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  • Reductive Reading: A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing by Sarah Allison
  • Julie Sorge Way
Sarah Allison, Reductive Reading: A Syntax of Victorian Moralizing ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), pp. ix + 172, $49.95 hardcover.

In Reductive Reading, Sarah Allison provides a thoughtful and wellresearched defense of "reductive" literary analysis by describing ways of reading that are consciously limited in their scope and often assisted by quantitative methods and computational analysis. Rather than seeing the term as pejorative, she reinvigorates the reductive for its critical usefulness and crafts research questions about the static grammar of the page. For example, what can we learn by looking at the patterns of grammatical usage in Victorian texts using specific parameters? In designing research questions, how can "reductive" simplicity be an asset? And how can we as scholars, writers, and researchers embrace these approaches, including the quantitative methods of digital humanities, to improve contemporary literary criticism? Allison sheds light on these questions with insight and a well-informed sense of her field. She provides theoretical rationalizations for her innovative approach and detailed examples of the possibilities such criticism can afford in stylistic analyses of works by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and periodical writing from the London Quarterly Review.

Reductive Reading is primarily "a study of style and moralizing in Victorian literature and culture," but Allison's approach, which she recognizes as controversial, begins with quantitative analysis of the texts (1). She expands on her extensive experience with the Stanford Literary Lab using distant reading to locate and study patterns and frequency of "moralizing" clauses in the language of Victorian-era texts (1). Thus, before proving her case she explains her methodology in detail, which itself becomes a large part of the book's argument.

Allison's work addresses readers who are interested in digital humanities but uncertain about how quantitative methods and computational analysis can best lead to meaningful literary-critical inquiry. Researchers must be free early on, she posits, to read reductively at "the thesis stage—before antithesis or synthesis—a moment of transforming a tangled problem into a point from which it is possible to begin" (26). Using the example of [End Page 421] George Eliot's anonymous 1856 Westminster Review critique "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," she demonstrates that consciously reductive readings can set up rich inquiry. Eliot never pretended to be unbiased, Allison contends, and this reductive bias became itself a generative step in developing the better fiction she would later write. All critique has elements of reductive thinking, so Allison argues that researchers and critics should embrace the term and recognize that reductive thinking can lead to richer and more subtle ends.

In the second chapter, Allison analyzes the underlying structure of Victorian moralizing by examining novel reviews published in the London Quarterly Review during 1861. She scrutinizes how reviewers "treat fictional texts [merely] as persuasive arguments … a deliberately reductive reading practice … [of] translating a story into the ideas it demonstrates" (59). Focusing on the reductive tendencies of the reviewers themselves, Allison contrasts reviews of books considered more and less morally upright to demonstrate how evaluative writing foregrounds moralizing. Critics for the London Quarterly Review were concerned not just with the moral work of these novels, however, but also the style with which this work was delivered.

The third chapter examines Eliot's sentence-level shift between pasttense storytelling and present-tense generalizing discourse in Middlemarch (1871). Through careful quantitative methods, Allison shows that this sort of hybridization of the sentence narrative structure is far more common in the novel than has been previously noted. Her concept of the "commentative clause" offers both an innovative critical insight and a satisfying name for something that any lover of Middlemarch has felt. The chapter concludes with an examination of Eliot's "maxims against maxims" that best showcases the combination of analytical strategies Allison so carefully advocates (63).

Allison's investigation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1857) in the fourth chapter is also informed by concerns with style and moralizing. Allison draws on extensive research to identify a consistent tone or approach at specific points in Aurora Leigh, modeling her analysis on a pattern of syntactic...


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pp. 421-423
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