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Susan E. Colón. The Professional Ideal in the Victorian Novel: The Works of Disraeli, Trollope, Gaskell, and Eliot. New York: Palgrave, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-4039-7613-0. Price: US$65.00

  • Jennifer Ruth

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  • Jennifer Ruth
    Portland State University

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Susan Colón’s The Professional Ideal in Victorian Fiction consolidates a subgenre in Victorian criticism. This subgenre sketches the emergence and theorization of the modern professional in the Victorian imagination and a brief list of its major texts includes Bruce Robbins’s Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993), Lauren M. E. Goodlad’s Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in Liberal Society (2003), Clare Pettitt’s Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel (2004), Daniel Hack’s Material Interests of the Victorian Novel (2005), and my own Novel Professions: Interested Disinterest and the Making of the Professional in the Victorian Novel (2006), as well as a handful of influential articles by critics like Nicholas Dames and Sharon Marcus. While not all of these works focus solely on the professional, all of them distinguish this figure from his class counterparts in Victorian fiction and work towards explaining the various ideologies which he both embodied and reconfigured. Colón’s book beautifully crystallizes the discussion begun by these works into the question of the professional ideology’s “complex relationship to idealist and materialist rationalities” (3).

Correcting a critical tendency to see the professional as a character constituted exclusively by secular modernity, Colón “understand[s] Victorian professionalism in the light of its persistent relationship to ideals shaped by premodern and nonmarket sensibilities in tension with modern, market-driven notions of the division of labor” (2). Her introduction examines the key sociological treatments of the professional class, moving nimbly from Harold Perkin to Magali Larson to Barbara and John Ehrenreich and the latter’s formulation of the professional-managerial class. She finds that these studies all portray the professional as, at bottom, market-oriented and his professions of disinterested service as nothing more than “sublimated self-interest” (6). None of them, she claims, can accommodate the Victorians’ capacity for genuine idealism. Drawing inspiration from Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance, Colón wants to historicize “the centrality and persistence of idealism to the professional project” (7). Anderson works against Foucauldian suspicion of the expert class, and while Colón follows this lead in some respects, she also frames her book as a beef with Marxism: “The Marxist insistence on seeing all idealist formulations as smokescreens for self-interest,” she writes, “simply does not do justice to Victorian realities” (9).

This is, in my view, wrong. The sociology Colón cites is a critical starting point for theorizing the professional but it hardly exhausts the Marxists on “idealist formulations.” Colón overlooks a rich dialectical tradition, the touchstones of which are Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society, Herbert Marcuse’s Negations, Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Rules of Art. These works keep the positive and negative aspects of bourgeois idealism squarely in mind. They are careful to avoid writing it out of existence because it is precisely what, in Marcuse’s words, “keeps alive the best desires of men amidst a bad reality” (Negations 102). This weakness about the range of Marxist analysis may have consequences for the claims Colón makes in her introduction—indeed, one could argue that not only does Marx get misinterpreted here but Freud as well (“sublimated self-interest” is, after all, not self-interest and is arguably the only form of disinterest humanly possible)—but it by no means invalidates her subsequent arguments. In fact, what surprises me is how little this misstep deforms the book, which is a remarkably agile and substantive account of the ideological production of the professional by way of nuanced readings of specific Victorian novels.

In her first chapter, Colón shows how Benjamin Disraeli recuperates a paternalistic aristocracy but with “a specific twist toward the emergent professional” (25). Taking us from Coningsby, or the New Generation to Sybil, or the Two Nations and ending with Tancred, Colón finds that ultimately Disraeli cannot convincingly marry material reality and idealist loyalty, because he cannot flesh out how his various protagonists will achieve their goals. “How are they,” Colón writes, “to reinvent political parties (Coningsby) and elevate the condition of the people (Sybil)? What is the relationship of these leaders to transcendence (Tancred)?” (50) In her second chapter on masculine autonomy in The Warden and Barchester Towers, Colón reads Anthony Trollope’s early ecclesiastical novels as depicting a “power struggle among professionals” (52). In particular, she is interested in how the novels illuminate “the tension between autonomy and collectivism in the professional ideal” (53). Colón narrows in on a central paradox of professionalism: the autonomy of the individual practitioner can only be guaranteed by the autonomy of the professional association, and this guarantee is dependent on the association regulating the individual. Accordingly, as Colón shows, the “political machinations” of Barchester Towers concern “questions of institutional management, grounds for promotion, and individual and institutional autonomy are (62). The novel concludes by reversing the logic stated above: instead of the association guaranteeing the individual’s autonomy, the individual shores up the association. In characters such as Mr. Arabin and Mr. Harding “the best of the available ideals” are reconciled “into an idiosyncratic professional ideal” (68).

Chapter three shows how Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow expands the boundaries of the professional class to include women. As she does in her other chapters, Colón here first outlines a set of historical debates that pertain to her topic: in this case, the way the ideal of meritocracy first justified the bourgeois male’s entry into aristocratic vocational territory but then later could be turned to effective rhetorical use to justify the female’s inclusion as well. Interestingly, Colón chooses to demonstrate this trajectory through a novel whose understated claim to female inclusion is all the more powerful for its subtlety. “Miss Greatorex and Miss Galindo’s mental labors hardly stir the surface of the narrative,” Colón writes; “This very quality, however, is an index of the strength of the argument Gaskell makes: women’s performing as mental workers is an ordinary, unremarkable development, entirely of a piece with the societal transformation that is bringing professionals to replace aristocrats as hegemonic in the social domain” (95). Colón next addresses the topic of “professional mentorship” in a chapter on Romola. This chapter, tackling as it does an important but less central aspect of professionalization, feels like a footnote to the book as a whole and might have been better subsumed under her more pertinent discussion of Eliot in chapter five.

Focused on specialization and service in “Janet’s Repentance” and Daniel Deronda, chapter five features Colón’s work at its best: capably articulating the subtleties and paradoxes that attend the professional ideal. In particular, Colón illuminates Eliot’s own sophisticated awareness of the mixed emotions that animate the professional. Through Daniel Deronda, Eliot theorizes a “capacious model of professionalism that involves self-protection as well as service, and individual fulfillment as well as sacrificial giving” (143). A final chapter on Octavia Hill allows Colón to address the “relationship of professional to philanthropic idealism” (149). Colón’s departure from her focus on literature to discuss the life of a social reformer is not particularly successful as it seems to mire the chapter in the details of Hill’s life without making of these details something generalizable. An epilogue brings The Professional Ideal to the present and ends the book on a pragmatic note. Colón rightly argues that we must “look for solutions to professional misconduct from within professional culture itself, rather than imagining a solution that would somehow stand outside the past century and half or so of increasing dependency on expert labor” (176). We must be critical of the exploitative tendencies of professionalism without “shortchanging its potential to advance progressive ends” (176).

In The Professional Ideal, Colón honors the Victorian professional and his or her “zeal to combine rational expertise with sympathetic service” (1). In doing so, Colón describes her own contribution to literary criticism. Through sympathetic but rigorous readings of important Victorian novels, Colón skillfully delineates the Victorian literary production of a credible and worthy professional.