- The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience by Lauren M. E. Goodlad
By what logic might the boxed set of AMC’s Mad Men (2007–2015) vie for critical attention with Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister (1875–76)? How might a rethinking of a tradition from Charles Dickens to Gustave Flaubert and E. M. Forster help us understand the afterlives of Victorian seriality? Why have all my novel-reading colleagues suddenly taken to fervent water cooler discussions about TV? And who is Don Draper anyway?
This admittedly jumbled synecdoche is a poor substitute for the densely argued richness of Lauren M. E. Goodlad’s Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience. But it does, I think, capture something of the experience of reading it, or better, of taking it all in. For rather like the over-stuffed houses of Victorian fame, there is a lot for the eye to absorb. Examining in detail not only major texts such [End Page 163] as George Eliot’s Romola (1862–63), Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), and a good deal of Trollope, but also works positioned more marginally to the canon such as Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1864–66) and Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), Goodlad undertakes nothing less than a complete rethinking of the realist tradition, extending it toward modernism and the era of serially-driven televised media in which we live now.
The sweep and scope of this work is breathtaking, both in its commitment to the recently challenged tactics of close reading and in its investment in twentieth and twenty-first century critical theory, which in Goodlad’s hands means Erich Auerbach and Frank Kermode as well as Frederic Jameson, Bruno Latour, Emmanuel Levinas, Carl Schmitt, and Pierre Bourdieu, among many others. This kind of grand synthesis is rare. It takes Victorian-strength powers of industry and a mind flexible enough to hold all the pieces together in a strong, argumentative line.
Readers of Victorian Studies, particularly those engaged with the realist tradition of Victorian fiction, and even more particularly those concerned with nineteenth-century seriality, will find much to learn in this book. So will those interested in the Atlantic world system, empire, and the global. It is the intersection between these two concerns—one predominantly formal and the other largely historical—that Goodlad’s work seeks to bring into sharper focus. Her larger project, which takes its keywords from Jameson’s 1992 book on film, The Geopolitical Aesthetic, asks how “realist fiction altered in its multiple efforts to craft aesthetic forms receptive to the dynamism of a fast-globalizing world” (2). Goodlad’s attention shuttles between close examination of particular details from her data set—the Victorian and modernist novel, and then serial television—and larger, internationally significant questions such as sovereignty and rights, which are her key terms for discussing colonialism and imperialism. The aim is to show the imbrication of one into the other, how at many points the realist tradition opens to the world and how, conversely, the world is everywhere in the novel.
In seeking to “recognize the globally-inflected spatialities, textures, and experiences that pervade nineteenth-century literature,” Goodlad makes a strong case for realism’s continued relevance, especially as it bears upon processes of capitalist globalization, the dominant economic and political form both of the Victorian period and our own (33). Given her starting point in Jameson, this move is something of a paradox, although one that Goodlad recognizes, as she seeks to counter arguments implicit in Jameson that realist works are little more than “bankrupt forms of lifeless mimicry which lack narrative art and historical acuity” (5).
To do so within the confines as framed by Goodlad requires a delicate balance. By means of close reading she seeks to rescue realism as a vital literary form—an aesthetic worthy of the attention one might pay to it—at a moment in critical history when varieties of distant or surface reading...