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This is a brilliant and absorbing book that has only gained in stature and relevance since its original publication in hardback in 1986. Robbins looks to uncover and analyze in some detail a hidden genealogy in traditional histories of English fiction: the role, aesthetic and otherwise, of the servant. Conventional wisdom often acknowledges the preponderance of servants in literary history but does so within a mimetic economy. Robbins, however, is interested in their rhetorical or ideological inscription which rather than bemoan (like Orwell) the lack of proletarian representation in English fiction, looks to its ideological displacement in the figure of the servant,whose words, actions, and place in the social order open up a fascinating perspective on the limits of bourgeois consciousness. In a wide-ranging argument (that is just as comfortable with the texts of antiquity as it is with the triple decker) Robbins elaborates several engaging themes: the provocative topoi of the servant (including the construction of space, largely inherited from early drama); the multi-directional function of servant impertinence; the instrumentality of the servant (as agent) in narrative exposition; the necessity, as ideological excess, of the servant’s presence in the denouement of many a novel; and the intimation of utopian desire in what may seem the ordinariness of the servant’s “commonplace.” It is hard to do justice to the richness of Robbins’s analysis here but I would like to indicate some of the ways the “secret pressure of a working hand” is pertinent to contemporary critical debate.
Near the beginning of the book Robbins notes that “the literary representation of the people seems one of those questions which no longer excite either hope or anxiety” which, rather than point to the democratic and dialogic vistas achieved by contemporary novelization (in [End Page 897] Bakhtin’s sense) suggests that literature just cannot do that job anymore. It also implies, of course, that we continue to wrestle with a more general crisis in representation (call this postmodernity if you will) that renders even the chimera of “the people” inconsequential. Robbins’s book usefully provides historical perspective on this crisis by seeing the question of representation itself as a conceptual knot within mimetic narrative. To put this more crudely: the people are always already there in fiction because of the necessity to exclude them, and this is not merely a function of authorial desire either way. How that Other is articulated, however, remains a problem of historical determination. As a materialist, Robbins is not interested in constructing the servant as a universal sign of the master’s anxiety; he is energized, however, by the recurrent specificity of the people’s ghostly surrogate.
If one doubts the absolute necessity for this critical endeavor now, (for there are other elements to Robbins’s argument that mark it as a work that predates the collapse of “actually existing socialism” [sic]—compare this prose to the tenor and substance of his more recent Secular Vocations) consider this statement by Kazuo Ishiguro (whose The Remains of the Day reinvents the servant for the twenty-first century): “In The Remains of the Day I am writing not just about how a butler abdicates his moral and political choices, but about a condition I fear we are all moving toward. It is a condition in which we concentrate on our own little job and leave the complicated decisions to someone else. It is a fear that we are all becoming butlers.” Here, the apotheosis of the servant is not that the people have a fictional adjunct, but that the people themselves are becoming that adjunct. Robbins’s book not only allows for provocative perspective on the content of such statements (the deconstruction of authorial ideology, etc.) but a broader material understanding of what Marxists like Pierre Macherey used to call the “non-said” of Ishiguro’s “fear.” The proletarianization of the writer is not surprising, although his (in this case) social and moral status is a more pressing issue, but then there is the question of rhetorical strategies...