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Bruce Robbins describes The Servant's Hand as an attempt to make historical and literary sense of the place servants occupy in the Victorian novel. The result, which in some respects continues, and acknowledges, the political and contextual perspective of Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, is a scholarly work to be commended for several reasons. Not only, as a professor of English, does Robbins try to reinstate the often overlooked servants in this literature—to bring them in from the margins—but as a trained historical critic he also questions the authors themselves concerning their use of and their prejudice toward these particular characters. Here Robbins departs from Auerbach's focus on writers who apparently chose individuals at random from daily life to serve as subjects and even the protagonists of their narratives. In doing so, writes Auerbach, these novelists broke with a classic tradition—we see this often in Shakespeare—in which style and social caste were interrelated.
Although Robbins concedes that servants in the novels he looks at also are not discriminated against in terms of style, he does not share Auerbach's view of this democratized literature as a single entity moving toward egalitarianism. For Auerbach that entity is the product of a group of authors holding shared intentions; for Robbins the randomness of literary servants is such that even the [End Page 711] connections to their authorial origins are too vague for him to treat them by author. Similarly, he writes, because they are "too minor, fragmentary, and marginal to any given text to be treated by work," Robbins discusses them according to function: the impertinent servants, those serving as narrators, servants as instruments of plot, servants responsible in some way for a happy or at least closed ending.
In some respects reevaluating literary criticism as he does so, Robbins has given himself the freedom, in this quest for clarity, to roam beyond the Victorian novel: back to Homer and Samuel Johnson and earlier novelists, forward to Lawrence and Orwell and Forster, across to other critics and other disciplines, yet always with his thesis clearly in mind. Like Auerbach before him, Robbins wants to discover "the people" whom we know reside in the servants' quarters, although their authors may have preferred to see them merely as hands, or messengers, or narrative mouthpieces. He looks only at the history of servants in literature, because even at their most complex, he notes, such is the distortion and simplism—the "disfigurement"—of these characters that there can be no collation between them and what the history books tell us about real servants.
Robbins' book, then, is an assessment of literary tradition, literary "realism," and the politics of literary authorship. It is a provocative and stimulating work and an exciting addition to this field of scholarly endeavor.
Melchiori's book should also be of value to the scholar. Certainly the subject is intriguing and timely. Indeed, Melchiori—who resides in Rome—explains that this work owes its genesis to an earlier period of reflection concerning the nature of contemporary violence, especially as it is used by terrorists. This coincided with the discovery of certain British novels of the late nineteenth century that contained, she realized, "the same patterns of violence, the same massacre of innocent victims, the same channelling of panic" as she had been reading about and sometimes witnessing in her own world. It was all happening over again, she says.
In her Foreword, Melchiori explains as well how the writers of these minor, though at the time popular, novels used the events of their day as material for the fiction, which in turn was absorbed by their readership as commentary about current events and the social climate generally. In the first chapter she then looks at the events themselves, as reported in the newspapers: the...