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Novelistic Modes and Sociological Thought at the Fin de Siècle: George Gissing and Emile Durkheim

by Maria Su Wang

At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to pair fin de siècle Victorian author George Gissing’s novels of lower middle class urban life with French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s writings on social theory.  After all, not only are they separated by disciplinary context but also national borders.  Upon closer examination, however, bringing these two figures together reveal surprising convergences about novelistic modes and sociological thought at the end of the nineteenth century.

I first encountered Durkheim’s writings on social theory and sociological methodology during my graduate studies, via an interdisciplinary seminar that prompted us to explore various social scientific disciplines and query their potential for literary studies.  When I read Durkheim’s discussion of social facts, which he defines in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) as “any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint” (59), I couldn’t help but be reminded of late nineteenth-century realist form.  Durkheim’s definition here emphasizes the notion of constraint, something external to individuals that exerts pressure on how they act, whether it be physical density limiting movement or internalized social norms restricting behavior.  Yet how does one grasp, much less represent, social constraint?  How does an author make legible what is presumably an internalized social consciousness into narrative form?  Social facts, according to Durkheim, are mostly visible as traces, as aftereffects – they determine and constrain individuals, but are by nature hard to capture directly.

Social facts, that is to say, exist as an invisible collective consciousness that powerfully constrains individuals.  For me, this description crystallizes Gissing’s abiding thematic interest in his novels, what he portrays so powerfully – the pathos of individuals caught within social structures and norms beyond that of their own choosing.  Gissing’s fiction focus on those who experience economic and class precarity brought about by tremendous structural changes at the fin de siècle.  In order to represent such changes, he must strategically craft his narration to show both the external structural constraints and their affective impact on the individual.  Looking at Durkheim’s notion of the social fact allowed me to pinpoint exactly how Gissing’s novels so vividly render such pathos in textual form: by deploying what I call a “constrained omniscience” as a narrative strategy in New Grub Street (1891) and The Odd Women (1893).  This narrative mode, especially in characterization, points to social constraint by performing it.

By looking at Gissing and Durkheim together, my essay reinscribes them into their respective traditions and asks, more broadly, what this comparison reveals about Victorian narrative realism and the development of sociology at the fin de siècle.  Through emphasizing the parallels between Gissing’s narration and Durkheim’s concept, this essay treats both as symptomatic of a broader interest in the fact, pointing to resonances between realist narrative technique and the longer history of disciplinary reorganization that emerges over the nineteenth century.

To read more, see Maria Su Wang, “Constrained Realism: Representing Social Facts in George Gissing’s Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 47, no.1, 2021, p. 97-114.

Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method. 1895. Translated by W. D. Halls, The Free Press, 1982.

Guano, Night Soil, and Dreams of Sustainability

by Mary Bowden

Often seen as prim and repressed in the popular imagination, the Victorians are not usually known for their frank discussions of excrement. In nineteenth-century agriculture, however, excrement was a constant topic of public interest and debate. By the mid-nineteenth century, British farmers had become increasingly dependent on supplies of South American guano (accumulated lodes of bird and bat feces), which they praised as a potent fertilizer. At the same time that farmers scattered guano over their fields, speculators sought to revitalize an older practice in which human excrement, euphemistically termed “night soil,” was used to return fertility to exhausted agricultural fields. In public debates about these fertilizers, the contrast between guano and night soil took on outsized meaning. Critics denounced farmers’ guano dependence for implicating Britain in extractive, international trade, while praising night soil schemes for ensuring a sustainable recycling of nutrients within the British nation.

title page for “Prospectus of the Metropolitan Sewage Manure Company.” Metropolitan Sewage Manure Co., 1845.

As I show in my article, “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Sustainability,” the novelist Anthony Trollope responds to this agricultural debate by contrasting guano with older agricultural methods. Trollope’s 1876 novel follows Ferdinand Lopez, an arriviste adventurer who speculates in extracted guano. Lopez marries Emily Wharton, the daughter of a wealthy family who characterize Lopez as a suspicious foreigner; this marriage amounts to an extraction of Emily from her family and friends, the Whartons and Fletchers. While the novel does not directly reference excrement recycling schemes, the novel’s marriage plot contrasts Lopez’s implication in guano extraction with the Whartons’ and Fletchers’ promotion of intranational agricultural sustainability. Arthur Fletcher, who had long courted Emily, promotes older agricultural reforms that return benefits to the nation. As Trollope contrasts the Whartons and Fletchers with Lopez, he also contrasts older and newer methods of agriculture, and extractive international trade with intranational sustainability.

