. Dallas's review of the biography of General Sir Charles James Napier, and several of his reviews of contemporary novels, reveal the principles he employs in critiquing works of different genres: where the former gives readers a sense of the individual subject whose life is being profiled, the latter evaluate the success of novels in depicting a well-proportioned social whole.

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So far as E.S. Dallas was remembered at all by twentieth-century scholars, it was as the author of Poetics and The Gay Science, books that attempt to systematize literary criticism as the study of the psychological mechanisms by which poetry produces pleasure in a reader--books, too, which went virtually unread in Dallas's lifetime. Only recently has critical discussion of Dallas shifted to his journalism, which was as widely read as the two books of poetic theory were ignored. Over a thirty-year career, Dallas contributed essays on political, social, and literary topics to at least a dozen periodicals, chief among them the Times', front the mid-1850s to the mid-1860s he served as the newspaper's primary obituarist and book reviewer, and was thus one of the most influential figures in the mid-century literary community. George Eliot, writing to her publisher in 1859 about the prospects of Adam Bede, suggested that "the best news from London hitherto is that Mr. Dallas is an enthusiastic admirer" (24). Anthony Trollope, generally suspicious of the influence of reviewers, admitted in his Autobiography that the Times' 1860 notice of The West Indies and the Spanish Main had "made the fortune of the book," and that Dallas "had done me a greater service than can often be done by one man to another": Trollope successfully asked 600 [pounds sterling] for his next novel, a fifty-percent increase over what he had been paid for his previous one (81-82). In 1865 Dickens presented Dallas with the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend in gratitude for a laudatory review that had boosted the book's sales; the following year, mere minors of a hostile notice from Dallas prompted Moxon to withdraw Swinburne's Poems and Ballads from circulation. Dallas's influence over authors, of course, was a result of the power he wielded over readers. Trollope, in a well-known passage from The Warden, estimated that forty thousand copies of the Times were sold daily, with at least five readers per copy, and suggested that among the newspaper's quarter-million followers, "it is omnipotent. What the Tsar is in Russia, or the mob in America, that the [Times] is in England"(56). It was fortunate for mid-Victorian literary taste, Trollope opined in the Autobiography, that in his role as the Thunderer's literary critic, Dallas "did better work than has appeared since in the same department" (96).

Scholarship on Dallas's reviews has been slow to develop partly because of the bibliographic problems caused by the anonymity of Victorian journalism. The Wellesley Index, for instance, lists only about two dozen pieces by Dallas, most of them summaries of political news written for Blackwood's or the Cornhill; since it catalogues only quarterlies and monthlies, Wellesley sheds no light on Dallas's work for the Times or the half-dozen other weeklies and dailies for which he wrote. Most reviews attributed to Dallas have been identified by working backwards from the letters of canonical authors like Eliot, Trollope, and Dickens. …

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