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In The Victorian Novel of Adulthood: Plot and Purgatory in Fictions of Modernity, Rebecca Rainof presents a welcome rebuttal to critical accounts of the Victorian novel that concentrate on young characters and the classically youthful plots of marriage and vocation. By unspooling the slower plots of mature protagonists, Rainof effectively demonstrates that an overemphasis on what George Eliot calls “young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble” has created a critical tendency to see plotlessness where there is simply the absence of the very specific plot of the coming-of-age story (Middlemarch, edited by Rosemary Ashton [Penguin Books, 1994], 278). By identifying changes that occur over long periods of time in the lives of characters who have already come of age, Rainof makes the case that “novels about adulthood and midlife demonstrate a model of plot distinct from that of the bildungsroman” (4). Her key examples are canonical novels that feature protagonists past the first bloom of youth: the miser Silas in Eliot’s Silas Marner (1861), the middle-aged bachelors Arthur Clennam in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1855–57) and Lambert Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), and the spinster Eleanor Pargiter in Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937). Crucial to this adult model of plot is the invisible but real change that occurs in moments that would otherwise be classified as “narrative lulls” (1).
As the book’s subtitle suggests, however, Rainof also advances another argument. This is the claim that the best metaphor for the slow transformations undergone by older protagonists is Catholic purgatory as it was described by John Henry Newman in Tract 90 (1841). While the primary argument of The Victorian Novel of Adulthood centers on the novel, the book’s secondary argument begins with a discussion of the biblical story of Jonah in the belly of the whale and includes substantial analysis of poetry, particularly Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius (1865). Rainof shows that Newman conceived of “purgatory as a state of productive waiting,” a fruitful trope for reimagining stasis as movement (46).
While each of these ideas is captivating and fresh, the book’s dual approach proves problematic. If the focus had remained on a new sense of Victorian novels deriving from an expanded attention to novels of adulthood, there might have been more room for discussion of a few other Victorian novelists (besides the four works listed above, the book also provides shorter readings of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette  and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda ; its purview remains fairly tightly focused). The work of Anthony Trollope, for instance, would contribute to this alternative account, given his interest in older protagonists, as well as in exactly the kind of extreme gradualism Rainof describes, in novels like The Warden (1855) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1866–67). Trollope also puzzled through the problem of narratively attending to older characters, claiming in his Autobiography (1883) that he hadn’t been able to escape from the courtship and marriage plot even when he deliberately attempted to do so by focusing on an older protagonist in Miss Mackenzie (1865). A project on plots of adulthood as defined against youth could engage productively with recent work on old age and the Victorians by Karen Chase, Teresa Mangum, and Jacob Jewusiak, among others.
On the other hand, by choosing purgatory rather than plot as the book’s central focus, Rainof would have had more space to trace “the evolution of purgatory as a [End Page 524] theological concept and as a literary metaphor” and to offer “a new critical understanding of the ways that religious and intellectual concepts from the Oxford Movement were inflected and engaged in Victorian fiction” (17). A project of this kind would want to consider other religious literature, including perhaps that of John Keble and Charlotte Yonge. Yonge’s novels in particular track slow spiritual change in a High Church context informed by Tractarianism (I was very curious about how her mature protagonists might...