Trollope is typically seen as a writer interested in cultural mores and political machinations (particularly in the Palliser series, of which The Prime Minister is a part). But I suggest that Trollope’s engagement with the guano economy positions him as an environmental writer, one who is both keenly aware of attempts to achieve agricultural sustainability, and of the ways in which nationalist sentiment inflected these attempts.

To read more, see Mary Bowden. “Night Soil and Nation Building: Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the Guano Economy, and Victorian Sustainability.Victorian Review, vol. 47 no. 1, 2021, p. 79-96. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2021.0010.

Kipling’s Animal Worlds

 by Linda Shires

a cat walks through a grove of trees in this black and white illustration
Left: Rudyard Kipling, “The Cat That Walked by Himself,” in Just So Stories for Little Children, 1902. Courtesy of the British Library Board, MS 59840 f118r.

What is your very first memory or impression? Is it your mother’s holding you? Your father’s singing to you? An avenue of trees? I hope yours is positive. Rudyard Kipling’s certainly was. Born in Bombay to Anglo-Indian parents, he recalled: “My first impression is of daybreak, light and colour and golden and purple fruits at the level of my shoulder” (Something of Myself for My Friends Known and Unknown, 1). After being nurtured by loving parents and a devoted ayah for his first five years, Kipling suffered a traumatic childhood when he and his younger sister “Trix” were abruptly taken to Southsea, England and left behind with paid guardians to start a British education. For the next six years he suffered cruelty and bullying. Kipling’s deep love for his own children, Josephine, John, and Elsie emerges throughout his writings, from his address to his “Best Beloved” Josephine in Just So Stories to numerous later illustrated letters from across the globe. One can only imagine the horror he and his wife felt upon burying their first daughter at age six and losing their only son at eighteen on the Western Front.

Yet what does any of this have to do with muteness, speech or survival in Kipling’s animal worlds, the topic of my recent ‘animal studies’ essay in Victorian Review? In re-reading his fiction and poetry over the last decade, I have increasingly come to question inflexible theoretical lenses used to interpret his works. Ideologies stressing binaries, including animal/human, repeatedly fail to account for the complexities, ambiguities, and ironies of his corpus.

The most acute readers of Kipling, such as Daniel Karlin or J.M.S. Tomkins, have sought in various ways to complicate binary thinking. Moreover, numerous scholars, usually focusing on the Mowgli stories, have studied his representation of animals and humans, but few have explored Kipling’s lifelong fascination with animal language or his complex depiction of muteness. Begun as an MLA talk in 2017, this essay draws upon relevant theoretical contexts to examine differing language/muteness relations among animals and humans. I argue that Kipling’s frequent reliance on muteness carries a variety of meanings and values: the silencing of non-human animal sounds by instinct; silent yet communicating animal gestures and movements; a chosen human quietude; the muting of sounds by sleep or by caresses and lullabies; the silence that follows individual deaths, mass killings, and extinctions.

I purposely begin with three of the non-Mowgli stories that were collected in the 1894 Jungle Book: “The White Seal” and “Toomai of the Elephants,” and in the 1895 The Second Jungle Book: “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat.” Each dissolves human/non-human binaries in different ways. Kipling continues to explore how and why creatures communicate in his brilliant image/text collection Just So Stories for Little Children (1902). As he still investigates language and silence, across species, years later, he creates in Thy Servant a Dog, Told by Boots (1930) an animal mind, akin to a toddler’s, trying to process human speech. Rudyard Kipling cares deeply for children, animals, and, above all, for sameness within difference—that survival matters, that we all suffer, that we all die.

To read more, see Linda M. Shires, “Kipling’s Animal Worlds: Muteness, Speech, and Survival,” Victorian Review, 46.2, pp. 191-210.

For further information, consult:

“I wrote them all”: Forgery and Forms of Classification in Trollope’s Orley Farm

by Katherine Anne Gilbert

A woman in Victorian crinoline in the foreground has three men behind her, and the town main street in the background.

‘Lady Mason going before the Magistrates’. Source: 1981 Dover Orley Farm, ii, p. 96 Hall, AT and His Illustrators, pp. 29-40.

