Disorienting Fiction

Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Disorienting Fiction
    Book Description:

    This book gives an ambitious revisionist account of the nineteenth-century British novel and its role in the complex historical process that ultimately gave rise to modern anthropology's concept of culture and its accredited researcher, the Participant Observer. Buzard reads the great nineteenth-century novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and others as "metropolitan autoethnographies" that began to exercise and test the ethnographic imagination decades in advance of formal modern ethnography--and that did so while focusing on Western European rather than on distant Oriental subjects.

    Disorienting Fictionshows how English Victorian novels appropriated and anglicized an autoethnographic mode of fiction developed early in the nineteenth century by the Irish authors of theNational Taleand, most influentially, by Walter Scott. Buzard demonstrates that whereas the fiction of these non-English British subjects devoted itself to describing and defending (but also inventing) the cultural autonomy of peripheral regions, the English novels that followed them worked to imagine limited and mappable versions of English or British culture in reaction against the potential evacuation of cultural distinctiveness threatened by Britain's own commercial and imperial expansion. These latter novels attempted to forestall the self-incurred liabilities of a nation whose unprecedented reach and power tempted it to universalize and export its own customs, to treat them as simply equivalent to a globally applicable civilization. For many Victorian novelists, a nation facing the prospect of being able to go and to exercise its influence just about anywhere in the world also faced the danger of turning itself into a cultural nowhere. The complex autoethnographic work of nineteenth-century British novels was thus a labor to disorient or de-globalize British national imaginings, and novelists mobilized and freighted with new significance some basic elements of prose narrative in their efforts to write British culture into being.

    Sure to provoke debate, this book offers a commanding reassessment of a major moment in the history of British literature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2667-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    • CHAPTER ONE Uneven Developments: “Culture,” circa 2000 and 1900
      (pp. 3-18)

      At the end of the twentieth century, the anthropological concept of “culture,” once heralded as a colossal advance in social thought, occupied an uncertain terrain. On the one hand, its usefulness and even indispensability were championed in a series of ambitious studies of international economic and political relations, including such works as Samuel P. Huntington’sThe Clash of Civilizationsand David S. Landes’sThe Wealth and Poverty of Nations,which sometimes treated “cultural differences” as if they were capable of accounting for virtually every feature of contemporary geopolitics, and especially for every troubling feature. As the title of a recent...

    • CHAPTER TWO Ethnographic Locations and Dislocations
      (pp. 19-36)

      Twentieth-century anthropology repeatedly emphasized that the anthropology-conducting nations of the West have culturesof their own,just as the peoples studied in the classic ethnographies do. Operating on a “culturalist” principle that “presupposes the universal value of [local] autonomy and proposes to apply it to every particular group,” the discipline worked toward a global vision in which no inhabited territory iswithouta culture of its own, a view of the world as divided up into “equally significant, integrated systems of differences.”² “Were we to take the map of any continent,” Malinowski wrote inFreedom and Civilization(1944), “we would...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Fiction of Autoethnography
      (pp. 37-60)

      Anyone now proposing to consider the nineteenth-century prehistory of the modern ethnographic imagination must be mightily indebted to Christopher Herbert’sCulture and Anomie,a work that ranges broadly and brilliantly across a wide variety of Victorian discourses to take the measure of the “turbulence” caused by the nascent and then-nameless culture idea. This book could not have been written without that one. But Herbert’s treatment of the novel seems to me the most questionable element in a powerful work. In a chapter on “The Novel of Cultural Symbolism,” Anthony Trollope emerges as the solitary exception to the rule in nineteenth-century...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Translation and Tourism in Scott’s Waverley
      (pp. 63-104)

      The career of Walter Scott, Britain’s leading man of letters in the years immediately following the Act of Union, pivots upon a much-noted transition from antiquarian anthology making and poetry to the novel, a shift marked by the 1814 anonymous publication ofWaverley.I want to regard that shift as involving Scott’s highly self-conscious and ambivalent performance of the role of autoethnographer on behalf of a “Scotland” he appears to have known himself to be fabricating to suit the touristic interests of English readers—a “Scotland” (a unit identified with Highland traditions and the Jacobite cause) to which he, evidently...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Anywhere’s Nowhere: Bleak House as Metropolitan Autoethnography
      (pp. 105-156)

      To turn from Walter Scott andWaverleyin 1814 to Charles Dickens andBleak Housein 1852 is to move from the early nineteenth century’s most celebrated novelist at the United Kingdom’s margin to the middle nineteenth century’s most celebrated novelist at its absolute center, and to confront the implications of making that move for any account of the prehistory ofcultureand the (auto)ethnographic imagination. If Scott’s fiction needs to be read as engaging with and selfconsciously revising leading elements of the Irish National Tale, Dickens’s unfolds alongside and seeks to outdo the so-called Social-Problem Novel of the 1840s,...

