All plots in fiction require agents to carry out and register actions. In the contemporary novel, according to reviewers in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, those agents could only be human beings. Over time, discussions of verisimilitude with respect to the depiction of human beings in the novel became an increasingly significant aspect of reviewing. From this basis, critics assessed the creation of memorable characters as an achievement unique to, and characteristic of, the best novels and novelists.
Histories of English (though not American) fiction take it for granted that an emphasis on character emerged as the hallmark of the better nineteenth-century novel. According to some, individual character really did have freer play in the nineteenth century than ever before; according to others, it was convenient for one or another power group to imagine that this was the case or at least to persuade others that it was so. But though reviewers after 1850 talked more about character in novels than they had earlier, an emphasis on character or the presence of characters asserted to be human was never the element that defined the genre. Character was discriminated for purposes of plot: in order properly to construe the action, auditors or readers had always to be able to tell the important agents of a story apart. Purchasers must also be able to tell specific examples of the novel apart. Character, in the sense of an assemblage of personality traits and associated behaviors, increasingly became the method chosen for achieving these psychologically, formally, and commercially necessary ends. But character in this sense was more a particular cultural solution to formal and psychological problems than a representation of reality.
The requirement that characters be human beings at first meant no more than that: the novel was not to contain any agents who were recognizably not human, for the temper of readers had turned against fictions of the supernatural, as we see in this review of Cooper’s The Pilot from the North American for April 1824. (The reviewer is talking about auxiliary characters who help out the heroes and heroines of a “modern” novel, precisely the sort of character that Natty Bumppo would be and in which, more generally, Cooper excelled.) “Characters of this description are substituted for what used to pass under the name of the machinery of epic poetry; for the gods of the ancient writers, and the witches, fairies, and other supernatural beings, introduced into the older of the modern writers of fiction, to bring the other personages into situations, which would otherwise be too improbable, or help them out, when they could not retrieve themselves. But a giant, a wizard, or spirit … makes but a sorry figure in a modern story, in which the author affects any regard to probability. Yet the reader must be interested, and his feelings must be disturbed by imminent perils, desperate situations, and hairbreadth escapes; and it is rude and inartificial in the author, to resort only to good fortune in these emergencies. … Some extraordinary and powerful agent is needed for the trying occasions.”
If plots involving supernatural beings were no longer interesting, writers had to turn to other subjects for their stories. Apparently people had become interested in themselves in a new way. “Human nature concentrates all that is permanently interesting in this world,” the North American wrote in an October 1830 review of John Galt’s Lawrie Todd. “It is quite a subordinate achievement of genius to accumulate obstacles, and carry the actors further and further from the haven, until by a lucky change of the wind, they make the port under full sail.” According to a reviewer in the Mirror, “every fiction is popular, in proportion to the degree in which it interests the greatest number. … To interest is to excite the sympathy of the reader with one of the persons of the fiction—to be anxious about his fortunes, to exult in his success and lament his sufferings” (June 1, 1838). “The novel of the present age differs from that of the preceding more particularly in its plot,” a reviewer in the Southern Literary Messenger explained; in earlier works “the experienced novel-monger could see afar off the coming catastrophe, and could predict with unerring certainty the fate of the principal personages of the action. In times when the history of any man might have been written out before his birth on knowing his circumstances, talents, acquirements, and associations, by the unerring operations of social laws, these plots were true to nature. … But now, when under the more inconstant laws of a more rapid civilization … the author’s plot should be more complex and his catastrophe more startling. … Novels, in comparatively recent days, have had their gypsies, their witches, and their haunted castles. They were then necessary to excite and retain interest. They are not so now. Follow the natural, and at the same time astounding revolutions of every day life, and interest will never flag” (May 1852). There is an evident contradiction in this theorizing, since we are told that the old-style predictable novel, true to an earlier time, also had witches, gypsies, and haunted castles that were true to no time. The real emphasis, which renders this contradiction irrelevant, is on exciting and retaining interest: when the course of life could be predicted even before birth, stories of human beings were not particularly interesting. The reviewer’s explanation is no better or worse than dozens offered to account for the shift in public taste; nobody really knew why, but all were sure that a change had taken place.
But loss of interest in nonhuman characters did not mean that readers demanded elaborate verisimilitude in human characterization. It was a matter more of exclusion than inclusion, of structure rather than content, and, as the review from the Southern Literary Messenger makes clear, of plot rather than character as such. If no supernatural agents were to be allowed in novels, matters had to work themselves out entirely through human agencies. Even the most perfunctory gesture in the direction of anthropomorphizing was often enough to satisfy the reader that a given character was a human being. At the point where character emerged as a focus competitive to plot, readers tended to opt for plot. Even as late as 1858 character was second to plot with readers, as a comment from the Atlantic in December of that year indicates. Finding that the interest in Lowell’s The New Priest in Conception Bay “derived more from marked and careful delineations of individual character than from the march of events or brilliant procession of incidents,” the reviewer remarked that “novels constructed on this plan are less likely to be popular than those in which the interest is derived from a skillfully-contrived plot and a rapid and stirring succession of moving events.”