As Victorianists, we often turn to sensation fiction as the genre in which disruptive challenges to social, legal, and gendered structures were narrated in the nineteenth century. Victorian condemnations of sensation fiction are read as traditionalist calls for conservation of the status quo, one in which individuals remain clearly organized into categories that reinforce inequities in class, gender, and wealth. Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm (1862), however, troubles such easy categorization. Trollope, long considered a consummate realist, tells the story of Lady Mason, the young, second wife of the deceased Sir Joseph Mason, who forges her dying husband’s will to redirect the line of inheritance to her son. Lady Mason is tried–twice—first for forgery and then perjury, and found innocent both times. Yet Trollope, while simultaneously detailing Lady Mason’s crimes, encourages readers not to judge Lady Mason too quickly. How might we read this novel in light of the categories of realism and sensationalism, continuity and disruption, gender and inheritance? And, how might we understand forgery in this light, a crime that brings to the fore concerns about how to classify something as original and true or an imitation and dishonest?

I suggest that it is not the acts of crime that bring together Trollope and sensation fiction in Orley Farm, but a near obsession within the novel with forms of classification themselves. Strikingly, this fixation on classification permeates the novel from the more sensational (is a beautiful Lady capable of crime?), to the mundane (is a lawyer a professional or a commercial man, and should he be allowed in the commercial men’s lounge at a traveler’s Inn?), to class and race (can Lady Mason’s son, Lucius, devise a new system of classification of humans, one that intertwines an analysis of the structures of languages with a racial mapping through history?). Building on the work of others such as Susan David Bernstein, who demonstrates that sensation fiction’s interest in classification intersects with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, I trace the ways that classification, and threats to it, appear repeatedly in Orley Farm, and argue that it is this interest in forms of classification and their permeations that the novel shares most forcefully with sensation fiction. Taking up Marlene Tromp’s recent problematizing of our own contemporary interest in classifying realism and sensation fiction even now, I then ask, what does it mean to contextualize Lady Mason’s acts as realistic or sensational? Whose stories, as Tromp suggests, are presented to us as within the realm of the likely and the everyday, and what are the political stakes of such classifications?

To read more see Gilbert, Katherine. ““I Wrote Them All”: Forgery and Forms of Classification in Trollope’s Orley Farm.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 2, 2019, p. 307-323. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0061.

The Man of Letters as Criminal: Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell and Henry Labouchère’s Truth

by Alexis Easley

On October 5, 1881, Inspector Henry Moore arrived at the Langham Hotel in response to a suicide threat. He found a forty-four-year-old baronet, Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell, sitting in room 170, a bottle of poison at his side. “It is perfectly impossible for me to live,” Campbell told the inspector, and then explained that he fully intended to take his own life the next day at noon if the Alliance Assurance Company did not give him an advance upon his life insurance policy. He was broke and homeless and needed just enough money to get him “through the bad season.” The inspector apprehended Campbell and took him to the Marylebone Police Station, where he was charged with “being an insane person and not under proper control.” It soon became clear that Campbell’s supposed suicide attempt was a money making scheme. Indeed, his appeal to the Alliance Assurance Company had been a thinly disguised attempt at blackmail. His death would be a “bad thing for the Alliance,” he threatened in a money-begging letter to the company. Once in police custody, Campbell made no further suicide threats and acknowledged that he “had made a fool of himself.”

Figure 1. “Bogus Literary Agents in the Dock of the Old Bailey,” Penny Illustrated Paper, 24 Sept. 1892, p. 198.

This was just one of many criminal episodes in the life of Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell. In October of 1892, he was convicted of conspiring to defraud the public by co-managing a bogus literary agency that offered fake diplomas, promises of publication, and editorial assistantships in exchange for cash payments. The agency was particularly successful in fleecing amateur writers, who paid for their manuscripts to be read and published only to find weeks later that the agency had closed shop and its managers were nowhere to be found. The case revealed the dark side of the literary marketplace, where unscrupulous men such as Campbell could capitalize on the oversupply of literary aspirants, defrauding them of their money and creative work.

What made Campbell’s story unique was the fact that he was also a writer, editor, and translator. As a translator, he was responsible for introducing cheap editions of the works of French writer Emile Gaboriau, today acknowledged as the father of the detective novel genre. Campbell also published his own detective stories in Christmas annuals and wrote a handful of mystery novels, including The Mystery of Mandeville Square (1888) and The Vanishing Diamond (1890). In 1890, he became editor of Lambert’s Monthly, which published serialized sensation novels and detective fiction. At the same time that Campbell was translating, writing, and editing detective fiction, he continued to pursue a life of crime.

