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Reading Roundup: Victorian Controversies, 1837-50

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15 October 2011 | 09:07 am

This semester, I'm taking a class called "Victorian Controversies," where we're reading works of Victorian fiction alongside primary and secondary sources that relate to them: stuff about the Poor Law with Oliver Twist, religion with In Memoriam, dinosaurs with The Origin of Species, and so on.  I'm finding it enjoyable, as you might imagine, and here's two of the books we read, alongside a contemporary work I coincidentally read now too, in chronological order:

Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy's Progress by Charles Dickens
London: Penguin, 2003 (1837-38). Trade paperback, 554 pages. Amazon.com purchase, July 2011.

Like Hard Times, this comes across as one of Dickens's "message" novels, and it's only a little better than that.  Oliver is an astoundingly personality-less hero, and most of the other "good" characters a little better.  I didn't even like Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and the gang of thieves as much as exposure to them in popular culture had led me to expect. (No, really, what is it people find interesting about the Dodger? He does very little dodging, and has very little good dialogue. Someone must like him; the Doctor Who folks based both Adric and Thomas Brewster on him, though maybe how those characters turned out is indicative of something.)  The best character was Mister Bumble, the creepy and self-serving beadle; I found most of his scenes hilarious.  Mister Grimwig was great, too.  "I'll eat my head!"

That said, Dickens can write a good scene when he wants to: the book's end where Oliver is shot after the robbery is great, and the chase scene at the end is a masterpiece, as is the last night in jail before the execution.  Unfortunately, the novel also contains a dull-as-dishwater romantic plot and, astonishingly for a serial plot, very little momentum.
"These Sad But Glorious Days": Dispatches From Europe, 1846-50 by Margaret Fuller
New Haven: Yale UP, 1991 (1846-50). Trade paperback, 338 pages. Used bookstore purchase (online), August 2008.

"These Sad But Glorious Days" is a series of columns published in the New-York Tribune, collected together. This book isn't really Victorian, as Margaret Fuller is an American touring Europe, and she spends most of her time in Italy, but she does spend some time in England, and some of that is preoccupied with the plight of the poor.  The bits where she was in England were among the more interesting, as she relates a first-person, outsider perspective on many of the issues that I study.  Her time in France is okay, but the book really picks up when she gets to Italy, since revolution is brewing.  Again, the first-person perspective is great, especially once Rome comes under attack.  On the other hand, she prints too many long speeches which I just skipped over.

The book's introduction, by editors Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith, annoyed me.  No, it's not a crime against literature to republish something in a new context, and you don't need to apologize for it.
In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
New York: Norton, 2004 (1850). Trade paperback, 252 pages. Amazon.com purchase, July 2011.

I've read bits of In Memoriam before, but never the whole thing.  It's very good.  I liked the bits to do with evolution ("Nature, red in tooth and claw") the most, of course (the epilogue contains some very powerful imagery, and also he mentions dragons at one point!), but my favorite bit was a little bit of business about hands.  First, in Canto LXXX we get:
His credit thus shall set me free;
And, influence-rich to soothe and save,
Unused example from the grave
Reach out dead hands to comfort me.
Tennyson's talking about how if he had died and Hallam had lived, Hallam would have handled it much better, and that morbid hypothetical should be his example.  But what a chilling image! "Dead hands to comfort me"? But later, in Canto CXIX, he manages to make this reassuring:
And bless thee, for thy lips are bland,
And bright the friendship of thine eye;
And in my thoughts with scarce a sigh
I take the pressure of thine hand.
Now Hallam's image is a source of comfort and pleasure for him, even if he can never let him go.  The whole book is filled with brilliant intersecting imagery like that.


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