In fact an important aim in American (and British) novel reviewing toward the middle of the nineteenth century was to impose the criterion of perceptive characterization as a means of discriminating better from worse novels. “The novelist who succeeds in creating and describing an imaginary character, that ever after remains in the memories of men ranked among the real existences of the past, both illustrates his own merit and secures his fame,” the New York Review wrote in January 1842. “An ingenious plot, with a variety of incident, may make an interesting tale that will occupy the attention pleasantly, and leave agreeable impressions upon the mind. But that these impressions may be lasting, our sympathies must be excited by the characters that are introduced; and if, when we lay down the work, there is not one of the persons described in it with whom we part as we would do with a familiar acquaintance, the chances are a hundred to one that our first perusal will be our last.” (Of course this criterion was of more interest to a critic than to an average reader, who wanted more new novels rather than a second reading of an old one.) The province of the novelist, a reviewer in Knickerbocker asserted, is “to create characters, and if he fails to do this, he fails utterly, though he may produce two or three romances yearly, like Mr. James, or a dozen in as many years, like Mr. Simms” (April 1846). A Graham’s reviewer praised Thackeray for representing “those evanescent and unconscious transpirations of character, in which a novelist’s capacity is most truly exhibited” (November 1848). According to the North American, “it is in this absolute creation of character, that our modern novelists so far exceed all that their predecessors were able to accomplish. In variety of individuality, in successful delineation of the action of one character upon another, or of internal will upon external circumstance, or the struggle of earnest natures against adverse influences,—in these, the themes of the modern novel, nature herself is almost rivalled. … It is now … the development of character which commands attention” (October 1856).
But though reviewers talked as if they had succeeded in winning readers to this criterion, they argued endlessly with each other and with their readers over which novelists created believable characters and which characters were in fact believable. The point is that whichever authors they liked, those were the ones they claimed had created good characters; whichever they disliked they faulted on the same score. Of course, reviewers liked authors whose portrayal of characters conformed to their own views of what character was. There are thus two theoretical issues here: first, how important, in general, characterization is to the novel; second, what is, and what is not, an example of artistry in character depiction. Reviewers tended to agree among themselves on the first and to differ on the second of these issues; and on the first they tended by their own account to differ with readers.
Reviewers generally agreed on a hierarchy of good character types in the novel. The highest type was both “original” and “true” in the sense of being recognizably human. An April 1837 Knickerbocker review praised Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods: “no creation of any modern American novelist can lay claim to the originality, the strictly sui generis qualities” of the two principal characters. The North American said the “finest character” in Vanity Fair was “Miss Rebecca Sharp, an original personage, worthy to be called the author’s own, and as true to life as hypocrisy, ability, and cunning can make her” (October 1848). The American Review concurred: “Becky Sharp is an original creation, not the representative of a class, though there are traits about her that remind you of several classes” (October 1848). A Peterson’s reviewer commented on the “originality of the real characters” in Villette (May 1853); one in Putnam’s observed that for handling of character Dickens “stands second only to Shakespeare. … There is nothing so rare in literature as the creation of a new character” (December 1853). The character of Christie Johnson in Charles Reade’s novel of that name was, according to the Southern Literary Messenger, “a creation—not an adaptation, or a weak or strong copy, or an imaginary personage out of real life. She lives and breathes, and is delineated with a vigor which carries the reader along with surprise and delight” (July 1855). “To mention all the characters deserving of notice for their originality and truth,” Graham’s said of The Newcomes, “would be to give a master role of names” (December 1855). An Atlantic review complained that “of all the popular novelists, not more than half a dozen have ever created characters that survive”; Leatherstocking was one of them, “a creation which no reader ever can or would forget,—a creation for which the merely accomplished writer would gladly exchange all the fine sentences and word-pictures ever put on paper” (September 1859).
Somewhat lower in achievement were characters who, though manifestly typical, were yet unique in some way. This, according to the Democratic Review for September 1853, was Scott’s achievement. “His fertile fancy ranged through every class and variety and description of men … and what is most wonderful still about these endless developments of the human race, and varieties and forms of life, is the fact that each individual is stamped with its own marked peculiarity—each has a character of his own, original and self-sustained,—and no two are similar.” Paul de Kock’s characters, according to an April 1843 review in the North American, are “imaginary beings, but they are still human. … Not a particular portrait drawn from life, but a combination of the most familiar and striking traits that characterize a whole class, and forming, therefore, a better representation of that class, than any faithful picture of an individual.” Characters of this type fitted the demand for greater seriousness in novels, as the reviewer went on to demonstrate: “we regard novels as vehicles of instruction,—as furnishing the means of enlarging our experience,—as increasing our knowledge of men and things. This effect is not the chief object of the writer, we admit; but he aims at it as subsidiary to his main purpose, and it is essential to his success.” Here the reviewer, linking characterization with better fiction, also makes the point that character and instruction are not formal necessities in fiction.
Indeed, at the level at which character is a formal necessity in the novel it is simply a specification within the frame of cultural norms sufficient to enable a reader to tell one character from another. We are accustomed to maintain that the idea of individuality or individualism is a nineteenth-century or at least an Enlightenment concept underlying and making possible the treatment of character in the great fictions of the nineteenth century. (From a liberal-historical viewpoint, this ideological development is good, from a Marxist approach, bad.) Yet clearly it is a transhistorical formal and psychological requirement for any narration or representation that its agents be differentiated; the chief cultural matter is the content of the distinctions rather than that they are drawn. When we cannot tell characters apart in fictions from other cultures or eras, it is usually because we are ignorant of the right categories.