    • CHAPTER SIX Identities, Locations, and Media
      (pp. 159-179)

      Dickens’s decision to build his metanovelBleak Housearound the tense juxtaposition of two stances—those of the erstwhile outcast who comes to treasure cultural belonging and of the self-exiled authority who grasps the cultural totality from without—finds a match in the shape of Charlotte Brontë’s brief novelistic career, and, as with Dickens, we should note in Brontë the presence of a definitive structuring opposition not onlybetweenleading tendencies but also incorporatedwithineach. Each of Brontë’s four adult fictions can be characterized as either a narrative of departure from an oppressive anticulture (The Professor, Villette) or one...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN An Échantillon of Englishness: The Professor
      (pp. 180-195)

      The Professoris a narrative of rescue and return that makes national avatars of its male and female leads and subjects them to a process of exilic tribulation during which whatever is English in them risks being dissolved in the surrounding swamp of Belgian “Frenchness” and Catholicism. Brontë’s story tells of an English castaway who winds up in Brussels, working in a boys’ school he characterizes as “merely an epitome of the Belgian nation” (TP 61); he soon begins to teach as well at the girls’ school next door and is astonished to encounter there, among the clamor of alien...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Wild English Girl: Jane Eyre
      (pp. 196-217)

      Readings ofJane Eyreand of Charlotte Brontë’s work as a whole have derived much energy from the idea that Brontë had to drop the pretense ofThe Professor’s masculine narrator in order to “find her voice,” and that she found and used that voice triumphantly in her impassioned second novel. This chapter will consider the phenomenon of voice inJane Eyreas a much more paradoxical and ambivalence-generating issue than critics have been inclined to regard it. It seems to me thatJane Eyrecultivates considerable suspicion about the powers and tendencies of the voice, holding apart Jane the...

    • CHAPTER NINE National Pentecostalism: Shirley
      (pp. 218-244)

      Shirley,a blend of industrial novel and “novel of the recent past” in the manner of Scott, is the work of Brontë’s that people will think of first as being ethnographic in tendency. Like early twentieth-century anthropological monographs and like the early nineteenth-century fiction of Scott and the authors of the National Tale, it provides a wealth of detail about the customs of a specific “culture area,” Brontë’s own West Riding in the years 1811–12, the time of the Luddite uprisings Patrick Brontë had witnessed. Like Scott’sWaverley,it is a work of third-person narration that looks back to...

    • CHAPTER TEN Outlandish Nationalism: Villette
      (pp. 245-276)

      In an argument about the Victorian novel’s anticipation of ethnographic concepts,Villette,likeThe Professor,might readily appear a promising selection, for its narrative could be read as one about Lucy Snowe’s fieldwork “immersion” in the alien culture of a fictional Catholic European country based on Belgium. No twentieth-century anthropological monograph arising out of fieldwork in a far-flung tribal society can outdoVillette’s representation of the disorientation and helplessness likely to beset the visitor newly arrived upon the scene of research. Mary Louise Pratt has written persuasively about the rhetorical function of arrival scenes in ethnographic writing, contending that, by...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Eliot, Interrupted
      (pp. 279-298)

      George Eliot, to whom I referred in chapter 1 as “the premier English [Victorian] novelist whose career unfolds entirely after the formalization of the British Empire in India,” is the transitional figure between this work and its intended sequel.² In this chapter I provide an overview of the autoethnographic labor her novels perform even as they alter the shape of British fictional autoethnography in the changing conditions of the 1860s and 1870s; more extended analyses ofMiddle-marchandDaniel Derondawill begin the sequel. Chapter 12 then returns to the late nineteenth-century text introduced at the outset of this study, William...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Ethnography as Interruption: Morris’s News from Nowhere
      (pp. 299-314)

      If it smacks of perversity to join Eliot, nineteenth-century Britain’s leading practitioner of bourgeois realism, with William Morris, its most prominent exponent of Marxist romance, I hope by this point that it will also seem fitting. For, as I suggested in the first chapter of this book, Morris’s 1890 utopian taleNews from Nowherecan be seen as a critical performance of Victorian novelistic selfinterruption, affording us a strikingly defamiliarizing view of the romance of culture and authority being carried out in works, including Eliot’s, celebrated and often promoted for their unprecedented verisimilitude. The novel’s commitment to the “knowable community,”...

  8. INDEX
    (pp. 315-320)