In The Physiology of the Novel, Nicholas Dames wraps an extremely bold claim about the literary, social, and even political significance of attending to the phenomenology of reading within a relatively modest claim about our failure to pay sufficient attention to nineteenth-century literary criticism. The modest claim is that “the force of experimental science upon nineteenth-century novel criticism and theory has been so consistently overlooked as to encourage the persistent illusion that the Victorians had no theory of the novel at all” (2). Such an assertion may seem to resemble complaints that have been made since the late 1950s to the effect that Henry James was wrong to suggest, in “The Art of Fiction,” that the Victorian novel “had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it.” As Richard Stang, Kenneth Graham, John Charles Olmsted, Edwin M. Eigner, George J. Worth, and Solveig Robinson have pointed out through their useful anthologies of Victorian literary criticism, the Victorians did, in fact, theorize their literary practices. Dames’s interest in the role of “experimental science” in those theorizations goes well beyond by now routine complaints about James’s deleterious effects on literary-critical history, however. Ultimately he argues that the reason Henry James (and even more importantly for his account, Percy Lubbock) refused to acknowledge the existence of nineteenth-century theories of the novel is that those theories focused on “the physiology of the novel” as the basis of a “literary-critical practice oriented toward consumption rather than production” (10). James and then Lubbock, by contrast, manifested a “distaste for the common characteristics of novel-reading, a distaste which in turn is a matter, first and foremost, of disgust at the novel’s social ubiquity” (34). A refusal to theorize reading, in other words, translates into a refusal to consider the novel’s social existence. In later formulations, therefore, “the novel is separated from the matrices of response it evokes (either ‘mass’ reading or critical reading) in order to become a spatialized form dedicated to epistemological processes—getting us to know something or someone” (37).
Dames explicitly builds on the work of critics such as Garrett Stewart, Helen Small, Jonathan Rose, Kate Flint, Leah Price, and Stephen Arata (to name just a few of the many scholars to whom he gives credit) who have helped reinvigorate critical interest in Victorian reading. But more: through immensely readable and persuasive accounts of the physiological theories of G.H. Lewes, E.S. Dallas, Alexander Bain, and Vernon Lee, among others—as well as through compelling readings of novels by William Thackeray, George Eliot, George Meredith, and George Gissing—Dames makes a strong argument for seeing Victorian critics’ concern with the temporality of the reading experience as a way out of the impasse between the claim that art represents an escape from ideology and the claim that it is a wholly social and even disciplinary activity. Dames offers a vision of the novel as both mechanically reproducing psychic rhythms characteristic of modernity and as allowing or even requiring moments of something like psychic autonomy.
After a relatively brief introductory chapter, Dames offers an extended historical introduction to Victorian physiologists of the novel in which he argues that over the course of the century these critics focused increasingly on the abstractly temporal aspect of the novel. “Much like later structuralisms of the novel, the physiology of Lewes, Bain, and Dallas turned the novel into a sequence of actions (or a sequence of receptive moments) rather than any encounter with characters…. If a novel is a string of happenings with a generally specifiable rhythm, then character is nothing more than an occasion for those happenings, a kind of sporadic melody set above the form’s rhythmic foundation” (66). Although it is relatively devoid of judgment, such formalism is not devoid of social interest. On the contrary, Dames insists, “The Victorian engagement with physiology and fiction was … an attempt to understand what, in a machine age, ‘the social’ might look like, how consciousness operated in such an age and in such a society, and how (and why) the novel reflected and catered to the kinds of cognition demanded by new social facts” (254).
Each of the subsequent chapters of The Physiology of the Novel examines a single author in relation to one central problematic of novel-reading: Thackeray is paired with “intermittent form”; Eliot with “elongated form”; Meredith with “discontinuous form”; and Gissing with “accelerated form.” This may sound schematic, but the readings that result demonstrate the usefulness of these rubrics. Particularly impressive is the chapter on Eliot, which brings together nineteenth-century critics’ concerns regarding the almost unbearable length of Daniel Deronda with contemporary debates about the psychic and social implications of Wagnerian form. By “placing stress on the horizontality of melody—its temporal reach, rather than its mnemonic groupings—Wagner contested ... the usual physiological understanding of melodic functioning as a way to bind elongated forms” (144). For Eliot, Dames argues, this challenge is registered in the form of a question: “Does the leitmotiv signal the triumph of elongated temporal form, or is it a defeat, an admission that no form can extend to the lengths of Wagner’s without prosthetic aids for the memory?” (140). In place of the overly literal social attentiveness that Eliot can too easily be seen to advocate, therefore, Dames offers us an understanding of Daniel Deronda as an investigation of both the limits of human attention and the strange temporality of the novel form.
In reading the chapter on Eliot, it is easy to feel that its concerns are particularly close to Dames’s own; his interest in and knowledge of music history is apparent throughout. This is not to say, however, that the other “case studies” do not yield their own pleasures and insights. In his chapter on Thackeray, for example, Dames asks us to consider the novelist’s interest in inattention as a way to free the mind from rigid control. This is a fascinating way not only to think about Thackeray, but to think about the psychic commitments of the Victorian novel more generally. How does our understanding of reading change if we think of it less in terms of psychic freedom or discipline, than in terms of an instigation to distraction, daydream, and reverie? In his chapter on Gissing, Dames makes an analogous kind of argument, placing the novelist’s ambivalence regarding readerly temporality against a historical backdrop that includes both the development of speed-reading and the death of the triple-decker novel. The impulse toward speed implied by these developments is both described in Gissing’s novels and, Dames argues, “neutralized by a narrative procedure that disperses their effect and refuses to find formal equivalents for the simultaneity they necessarily produce” (234). Somewhat like Thackeray, in Dames’s account, Gissing ultimately values the novel as an occasion for cognitive idleness: “the lightness [of the novel form] derives not so much from the presumed frothiness of content as from the form’s cognitive permissiveness, which asks for nothing more than an occasionally fixated, intermittent, idle attention” (243).
The chapter on Meredith is the only one with which I take any issue. Although the notion of the “just noticeable difference” (the supposedly fundamental unit of consciousness that was being theorized in the late nineteenth century) offers a productive way to think about Meredith’s interest in social, literary and syntactical fragmentation, I am not entirely persuaded that this fragmentation explains the author’s literary-historical marginalization. Noting the usual association of fragmentation with popular reading, Dames argues that “Meredith’s appeal to supposedly popular reading practices in the guise of the elaborately experimental, difficult prose form” (205) helps account for “Meredith’s posthumous disappearance from popular and elite canon alike: too difficult and idiosyncratic to represent the Victorian novel-as-usual, too fragmented and sloppily organized to be treated as a chef-d’oeuvre of Victorian narrative art” (206). While it is certainly true that his novels are both difficult and fragmented, so is much of the Modernist literature that we do persist in reading and teaching. This is a very small quibble, however, with so persuasive and potentially paradigm-changing a book.
The Physiology of the Novel is one of those rare works of literary criticism whose reception may prove nearly as interesting as the text itself. Dames does not simply call for a historicization of the reading experience; he offers a compelling model for the shape that historicization might take, and the kinds of insights it might reveal. The question now is whether—and in what ways—we choose to take up his challenge.
Rachel Ablow is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She is the author of The Marriage of Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Victorian Marriage Plot (Stanford UP, 2007) and the editor of a special issue of Victorian Studies on “Victorian Emotions.” She is currently working on a project on the idea of psychic violence in Victorian literature and culture.