Campbell’s exploits probably would have gone unpunished if it were not for Henry Labouchère’s weekly newspaper Truth, which investigated the case and transformed it into a gripping serial. Truth was of course complicit in the cases it investigated since it relied on a steady flow of crime narratives to sell papers. It also engaged in editorial practices focused on disguise and manipulation that echoed the actions of the criminals it claimed to criticize. On the one hand, Truth seemed to construct a clear line between the heroic editor and the aristocratic literary villain. Yet it also indirectly revealed affinities between literary criminals and the journalists who investigated their crimes.

To read more see, Alexis Easley, “The Man of Letters as Criminal: Sir Gilbert Edward Campbell and Henry Labouchère’s Truth.” Victorian Review, vol. 45 no. 2, 2019, p. 253-270. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/vcr.2019.0058.

Horse-racing Fraud, Then and Now

by Nancy Henry

This past March, twenty-seven people involved in U.S. horse racing, including trainers and veterinarians, were federally indicted for doping racehorses with banned substances. A New York Times article by Benjamin Weiser and Joe Drape reported: “To avoid detection of their scheme, the indictment said, the defendants routinely defrauded and misled federal and state regulators ‘and the betting public.’”

Three bookmakers are watching a horserace. Lithograph by Tom Merry, 7 September 1889. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This ongoing case is part of a long, troubling history of horse-racing fraud. In Victorian Britain, attempts to cheat sometimes erupted into full-blown scandals. For example, the 1844 Epsom Derby was compromised by a series of deceits that included entering a four-year old as a three-year old. There are many ways to “fix” a race, but drugging or injuring the horse is particularly shocking because it involves a betrayal of trust, as well as physical harm. Fiction is uniquely able to create sympathy for the horse, and in some cases, imagine his thoughts. In Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), for example, the steeplechaser Forest King has his bit painted with poison, and we see the ensuing delirium through his eyes.

In Victorian fiction generally and racing fiction in particular, there is tension between the horse as a living, feeling creature and the horse as source of monetary value. Jane Smiley observes that in the eighteenth century, “horseracing, fiction, and capitalism came to form a mutually nurturing threesome” (44). In the nineteenth-century racing plots are also financial plots; horses are characters and commodities. Forest King’s loss results in financial ruin for his owner Bertie Cecil, and it redirects the novel’s plot. In Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children (1880), Lord Silverbridge’s horse Prime Minister has a nail driven into his hoof on the morning of his race, causing Silverbridge to lose the tremendous sums he had bet on the horse.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41), Little Nell attends the races, reflecting, “how strange it was that horses who were such fine honest creatures should seem to make vagabonds of all the men they drew about them” (157). Later novelists like George Moore in Esther Waters (1894) agreed. More recently, The Sport of Kings (2016) by C.E. Morgan explores the economic cultures of racing and breeding horses in Kentucky.   

While many tracks closed temporarily, horse racing is one of the few sports that remained available for live viewing (and betting) in the US throughout the Covid-19 pandemic shut downs. For many gamblers, racing is entirely removed from the horses, who are represented by statistics in the racing form and numbers on a screen. Outrage over doping is apt to be more about financial loss than animal cruelty. Victorian literature is a good place to start when considering how horse racing, literary criticism and Animal Studies might intersect in order to bring attention to the harm done to horses when humans put money above the integrity of the sport and the safety of the horses.

This post forms part of a special issue on “Fraud and Forgery in Victorian Culture.” To read more see Nancy Henry, “Horse-Racing Fraud in Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 45, no. 2, Fall 2019, pp. 235-251.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Smiley, Jane. “The Fiction of Horseracing.” Cambridge Companion to Horseracing, edited by Rebecca Cassidy. Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 44–56.

A Christmas Carol

by Aubrey Plourde

Marley's ghost appears to Scrooge.
“Marley’s Ghost” by John Leech, 1843, Hand-coloured steeling engraving. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham for the Victorian Web.

As part of his campaign for education and against child labor, Charles Dickens imagined A Christmas Carol as an antidote to the poverty he saw on his visit to Manchester. The book, he believed, would present the plight of the poor in a way his readers could understand, and it would motivate them to do something about it. The book was so phenomenally popular from the moment it was published in December 1843 that it earned Dickens the title “the Man Who Invented Christmas.”

The extent to which A Christmas Carol really did accomplish the social benefits Dickens hoped for was up for debate. Some readers received it as a “new gospel,” supplement or substitute for the scripture that was, perhaps, losing its mass appeal. Others, like Ruskin, bemoaned the Carol’s lack of real sacred truth. While lay readers were drawn in by Scrooge’s conversion, others, including many of its critics, have seen it as a cheap trick, an enchanting but flimsy tale of a hastily-reformed moneyman.

