The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel (review)
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The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, by Daniel Hack; pp. viii + 226. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005, $39.50.

Daniel Hack's ambitious book proposes to study four different registers of the "material" and "materiality" in Victorian novels. Immediately eschewing a theoretical undertaking (although the abundant footnotes of the introduction certify his theoretical competence), he declares his project a "historical and critical" study of what the Victorians themselves said and understood about how "the four primary, contemporary referents of materiality—economic, physical, linguistic, and corporeal" (1)—analogize, contradict, overlap, and variously interact with one another. In other words, Hack does not use his theoretical leverage as a critic to discover what is unthought or unthinkable by the texts he studies. Rather, by juxtaposing the different materialities confronting Victorian writers and readers, he reveals new insights into the novels he reads.

The book's strengths are the intelligent readings that follow from Hack's attention to materialities, which he decisively establishes as significant to the Victorians and therefore worthy of our attention. Every chapter has something important to say about novels and novelists, but no chapter successfully achieves the complexity of analysis that the introduction states as the book's project. Similarly, the relations among the chapters remain underdeveloped, and as a result, the chapters do not coalesce in a sustained argument; they seem more juxtaposed than analytically connected to one another. [End Page 541]

W. M. Thackeray's novel, The History of Henry Esmond (1853), first published in deliberately anachronistic form, with eighteenth-century typeface and wide margins, is the subject of the first chapter. Hack attends to the ways in which Henry Esmond dramatizes the historical moment when manuscripts were displaced by print, the marketplace edged out patronage, and "modern notions of authorship and literary property were being formulated" (28). The famously difficult problem of Thackeray's irony here plays out in the materiality of the book itself, we learn, as the novel's antiquarian appearance is belied by the anti-monarchical arc of the plot and Esmond's repudiation of the Pretender.

The second chapter, "Reading Matter in Bleak House," continues to focus on the physical object of the book. Charles Dickens's novel was issued first in numbers, and Hack finds in handling these materials that the advertisements placed before and after the novelistic text amplify the novel's obsession with physical corruption. He considers the relation between Dickens's writing and these advertising texts: both novel and advertisements demonstrate an obsession with material corruption. Diseased, dying, dead, and putrefying bodies—including one that spontaneously combusts—populate Bleak House (1852–53) from beginning to end. The final scene of the fifth number, in which Lady Dedlock looks upon the rat-infested graveyard where her lover's body decomposes, is followed directly by an advertisement for Allsopp's ale, in which the chemist Justus von Liebig authoritatively pronounces the ale pure. This is the same Liebig G. H. Lewes cited when criticizing Dickens in print for "'giving currency to vulgar error'" by representing death by spontaneous combustion. Dickens's robust defense of the material factuality of such a death, Hack argues, follows from his wish to influence public policy regarding the scandalously unsanitary conditions of London life. And behold, his text is face-to-face with an ad featuring Liebig's testimony that Allsopp's ale is unpolluted by strychnine (alleged to have been substituted for hops). In this way, Hack demonstrates that novelists, reviewers, advertisers, and scientists were all reading materiality, writing about it cheek by jowl, and contesting one another's authority to pronounce on matters of material importance.

The middle chapters of the book, "Professional Authors and Literary Paupers" and "Sympathy for the Begging-Letter Writer," both consider "the kinship of begging letters and begging-letter writers with ostensibly more legitimate forms of writing and kinds of writers, in particular novels and novelists" (104). Chapter 3, on the Guild of Literature and Art, focuses Hack's discussion of the nineteenth-century professionalization of authorship, and the contradictions thereof. Here, materiality is that of the marketplace and of the authors who strive to make a living by selling their...