Individualism has, to be sure, a certain substantive force in this nineteenth-century discourse: self-awareness and a sense of one’s uniqueness are character traits that emerge with increasing importance in the repertory of traits from which character is constructed. I find, however, only three formal criteria absolutely required for specification: first, differences are matters of inner traits that are expressed in outer actions (and stress on inner traits becomes stronger as the era advances); second, the traits that make up a given character are all consistent with each other; and third, they have an inseparable moral aspect to them, on account of which characters may be not only told apart, but placed as sympathetic or unattractive. Of course reviewers thought the traits they identified, as well as this moral quality, corresponded to human nature; and of course they thought the discriminations that the form called on novelists to make corresponded to real human differences. But the formal effect was known to be the point in all this: “he seems to be afflicted with a want of knowledge of human nature,” the North American complained in reviewing Cooper’s The Water Witch in April 1831, “which prevents him from giving a proper degree of distinctness and individuality, and, above all, variety to the persons of the drama.” The “proper degree” being called for here is a formal demand connected to the needs of the fiction: distinctness and variety.
It is perhaps necessary, then, to distinguish between characters in novels who are individuals and those who are simply individualized. The art of the great novelist consisted in achieving the first, by means of the invention of unusual though still acceptably human traits, and the combination of a large number of these into a totality. The formal requirements of the novel meant that every successful novelist had to achieve the second. And hence “individualizing” is the most common way character is talked about in novel reviews. In this way of talking, characters are thought of in relation to each other rather than as separate entities; of course in a novel with only one character (if such a creation could have been imagined to exist) no individualizing would have been necessary. “The great defect of Mr. James as a novelist is his lack of skill in the creation of accurate delineation of individual character,” the North American wrote of G. P. R. James in April 1844. “We want a forcible conception and consistent development of individual minds, with traits and peculiarities which constitute their distinction from other minds. They should be drawn with sufficient distinctness to enable the reader to give them a place in his memory, and to detect all departures, either in language or action, from the original type.”
I cite briefly some of the numerous applications of this criterion. “His characters want that distinctness and individuality, which we so often meet with in those greatly dramatic authors” (Southern Literary Messenger, June 1847); “the characters are drawn with a masterly hand, and individualized with singular power” (Literary World, January 29, 1848); “all the characters that aid in the development of our author’s plot are drawn with a strong dramatic distinctness, and have something more than their mere names to distinguish them from each other” (Sartain’s, March 1850); “a rare talent in individualizing character; his groups consist of distinct persons, without any confused blundering or repetition” (Harper’s, October 1850); “the chief defect of it is want of variety in the personages introduced. There are no less than three or four heroines, and quite as many heroes, different from each other, of course, yet not very decidedly different” (Putnam’s, October 1855); “it will be objected to her men … that they are not sufficiently discriminated, being made too much on the same pattern” (Putnam’s, March 1856). “Every character introduced is a distinct and appreciable personage” (Home Journal, January 6, 1855); “crowded as the scene before us is with complicated scenes and various actors, they all preserve their identity with wonderful exactness” (Knickerbocker, October 1855); and in December: “these personages … are grouped with exceeding skill, and have many a touch of individuality about them.” “The characterization evinces that the writer has an instinct for individualities, and a power of embodying them so distinctly that they readily take shape and life in the reader’s imagination” (Graham’s, July 1854); the characters are not only individually and strongly marked, but are contrasted—placed in apposition to each other in the various scenes—with very striking effect” (Graham’s, September 1858).
The chief question asked about verisimilitude in characterization was whether the character was mixed, compounded of good and bad qualities. It was necessary that the traits in one character amount to a consistent whole, and bizarre assemblages of traits were signs of authorial ineptness; but novelists more often erred, according to reviews, by making characters overly consistent, in the interest of achieving pure sympathy or animosity on the reader’s part (that is, of clarifying the mutual relations of protagonist and antagonist). The art of characterization consisted in making the character as mixed as possible before the whole disintegrated or the obvious positions of protagonist and antagonist were confused.
“Martin Faber,” according to a Knickerbocker reviewer considering the novel of that name, “is a most fiendish, gratuitous villain. … Such characters are unnatural. Men are neither fiends, nor angels, but a little of both” (October 1833). “Novels are pictures of life,” the North American opined, “and the characters presented in them must have that diversity and even contrariety of feeling, motive, and conduct, that inconsequence of thought and action, which we daily witness among our friends, or we do not acknowledge the fidelity of the imitation” (January 1838). “It is vastly easier,” commented the New York Review, “to represent your personages with two hues, like the black and white men on a chequer board. … The author has conceived no shading, blending, or softening to any of his creations” (July 1841). Of Who Shall Be Heir? by Ellen Pickering, Godey’s objected that “the characters of Rosaline and Vivian are almost too perfect, as is that of Cottrell too bad”; and it found that the hero of Bulwer’s Night and Morning was “a noble fellow … almost too good for every day life” (March 1841, April 1841). The “truthfulness” of Sedgwick’s Alida, according to the Democratic Review, was “confirmed by that natural admixture of fault in the persons for whom our affections are elicited” (May 11, 1850).
