- Friendship's Bonds: Democracy and the Novel in Victorian England
What is the connection between citizenship and friendship in Victorian literature? This is the question posed by Richard Dellamora in his latest book, Friendship's Bonds, which traces the ideal of male fraternity as ﬁgured in the mentor–protégé bond through canonical and lesser-known texts of the period: novels, prose, and plays. The Victorian era saw the rise of democracy in Britain, with the franchise successively extended to men in 1832, 1867, and 1884 and ﬁnally to women in the early twentieth century. The novel was the preeminent popular genre of the period, and it was here, Dellamora argues, that nineteenth-century British writers ﬁgured their hopes—and considerable anxieties—surrounding democracy, citizenship, fraternity, and the bonds of friendship.
Richard Dellamora will be known to this journal's readers as the author of Masculine Desire (1990) and editor of Victorian Sexual Dissidence (1999). I must confess that his previous work on male–male bonds led me to expect Friendship's Bonds to focus on the more ecstatic heraldings of democracy and the "fervid comradeship" of fraternity by the likes of Carpenter, Symonds, and Whitman. But Dellamora eschews these in favor of exploring the darker side of the democratic imaginings of British writers, focusing instead on how readily their representations of fraternal bonds slipped into loathing and fear—in particular, into anti-Semitic and antisodomitic discourse. Speciﬁcally, Dellamora traces Victorian retellings of the biblical story of Sodom and Lot to reveal how this narrative readily transferred to a national imagining of the British as a chosen people against whose chosenness certain internal groups were othered. He argues that [End Page 490] "Western concepts of the nation-state . . . depend on the imaginary projection of a condemned opposite . . . a shadowy abjected Other, namely, the S/sodomite" (18). Into this position of the S/sodomite, Dellamora avers, Roman Catholics, Irishmen, and Jews found themselves transferred in the national imagination. "Sodom," Dellamora writes succinctly, "was getting crowded" (18).
Dellamora's study spans the period from the 1830s to the 1890s. Within this time frame he offers thickly historicized readings of well-known texts such as Oliver Twist, The Prime Minister, Daniel Deronda, and An Ideal Husband and of lesser-known works such as Disraeli's Alroy and Tancred. (I am not sure that anyone can convince me to reread Disraeli, that most unreadable of Victorian novelists, but Dellamora certainly prompts me to think that I should.) Dellamora sets each work meticulously in its particular moment in the evolution of British democracy: Oliver Twist in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Bill, Tancred against the negotiations for removal of civil disabilities for Jews and Disraeli's negotiation of his own political status as a Jew and baptized Anglican; and The Prime Minister in the mid-1870s, when Disraeli alarmed the opposition by secretly arranging for Britain to buy a controlling interest in the Suez Canal. Dellamora's thick historicism is welcome and reminds literary critics that it matters that Gladstone was attacking Disraeli when Eliot drew her ideal depiction of Jewish mentorship in Daniel Deronda, something we are still too apt to ignore.
A feature of Dellamora's writing is his willingness to break occasionally from the rigidities of academic prose in favor of a more politically engaged voice. We hear this voice in wry, succinct phrases: "Sodom was getting crowded" (18); Oliver Twist "has the chutzpah" to ask for more (31); "For Marx and Engels, left politics belongs to straight boys" (98). I, for one, welcome these writerly moments. They prompt me to consider Dellamora's political and personal engagements with the question of Victorian democracy at this opening of the twenty-ﬁrst century. I know that Friendship's Bonds was under way when the events of 9/11 occurred, as I heard an early version of this research presented at a conference in mid-September 2001. (Dellamora was the only keynote speaker who dared to get on a plane.) However, I wonder if...