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Rachel Ablow. The Marriage of Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Victorian Marriage Plot. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-804-75466-8. Price: US$55.

  • Elsie B. Michie

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  • Elsie B. Michie
    Louisiana State University

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In The Marriage of Minds, Rachel Ablow aims to do three related things: first, to invite us to reconceptualize sympathy not as pity but “as a psychic structure through which the subject is produced, consolidated, or redefined” (2); second, to link sympathy as it is evoked within novels to the nineteenth-century reader’s experience of those novels; and third, to frame this large discussion of sympathy within the specific context of marital relations, both as they were depicted in the novel and as they were discussed in the debates about marriage law reform that took place over the course of the century. Though the discussion of marital reform emerges patchily in Ablow’s discussions, the idea of marriage as an analogy for reading both the relations between characters within novels and between readers and texts is crucial. It allows Ablow to reconceive sympathy as a force that comes into being not within individuals but between them, allowing subjects to constitute themselves in relation to each other. The goal her book sets is “to determine precisely how Victorian writers and readers understood the means by which we become subjects through our encounters with others” (8).

In each chapter, Ablow begins by countering received critical impressions of nineteenth-century novels that have been based on the modern ideas of sympathy which are associated with identification. She seeks instead to read these novels as exploring interpersonal relations based on the interactive concept of sympathy which emerged out of the eighteenth-century thinking of writers like David Hume and Adam Smith. She establishes this position in the critical first chapter of The Marriage of Minds by arguing that David Copperfield does not invite readers to identify with its hero. Instead she shows how Dickens’s descriptions of his hero, from an early moment in childhood, dwell on the boy’s propensity to idealize his attachments to others, an idealization that makes it easy for the novel’s readers to see how inaccurate David’s perceptions are. Ablow makes a similar point about the propensity to misread in the chapter that follows where she argues that, in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the heroine must learn to recognize that she has misunderstood the subjects who surround her, imagining that love could overcome the logic of power that actually dominates their relations.

In entitling her book The Marriage of Minds, thereby echoing Shakespeare while leaving out the adjective “true,” Ablow aptly captures what she does in her readings, which is, to explore the feelings that circulate between characters without pushing her interpretation towards some resolution that would identify a truth behind those feelings. The work that Ablow does here dovetails beautifully with the general exploration of the complexity of feelings now being undertaken by critics both Victorian and otherwise. I think specifically of Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard, 2005). Like Ngai, Ablow can, once the more conventional conception of sympathy has been set aside, explore the ugliness of the feelings that allow characters to define themselves in relation to one another. In her analysis of Wuthering Heights, for example, Ablow maps out a series of interactions that show characters assuming that, “To have something worth having, it seems is to have it at the expense of another” (50). In The Mill on the Floss she similarly uses incidents from across the novel to show the dangerous effects of emotional or imaginative absorption, which is most powerfully figured, here and elsewhere in Eliot in “the awful power of marital relationships to absorb one’s power to care for anyone outside the relationship” (73). In each case she then explores how the novel finds a way to represent itself as either critiquing or countering the relations it displays among its characters.

Though Ablow does not initially make gender the primary focus of her argument, it would be easy to read her choice of texts and the sequence in which she analyzes them as designed to emphasize the point she makes at the end of her analysis of David Copperfield. Having established there that the consolidation of the male self does not depend on understanding the interiority of the female, Ablow then turns to novels written by women, which show female characters struggling with the potentially overwhelming power of their interiority. She then returns to two novels by men that focus on the subjectivity of the male heroes: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right. Arguing that critics of Collins’s novel have ignored one of its primary problems, the question of how Walter Hartright recognizes the recovered Laura Glyde, Ablow reads The Woman in White as exploring the male subject’s desire to consolidate himself by projecting his perceptions onto others who are treated as objects. This position is connected to the novel’s emphasis on sensation, which means the hero must grapple with giving his feelings, like the individuals around him, a name that he can persuade others is accurate.

In the following chapter Ablow analyzes a narrative that seems to her to exceed the boundaries of gender, as Trollope, writing in the year immediately prior to the passage of the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act, depicts the threats to the male subject of a marriage between equals. For Ablow, Trollope’s novel marks the end of the pattern she has been tracing since the opening of The Marriage of Minds, of an evocation of the image of marital sympathy—either celebratory or critical—that is derived from the doctrine of coverture. In Trollope’s world husband and wife can no longer be conceived one person. Though the husband wishes to assume “he is living in a world designed by Dickens in which the best wives possess only marginal selves apart from their husbands” (124), the wife resists such assumptions. This crisis leads to a collapse of the male self, its fragmentation into a series of episodes that function as theatrical performances of identity. Trollope’s novel thus evokes ‘”the nightmare that haunts Smith’s notion of identity: that instead of the desire for sympathy enabling one’s participation in a community of like-minded individuals, it can result in isolation and one’s performance in front of the mirror of one’s own fears and beliefs” (127). From Trollope’s point of view the only counter to this potentially dangerous narcissistic self-engrossment is allowing oneself to embrace an alienated and distanced relation to one’s productions, to view them not as emanations of the self but as products for the consumer.

In her reading of Trollope and the afterword that follows it on Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Ablow comes closest to suggesting that her book presents “ a kind of trajectory” (15). Yet Ablow is also rightly uneasy about this conception. One could as easily read the sequence of novels analyzed in The Marriage of Minds as reflecting the development of the self as the history of marriage. Her book begins with a discussion of David Copperfield’s earliest scenes, where the hero, as a child, proves unable to read his comrade Steerforth correctly. In the reading of Wuthering Heights which follows, Ablow concentrates on the moment in early adulthood when Catherine Earnshaw Linton recognizes her own misreadings as she awakes in her marriage chamber and feels the gap between her childhood and her present state. The reading of The Mill on the Floss, moves to Maggie’s young adulthood and the scene where Stephen Guest persuades her to stay in the boat with him. In readings of The Woman in White and He Knew He Was Right we get a fully adult subject who attempts to establish his and his wife’s identity in the Collins’ novel and confronts his wife’s rebellion in Trollope. Both these novels move toward protagonists who are parents, with The Woman in White ending on that note and He Knew He Was Right incorporating parental feelings into its representation of the relation between subjectivities.

To trace such an alternative trajectory is not to suggest that The Marriage of Minds is ahistorical, but to argue that it performs a deep history. It doesn’t provide a one-to-one relation between developments in the marriage laws and changes in the representation of sympathy in the novel. Instead it uses the ground of the nineteenth-century novel to begin to tease out a definition of what the concept of sympathy looked like in the nineteenth century and how it is reflected in the relations between characters and between readers and the novel. In the opening paragraph of her introduction Ablow announces that she hopes “to fill a long-standing gap between eighteenth-century philosophical notions of sympathy as a structure through which subjects define themselves in relation to others, and twentieth-century psychoanalytic concepts of identification as the means by which . . . ‘the other gives me my identity’”(1). The Marriage of Minds goes a long way towards achieving this ambitious goal.