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In The Novel of Purpose, Amanda Claybaugh offers a highly inventive account of the reformist origins of Anglo-American realism. According to Claybaugh, the cultural preoccupation with social reform both authorized and limited the creative scope of roughly three generations of British and American novelists; as she puts it, “Realism emerged by struggling against and learning from reformist writings, while the status of the novel and of the novelist were secured by the prestige of reform” (51).
Claybaugh posits a genetic history in which early nineteenth-century novelists in Britain and the United States, bringing to bear the methods of verisimilitude that had developed in the previous century, began to take on reformist purposes, advocating projects such as temperance, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. As the century progressed, the novel moved away from its specific reformist agenda but continued to propagate the idea that novels ought to intervene in the contemporary world, an idea that fed a distinctively Anglo-American form of realism. Whereas continental novelists pursued ethically neutral representations of the world “as it is,” British and American writers created a “purposeful realism” which imagined the world as it should be. Throughout the century, Claybaugh argues, the novel of purpose dominated the literary marketplace; while critics might object to a novelist’s particular purposes, few disputed the necessity of writing with a purpose. As a consequence, many writers who had no real reformist intentions ended up engaging with questions of reform. She gives the example of Elizabeth Stoddard, who admitted that she was willing to write “religious lies for Sunday School publishing houses” (49). Importantly, then, the relationship between realism and reform was not the expression of a coherent political or epistemological disposition; rather, the pervasiveness of reformist writing caused it to get “caught up in the consolidation of Anglo-American realism” (45).
Much of the book’s nuance comes from its focus on writers who had a mixed relationship to the conventional social reform movements, writers whom Claybaugh dubs “reluctant reformers.” In their novels, “reformist subject matter is . . . put to nonreformist uses”; their relation to reform is “strategic rather than committed” (33–34). This is an important insight, one that keeps reform at the center of Claybaugh’s reading of nineteenth-century realism without denying or bracketing the other competing imperatives that belonged to the novel. In fact, Claybaugh’s main interest seems to be in the way that reformist writing becomes subordinate to those other imperatives. And yet the uses of reform vary widely from one novelist to the next. Just a handful of examples among many: Dickens uses reformist narratives in Pickwick as a way of transforming the novel from picaresque fantasy to verisimilitude, and yet he also sees the logic of the temperance narrative as implying an individualizing account of poverty that he wishes to disclaim. Anne Brontë uses temperance plots to highlight women’s vulnerability within the domestic sphere and give form to the repetitive experience of marriage, while Stoddard uses these same models to articulate women’s desire outside of the courtship plot and after the marriage vow. George Eliot and Henry James resist associations with reform that they once found useful, and in doing so, they draw into question the public taste for “exemplary women” and “typical Americans.” Similarly, Mark Twain stages fantasies of reform in order to interrogate his readers’ desire for self-congratulation. And Thomas Hardy takes up the novel of purpose late in his career in order to present a utopian model of community and to imagine radical alternatives to marriage. Thus the novel of purpose adopts a wide array of attitudes towards the purposes it represents; what unites Claybaugh’s novelists is that they “found in reform a set of strategies for managing the relations among their novels, their readers, and the world” (8).
Claybaugh asserts throughout that reform was an Anglo-American phenomenon, one that was made possible by a vibrant and shared print culture. Her discussion of Anglo-American exchange is detailed and complex. Focusing on celebrity reformers like Harriet Martineau and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Claybaugh shows that British and American activists worked together to reform institutions in England and in the United States, particularly in the case of the related causes of the abolition of slavery, workers’ suffrage, and women’s rights. Both the reformist and the anti-reformist press used the state of affairs overseas as a way of vindicating or deploring the social situation at home. Claybaugh also considers the slow advent of international copyright as it affected the formation and consolidation of an Anglo-American literary marketplace, one in which representations of reform, however local, could be guaranteed to speak to audiences on both shores. The Novel of Purpose doesn’t ultimately offer a new paradigm for understanding Anglo-American relations; rather, it draws on the clear and deep affiliations of social reform and print culture to authorize an expansive analysis of Anglo-American realism, an analysis which is attentive not only to particular claims of national identity, but also to the symmetries and collaborations that ensured that even the regional novels of Mark Twain and George Eliot were in some sense set in the Anglo-American world.
