- The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction by Felicia Bonaparte
In her ambitious book The Poetics of Poesis: The Making of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction, Felicia Bonaparte advances the bold hypothesis that in England it was not the Romantic period alone but the whole nineteenth century that largely rejected the episteme and aesthetics of eighteenth-century empiricism in favor of German idealism. More specifically, she tries to dismantle our view of the novel as continuing the eighteenth-century tradition of realism: in her estimation, “the real was never more than half the fiction in this century” (7) and, between idealism and empiricism, most of the time the nineteenth-century novel chose the former as its ground. She deems that “the collision in this century of transcendentalism and empiricism […] was far more than a compromise, far more than just a debate. It was a critical step in the making of a poetic for the world and for those arts that wished to remake it” (200). In response to the apparent crisis of religion, she argues, novelists tried to create the world anew, by embodying in their works a number of myths, and especially Christian symbols, which formed a narrative structure of ideas beneath the surface of realistic detail. In so doing, she contends, they were able to suggest the noumenal dimension beyond phenomena, the transcendent in the natural.
The book consists of four parts. “Chaos Is Come Again” focuses on the crises of religion, empiricism and reason at the beginning of the century; “Something We Must Believe In and Do” traces the attempt to reconceive the world in the face of its dissolution caused by material entropy and spiritual decadence; “The Making of a New Poetic” offers a vision of idealism superseding realism (in this part, the extensive discussion of Immanuel Kant, J. G. Fichte, Friedrich Shelling, Plato, and the Romantic imagination is among the best things in the book); and “The Inexpressible Must Be Expressed” strives to demonstrate that a hidden symbolic structure underpins a range of nineteenth-century fictional works, undermining their seeming realism.
In order to support her claims, Bonaparte focuses astutely on a narrow set of thinkers belonging to, or influenced by, German Romanticism, above all [End Page 267] Friedrich Schlegel, S. T. Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Her central move is to posit the last one in particular as a pivotal figure of the century: “I shall often be turning to Carlyle to cite examples of what the century was thinking not because he says it better and with a clearer understanding of the grounds of his opinions, although he certainly does that, but because he is typical” (6). The strategy of using Carlyle (and in particular Sartor Resartus) as a cornerstone for the understanding of the nineteenth-century novel was probably inspired by Barry Qualls (unsurprisingly, his enthusiastic review graces the back cover of Bonaparte’s book), who adopted a similar move in The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction: The Novel as Book of Life (1982), a field-transforming account of natural supernaturalism in Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. Incidentally, Naomi Shor’s George Sand and Idealism (1993) and Toril Moi’s Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (2006) have also been ground-breaking studies of the importance of idealism (however often diluted and simplified) in Victorian fiction; and, given their relevance to Bonaparte’s argument, it is surprising that she should neglect to mention them.
Bonaparte is extremely learned and displays an immense body of both well-known and under-read titles. With few exceptions, she favors the aggregative method over the close reading, and constructs her argument mainly through the accumulation of examples or other forms of quantitative evidence (as when she points out that in Wilkie Collins’s novel The Law and the Lady, “the word ‘believe,’ used in its substantive, precise sense, turns up almost a hundred times,” 63). It should be noted that sometimes the overwhelming array of writers she...