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  • Victorian Secrecy: Economies of Knowledge and Concealment
  • Martha Vicinus (bio)
Victorian Secrecy: Economies of Knowledge and Concealment, edited by Albert D. Pionke and Denise Tischler Millstein; pp. xii + 225. Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2010, £55.00, $99.95.

Readers of Victorian Studies will probably know the story of the dying Luddite. Looking up at the clergyman hovering over his bed, he asked, “Can you keep a secret?” When the clergyman nodded in the affirmative, the Luddite winked and said, “So can I,” and died. Secrets left untold die; neither the clergyman nor we will ever know the inner workings of the Luddite movement. Yet most secrets are known, or half-known; their afterlife is as intriguing as their original meaning. This collection of case studies will expand our understanding of how and why secrecy functioned in so many different venues and genres. While some authors continue to find Michel Foucault’s influential writings useful, others suggest promising new approaches. As different critical paradigms are taken up, fresh insights into the “economies of knowledge and concealment” will come to the fore.

Albert D. Pionke’s introduction surveys the different forms of secrecy, including deception, concealment, and discretion, and provides a guide to current criticism. His various literary examples highlight the polymorphous quality of secrecy. Christina Rossetti characteristically turned the practice of secrecy, rather than any particular secret, into a form of female power, while Elizabeth Barrett Browning viewed secrecy as an unfortunate social necessity that concealed a woman’s authentic self. Although the “bewildering range of secrets and motives for keeping them” makes it extremely difficult to generalize about Victorian attitudes (10), Pionke concludes that private secrets were more acceptable than public secrecy. Lady Audley’s secret bigamy (and madness) may have been deeply shocking to readers, but the 1844 revelation that the Post Office was regularly opening mail in the name of national security had far greater consequences. [End Page 147]

Madness and extreme emotions are central to several essays. Maria K. Bachman suggests that the real villain of The Woman in White (1860) is the ostensible hero, Walter Hartright, who repeatedly misleads readers by creating a “tangled web of deceit—an amalgam of narrative gaps, fragmentary, and at times, confusing stories, either incomplete, inconsistent, or incoherent, arranged by a master of deception” (93). While one may agree with her reading, she fails to explain why readers like Hartright and enjoy his deceptions. Denise Tischler Millstein analyzes the various ways in which George Eliot uses the poetry of Lord Byron in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) “to reveal the threatening overlap of political and sexual secrets” (135). Hers is a subtle analysis that just redeems the priggish Felix for this reader. Robert P. Fletcher contrasts Augusta Webster’s complex handling of the first-person pronoun in her monologues with her own refusal of the personal. Webster, he argues, carefully distinguishes herself from her “monomaniacal male narrators” who tell “Gothic tales of jealousy, obsession, and violent secrets” (152). He concludes that these characters were an opportunity to demonstrate the price of violent heterosexual masculinity while keeping her feminist self apart from her readers.

Several non-literary essays show the pervasiveness and contradictions of secret knowledge. Michael Claxton explores the dilemmas of late-nineteenth-century professional magicians who had to adapt to “a changing world in which the desire to create wonder was increasingly in tension with the technological and literary urge to dispel it” (166). Audiences were altogether too eager to expose their most difficult tricks, which were dependent upon the suspension of reason. Ironically, as the status of professional magicians rose, books revealing trade secrets and amateur magicians proliferated. Eleanor Fraser Stansbie skillfully decodes “The Fairy Feller’s Master-stroke” (1855–64), a tour de force by the painter and parricide Richard Dadd. Stansbie argues that through this extraordinary painting, filled with small creatures and an enormous “fairy feller,” whose back is turned to the viewer, Dadd was able to express his personal frustrations with imprisonment in Bethlem Asylum and to keep some portion of himself hidden from the gaze of his doctors.

David J. Bradshaw’s essay on John Henry Newman also focuses on the benefits of...


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pp. 147-149
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