Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

George Eliot's 'Glue Test' Language, Law, and Legitimacy in Silas Marner

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

George Eliot's 'Glue Test' Language, Law, and Legitimacy in Silas Marner

Article excerpt

The picaresque format of Dickens's earliest novels permitted stoppages and detours on the way, detours that sometimes took the form of inserted tales. Now and again these episodes helped fill the instalment in hand, as when he told Forster 'I [...] have yet five slips to finish, and don't know what to put in them for I have reached the point I meant to leave off with', (1) but the example of his predecessors also encouraged him to diversify his fiction in this way. Fielding and Smollett had both incorporated loops and resting-places into their plot lines, and Scott had inserted 'The Fortunes of Martin Waldeck' in The Antiquary, its graduated siblings not unlike 'The Five Sisters of York' in Nicholas Nickleby and its Harz demon a cousin of 'The Goblins Who Stole the Sexton' in The Pickwick Papers. But Dickens's interpolated tales seem above all to be vehicles for what Robert Garis has called 'the Dickens theatre': 'The source of Dickens's enjoyment [...] is not only the scene before him but his own skill in rendering that scene, and that he consciously and proudly offers us that skill for our enjoyment and our applause.' (2) Stages conceived as stations on a narrative journey thus function as stages in the dramatic sense of the term.

The Pickwick Papers, the novel with the least narrative momentum, has a good many interruptive tales, all housed comfortably in the miscellaneous format of the materials the author pretends to edit for the occasion. And although they become much rarer in Dickens's mature novels, Little Dorrit's story of the princess, and Miss Wade's narrative ('The History of a Self-Tormentor') prove that he did not slough the habit entirely, even if he gave more thought to integrating the tales. As he remarked to Forster:

I don't see the practicability of making the History of a Self-Tormentor, with which I took great pains, a written [sic, spoken?] narrative. But I do see the possibility of making it a chapter by itself, which might enable me to dispense with the necessity of turned commas. [...] I have no doubt that a great part of Fielding's reason for the introduced story, and Smollett's, also, was, that it is sometimes really impossible to present, in a full book, the idea it contains (which yet it may be on all accounts desirable to present), without supposing the reader to be possessed of almost as much romantic allowance as would put him on a level with the writer. In Miss Wade I had an idea, which I thought a new one, of making the introduced story so fit into surroundings impossible of separation from the main story, as to make the blood of the book circulate through both. (3)

The demonstrable relevance of Miss Wade's story distinguishes it from the earlier tales (where the relevance, if indeed it exists, has to be sought), for Dickens has grafted it on to the narrative stock. Since the 'blood of the book' is the theme of self-imprisonment, it finds free passage through this memoir, and so enjambs it with the whole. Dickens's concern with smoothing edges and concealing seams at this late stage in his career might spring from comments levelled at him in the 1850s. George Eliot, even while Little Dorrit was being serialized, had condemned his supposed discontinuity of texture and vision ('he scarcely ever passes from the humorous and the external to the emotional and the tragic, without becoming as transcendent in his unreality as he was a moment before in his artistic truthfulness' (Wall, p. 98)) and, in the same year, Hippolyte Taine had compared him with E. T. A. Hoffmann, a writer of obsessive, self-contained stories: 'We think of Hoffmann's fantastic tales; we are arrested by a fixed idea, and our head begins to ache. These eccentricities are in the style of sickness rather than of health. Therefore Dickens is admirable in depicting hallucinations' (p. 100). The care he took to integrate 'The History of a Self-Tormentor' might accordingly owe something to these charges of imperfect craft. …

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