David Payne. The Reenchantment of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot and Serialization. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN: 1403947740. Price: US$69.95[Notice]

  • Julia Kent

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  • Julia Kent
    American University of Beirut

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: Finding in this passage a “rhetoric of transcendence,” one in which “self-love inflames and destroys, while philanthropy quenches and saves,” Payne …

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