ELT Press
Christine Ferguson. Language, Science and Popular Fiction in the Victorian ‘Fin-de-Siècle’: The Brutal Tongue. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. x + 192 pp. $89.95

The metaphor of the "brutal tongue" encompasses two interrelated forms of discourse: either types of language that are identified as intrinsically inferior to that of cultural elites, or forms of language that are brutalized because of those who speak them. In Language, Science and Popular Fiction, Christine Ferguson seizes on the connections between these two strands in order to survey the ways in which language was represented in late-nineteenth-century fiction. By first identifying the prominence of debates about language, and then noting their often unresolved nature, Ferguson recontextualizes the popular literature of the period to argue that just because their language might appear uncomplicated, it does not follow that they played no part in the controversy. Through close readings of the works of Marie [End Page 339] Corelli, Grant Allen, H. G. Wells, and Bram Stoker, Ferguson advances a sophisticated critique not only of late-nineteenth-century attitudes to language, but also of the lingering assumption that only sophisticated writing is worthy of study as literature.

This book nicely complicates critical assumptions about the relationships between evolutionary theory and language in the late nineteenth century. Ferguson has a healthy respect for contradiction, and her first chapter, "What Does Brutal Language Mean," courageously explicates the reasons why contrary views about language were sustained in the period. The application of evolutionary theory to language threatened to provide a mechanism that would erode the absolute distinction between an articulate humanity and a mute nature. Ferguson details how neither Darwin nor Huxley forwarded a hypothesis that could account for the development of language, nor why it was unique to humans. However, she is careful to locate these iconic figures amongst their peers and predecessors. The anonymous author of the Vestiges of Creation, Robert Chambers, we learn, maintained it was not language but speech that was unique to humans, and this was only due to the fortuitous development of the vocal chords. Alfred Wallace, on the other hand, argued language must be a divine gift, but one that was realized through the evolution of the appropriate organs. Later in the century, Herbert Spencer and Charles Lyell both applied an evolutionary perspective to language development, arguing that even though words become more profuse as languages progress, this corresponds to the development of more exact meanings.

This caveat was important as language was frequently interpreted as a manifestation of consciousness, and so its study could reveal the mentality of its speakers. The publication of the first volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (as the New Oxford Dictionary) in 1884 renewed a debate into the state of contemporary English that was also a debate into the state of contemporary England. R. C. Trench, the originator of the dictionary, offered it as an instructive inventory of the language, in which his editorial principles would map perversions of meaning, distinguish between the transient and enduring, and record the passing of the obsolete. However, although the dictionary offered a privileged genealogy of the language through its citations from great works, many critics perceived its reliance on contemporary magazines and newspapers as evidence of the paucity of quality English in the present. For Trench, as for most of his contemporaries, it was important that words be applied accurately in order that thoughts be [End Page 340] correspondingly precise. However, his dictionary not only revealed a continual process of semantic slippage, which challenged any notion of essential meaning, but it also uncovered an increase in words for sin and sorrow that seemed to suggest that linguistic profusion might actually reflect social decline.

The four chapters that follow build on facets of this argument to explore the ways language was used to delineate the brute. The first chapter explores Marie Corelli's use of the plain English argument to insist that she was helping purge the language of obscurantism in order to better instruct her considerable readership. Recasting the debate between the literary novel and the romance in terms of language, Ferguson reads Corelli's Sorrows of Satan as a recognition that all literary representation has the potential to misrepresent, but romances—easy to read and containing fantastical elements—attempted to efface their literariness through direct connection with the reader. By incorporating the populist literary style for which she was notorious as a component of her politics, Corelli sought to justify her popularity by using it as evidence that her writing was for the good of all.

The third chapter uses the writing of Grant Allen in order to revisit the connections between savagery and language in an imperial racialized context. Ferguson sensitively locates Allen's work amongst both his literary and scientific peers, before exploring the apparent contradiction between Allen's anti-imperialist politics and the racist politics of language that underpins his fiction. Again Ferguson demonstrates an impressive tolerance of ambiguity, and her readings of Allen's fiction—especially "The Reverend John Creedy"—benefit from her restraint. Rather than absolutely condemn Allen's fiction for its implication in the racialized linguistic theory of his period, she demonstrates the way his investment in this knowledge conflicts with his politics, and so his fiction often leaves the question of the implied connection between race and language unresolved.

Ferguson's final two chapters foreground language in order to revise the critical accounts of Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau and Stoker's Dracula. Rather than read them as simple anti-vivisection novel and manifestation of an invasion anxiety respectively, she uses the novels to provide yet more examples in which those designated brutes through their use of language succeed in eluding this designation. In her analysis of The Island of Doctor Moreau, she focuses on the ease with which Moreau grants the animals speech to suggest that Wells challenges the idea that language marks an absolute boundary between beast and [End Page 341] human. What disconcerts Prendrick about Moreau's experiments, she suggests, is not their brutality—Prendrick, after all, is sympathetic to Moreau's treatment at the hands of the anti-vivisection movement—but rather the way he has rendered the animals familiar. In this book, she argues, it is the larynx, not language, that makes us human.

If Wells casts doubt that there is any relationship between language and intellect—and so casts doubt that language has any rational content beyond an instinctual mumbling—Stoker, Ferguson argues, recognizes the importance of linguistic form in order to celebrate its diversity. Rather than understand Dracula as an expression of the fear that pure, Anglo-Saxon England will be polluted by the alien, she argues that England is sustained by the multiple forms of English that are spoken there. The vampire stands for an oppressive linguistic homogeneity, whereas those ranged against him represent the fluidity of language. This perspective recasts Mina Harker's role from simple amanuensis, recording the words of others, to the one person in the novel most aware of the possibility of language to elude those who seek to control it. In copying, recording, and exploring linguistic form, Mina Harker recognizes the potential of language to reproduce, to become different from what it was. This celebration of linguistic diversity, Ferguson astutely notes, corresponds to the importance of variation in the post-Darwinian fin de siècle: for English to survive in this context, it cannot become uniform and static.

This book is an assured study that marshals complex and contradictory material with much confidence. However, I was struck by the careful organization of material necessary for the thesis to succeed. Using single authors to demonstrate different ways language delineates various types of brute reifies each author's work in the service of the arguments he or she is enrolled to prove. This has the effect of over-stressing the role of historical actors in the language controversies at the expense of the print culture in which their work participates. The "popular fiction" of the title is predominantly delimited in opposition to canonical literature, and mostly represented by novels from recognized authors. As such, the huge variety of writing published in the period is overlooked: the periodical press—which was the medium for circulating the really popular fiction—is largely ignored; there is no discussion of illustration; and nonfiction is used to present unproblematic opinions of authors with little regard for its specific context. This also has the consequence of presenting science as a culture that is outside literature, despite sharing an intellectual, popular, and print culture. [End Page 342]

Ferguson's work is an ambitious attempt to engage with at least three complex topics that are all intertwined, and so such methodological restrictions are necessary for its success. Overall, this is an excellent monograph: well written, admirably reflexive, with insightful close readings that not only serve the argument of the book, but also illuminate our knowledge of the texts themselves. Although it remains a necessarily partial exploration of the issues—restricted as it is to a certain type of science, a certain conception of language, and a certain aspect of print culture—Language, Science and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle is an important book, and one worth reading.

James Mussell
Birkbeck College, University of London

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