Reviews in the Literary World frequently criticized novelists for their failure to present mixed characters: “the demon of the piece … has the demoniac perfection which is never found in nature” (February 13, 1847); “there is also a want of shading in some of the characters; they are out and out villains of the melodramatic stamp, such as we seldom find in human nature” (May 11, 1850). Dickens’s “characters do not present the mixtures of good and bad in the same proportions as we find in nature. Some of his characters are thoroughly and ideally perfect; others are thoroughly and ideally detestable”; while Thackeray’s “study seems to be to give the good and bad together, in very nearly the same proportions that the cunning apothecary, Nature herself, uses” (June 7, 1851). Thackeray gives us characters “as they really are, as the whole world is, with a mixture of good and evil, hopes and fears, selfishness and generosity” (Home Journal, April 26, 1851). A Harper’s reviewer thought The Tutor’s World defective because it painted “an ideal of heartless egotism on the one side, and of generous self-sacrifice on the other”; in Villette, however, “the characters are purely human. They make no claim to angelic virtues; nor do they disgust the sensitive reader by any demonic manifestations” (January 1852).
In these comments we observe the reviewers’ interest in the moral aspect of character; all traits carried a known moral charge. The reason for the great reviewer interest in characterization as a higher achievement than plot in the novel is closely connected with the desire of this group to improve the novel by making it a more “truthful,” that is, moral, form. Nevertheless, in a well-intentioned but inept novel an author might choose the easy way to distinguish characters: to give each only one trait and make a contrast between good and evil that quickly enables readers to tell characters apart. Marion Harland’s Alone, according to Putnam’s for June 1855, evinces “a sharp insight into the workings of human nature, making the nicest distinctions and shades of character with a keen, firm touch, and without those strong and exaggerated contrasts, which are too often evidences of confused conceptions, and imperfect execution.” The unmixed character implied such marginal forms as caricature, melodrama, and allegory.
Reviews of the time clearly distinguish the allegory as a different form from the novel, primarily on the basis of unmixed characterization, with the novel judged a superior form. We know, of course, that Poe excoriated allegory; as he wrote in Graham’s when reviewing Bulwer’s Night and Morning in April 1841, “pure allegory is at all times an abomination.” But Poe’s was not a lone voice, though his rhetoric was much harsher-—on this and every other issue where he took a stand—than that of other reviewers of the era. “His allegorical design,” the Mirror commented ironically on a novel by G. P. R. James, “may excuse him for making his villain a perfect demon” (July 16, 1842). “The moment the incidents and the characters are made allegorical,” the Literary World said of Lady Alice; or, The New Una, “they lose all the interest with which their previous reality has invested them” (July 21, 1849). Hugo, by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, was, to a reviewer for Harper’s, an “allegory of a very refined and subtle character, appealing but indirectly to the mass of human sympathies” (December 1850). A Graham’s reviewer of Mrs. Marsh’s Ravenscliffe noted that “the characters are only seen in their passionate moods. … Though this gives emphasis to the ethical intent of the authoress, she sacrifices to it some of the most important principles of the true method of characterization. Her persons are apt to slide into personified passions” (April 1852).
Unlike melodrama, which was only a crude type of novel, allegory embodied a different formal principle. The novel’s formal principle was plot, its reader connection the interest of the story; the allegory’s formal principle was exposition, and its reader connection the interest of ideas. Where characters in fiction were devised as the agents of action, in allegory they were vehicles for concepts. In one sense the allegory was simpler than the novel, in another more subtle. Above all, however, it was not and could not be a popular form. Hence, much as our reviewers wanted better novels, they did not want them to become allegory.
This distinction explains some assessments of works by Hawthorne and Melville, since these authors were seen at least in part as allegorists. A Tribune reviewer said that the story of Melville’s Mardi “has no movement, no proportions, no ultimate end, and unless it is a huge allegory … no significance or point” (May 10, 1849). A reviewer in the Literary World explained that the multiple formal character of Melville’s works created critical problems. “When to [romantic fictions and statements of absolute fact] is added that the romance is made a vehicle of opinion and satire through a more or less opaque allegorical veil, as particularly in the latter half of Mardi, and to some extent in this present volume [Moby-Dick], the critical difficulty is considerably thickened. It becomes quite impossible to submit such books to a distinct classification” (May 22, 1851). A Harper’s reviewer wrote of Moby-Dick that “beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life” (December 1851).
The case of Hawthorne was more complex than that of Melville, for whereas Melville’s allegories were about the mystery of human life, Hawthorne’s were about human character itself and hence shared many points with the novel while perhaps belonging to a different genre. Knickerbocker referred in May 1850 to Hawthorne as “skilled to these allegorical, typical semblances.” The Literary World interpreted his distinction between novel and romance as claiming “license … in favor of a process semi-allegorical, by which an acute analysis may be wrought out and the truth of feeling be minutely elaborated” (April 26, 1851). The North American said it was difficult to refer Hawthorne “to any recognized class of writers” because, “so far as our cognizance extends, he is the only individual of his class. … Plain story-telling, whether true or fictitious, is entirely beyond, or rather beneath, his capacity” (January 1854).
The mixed character called for by reviewers was not, in general, a changing character; the mixture was static. From time to time a critic noted, and always approvingly, that a character developed over the course of the novel. “The gradual change of the heroine, from the self-willed school girl to the intellectual and self-sacrificing woman, is portrayed with a skill that shows an intimate acquaintance with the secret springs of human nature” (Godey’s, May 1848); “the progressive development of character is admirably depicted” (Home Journal, November 22, 1851). But for the most part the only change in character expected was a change in the reader’s knowledge of that character, an increasing discovery of what was already there. Character, like plot, would be revealed in the course of a fiction; and against that criterion even Dickens was vulnerable to criticism (as in these remarks from Putnam’s, November 1853): “Our first sight of Dickens’ characters makes us perfectly acquainted with them, and we can know nothing more about them: they are shown to us over and over again, but always the same. … It is this permanence and fixedness of character which makes it necessary for Dickens to introduce new personages continually to keep up the interest of the reader.” Though the character itself did not have to change in the course of the novel, the novelist was expected to conceal some aspects so that the impression of the character might change. Not character itself, but the psychological process of coming to know a character, was the focus of mimesis and its evaluation here.
