- The Hard Work of Victorian Fiction: Creating Compassion, Exploring Belief, and Reconciling Disharmony
In the wake of Caroline Levine’s call for a “strategic formalism” in the study of Victorian literature, there has emerged a heightened self-consciousness about the relationship between form and content, form and ideology, form and history. Of the three books under review here, however, all of which focus on Victorian fiction, only Carolyn Betensky’s fluent and persuasive Feeling for the Poor treats the novel as a unique linguistic event that differs from a book of sermons or newspaper report. Betensky, along with J. Russell Perkin and Francesco Marroni, engages with subjects that have long been the mainstay of Victorian scholarship: Perkin explores the challenges to religious faith in [End Page 123] the period, Marroni the tensions engendered by rapid social and technological transformations, and Betensky the social-problem novel. All three books under review start with the premise that Victorian fiction serves as a space in which the most fundamental concerns of the age (e.g., class divisions, the existence of god) can safely and subtly be addressed. But of the three, Feeling for the Poor alone thinks deeply about how novels work and thereby transcends the more thematic approaches found in the other studies. In doing so, it has wider implications and applications beyond the social-problem novels it illuminates.
Betensky offers readings of familiar social-problem novels, beginning with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, moving through the factory fictions of Frances Trollope, Benjamin Disraeli, and Elizabeth Gaskell, and ending with George Eliot’s and Henry James’s considerations of working-class politics in Felix Holt and The Princess Casamassima, respectively. The scholarship on social-problem novels is rich, including works such as Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society: 1780–1950 and Catherine Gallagher’s The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832–1867, and it invariably veers towards historicized approaches. However, Betensky does a brave and unusual thing for someone interested in the class relations these novels represent. She jettisons the historical contextualization that ordinarily accompanies them, revives the old feminist approach of looking at the personal as the political, and pays considerable attention to the readers’ experience of these novels.
Delving into the field of critical whiteness studies, Betensky draws on “recent scholarship on subtle modes of racism” (7) and uses it to redefine the central project of the social-problem novel: these texts are not, she argues, primarily interested in the lives and labors of the working class so much as in defining what the appropriate bourgeois response to working-class suffering should be. According to Betensky, the social-problem novel engages in the project of “bourgeois selving” (4) by teaching “middle-class readers ways of being middle-class characters even as it presents middle-class characters with ways of being middle-class readers” (9). Betensky’s project is aided by a nuanced understanding of classed and gendered subjectivities pulled from relational psychoanalysis, which denies a stable autonomous self in favor of one constructed out of “relationships with the ‘real,’ outside world and those who people it” (14). This flexible understanding of identity serves Betensky well, as it allows her to present middle-class characters that inhabit (or imagine themselves inhabiting) other class positions.
Betensky contends that the novels she examines promote “bourgeois feeling as a response to the suffering of the poor” (2) and thus allow feeling to substitute for actions that might ameliorate working-class suffering. In other words, by feeling the pain of the working-class characters in a novel, the middle-class characters become the novel’s main object of concern (their suffering constitutes the “social problem” the novel contains) and the poor workers are [End Page 124] thus doubly dominated: first by...