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Anna Maria Jones’s Problem Novels is an unusual sort of book—one invested in exploring not just a literary genre, but the close relationship between what we study and how we study it. Her argument: the quest for the “hidden,” the secret, at the heart of the Victorian novel of sensation is mirrored in contemporary Victorianist criticism, in Foucauldian critique. By exploring the pleasures of the sensation genre—its mysteries, reversals, revelations—we can learn something about the pleasures and problems of doing criticism, and of discipline itself. The contemporary critical scene produces “new detective stories” to rival those older ones (5), where the pleasures of revealing the secret workings of power in the text both demonstrate our commitment to and pleasure in disciplinary literary criticism. In doing this kind of work, she argues (following James Kincaid, Rey Chow, and Amanda Anderson), we imagine ourselves fantastically omnipotent, exempt from the workings of power.
This bold argument is laid out clearly and provocatively in the introduction and conclusion. These bookend three chapters that explore Victorian readers of sensation fiction who, she claims, look a lot like us contemporary critics. However, Victorians readers, savvier than we think, can teach us much about our own fantasies of investment and discipline. Their “ambivalent agency” lies somewhere between total submission to institutional power and the subversion of it.
The first chapter, on Wilkie Collins’s No Name and Armadale, examines questions of reader investment through masochism and the “masochistic relation to disciplinary power.” The next, on Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her, Miss Mackenzie, and The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson, examines the culture of speculative investments: criticism of Trollope, then and now, “has enabled a ‘criticism marketplace’ to prosper, wherein stories of the sensational commodity are sold and bought,” but which has “elided the extent to which Trollope did, in fact, theorize his art outside the ubiquitous literary marketplace” (58). A third chapter on George Meredith’s “literary innovation and cultural critique” in Diana of the Crossways and The Egoist (92) argues that “by insisting on the work of reading, Meredith inaugurates a new kind of reader, and a new relationship to the novel, in which the pleasures of reading are explicitly the pleasures of…resistance to the emotional pull of sensational or sentimental tropes” (92). Jones offers each novel as a theoretical exploration of its readers, each “demand[ing] a reader” at once “disciplined and deviant” (36).
While methodologically solid, these chapters are not as surprising or innovative as the apparatus of Jones’s own criticism. They might be mistaken for the sort of Foucauldian criticism at which she fires—exposing the workings of power as well as the possibilities for human agency. Following Anderson, Jones identifies the conundrum of the modern critic who wants to locate “critical agency” within “modern power,” but without being naïve about it (14). Jones does add something to Anderson, though: power, she says, was not hidden at all. It was a subject of debate for novelists and literary critics of the nineteenth century who theorized their own ambivalent agency. The sensation genre is thus a lesson in Foucauldian criticism, lest we think that the secret history of power was so secret to Victorians, or that we critics have some special claim to theory itself. The secret Jones reveals is that there is no secret. The Victorians out-Foucaulted Foucault: they were the first to theorize questions of power and submission, “forcing the reader to examine individual agency in relation to the mechanisms of disciplinary power” (36).
That said, these chapters, and the book at large, may be more interesting for their problems than for anything else. Jones herself is, perhaps, a “problem critic,” a label at which she might not balk given her own injunction for her readers to “consider their own investments (and [her] own investments)” in criticism (19). I took this to mean my asking not simply her question (“what are we like when we read Victorians”?) but also one of my own (“what are we like when we read and write criticism, and, in particular, this book?”).
