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  • The Victorian Novel Dreams of the Real: Conventions and Ideology by Audrey Jaffe
  • Elizabeth Brogden
Audrey Jaffe. The Victorian Novel Dreams of the Real: Conventions and Ideology. Oxford UP, 2016. 200 pages.

Recent studies of nineteenth-century realism, in particular the Bildungsroman, have foregrounded the ways in which it accommodates its putative "others"—marvelous events and retreats from self-culture—and called for the recuperation of stylistic and structural devices that the novel absorbed or eclipsed during its rise, from sensual typography to non-teleological plots.1 [End Page 1424] With The Victorian Novel Dreams of the Real, Audrey Jaffe not only makes an important contribution to this growing body of scholarship, but succeeds in approaching the question of realism's affinity for what it is generally understood to discard or neglect from a stimulating new perspective: namely, she posits the "real" itself as the elusive object of realism's "desire."

Jaffe's skepticism toward realism's privileged relationship to empirical reality is refreshing, as is her refusal to take for granted that readers turn again and again to the novel because it expertly conjures the world we inhabit. Indeed, she meticulously deconstructs realism's principal worlding strategies (notably Althussersian interpellation, Albertian perspective, and metonymy) to show how they disclose realism's longing for the very thing it is understood to produce. That realism is animated by a yearning for the "real" it is generally understood to seamlessly evoke is a claim that lends sustaining energy and quiet urgency to the book as a whole. The subtlety of Jaffe's thesis, in short, only enhances its strength.

Jaffe conducts her analysis through skillful and often revelatory close readings of a broad, if fairly eccentric, cohort of texts, including George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Jude the Obscure (1895), Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838), and Anthony Trollope's Orley Farm (1861). In her introduction, she lays out in detail the theoretical scaffolding and critical aims of her project, articulating her key intervention as that of "reconceptualiz[ing] … novelistic realism as a mapping of what these novels represent as the real onto what they also depict as fantasy" (5). In her final chapter, Jaffe tackles the question of realism's self-declared antagonist, sensation fiction, through Wilkie Collins's Armadale (1866), exposing how the resistance to realism is often haunted by a covert investment in its conventions, and prompting the reader to wonder how this might manifest itself in forms that are similarly anti- or para-realist, such as Hawthornian romance or speculative futurism.

Jaffe's core argument consists of a set of triangulated insights, the first of which is "realist fantasy's intertwined thematics of invitation and prohibition" (6). Jaffe begins by arguing that the novel's signature constitution of the reader's own embodiment, through its use of tactile materiality and liminal spaces, ends up banishing the latter from the narrative universe, resulting in an "involvement in the novel's reality" that, paradoxically, "depends on our exclusion: our presence on the threshold, our faces pressed against the glass" (38). She returns to this point in the fourth chapter—the last to address classical realism—by highlighting the "exclusionary potential" of this genre, which both solicits and exiles the reader: although "those rhetorical forms and metaphorical constructions most closely associated with realist representation … 'hail' the subject, returning his image, assuring him of his centrality and coherence, they also possess the potential for what might be called negative interpellation: the potential, that is, to keep him out" (98). Jaffe thus identifies [End Page 1425] realism, historically celebrated for its democratic inclusiveness, with a process of exclusion: despite a promissory openness, access to the real turns out, in fact, to be heavily restricted.

Jaffe's second major point is that "contingency" and "redundancy" dominate realist narratives, even as the form is explicitly suspicious of—and even hostile to—both. In Dickens, for example, dangerously random stories of love and romance are made safely inevitable by the progeny in which they result: the child, in other words, becomes the "subject whose existence makes all contingencies disappear"—an "accident" that absolves the sin...


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