Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 43 (2012)
This book is a defence of comparative literature in theory - if it has a theory - and in practice by concentrating on three novels - Daniel Deronda, Anna Karenina, Women in Love - which are structurally similar in various respects, most obviously in employing double plots focusing on two couples, and thematically related in terms of their interests and concerns. The book is clearly derived from a doctoral dissertation and has some obvious features of the genre: a thesis which it endeavours to make persuasive by argument and supporting evidence, reference to much previous criticism on the subject, a general introduction which attempts to demonstrate why such a study is needed and a conclusion that sums up what has been achieved and various problems that remain which the author has become aware of in the course of writing the book. Though there are numerous monographs derived from doctoral dissertations, this book stands out for its remarkable range of reference together with a breadth of reading in numerous languages and depth of knowledge that reminds one of George Eliot herself. There are occasional lapses that may raise an occasional doubt about the extent of the author's intellectual mastery, notably referring to 'Rosamund' in Middlemarch, still a common error among students but uncommon these days among critics. (For the record, E. M. Forster would have objected to an apostrophe being inserted in Howards End, and 'Katharine' though appropriate for Hepburn is not for Mansfield.)
Catherine Brown is well aware that comparative literature is a fairly marginal presence in literary study in universities, perhaps especially in Britain. Yet as she points out comparison is 'a practice that is involved in all reading' (p. 1). There was a time, however, when it was dominant. In the early days of English as an academic subject comparison reigned supreme. This may be illustrated by the following, probably apocryphal, story: a newly appointed lecturer at a Scottish university was given as his first assignment a lecture course on Spenser. A hundred lectures should be sufficient said the Professor. When he reached lecture seventy, the students were stamping their feet (as students often do, or used to, in the older Scottish universities) and chanting 'We want Spenser!' The assumption presumably was that before any understanding or appreciation of Spenser's writing was possible readers needed knowledge not just of his work but of the wide variety of texts it explicitly or implicitly interacted with. If this approach to the teaching of English literature had continued, it's doubtful whether the rise of English as probably the most popular Arts subject would have taken place as it assumed that the great majority of students could play little active role, since they could never acquire sufficient knowledge to be able to say anything of significance about the texts and authors they had to read; their relation to the subject was essentially passive. This changed with the emergence of Richards and 'practical criticism' in Britain and the New Critics in America. Small group teaching in tutorials or seminars became the predominant teaching mode and lectures were marginalized. The focus of discussion tended to be a single text or perhaps a few short poems with students apparently able to enter into discussion on equal terms with their teachers. Of course that equality was an illusion for the teachers were vastly better read than the students and came to the text with a depth of contextual knowledge that few students could match, so that teachers were as much in control as during the era of multiple lectures by polymathic professors. The new system did not abolish comparative literature but pushed it to the margins; it was still necessary to any intellectually responsible understanding of literature but students could get by without it and certain academic critics could keep it at a very low level if they wanted to focus on a single author or a narrow range of texts.