With this in mind, my first problem—concerning history—might say less about Jones than about me, though I don’t think I will be alone in making it. For Jones, “readers” and “readership” are transhistorical categories or activities: readers and practices then and now can be linked through Foucault (or Foucault-inspired Victorianist criticism), a rather sweeping analogy that risks obliterating finer distinctions in favor of simplifying likenesses. One might ask, do Victorian readers really look like us, or does her ability to make them seem so testify to sophisticated Foucauldian criticism? Perhaps a more convincing argument would be that Foucault did such a good job historicizing the nineteenth century (I won’t say Victorians) that critics in his footsteps have come to look more like those readers than like ourselves. That argument would indeed be deeply, historically, specific to the contemporary critical locus—but it would require much more work. It would require doing genealogy, a job for a reader of Foucault, rather than a reader of critics in the mode of Foucault. But by relocating to Victorians the theoretical work of discipline (in the hopes of nettling contemporary critics for their mistaken investments), Jones misses the historical situation of her own critical moment, and might be guilty of granting these novels “a political savvy and insight into the workings of disciplinary power that matches that of the critic herself” (14).
Historical consciousness (admittedly not her goal) is something only vaguely present in this book, referred to anecdotally and without much apparent logic, as when in chapter two, she cites two treatises, one by Alexander Shand (1876) and another by W. E. Aytoun (1849), to support her claim that sensation novels take their cues from the melodrama and mystery of a speculative economy. But why go to these original “historical” (because non-literary) sources at all? History seems impressionistic at best. Similarly so for her insistence that “the fierce debates in the 1850s through the 1880s” over married women’s property “forced a crisis in Victorians’ understanding of individual agency” (15), a crisis that she claims underpins the texts she analyzes. It seems inconsistent to claim to be more interested in genre than history while at the same time insisting that all the critical problems at issue can be traced to specific historical episodes—episodes chosen with little explanation.
I admire Jones’s attempt to engage in productive self-reflection about our habits, but the book feels like a closed circuit, dwelling on the copies of copies rather than engaging in the more serious work of rethinking the paradigm itself. (In a book invested in Foucauldian notions of agency and power, Jones cites only Discipline and Punish, once and in a footnote, and though I am sure she would argue that I am missing the point, I maintain that this unwillingness to revisit the basic premises of criticism is evidence of the hall-of-mirrors quality of this critical intervention.)
I will end—in the spirit of Problem Novels—with a reader’s admission: I don’t like this book. Not because it is not well argued or interesting or even because it is not frustratingly provocative, as intended. It is all of these. But do we really want to spend our time doing this to each other, locating the “twist ending” of a book by Poovey (63) or the prurient quest for sensation in each other’s book reviews? Jones likens her book to Kincaid’s Annoying the Victorians and calls this sort of endeavor “perverse fun” (130). But this seems less like “fun” than beside the point, and even a little depressing. One might call Jones “playful,” but such play is like playing at the end of the world. Indeed, I felt a little like Wells’s Time Traveller, suffocating at the edge of time, reluctant witness to entropy while lumbering crabs shift about in the sand. That was especially true of the conclusion to Problem Novels, where Jones herself demonstrates the fatigue at the heart of the critical endeavor as she recreates the controversy over Kincaid’s precedent. Kincaid’s double critique of novels and novel criticism “offers interpretations that both perform and parody our critical practices” (131), which expose our activities as “somewhat ridiculous.” She cites reviewer Antony Harrison’s “realist” response to Kincaid: Harrison accuses him of “seriocomical deconstruction” and flippant inattention to history or culture—to the job, we might say, of “saying something of something.” By concluding with this debate, Jones made me realize that nothing here is really new, from her own critique of the critics to my own critique of the critic of critics. We have both been pre-empted: Jones does not do anything that Kincaid does not do, who does not in turn do anything Roland Barthes had not suggested; and I cannot say anything about this book that Harrison has not said of Kincaid. The existential crisis prompted by Problem Novels, then, is the sense that once everything that needs to be said about a certain critical mode has been said, all that remains is to dwell in an echo-chamber of our own making, where no voices are audible but our own.
Bryan B. Rasmussen is Assistant Professor of English at California Lutheran University. He is working on a project that explores intersections between religion and social science in the nineteenth century. A recent essay on this topic, “From God’s Work to Fieldwork: Charlotte Tonna’s Evangelical Ethnography,” is forthcoming from /ELH./