But the novel itself is, in some ways, about enchantment in reading. In my article in “‘Another Man from What I Was’: Enchanted Reading and Ethical Selfhood in A Christmas Carol,” I explore the textual relation between enchantment and ethics in A Christmas Carol. Typically, “Scrooge,” evokes something along the lines of “cheap.” Stingy, miserly, close-fisted, ungenerous, Scrooge has become the mascot of the one-percent. But his criminal frugality, is born of his suspicion. My essay is built on a small premise: Scrooge is a miser because he is a skeptic. If he hoards his wealth and resources, he does so as an outgrowth of his insistence on a materialist epistemology. In fact, he’s a lot like a skeptical reader, taking in the ghosts’ vignettes at first with a guarded sense of suspicion—alert for enchanted humbugs that might hoodwink him—and, I show, ultimately with a performed suspension of disbelief.

The ethical change of A Christmas Carol—a change Dickens explicitly envisioned as not just the reform of Scrooge but in fact the transformation of an entire generation—requires a change in worldview, in standards of truth, and methods of interpretation. In this novel, the imagination is not precisely a better way of getting at truth than materialist logic, calculation, or science—but in fact becomes a method by which epistemologies—visions of past and present, ways of reconciling the self and the other—could be imagined to coexist.

To read the full article in the Victorian Review 42.3, click here.

Nineteenth-Century Auction Narratives

newspaper column
Auction advertisements, the Times, Sept. 19, 1838, p. 8.

by Elizabeth Coggin Womack 

For almost two hundred years, advertisements in the Times of London combined listings of real estate and secondhand furnishings with oblique references to deaths or bankruptcies. The gossipy subtext of these advertisements made them a particularly rich source for satirical allusions in nineteenth-century novels. Yet for Thackeray and Dickens, this form of satire is also an invitation to read more sympathetically. When Thackeray and Dickens use hackneyed commercial phrasing such as “Capital Modern Household Furniture, &c.” to describe a family’s tragic loss, they ask us to reconsider the habitual schadenfreude that gossipy advertisements might encourage, and instead to bring a novel-reader’s sympathy to bear on the most mundane section of the daily newspaper.

While Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Dickens’s Dombey and Son are the primary sources for my work on nineteenth-century auction advertisements, my unofficial inspiration has always been a scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989). Strolling with Sally on a crisp autumn day, the ever-cynical Harry recommends using the obituaries to find a New York City apartment.  “What they can do to make it easier is to combine the obituaries with the real estate section. Say, then you’d have ‘Mr. Klein died today leaving a wife, two children, and a spacious three-bedroom apartment with a wood-burning fireplace.’” What Harry means as a morbid joke was once an established convention for auction advertisements.

To learn more, see Elizabeth Coggin Womack: “Nineteenth-Century Auction Narratives and Compassionate Reading”

A Victorian Taxonomy of Occupations

By Alison Hedley

In Summer 2018, the Ryerson Centre for Digital Humanities launched the website for the Yellow Nineties Personography, a biographical database of persons who contributed to a number of little magazines produced in Britain at the fin de siècle, as documented by the Yellow Nineties Online. The website is a culmination (but not the final output) of many years’ research and development. One of the most theoretically challenging aspects of this work has been developing the Personography’s domain model—a formal representation of its organizational structure which describes the Personography’s knowledge domain by assigning the data classes, attributes, and rules. The taxonomy of Victorian occupations that constitutes a specific sub-structure of this ontology illustrates how digitally documenting the Victorians can enhance our recognition of the possibilities and limitations inherent in both historical and contemporary models for structuring cultural knowledge.

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Henry Hawkins’s Newspaper Heist of 1892

By Stephan Pigeon

“March of Education.” Punch Historical Archive [London, England] 17 May 1879: 227. Punch Historical Archive, 1841-1992. Web. 3 Aug. 2018. Gale News Vault.

In the nineteenth-century newspaper marketplace, journalists and editors prized access to the latest news. Consistently delivering desirable correspondence and the most up-to-date information meant a dedicated readership. An edge on competitors meant greater sales and profits.

While many British newspapers paid for updates and intelligence through a news agency or supplied their own correspondents, some papers relied on reprinting news from articles that had already been published. Without an effective copyright in news, texts regularly circulated throughout the press. While cutting out an article and reprinting it – known as ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism – was a handy method to deliver the latest information, it still meant waiting for another paper to publish the news first. For some newspaper proprietors, this was not sufficient.

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