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137 Reviews Language,Science,and Popular Fiction in the Victorian Fin-de-Siècle:The BrutalTongue by Christine Ferguson; pp. x + 180. Aldershot:Ashgate, 2006. $89.95 cloth. Christine Ferguson’s keen and stimulating book is even broader in scope than its capacious title suggests. It does indeed analyze the rich intersections of late-Victorian linguistics, an emergent anthropology, and popular fiction. But it thereby also illuminates our very notion of the literary, which emerged in this period in concert with attacks on popular writing. In contrast to the self-reflexive character of the truly literary, so the story goes, popular fiction is characterized by a fundamentally unreflective consumption of language. Ferguson contests this division, but not by trying to incorporate the likes of Marie Corelli and GrantAllen into the canon.Their achievements, she concedes, remain importantly different—often quite self-consciously so—from writing addressed to an elite audience. But those achievements nonetheless embody a vivid and surprisingly varied engagement with contemporary linguistic ferment , which was stimulated above all by evolutionary thought. The Victorian search for origins in philology, biology, and anthropology often seemed itself a form of romance, bringing to light prospects at once exhilarating and disturbing. Evolutionary reflection undermined long-standing views of language as a uniquely human characteristic, as it eroded the boundaries of human and brute. As an emergent anthropology pondered “primitive ” human language, its studies were haunted by the prospect of a similar slippage—an anxiety underscored in the wildly inconsistent accounts of the very nature of the primitive. Even the OED struck many commentators as a potentially self-defeating project: the effort to rigorously catalogue “English” was liable to barbarize it by including so many ephemeral or vulgar usages. The familiar clash between comprehensiveness and purity, evoked by Johnson over a century earlier, seemed newly menacing. “The incarnation … of the feeling and thoughts and experiences of a nation,” as R. C.Trench described English, on closer inspection harboured the nightmarish prospect of a language dissolving into mist.As Ferguson puts it,Trench“popularized a version of English that was at once paranoid and inclusive, of a language menaced by the mutability that had given it its power” (20). This newly visible linguistic mutability, Ferguson argues, informs the works of popular novelists, in which“the animal speaks, both through the monstrous, semi-human and savage characters” familiar from late-century romances and in the figure of the popular author herself, so frequently anathematized for a mass appeal that is itself stigmatized as brutal or savage (40). In this “anthropologization ” of popular fiction, the subversive feature of the novel is less content than form, a supposed stylistic and generic primitivism. But in contrast to critics who invoked the primitive as a stigma, popular authors could claim victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 138 it as a sign of disdain for over-refined language and thus an index of honesty, commonsense, and vitality (53). Marie Corelli, in Ferguson’s account, makes this appeal in unusually elaborate form. Her claims to“simplicity” are on their face absurd, since her language relies heavily on archaism, hyperbole, cliché, and heightened modifiers. But in Ferguson’s account this emphasis lays claim to a truth beyond representation, a truth to which language can only gesture but which the uncorrupted demos can best intuit.The best-selling Sorrows of Satan narrates a battle between the demotic real and aristocratic fantasy in which the triumphant real is embodied not in journalism but in romance—a genre in which truth is visionary rather than everyday (64). The prolific Grant Allen explored relations between language and identity along the axis of race rather than class.AlthoughAllen’s journalistic pronouncements on race and culture are predictably chauvinistic, Ferguson discovers in his fiction acute attention to linguistic negotiation in narratives of conquest and assimilation.A neglected short story,“The Reverend John Creedy,” concerning a black African caught between his native culture and his Oxford education, is especially revelatory in complicating racial stereotypes. As Ferguson notes, Creedy is the kind of hybrid figure whose very existence challengesVictorian theories of the primitive intellect, andAllen’s treatment of his career, focusing on a clash between native and adopted languages, shows...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 137-139
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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