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Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction

Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction
    Book Description:

    Victorian fiction has been read and analyzed from a wide range of perspectives in the past century. But how did the novelists themselves read and respond to each other's creations when they first appeared? Jerome Meckier answers that intriguing question in this ground-breaking study of what he terms the Victorian realism wars.

    Meckier argues that nineteenth-century British fiction should be seen as a network of intersecting reactions and counteractions in which the novelists rethought and rewrote each other's novels as a way of enhancing their own credibility. In an increasingly relative world, thanks to the triumph of a scientific secularity, the goal of the novelist was to establish his or her own credentials as a realist, hence a reliable social critic, by undercutting someone else's -- usually Charles Dickens's.

    Trollope, Mrs. Gaskell, and especially George Eliot attempted to make room for themselves in the 1850s and 1860s by pushing Dickens aside. Wilkie Collins tried a different form of parodic revaluation: he strove to outdo Dickens at the kind of novel Dickens thought he did best, the kind his other rivals tried to cancel, tone down, or repair, ostensibly for being too melodramatic but actually for expressing too negative a world view.

    For his part, Dickens -- determined to remain inimitable -- replied to all of his rivals by redoing them as spiritedly as they had reused his characters and situations to make their own statements and to discredit his.

    Thus Meckier redefines Victorian realism as the bravura assertion by a major novelist (or one soon to be) that he or she was a better realist than Dickens. By suggesting the ways Victorian novelist read and rewrote each other's work, this innovative study alters present day perceptions of such double-purpose novels asFelix Holt, Bleak House, Middlemarch, North and South, Hard Times, The Woman in White,andThe Mystery of Edwin Drood.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5959-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Chapter One The Victorian “Multiverse” Bleak House Felix Holt
    (pp. 1-26)

    THIS BOOK grows out of a three-stage progression. The sequence began with Humphry House’sThe Dickens World(1941) and continued through J. Hillis Miller’sCharles Dickens: The World of His Novels(1958) to Jerome Hamilton Buckley’s anthologyThe Worlds of Victorian Fiction(1975).¹ House equated Dickens’s world with the real Victorian society in which the novelist lived and attempted to trace the “connexion” between the writings (“historical documents”) and the times in which Dickens wrote. Miller capitalized on House’s admission that Dickens “made out of Victorian England a complete world with a life and vigour and idiom of its own.”...

  5. Chapter Two The Cant of Reform The Warden
    (pp. 27-46)

    THE WARDEN (1855) deserves special recognition as the only Victorian novel to parody a Dickens novel that Dickens never actually wrote. Trollope pretends to be answering an imaginary broadside entitledThe Almshouse. Chapter 15 ofThe Wardenis often celebrated for its dismissal of Dickens as “Mr. Popular Sentiment,”¹ author of the broadside, but a dislike for Boz’s latest polemic colors the entire novel. The anti-Sentiment section forms part of a comprehensive reconsideration of Dickens as realist and social critic, especially his use of Juvenalian satire to promote a radical politics and encourage reform.

    Trollope’s book finds Dickens’s outbursts unacceptable...

  6. Chapter Three Mutual Recrimination Hard Times North and South
    (pp. 47-92)

    INHard Times(1854) andNorth and South(1854-55), Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell rewrite one another’s characters, themes, and situations with unrelenting assiduity. Reading one novel in light of the other is like collating two texts on the same subject written in antithetical moods. Polite disavowals by both novelists aside, each book makes retaliation against the other a major concern. Of the many hidden rivalries in Victorian fiction, this is the most complicated: none reveals as clearly the advantages and drawbacks of writing revaluative parody.

    Whether the subject is “Men and Masters” (Dickens) or “Masters and Men” (Mrs. Gaskell),¹ each...

  7. Chapter Four An Ultra-Dickensian Novel The Woman in White
    (pp. 93-121)

    WILKIE COLLINS once hinted that he could have doneA Tale of Two Cities(1859) better than Dickens by revealing Manette’s letter earlier. Dickens replied with a snub: if the story had been “done in your manner,” he told Collins, it “would have been overdone,” more ominously perhaps but “too elaborately trapped, baited and prepared.” The “business of art,” Dickens instructed Collins further, is to “lay the ground carefully, but with the care that conceals itself—to show by a backward light what everything has been working to—but only tosuggest, until the fulfillment comes. These are the ways...

  8. Chapter Five Undoing by Outdoing Continued Great Expectations The Moonstone
    (pp. 122-152)

    MOST OF THE prior reconsiderations of the Dickens-Collins exchange minimize its complexity: either Collins is said to have exerted a “stultifying influence on Dickens,”¹ or his alleged impact is dismissed as a myth.² The motive in both cases seems to be a desire to protect Dickens’s integrity as an artist, to ensure his unassailable preeminence. This goal becomes ludicrous in view of Dickens’s difficulties with George Eliot, Trollope, and Mrs. Gaskell. Recent attempts to acknowledge a prolonged Dickens-Collins interaction but confine it to a personal relationship, a matter of only biographical importance, conceal even further one of the nineteenth century’s...

  9. Chapter Six Inimitability Regained The Mystery of Edwin Drood
    (pp. 153-200)

    INSTANCES OF wrongdoing or wrong thinking at society’s upper levels abound in Dickens’s novels. Besides Dombey and Gradgrind, the list of white-collar villains includes Casby, Merdle, Podsnap and Veneering. The respectable exteriors of Casby and Merdle conceal slum lord and swindler. Prior to 1870, Dickens also painted comic portraits of split men in Wemmick and Mr. Lorry, good-natured souls who conscientiously separate a better self from a business persona. InThe Moonstone, with successful creations like Ablewhite and Blake, Collins advances beyond Dickens: he perceives more acutely that the themes of self-division and of criminality among the respectable should overlap....

  10. Chapter Seven “That Arduous Invention” Middlemarch
    (pp. 201-242)

    GEORGE ELIOT was well established by 1872. She did not need to write against Dickens, as Trollope did in the 1850s, to make room for herself; nor, unlike Mrs. Gaskell, did she have to avoid being preempted. InFelix Holt, she had already produced what has been called the masterwork of parodic revaluation, an unflinching, total revision of Dickens’s finest satirical novel.Middlemarch, consequently, turns out to be a unique testament, in the annals of hidden rivalries, to Dickens’s authority. During the first two years after his demise, an eminently successful rival novelist felt compelled to cancel his reply to...

  11. Chapter Eight Conclusions: Realism, Revaluation, and Realignment
    (pp. 243-281)

    A RECOGNITION of hidden rivalries in Victorian fiction necessitates a realignment of the major novelists. Thackeray can hardly be considered Dickens'’s archrival. His objections to Dickens, although consistent and pervasive, seldom resulted in the meticulous rewriting that one finds in Trollope, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, or Collins. Any of these—especially George Eliot, his prodigious foe, and Collins, his too ardent admirer—can stake a greater claim than Thackeray to be considered Dickens’s nemesis. Michael Slater contends that Dickens had “no … reservations about women’s writingper se,’¹ yetHard Timesis so contrary toMary BartonandNorth and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 282-300)
  13. Index
    (pp. 301-312)