- Good Form: The Ethical Experience of the Victorian Novel by Jesse Rosenthal
Jesse Rosenthal makes the provocative argument that we should consider “Victorian novels” to comprise a genre defined by formal conventions instead of the time when they happen to have been produced. He even lists in his Afterword the 24 authors (a “big eleven” and “another thirteen, mainly for specialists”) that he would consider, of all the many Victorians who wrote novels, to be the practitioners of this form. Interestingly, not every work by these authors is a “Victorian novel,” nor every author a Victorian: he includes only “a bit of Thackeray” but all of Jane Austen, implying that he would consider the conventions of the form to have solidified before the period began, an idea he suggests in his discussion of the strand of moral philosophy – “intuitionism” – that he claims was the soil nourishing the form (192). “Intuitionism,” it turns out, begins in the thought of eighteenth-century philosophers Shaftesbury and Frances Hutcheson.
Victorian “intuitionists,” among them William Whewell and H. L. Mansel, posit an internal or “intuitive” source for moral judgment, in contradistinction to the Utilitarians, whose “felicific calculus” posits an external one. (Rosenthal spends a good chunk of his first chapter explaining that the Utilitarians have come to stand in for the whole of Victorian moral philosophy, while the intuitionists have been forgotten, an oversight he seeks to correct.) Our intuitive sense of what is “right,” Rosenthal argues, underpins our ideas about what is “good,” and the specific formal techniques that he goes on to explicate are those that produce the “good form” to which his punning title refers: the diachronic drive or pull through a narrative that is created by suspense or (interestingly) humor, or the negotiations between poetic necessity and character freedom that constitute the tropes by which character development takes place. When what does happen coincides with the reader’s intuitive sense of what ought to happen, we have the “good form” of Victorian novels.
Dickens’s works seem to constitute the quintessence of this “Victorian novel” form, since they provide case studies in every chapter except the last. Hard Times and the “condition of England” novel, for example, help Rosenthal establish his contexts and theoretical methodology in chapter [End Page 176] 1. He addresses the usual complaint about such novels (that they seem incapable of proposing ethical solutions to the condition they diagnose) by demonstrating that they provoke the desired ethical response in the reader’s internal feeling instead of representing it externally in the story. For example, each delay to the resolution of Stephen Blackpool’s plot intensifies the feeling that “the accusation ought to be dismissed” – a feeling that “mirrors” that of the novel’s “most valorized characters.” The narrative technique of delay thus causes readers to “feel the internal, and sensible, existence of morality” (30).
Oliver Twist and the Newgate novel provide examples in Rosenthal’s investigation of suspense as narrative technique in chapter 2. Comparing Dickens’s novel to William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, Rosenthal claims that Ainsworth’s novel is a Newgate novel while Oliver Twist is a Victorian novel because of the quality of suspense that is built into the latter. The “plot interest” of Newgate novels like Jack Sheppard (phrase from Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain) comes from the titillating portrayal of crime and criminals which proceeds without suspense. (The gallows outcome is already known.) However, in Oliver Twist, Mr. Brownlow’s intervention into what seems to begin as a Newgate novel introduces a different – and more ethical – plot interest: suspense regarding Oliver’s true parentage and possible redemption. Newgate novels are about crime, Rosenthal demonstrates, while Oliver Twist, although it portrays criminal acts and criminals, is about Oliver’s development. Moreover – and most importantly for Rosenthal’s distinction between the two forms – the suspense leads the reader to feel “intuitively” that Oliver ought to be redeemed.
In chapters 3 and 4, Rosenthal takes up “the relation between the one and the many” as a form of narrative drive in novels...