The ideas about character and characterization I have been discussing thus far remained constant during the second quarter of the nineteenth century in American novel reviewing; but, we need to remember, novel reviewing was a practical activity existing in interaction with the novels that came to hand and the evident preferences of readers. In the period between 1840 and 1860 reviewers saw something new and important happening to character in novels. Increasingly defined by means of inner traits, character behavior became dependent rather than primary in characterization, and attention turned to the inner life as the field of action. Before 1850 reviews have little to say about the inner life of characters—traits are congeries of actions. After 1850 the inner life increasingly takes precedence. The instigator of this change seems to have been Charlotte Brontë. Reviewers even proposed a new subgenre of the novel, the “subjective” or “psychological” novel, originating with her work. Once identified, the genre could be applied retroactively to explain the works of others, like Thackeray and Hawthorne.
“The author of Jane Eyre and Shirley is prodigious in character,” the Literary World wrote on December 18, 1849. “Assuming that people have been overdosed with the fiction that is all romance, and plot, and catastrophe, on the one hand, and that which is all satire and exaggerated humor on the other, Mr. Currer Bell resorts to new elements of interest and intensity, and finds them in the study, analysis, and development, of the passions, motives, and impulses, which make up the individuality and vitality of strongly marked characters.” A reviewer in the Southern Literary Messenger commented in June 1855 that “the most successful novels of the present day have been those in which the trials and sorrows, the love and despondency, the reverses and triumphs of this life, as they are experienced by women, are thrown in an autobiographical form before a sympathizing world. Charlotte Brontë initiated the new mode in fiction, in those wonderful narratives wherein she exposed to view the inward workings of a restless and fiery nature. … Since Miss Brontë, many other writers have essayed the same psychological style of fictitious composition.” A connection between this type of fiction and a female viewpoint was also noted in an Easy Chair on novels in Harper’s: “the modern novel is reproached for its subjective character—for its constant tendency to explore the secrets of action—and a kind of masculine excellence and robust healthiness is claimed for the novels our fathers read and liked.” The change might be attributed to the entrance of ever more women, whose lives were less eventful and range of perceptions more restricted than men’s, into the field of novel writing and reading (August 1859). Certainly the characterizations of Scott, Bulwer, and even Dickens looked much cruder to reviewers in the 1850s than they had seemed only a decade before.
The earliest American comment on the interior life as such that I have found occurs in an unfavorable review of G. P. R. James’s Morley Ernstein in the Mirror for July 16, 1842. “There may be those who can throw aside the veil which hides the human heart, trace the windings of its tortuous, self-returning labyrinths, coolly watch the fierce conflict between the passions that inhabit them, and then, returning to ‘this upper light,’ spread before us a faithful map of their wanderings, and a graphic picture of their struggles; but if such there be, Mr. James is not one of them. It is true that he constantly speaks of the ‘motives’ which actuate his characters, and gives a superficial analysis of their thoughts, but the more subtle and refined vibrations of the soul are hidden from him.” Comments like this one, sparse in the 1840s and virtually absent earlier, became commonplace after 1850.
Knickerbocker, in a famous phrase, called The Scarlet Letter “a psychological romance … a study of character, in which the human heart is anatomized” (May 1850). The Literary World saw in The Scarlet Letter “a subtle knowledge of character in its secret springs and outer manifestations” (March 30, 1850). Sartain’s described Charlotte Brontë as “not merely a keen observer of the externals of humanity, but a psychological chemist” (February 1850). A Home Journal reviewer praised a novel that “analyzes with a microscopic eye, all the subtleties of the human heart” (November 1, 1851). Godey’s iterated: an author “has evidently studied the human heart”; “these tales are from the pen of one who has evidently made the impulses of the human heart her study”; a novel ‘‘manifests a familiar acquaintance with the motives and impulses of the human heart” (February 1853, December 1855, May 1858). The Ledger praised Southworth for her “keen insight into the workings of the human heart” (June 5, 1858).
Gaskell’s Cranford inspired a “pleased attention … which is altogether due to the exquisite nicety with which the human heart is exhibited” (Graham’s, October 1853). Christian Examiner reviews referred to “large insight into the motives of human conduct” and “rare insight into human motives” in Charles Reade’s novels (November 1855, November 1856); recalled how “Jane Eyre took the public by surprise with the wealth of its revelations of interior life” (March 1859); and praised The Virginians for “faithfulness of the revelation of interior life” (January 1860). “Novel-readers now-a-days,” the North American said in connection with the Brontës, “are not satisfied with pictures of external and social life, however brilliantly colored they may be, or however various in style. … We ask for deeper insight into character, for the features of the mind and heart rather than of the face and figure. … The author plays the part of anatomist, and dissects the heart, brain, and nerve, to lay them before the reader for examination and analysis” (October 1857). If novels had always involved concealments and revelations, secrets and mysteries, they continued to do so in this new mode but located these secrets in the human heart instead of in strongboxes or lost letters. The novelist, who had recently emerged as a recorder of the social scene and human behavior, now became a chronicler of a part of the world that could not be observed, so that her or his powers were functions of insight rather than observation.
