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The Victorian Critic as Naturalizing Agent

From: ELH
Volume 73, Number 2, Summer 2006
pp. 489-518 | 10.1353/elh.2006.0013

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The Victorian Critic as Naturalizing Agent

The keywords shared by the discourses of British nationality, law, and literary stylistics reveal the degree to which matters of style have been loaded with the concerns of national self-definition since at least the sixteenth century. The OED's first cited example for usage of the verb "To Naturalize"—meaning specifically the adoption of a word or phrase into a language or into common use—comes from George Peele's The Honour of the Garter (1593) and makes an explicit analogy to the investment of a foreign immigrant with the privileges of a native born citizen.1 In this passage Peele speaks of fellow Tudor poet John Harington, who had adapted in loose translation Ariosto's Orlando Furioso into English in 1591, as one "That hath so purely naturalized / Strange words, and made them all free denizens."2 Under the Tudors, the king acted alone to make denizens under his prerogative.3 Thus, the power over language attributed to Harington by Peele here is equivalent to the power of the King to make foreigners English subjects. The two significant acts dealing with civic naturalization in the nineteenth century—the Aliens Act (1844) and the Naturalization Act (1870)—mark the gradual move toward administrative discretion in naturalization procedure.4 Following the Aliens Act it was no longer necessary to grant letters of denization or special acts of Parliament in order for an alien to become naturalized. By the late nineteenth century the Home Secretary had complete discretion to grant or withhold naturalization certificates "as he thought 'most conducive to the public good.'"5 In short, during the nineteenth century the power of civic naturalization moves from a more private form of personal allegiance to a public, administrative set of procedures. It is taken out of the province of individual allegiance to a monarch into what John Stuart Mill called "the province of morality or law," the racial (what we would now call "ethnic") identity of the English nation coming under the jurisdiction of the state which was to act in the interest of English society.6

As we know from Matthew Arnold's discussion of "the State" as governing party in Culture and Anarchy, he felt it could not be relied upon as a "center of light and authority . . . as a working power" because [End Page 489] "we only conceive of the State as something equivalent to the class in occupation of the executive government, and are all afraid of that class abusing power to its own purposes."7 To avoid granting the authority over society to a specific, partisan group, on the one hand, and to avoid the dangers of anarchy, on the other, Arnold calls for the pursuit and affirmation of "our best self," for it is "[b]ut by our best self we are united, impersonal, at harmony." This idea of the "best self" is the most trustworthy locus of authority during a time of great change, the source of "right reason" that will keep in check the "risk of tumult and disorder," the "multitudinous processions," and the "multitudinous meetings" that inevitably come with revolutionary change.8 In introducing his idea of the best self, Arnold is suggesting the cultured individual as a microcosmic equivalent to the ideal state, "or organ of our collective best self, of our national right reason."9

My argument in this essay is that the stylistically endowed critic, the critic of taste and stylistic discretion described in late Victorian theories of style, represents another version of Arnold's politically explicit "best self," another means of endowing the individual with the power to construct a desirable national character, in this case, by naturalizing in style the linguistically manifest, multitudinous forces of modernity. Amanda Anderson's recent argument that Arnold sought "to give critical reason an ethical dimension . . . by casting it as an ideal temperament or character" realized in such "key attributes" as "impartiality, tact, moderation, measure, balance, flexibility, detachment, objectivity [and] composure"stands as a most useful way to describe the motives behind much late Victorian rhetorical theory and its relation to state jurisdiction over matters of culture, national identity, and the sake of public...