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  • Language, Science, Popular Fiction
  • James Mussell
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...


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pp. 339-343
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