Of course these many expectations regarding the treatment of character had to be relaxed for minor characters, since equally elaborate handling of all agents in a story would confuse the interest. In discussions of minor characters one finds stereotypes described as instances of psychological acumen: “The character of the foolish, romantic mother is admirably drawn; the Aunt is a bold, original portraiture; in Henriette the fine lady is described to perfection; and cousin John is a noble ideal of manhood, skilfully, yet truthfully portrayed” (Peterson’s on Emilie Carlen’s John, March 1854); Harper’s called A. S. Roe “one of most most natural and effective delineators of American character,” in support of which it offered “the substantial country gentleman, the village clergyman, and the rustic beauty as well as the industrious farm-laborer, the honest mechanic, and the genteel loafer from the city, who poisons the purity of the mountain atmosphere by his corrupt presence” (May 1855). Even more telling is its comment on Saratoga: “the characters brought upon the scene bear the decided marks of individuality, showing that they are not merely the productions of fancy, but have been suggested by actual prototypes”; these include a garrulous groom, an old Continental soldier, and a half-breed. “It is clear,” the review wound up, “that the writer has made himself perfectly at home with Cooper” (September 1856). The real-world prototypes have suddenly become stock literary characters. Expectations of new insights into character have changed to expectations of standard literary treatment.
These remarks about minor characters bring to our attention certain important disjunctions, or potential disjunctions, in the reviewers’ commentary. We of course expect that all the revelations or secrets of the human heart exposed by the supposedly new interest in individual character will be constructed within categories made possible by the culture even if they operate at the margins of cultural discourse. But the comments about minor characters raise the question whether the vaunted revelations of novelists were even supposed to disclose anything new or whether they were rather to confirm what was in the air about human nature. This question is raised in a different fashion by the stress on the moral aspect of character traits, a stress that makes clear that the revelations of the human heart had to conform to a moral framework if they were to be accepted as truthful. The demand for mixed characters involved moral mixtures and incorporated the era’s belief that there was good in all, though none were all good.
And the question is even more urgently posed by female characterization—indeed so much so as to put the entire matter of achieved characterization in fiction in doubt. Virtually every novel, of course, contained women characters as major or central figures. Love and marriage were not the only topoi of a plot, but they were the most common; even if stories concentrated on a male protagonist, they required significant heroines. And in many novels a woman was the main character. Thus it is not a minor matter when it turns out that the general rules laid down by critics for constructing and evaluating character are overridden, modified, or ignored in the case of female characterization. The highest examples of female characterization, according to reviewers, approximate the woman to a type. The “best” women characters are not individuals, are not mixed, and certainly have no secrets to be laid bare. They are “Woman.” In the discourse on characterization of women the substitution of norms for observation or discovery is so pervasive that one feels oneself close to a major cultural deception. When we recall that women, especially young women, were taken to be the main consumers of the genre, it is difficult not to believe that the potential of the novel as an agent of female acculturation seemed more important to reviewers than its potential as an instrument of new knowledge of human character.
It is of course impossible at this distance to begin to know whether reviewers were consciously or unconsciously hypocritical; perhaps they did believe that “women were like that.” I have already shown (in chapter 3) how their visions of novel readers’ “appetites” were not congruent with an idea of women as pure, innocent, self-sacrificing. And there is plenty of commentary in which the female character praised is deliberately offered to young female readers as a model or ideal, not as a perceptive description of a likely woman. The particular belief in the essential nature of women appears quite a bit like willful blindness. However that may be, there is no aspect of novel discourse in which the cultural is more intransigently “naturalized” than in commentary on female characters. Mary Seaham, according to Peterson’s, is “marked with all that delicate perception of the varied phases of woman’s character, in which Mrs. Grey so eminently excels in depicting and laying bare. The struggles of the heroine, in loving not wisely, yet too well; and the gradual yet natural transfer of her affections to a nobler object; are all colored with that rare tact and fidelity of narration, which only the most consummate knowledge of a woman’s heart could have achieved” (November 1852). If the key word operating here is “natural,” equally key words are missing, with such euphemisms as “not wisely yet too well” substituted. Mrs. Grey’s achievement is not only in her knowledge of a woman’s heart, but in the “tact” with which she does not speak that knowledge, thereby achieving the “fidelity” to an image of woman that involves both keeping her secrets and denying that she has any by substituting proprieties for description.
It seems to me of equal importance that descriptions of certain stereotyped traits were promulgated as the essence of an artistic handling of female character and that roughly half the characters in any given novel were thus not only excepted from the criterion of individualized portrayal but were faulted if the criterion was followed. I do not mean to propose as new the observation that our cultural heritage did not and does not give women fully human status (however that status is defined). But the talk about novels in this crucial era—when the mode of fiction later to be canonized as the “great” novel on account of characterization made its appearance—does provide a striking example of the phenomenon. We see this most crudely in the existence of the asymmetrical category “female characterization.” “Female” is the only class of characters singled out on the grounds of content rather than structure. “In the delineation of character—especially of female character—he exhibits remarkable power and a wide acquaintance with human nature in its most secret depths,” the Christian Examiner announced of Charles Reade in November 1855. “The delineation of the female characters in this novel is especially admirable,” the Atlantic wrote in November 1857 of his White Lies, and again in July 1859: “his portraits of character are capital, especially those of feminine character, which are peculiarly vivid and spirituel."
