Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Dr. Alison Byerly's concern is with the use in their fiction by four Victorian novelists of art works, performative as well as representational, experienced by the characters as well as metaphors within the larger narrative frame, works both real and invented - the Vatican's antique Cleopatra/Ariadne in Middlemarch, for example, as well as the Agamemnon charade of Vanity Fair. Byerly sees this process as intimately bound up with 'realism' (the term is commonly offered to us in inverted commas) and with the self-consciousness of her chosen novelists: Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. This process, in turn, points up a paradox (one which is helpfully true) that while the rise of realism in the nineteenth century 'shows how highly the Victorians valued art's mimetic capacity' (1), yet Victorian novels are 'famously self-conscious about their status as artifacts' (2). The novelists faced the question of how art can 'evoke reality while acknowledging its difference from the real world' and resolved it through their 'obsessive analysis and display of art's many guises' (2). Byerly's book attempts to account for the way in which Victorian novelists were able simultaneously 'to deplore and exploit the idea of the aesthetic' (3). At her conclusion, Byerly claims both that the artistic episodes of these novels 'are not in fact separate episodes, but exist in the same ontological space as other events in the world of each novel' (191) and that 'the allusions to art that pervade the Victorian novel play a central role in constructing the indefinable ambience we call "realism'" (184).
Clearly, we are revisiting, often with interesting or engaging inflections, territory often visited before, and where the use of the unfamiliar (Thackeray's 'Going to See a Man Hanged' and Flare and Zephyre, for example, both usefully deployed) offers new vistas. Yet is the concern with 'realism' one that impedes rather than promotes, since the perceived problem (that the representation of art in art will destroy the surface realism) is not one that troubles me in the way it does Byerly? The Victorian novelists are able both to delight in their 'own artifice' (Byerly's phrase), as when Thackeray imagines Jones in his club reading the very number of Vanity Fair we are reading, and to revel in engaging the reader, emotionally and intellectually, with the created world, even while ironizing and doubling, admitting 'both/and' rather than 'either/or', just as Byerly herself notes Bronte does by ending lane Eyre not with Jane, but with St John Rivers. Is the self-consciousness of the Victorians so at odds with that realism and is their realism so new a thing? And did the Victorians really 'deplore' as well as 'exploit' the ideas of the aesthetic? If to 'deplore' is a reaction, say, to the cheapness of theatricality as against the depth of the dramatic (a distinction excellently made by Byerly, drawing upon an observation of Fanny Kemble's), nonetheless the Victorians were also well versed in artifice: if they had not all read Jane Austen (or reading her, had disapproved as Charlotte Bronte did), yet they knew Fielding's consciousness of audience and artifice: of low chapters that the polite reader may skip, of the implied reader, and the use of epic, whether comic in Joseph Andrews or complexly allusive to the Aeneid as in Amelia.