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  • Reading for the Knowable and the Unknowable:Thinking, Feeling, and Learning in the Victorian Novel
  • Lauren N. Hoffer
Mitchell, Rebecca N. Victorian Lessons in Empathy and Difference. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. 142 pp. $42.95 cloth.
Moore, Grace. The Victorian Novel in Context. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. 184 pp. $27.95 paper.
Ryan, Vanessa L. Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 256 pp. $55.00 cloth.

What can we know about ourselves, about those we encounter in our lives, or about those who came before us? Each of the three books here reviewed tackles one or more of these questions within the context of Victorian studies. Notably, these scholars also share a sense of the novel as a form that offers a distinct entrée into epistemologies of the nineteenth century and today. The two monographs concern themselves with the unknowable—specifically, the ways in which the novel reveals the Victorians’ inability to know fully their own minds or those of others—while the third is an introductory guide that seeks to make the Victorians more readily knowable to twenty-first-century students. Vanessa L. Ryan’s study, Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel, explores several major Victorian writers in dialogue with the realm of new psychology, demonstrating how these authors, in their plots and through their formal techniques, contemplated those occasions in which thought and action take place beyond the bounds of consciousness. In her book, Victorian Lessons in Empathy and Difference, Rebecca N. Mitchell brings Emmanuel Levinas’s theories on alterity to bear on the relationship between empathy and realism as she argues that a recognition of others’ inalienable difference is the basis for intersubjectivity in nineteenth-century literary and visual arts. Both writers relate the inability to know with moral action: Mitchell posits that only when one recognizes the absolute alterity of the other can empathy take [End Page 254] place, while Ryan shows how Victorian writers imagined the unconscious mind could be habituated to make ethical decisions automatically. In a project with much different aims than Ryan’s and Mitchell’s, Grace Moore’s book, The Victorian Novel in Context, seeks to address those aspects of their everyday lives and their cultural moment that the Victorians knew quite well by providing an overview of the principal contextual, thematic, and formal elements important to the study of Victorian literature. Together, all three of these books are ultimately about learning through reading as each one views literature and the act of reading itself as an educational tool enabling characters and readers alike to come to understand ourselves and others, present and past.

Thinking without Thinking, a study which its author locates within the field of “cognitive literary historicism,” examines the work of Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Henry James alongside the writings of prominent physiological psychologists to demonstrate the ways in which the Victorian novel participated in “ongoing debates about the nature of consciousness” (15, 2). Vanessa L. Ryan shows that these writers were quite aware of one another’s work: Collins was well read in the scientific and medical discourses of his day, while Eliot and James had intimate access to the latest developments in new psychology due to their close personal relationships with leading voices in the field, George Henry Lewes and William James, respectively. Like those in this emerging field of mental science, Ryan claims, Victorian novelists depicted the mind as an “embodied…dynamic and functional” phenomenon inextricably tied to the body (especially reflexes and the nervous system) and to the social environment (6). Even more significantly, she argues that these writers shared an abiding interest in exploring “inaccessible kinds of thinking that elude awareness” (7)—moments in which characters arrive at an idea or take action without any sense of the mental processes that brought them to that point. Ryan’s use of the term unconscious is much different from the more familiar Freudian conception. She defines the “unconscious cerebration” so central to her project as the kind of thinking that “circumvent[s] conscious, rational thought;” this type of thinking can be recognized as having occurred only after the fact...


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pp. 254-260
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