- Language, Science, and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle: The Brutal Tongue
Christine Ferguson's impressive book, Language, Science, and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle: The Brutal Tongue, offers a new reading [End Page 284] of the language debates of the late nineteenth century. What might have seemed like an obscure quarrel within one of the period's many inchoate professionalizing fields of knowledge proves, in Ferguson's vigorous and persuasive account, to be a terrifically useful way of reading late-Victorian popular fiction. Ferguson shows how these arguments invoked fundamental questions of who has the right to language and the ability to produce meaning. If language is the marker of civilized humanity, then those who are not fully 'civilized' cannot be granted full linguistic status. As Ferguson explains, the "'brute," poised outside the fortress of language, readily became imaginatively synonymous with different kinds of linguistic deviants – domestic dialect speakers, non-Caucasian indigenous peoples, and newly-literate members of the working class.' Not surprisingly, then, 'the popular novel bec[a]me thematically obsessed with the relationship between language change and national, racial, and species identity.'
In chapters on Grant Allen, Marie Corelli, Bram Stoker, and H.G. Wells, Ferguson demonstrates how fantasies about language underpin popular fiction and its fears. Corelli, for instance, valorizes working-class readers as the natural audience for true, plain, real literary language, while casting aristocratic readers as jaded victims of tainted romances. She wants to move beyond language into a direct apprehension, a meeting of minds. Yet Corelli's dream is Bram Stoker's nightmare. In a provocative and original reading of Dracula, Ferguson points out that direct telepathic communication is associated with vampiric predation, a colourless standardizing effort that sucks the life out of people. By contrast, the novel showcases its characters' non-standard, fractured styles of speech as signs of the vitality of the nation.
Juxtaposing chapters on Grant Allen's and H.G. Wells's adventure stories allows Ferguson to outline quite different accounts of savagery in the fin-de-siècle text. In spite of his overtly anti-imperialist politics, it turns out that Allen's fiction actually reinforces the division between immutable racial savagery and British civilization by emphasizing the barbaric mimicry of native speech. On the other hand, Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau recasts language as mere muscular contractions of the larynx achievable by beasts and humans alike, a defiantly materialist view that abjures language's association with civilization, humanity, and reason.
While Ferguson's analysis of these novels is useful, it is not the best part of her work, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Ferguson's heart is clearly in the non-fiction prose, and impressive close readings of language-debate discourse demonstrate both her acuity as a reader and her deep knowledge of the various groups in this field. The first chapter, which focuses on these debates, offers wonderful readings of Darwinian notions about savagery and language. Even in the [End Page 285] four chapters about fiction, Ferguson seems most animated when she explains the relevant linguistic debates, often spending comparatively little time on the novel itself (particularly in the Grant Allen and H.G. Wells chapters, fully half of which rehearse linguistic arguments). Since I find this the most interesting material in the book, I am pleased that it spilled past the first chapter and took over the fiction chapters too, but readers should be aware that comparatively little time is actually spent on the novels.
Ferguson concludes, rousingly, that although scholars tend to dismiss popular fiction, 'the accessibility of their language does not mean that they bear usual, consoling, or conventional truths about the way language works or what it means . . . Radical or provocative messages need not necessarily come in unfamiliar wrappings whose unconventional outward form proclaims to one and all that "Big Thinks," as Wells's Ape-Man put it, are about to [be] uttered.' This book offers a smart, useful reminder about the kinds...