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  • Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction by Leila Silvana May
  • Anna E. Clark
MAY, LEILA SILVANA. Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. 242 pp. $160.00 hardcover; $28.98 e-book.

As Leila Silvana May observes early in Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction, secrecy and secrets are omnipresent in theories of Victorian literature and culture. From Foucault's history of sexuality to the hermeneutics of suspicion animating Fredric Jameson's influential work, secrets and their pursuit underpin both the claims and the methodology of much late twentieth-century critique. At the same time, May suggests, distinctly Victorian notions of secrecy have gone unprobed even as similar concepts—lying, deception, hypocrisy, concealment—have become familiar territory for Victorian studies. Proposing to address this ironic disjuncture and recuperate specifically Victorian understandings of secrecy, May employs sociological and philosophical discourses to identify the nature and function of secrecy as it appears in five stylistically and generically diverse works of Victorian fiction: Charlotte Brontë's Villette, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Leila; or, The Siege of Granada, and Arthur Conan Doyle's fin de siècle Sherlock Holmes tales.

Though she builds on the poststructuralist work of critics such as John Kucich and D. A. Miller and draws liberally upon Enlightenment and twentieth-century language philosophy, May's primary conceptual structures come from Georg Simmel and Erving Goffman, late nineteenth- and twentieth-century sociologists who theorized the function of secrecy in daily life. By placing their views in the context of Western metaphysics, May's use of them becomes "more philosophical than sociological" (11). Invoking Simmel's defense of secrets as necessary components of selfhood and Goffman's theory of a performed self, May puts forth a series of linked claims: first, that secrecy in the Victorian period is "essential…to the formation of subjectivity" (1); second, that the period is marked by a "dialectics of secrecy and disclosure" (20) in which the secret self exists alongside and in tension with the pursuit of absolute transparency; third (and somewhat tangentially) that Victorian secrecy is "orientalized," imagined as a distant and foreign place steeped in erotic possibility (7); and, finally, that specific categories of secrets—particularly those associated with class and identity—form a kind of Wittgensteinian "family" of recognizable though often random resemblances that generate the category of Victorian secrecy (6).

May collects ample evidence to support each of these claims, though the extent to which readers find that evidence satisfactory may rest on their willingness to accept the intentionalist bent of her arguments. Quoting H. Porter Abbott's definition of intentional reading, May declares that she pursues the meaning intended by the "'single creative sensibility [that] lies behind the narrative'" (10). In practice, this means that May relies on close readings of mostly canonical Victorian texts, largely eschewing engagement with nonliterary Victorian discourses and importing relevant though anachronistic sociological and philosophical frameworks to characterize the "sensibilit[ies]" she recovers. For example, in her second chapter, on Villette, May contends that Brontë "withholds vital information from her readers not merely… to create an aura of mystery around her fictional character, Lucy Snowe," but also to further "a Simmelian-like theory of the role of secrecy in the construction of personal and social identity" (57). In Villette, she concludes, "[t]rue selfhood and sociality do require privacy and secrecy" (57). Unlike Sally Shuttleworth, who finds evidence for a materialist view of the self in the novel's references to phrenology, May persuasively [End Page 450] asserts that these passing allusions are belied by Lucy's (and Brontë's) evident belief in a "soul"—a true, hidden self. May thus distances her argument from both the historicist and poststructuralist readings that in recent decades have dominated criticism on the novel. Here as elsewhere in her book, May's approach results in a wide-ranging and productive discussion of the desirability of secrecy, though the conclusions it yields hew relatively close to those in extant studies of her central texts.

Some of May's most illuminating work appears in her fifth chapter, on secrecy, orientalism...


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pp. 450-451
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