In fact, when female characters were strongly individualized, reviewers were apt to object. Graham’s complained about the attitude toward female character evinced in Charlotte Brontë’s novels: “the authoress, in fact, is a strong-minded woman, a hardy, self-relying egoist from the very strength of her individuality; and she has stores of vitriolic contempt and scorn for her weak sisters.” Conversely, however, Putnam’s for June 1857 asserted that “the triumph of Jane Eyre is the splendor of its vindication of woman as woman, deprived of all the accessories which generally inveigle interest.” These reviews come to contrary judgments that imply the same assumptions: that individuality in a woman is aberrant and hateful; that woman is most accurately portrayed in her “weakness” as a type; and that this type, even though admittedly weak, is both adorable and admirable. “The heroine … is a fragile, beautiful, lovable specimen of womanhood,” the Literary World remarked of Mrs. Marsh’s Ravenscliffe on February 28, 1852. A very nice plot line, according to many reviewers, was one in which a potentially individual woman matured into a type. The heroine of Villette “reminds us, in many things, of Jane Eyre. She is the same strong-minded woman, yet when she comes within the sphere of a strong-minded man, she becomes, in a similar manner, his loving satellite,’” Peterson’s told readers in May 1853. The individuality of the woman gives way to the category, and all is well. The very category of “female character” hypostatized such a character; and even in our relatively liberated world that category retains reifying power though almost every traditionally accepted trait within the category is queried. At the time it was first promulgated in fiction reviewing, the situation in America was that most novel readers were believed to be women; close to 40 percent of the authors whose novels were reviewed were women; and the matter of women’s rights was constantly in the air and on people’s minds. The conception of the “true” woman’s character was to some degree deliberately obfuscatory, since it was acknowledged to be an ideal even while it was promulgated as natural. This character was defined in relation not to individualism but to an inclusive social totality in which a domestic ideology supposed a certain kind of social stability. In brief—and reductively, I admit—if an emergent ideology was encouraging men to think of themselves as individuals, to do and dare, women were being made responsible for the coherence of the social structure that such individualism threatened.
A Christian Examiner reviewer, writing on Alston’s Monaldi in January 1842, openly collapsed the real and ideal woman, the exemplary and the natural, in praising the heroine. Described as “too pure and too trusting even to suspect that she was suspected,” she “is no common-place novel-heroine whom any school-girl may imitate, made up of roses and ringlets, useless sensibilities, and unrestrained enthusiasm, the creature of circumstance or emotion. … Let us pray our young countrywomen to study this portrait of calm, dignified, exquisite grace, gleaming upon us in a heavenly light—yet not so etherialized as to be unfit for the earth to which it belongs. And let them copy it as they can.” The commonplace heroine who can be copied by any schoolgirl must be a realistic portrayal; no need to copy her, the schoolgirl is already that heroine. Just how she may study and emulate an ‘‘unsuspecting” character when the very activities prescribed put the character out of reach, we are not to know. In point of fact, the heroine of Alston’s book functions mainly as the occasion for the reviewer to give girlish readers a scolding—that is, to play schoolmaster. Thus an ideal of female excellence is presented as a real character, character in the novel is lauded for its exemplary—rather than realistic—intention, and the reviewer is defined as enforcer of moral values and appropriate behavior for young girls.
Here is the Democratic Review for June 1843 on a character in a Bremer novel: “the active, pleasant, frolicksome, serious, affectionate, charming little wife, who always does and says the very thing she should, and has the faculty of making all comfortable and joyous around her, who has a smile or a tear for all, as one or the other is proper, and always energy to aid all who are in trouble, and that too without obtruding her sympathy, or suspecting herself of being a prodigy, is one of the finest female characters in the whole range of fictitious literature.” What has happened to the demand for mixed character, or the interest in real character rather than prodigies? And in what sense of the term can this depiction be one of the “finest”? It is, of course, a depiction of the ideal wife—not a person but a role—that is presented as a fine psychological study of an individual. “St. Leon’s wife,” rhapsodized the American Review about Godwin’s works, “is a pattern for all women, wives, and mothers; an example of as pure, generous, and devoted love, as ever warmed the human heart. … It makes one proud of existence [sic] to think that a being of such lofty purposes, wisdom, kindness, radiant loveliness, consoling her husband, cleaving to him in his broken fortunes, watching over the welfare of her children, and moving about like a guardian angel, ever had existence here on earth” (September 1848). We never find a reviewer recommending a male character as a “pattern”; in fact pattern heroes are faulted for their lack of verisimilitude, since they are unmixed. Nor, of course, is any male character ever discussed as a husband.
Examples can be multiplied. “We know nowhere, in the range of fiction, a more sweet and engaging heroine. … Such a female, cheering the domestic fireside with her smiles, and diffusing around her a very atmosphere of peace and happiness, is our beau ideal of a wife or daughter” (Peterson’s, May 1847). Reviewing Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s clerical novel The Sunny Side, the Christian Examiner observed that “the good man’s crown is the Virtuous woman’ who has cast in her lot with his. Her character is beautifully drawn. The cheerer of her husband in despondency, the kind and wise guide of her children in the right way, with modesty prompting the wish to shrink from publicity, but high principle curbing the indulgence of that wish, she appears the true pastor’s wife, ready when occasion calls to be the friend and counsellor of those around her, but finding her peculiar sphere of duty in her own home” (September 1852). “If it were commanded that no author should create a heroine whom he was not willing instantly to marry,” Harper’s editorialized, forgetting that close to half the authors it reviewed were women, “how the ‘ideal’ would go by the board, and the good, generous, noble women of reality and daily life come by their own again” (May 1854). The reviewers were not substituting the real for the ideal, but one ideal for another—no longer the beautiful, useless, passive, delicate clinging creature of the eighteenth century, woman is now a hardworking, busy, tireless, resilient, ever-cheerful helpmeet: kind, wise, consolatory, sympathetic; a workhorse wife and mother—mainly wife—whose self-subordinating toil and attention support individuality in others.