The book is most intriguing in its specific investigations of the shared discourse of reformist texts and realist fiction. Claybaugh identifies a number of narrative conventions that have their origin in the writings of social reformers but find their way into the novel of purpose, even if they appear in disguise or function in an unconventional way. For instance, she sketches out two narratives that are fundamental to the temperance movement, the “cautionary temperance tale” and the “temperance conversion narrative.” Somewhat more complex is the “plot of doubled promising,” a narrative structure in which the temperance pledge reaffirms (or displaces) a failed marriage vow. Equally paradigmatic are reformist “cons,” such as the “temperance crusade” and the “missionary dodge.” What is so appealing about Claybaugh’s list of narrative conventions is that they speak to the diversity within the reformist world; although the various conventional plots she discusses are ritualized, formulaic, and often quite rigid, they jostle against one another as if to demonstrate that reform itself was not a rigid formula, but a collection of competing logics and inflections. But it is conspicuous that, while Claybaugh looks at a number of reformist causes in depth (including antislavery campaigns, the reform of marriage law, and the movement for women’s education), virtually all of the narrative conventions she elaborates belong to the temperance movement. Indeed, the book posits that these temperance narratives were often brought to bear in reformist contexts that had little to do with temperance. It would be interesting to know whether other reformist causes likewise developed an arsenal of conventional plots, and if not, what it was about temperance that lent itself so readily to the generation of narrative.
The other distinctive feature of the book is the weight that it gives to the lives and careers of the writers it considers. Claybaugh isn’t only interested in novelists as producers of texts: she also treats them as producers of image and reputation, celebrities whose public personas are a central piece of their creative output. In the age of the novel of purpose, novelists were expected to become personally involved in the enterprise of reform, an expectation embraced by some (Dickens and Stowe) and resisted by others (Eliot and James). Claybaugh’s account of the intersection between the fiction and the career is quite brilliant in places. For instance, as she recounts the perennial critical question of why Tom Sawyer would try to rescue a slave (Jim) who had already been freed, Claybaugh answers it with a question of her own: why would Mark Twain “write a novel attacking an institution that had been abolished long ago” (168). Equally interesting is her discussion of Dickens’s early career, where she asserts that, despite his own oracular style of analysis, Dickens consistently denounced the language of reform, and that he was “astonished” to find that Nicholas Nickleby’s depiction of the Yorkshire schools “had a reformist effect” (53). Claybaugh’s emphasis on biography might seem out of place in a study of novelistic form and reformist discourse, but it is in fact highly salient, as the literary marketplace that she explores often (rightly and wrongly) depended on the idea that the writing of a novel was a committed act undertaken by a dedicated reformer.
There are moments, perhaps, when the versatility of the book’s argument—negotiating between fiction and biography, verisimilitude and purposeful realism, genuinely reformist texts and texts that just take reform as a subject—generates distinctions which seem a bit over-subtle. In her reading of The Woodlanders, Claybaugh states that the problems in Grace Melbury’s marriage do not constitute an explicit argument for divorce, because rather than envisioning a social transformation, they resolve into tragedy (192). But it’s hard to see why tragedy cannot be an explicit instigation to reform, and if it can be, this raises questions about Claybaugh’s characterization of Hardy as turning to the novel of purpose at the very end of his career. Elsewhere, Claybaugh claims that Anne Brontë takes up reform (the cautionary temperance tale) in order to solve the representational problem of narrating a marriage, and not for any purpose related to temperance; as evidence, she points out that Helen’s anti-temperance diary is ineffectual. But if it is ineffectual, this too tells a story about temperance, and it seems strange to posit that a particular convention is being used for its formal qualities rather than its manifest content (as if its meaning could be limited in that way). The Novel of Purpose has a handful of moments like these, where the argument hinges on a less-than-obvious distinction, but these moments are the welcome effect of a study attuned to the variety and complexity of nineteenth-century reform.
Daniel Siegel teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he specializes in Victorian literature and culture. He is currently completing a book on condescension and charity in the Victorian imagination, a topic on which he has published essays in Victorian Literature and Culture, Dickens Studies Annual, and Novel.