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REVIEW ARTICLE THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE VICTORIAN NOVEL Deirdre D'Albertis. Dissembling Fictions: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Social Text. New York: St. Martin's P, 1997. ? + 230. ($39.95 US (cloth). Patricia McKee. Public and Private: Gender, Class, and the British Novel (1764-1878). Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1997. ix + 245. $49.95 US (cloth); $19.95 US (paper). Catherine Waters. Dickens and the Politics of the Family. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 246. $54.95 US (cloth). Each of these books examines the nineteenth-century detachment of private from public existences. Though in the late twentieth century we take the idea of a private life as a given, its separation from public life is not simply apparent. These categories were constructed during the century through re-definitions of knowledge, family life, and ideology. Novels have a place in this construction. Catherine Waters investigates one powerful aspect tool of private life, the idea of family. Waters's study focuses on the family as an "imaginary construct," (16) a part of a middle-class ideology. Middleclass readers and writers assume that the family is a transcendent value, a desirable object that united ages, classes, regions, and genders. Nineteenth-century discourse depicted domestic life as a universal ideal. Following Jacques Donzelot, Waters notices a shift in definition of the family as the family came to be regarded as a nuclear unit through which the state could operate: "a transition of a government of families to government through the family" (26). The nuclear family replaced feudal notions of the family as a bloodline or mercantilist notions of the family as a corporation. Waters shows that Dickens at once participates in familial ideology early in his carer and then begins to question its transcendence later on. 70Victorian Review In a fascinating chapter on Dickens and Christmas, Waters reveals the extent of Dickens's domestic ideology. Waters notes that in the early nineteenth century the holiday was depicted as an old-fashioned feast-day that few celebrated anymore. Christmas had been a village festival, a time for the landowner to treat his servants and tenants. In Pickwick, Dickens represents a traditional, pre-Victorian Christmas celebration. But by mid-century, the holiday was reconceived as a family party; new customs (like the tree) were adopted, and the village events were reinvented in smaller, indoor venues. Scrooge can be seen not only as a convert to Christmas, but to the idea of the family. Dickens's Christmas books not only show a change in the representation or Christmas but in the amount of ideological weight the season was meant to bear. Moreover the Christmas books help create and maintain that ideology. Dickens's many fractured families help establish the ideal family by counter-example. In Oliver Twist, Mrs. Mann, Fagin and the workhouse authorities all access the rhetoric of family life. Dickens provides examples of numerous failing, rather than parodie, families as well. Waters notes that in Dickens, families that do not adapt themselves to the domestic ideology inevitably decline and can only be re-established by a woman who reconfigures the family to fit it. Dickens's portrayal of the Dombeys in Dombey and Son is a diagnosis. Dombey runs his family like and as a firm; he fails to follow middle-class ideology and separate the family from his business practices. When Dombey's firm-as-family fails, a woman is called upon to establish true domestic virtues. Florence creates a family that is almost transcendent - though, as Waters notices, threatening characters like Carker and Alice have been removed from the narrative. Waters notes that that bureaucracy in Little Dorrit exists through a series of families; these families show an older idea of the family not as a nuclear unit, but a public conglomeration of blood relatives. The Barnacles and their bureaucratic tribe support the anonymous functions of governing like the Circumlocution Office. Their presence threatens the idea of the individual self. Mr. Dorrit too, with his misplaced idea of paternalism — while playing at being the Father of the Marshalsea he forgets to be father of his own family — satirizes ineffectual, pre-industriai familial organization. Like so many of Dickens's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 69-76
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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