- Affective Worlds: Writing, Feeling & Nineteenth-Century Literature by John Hughes
The emotional freight of nineteenth-century writing is at once obvious and yet a surprisingly tricky topic for scholars. During the last decade or so scholarly interest in emotions has burgeoned. But it sometimes seems as if philosophers and historians have proved more ready and able than their literary colleagues to confront the methodological challenge emotions present. While the importance of affective involvement in reading is readily enough acknowledged, there is still unease or even suspicion about emotional responses to literature, largely left in place from the modernist critique of Victorian sentimentality. Things are changing, however, and John Hughes’s Affective Worlds: Writing, Feeling & Nineteenth-Century Literature is a recent addition to the growing scholarship on literature and affect (Hughes cites Susan L. Feagin’s Reading with Feeling , Jenefer Robinson’s Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art , and Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel  as precursor texts). His stated aim is to develop “a mode of ‘affective reading’” through which to reencounter the canonical nineteenth-century writers who populate his study (1): William Blake, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Brontë, and Thomas Hardy.
At the heart of this book is the contention that literature is a privileged means of exploring or dramatising (and Hughes makes much of dramaturgical metaphor) processes of individuation. Subjectivity emerges in this process as an effect of “the physical or emotional determinants of mind” (1). Hughes is after what he boldly identifies as the “sensibility” of the writer—something he traces in poetry and fiction [End Page 563] but also through the writer’s biography. He is interested in the “self-differentiating individuality of [the writer’s] mind as it expresses itself through the specific density and dynamism of literature across a whole career.” Style and form are the modes through which writers achieve these “individuating effects” by which feeling takes place in texts (2). Feeling is defined as including perception, cognition, and creation.
This is a tall order. Hughes tackles it with methodological help from Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze. In particular, the Deleuzian notion of subjectivity as a process of becoming is deployed as a way to think about writerly individuation. Deleuze helps Hughes to present nineteenth-century writing as an ethical project—albeit one described in rather different terms than the Victorians themselves used. Literary art “discerns and interprets our subjection, and announces new unformed movements, emitting and inventing the signs of new collective projects” (7). Literature has a therapeutic purpose and is related both to Deleuzian experimentation and Cavell’s notions that a writer discovers intention in the act of writing and that writing may be a response to the ethical drama of being lost to oneself.
Although Hughes’s writing is sometimes dense—and demands a good deal especially of readers unfamiliar with Deleuze—at its strongest this book offers intriguingly suggestive insights into its chosen authors. It does so largely through the work of close reading. This is not a book much concerned with the ways in which categories of emotion were themselves emerging (and being contested) in the nineteenth century, a fact that occasionally presents problems. The question of whether emotions were predominantly physical things was much debated in the latter half of the century, for instance, but here Hughes couples “physical” and “emotional” without any real discussion of how (and whether) they differ. This is important because he frequently identifies the body—and sensory experience—as central to the effort of self-making. It is the “provocative world of the senses” which brings into being Jane Eyre’s rebelliousness at the opening of Brontë’s novel, while “Hardy’s writing turns on physically produced moments of becoming” (114, 135).
Each author is approached by means of a focal motif or topic. He approaches Blake’s poetry through ideas of musical inspiration, and Wordsworth’s through walking, understood as a therapeutic form of self-recovery. Poe...