Scholars of the Victorian serial face the challenge of describing an emerging market, one whose rules and conventions were only beginning to take shape at mid-century. Beginning with Dickens’s experiments in All the Year Round, serial fiction took widely divergent forms across the careers of individual writers and under the influence of various publishing strategies and markets. In his introduction to The Reenchantment of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, David Payne aims to mark the conventional from the unconventional, the established form from its deviations. These distinctions guide Payne’s selection of the three authors studied in the five chapters of his book—Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot— whom Payne credits with resisting the more conservative tendencies of the form. (It is on this basis that Payne excludes Trollope, an author he views as conforming more readily to the norms of serial publication, from his study).
In the book’s individual chapters, the question of whether the featured authors deviated from conventions or participated differently in creating them is obliquely addressed; Payne makes few comparisons with other writers of serial fiction. He nevertheless offers an original account of serial fiction and its socio-political implications, arguing that since serialization was itself a market form it magnified the doubts of writers toward the Victorian market, including the market for literature. This ambivalence produces striking formal contradictions and generic inconsistencies, and Payne convincingly demonstrates that these tensions undermine the social reconciliations and sympathetic stances with which Victorian fiction is often associated.
One of the distinctive features of Payne’s book is that it situates its topic in relation to Christian as well as economic discourses, exploring the complex relationship between market-oriented thinking and Victorian religious belief. Payne theorizes his chosen writers’ ambivalence toward the market with terms drawn from Max Weber’s sociological critique of Christianity in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. On the one hand, serial fiction registers forms of “disenchantment,” a term derived from Weber’s famous description of modernity, expressing doubt toward transcendent religious ideals. On the other hand, writers of serial fiction also attempt “sacralize” (xi) the post-market world, a process called “reenchantment” in the book’s title. This reenchantment is secured, Payne contends, through two ideas inherited from Christianity and theorized in Boyd Hilton’s Age of Atonement: the Influence of Evangelicalism on Nineteenth Century Social Thought (1991): incarnation, which presupposes the “immanent sanctity of life,” and atonement, which attempts to repair failures of human community (5). Payne gives the first of these concepts a particularly wide scope, locating in incarnation in a range of stable models of human relationship, from George Eliot’s idea of “incarnate history,” a history that connects humans organically across time; to Thackeray’s attempt to imagine a form of sincere “benevolence” (66); to Dickens’s uses of metonymy and synecdoche, tropes that seal (and therefore essentialize, according to Payne) human bonds. Payne’s chapter on George Eliot offers a particularly subtle exploration of Eliot’s representation of a transcendent humanism and its dependence on a logic of incarnation and immanence, of “word made flesh,” because he establishes a specific connection between Eliot’s humanism and a Protestant logic of incarnation. In an original reading of “Janet’s Repentance,” Payne shows how Eliot’s attempt to maintain a transcendent Christian humanism remains in strong tension with alienating economic forces.
At a number of points, however, Payne’s concepts of atonement and incarnation lead to forced readings of primary texts, as when he interprets the following passage from The Pickwick Papers, a commentary on Pickwick’s first speech:
He (Mr. Pickwick) would not deny, that he was influenced by human passions, and human feelings, (cheers)—possibly by human weaknesses—(loud cries of “No”); but this he would say, that if ever the fire of self-importance broke out in his bosom the desire to benefit the human race in preference, effectually quenched it. The praise of mankind was his Swing; philanthropy was his insurance office. (Vehement cheering)Qtd. in Payne 16
Finding in this passage a “rhetoric of transcendence,” one in which “self-love inflames and destroys, while philanthropy quenches and saves,” Payne concludes that “Pickwickian language inserts the losses of modernization, encoded but intact, into a character studded with signs of being and saying the Word” (16). In the accompanying illustration, the episode is given strong Christian overtones, since as Payne notes, Pickwick presides over a kind of “Last Supper,” with twelve listeners seated around the table. Yet the quoted passage invokes a more secular and institutional rhetoric to describe human feeling, not one that can be specifically linked to atonement or to the “immanent” meaning that Payne associates with “incarnation of the Word.” To find in this scene an attempt to stabilize meaning seems also to overlook the overtly comic context of the passage and the ironies that potentially undermine religious faith. Payne contends, following Weber, that a Christian logic lives on in secular ideologies. But when Payne takes as inherently religious all discourses used to forge community, he tends to overlook important differences between Victorian views of community and their social and political implications.
In spite of what some readers may find a narrow view of Victorian social ideals, Payne’s book gives a complex picture of each author’s negotiation of Christian and capitalist perspectives on Victorian society. How Payne describes this complexity, and in particular, the features of contradiction and formal incoherence that characterize it, is worth considering further. As mentioned before, Payne treats formal contradiction as the mark of modern ambivalence, an inability to fully endorse religious ideals in a post-capitalist world. Yet he also considers that formal disorder can result from the pressure to create new markets of readers and to satisfy their tastes. In this case, it is not the author’s conflicted relation to the market that produces inconsistency, but the attempt to glean and shape readers’ appetites. Payne draws attention to the ways in which the fragmentary nature of serial publication, the publication of the “part,” might formally support both kinds of formal dissonance. Yet the book could do more to underline differences between these accounts, which imply a subversive relation to the market on the one hand, a more complicit relation on the other.
The degree to which the chosen authors maintained a critical view of the market remains somewhat unclear for other reasons as well. For example, Payne pays close attention to the pressures of competition and production bearing down upon each writer, often showing how these forces shaped literary products. At the same time, Payne often uses the term “oscillation” to describe each writer’s movement between different positions and forms. As a term associated with the novel’s most controlled form of critical distance, it can seem misplaced in contexts where Payne has emphasized a writer’s fraught relationship to literary production. Payne gives the most coherent account of a writer’s formal inconsistency in his chapter on Thackeray. Here Payne argues that Thackeray’s “rhetorical oscillations” (67) constitute a controlled refusal of the relative formal coherence found in Dickens’s early fiction, an incoherence that implies “aversion from judgment” and the easy Christian morality found in works like A Christmas Carol (61).
If Payne does not always clarify the nature and implications of formal inconsistency, he does respect the conflicted attitude of major Victorian authors both toward the conditions of literary production and the works they produced within them. One of the great virtues of this book is that it does not attempt to cast its authors as either cannily pre-modern or blindly traditional, but sheds lights on the ways they are both modern and traditional, caught between capitalist and religious views of human community. The book will also be valuable to readers because it reaches far beyond the scope of the serial market, addressing the question of how strongly nineteenth-century fiction hides, or underscores, the moral problems raised by modern economic forces.
Julia Kent is Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Beirut. She has recently published articles on W.M. Thackeray and Oscar Wilde.