If there was but one female character, and if plot derived from character, then woman could have but one story. In these reviews the story implied is of the testing of femininity: how far might it be subjected to trials and obstacles and yet remain womanly? “The character of Edith is a beautiful conception of human patience, as well as of the virtue and dignity of true womanhood, under the severest trials” (Godey’s, May 1856). “Rose Clark,” said a Harper’s reviewer in January 1856, “develops a sweet feminine nature, and wins both sympathy and admiration by her noble womanly bearing in the most perplexing circumstances”; in Sylvan Holt’s Daughter “every new trial only proves a new revelation of her sweet womanly dignity … until at length she is placed in a position which shows that her strength of character is equal to her gentleness of disposition” (February 1859). Despite the important substitution of activity for passivity, this story is structurally similar to the eighteenth-century woman’s story of retaining or losing virginity. Instead of holding to a corporeal sign of one’s value as a woman and of one’s value only as a woman, the heroine now must retain her feminine character. This is a more spiritual, but perhaps a no less coercive story than the one it replaces, and it is still about preserving, keeping, saving something in the self that is valued by others, only because it is valued by others.
And while the eighteenth-century story offered women who kept their virginity the security of marriage, this one implies that marriage is no security at all. In fact, the discourse offers women no reward for striving to attain this cultural ideal, or indeed even for attaining it, except praise. Reviewers used female characters in fiction to provide samples of the praise a woman could get were she good like the heroine. “The character of the heroine is the most beautiful conception of the womanly virtues that could be presented”; “the character of the heroine is a masterpiece. There is a sweetness, a grace, a naturalness, a living, perennial freshness. … She thinks, feels, talks and acts like a true woman, and as such endears herself to every reader” (Godey’s, May 1858, August 1858). Peterson’s was especially prone to these effusions: “There have been heroines, perhaps, as lovely in character ideally. There have been others as true to life. But we can recall no one, we repeat, who unites such reality with such surpassing excellence. She convinces the most skeptical reader that it is possible, even in this world, to be ‘but little lower than the angels’” (April 1853); “the heroine … is the charm of the novel. Sweet, pretty, Belinda, inexperienced and imaginative, yet full of sound common sense, where, in any late fiction, have we a delineation so fresh and true?” (March 1854); “in the whole realm of modern fiction there is not a more lovely creation than Hil-degarde. … Her conduct, under the most trying circumstances, is ever noble; but ever natural also to her character” (March 1855); “the character of Anne, the elder sister, is most beautiful. She is one of those unselfish beings, those daily martyrs, of whom the ranks of the sex are full. We recommend the work to our readers, satisfied that they will be delighted with it, in proportion to their taste, culture, and true womanhood.” Readers of such rhetoric may see how psychoanalysis came to define the female character as “naturally” masochistic and narcissistic, for only the pleasures of such drives are allotted to women.
I do not want to say that novels themselves took this approach to female characterization; I am talking only about the terms in which novels were described. In fact, this is not the story I believe the most popular of the “woman’s fictions” of the time were telling. The critical discussion, however, is virtually univocal in its approach to female characterization; even Margaret Fuller’s dissent in the Tribune betrayed many of the dominant presuppositions. While most reviewers were highly critical of George Sand’s writings, Fuller defended them on the ground of their portrayal of an essential female character that she assumed to have real existence. Consuelo, she wrote, “is entirely successful, in showing how inward purity and honor may preserve a woman from bewilderment and danger, and secure her a genuine independence. Whoever aims at this is still considered by unthinking or prejudiced minds as wishing to despoil the female character of its natural and peculiar loveliness” (April 25, 1846). While Fuller hoped to enlarge the appropriate sphere of women beyond “the usual home duties” to include an “intellectual calling,” she did not want to deny woman her particular nature. If the would-be intellectual heroines of such novelists as Bremer, Dumas, or others “ended as they did, it was for want of the purity of ambition and simplicity of character” that George Sand’s heroines are allowed to possess. In the sequel to Consuelo, The Countess of Rudolstadt, the heroine’s “native strength, her loyalty, her depth, grandeur and delicacy of feeling, her courage and generosity, seem to belong alike to the actual and the ideal world. In her we recognize the true features of woman as she should be, as she may be even now” (February 4, 1847).
Authors who were criticized for failure in the department of female characterization were faulted according to this new ideal of woman as formed to serve rather than be served. The women in Cooper’s novels “are utterly characterless and insipid,” a North American reviewer asserted. “There is no variety, no grace, no life in them. … The tenderness of her spirit, the depth, and strength, and purity of her affections, her real power, her influence over the course and issue of events,—these are things that our author either does not understand, or cannot adequately set forth. Female characters are introduced, as beings for whom something is to be done, but who themselves do nothing, and say nothing—to the purpose. They are constantly in the way, constantly in difficulties,—the cause of exertion in others, but never effecting any thing for themselves” (January 1838). We might applaud the reviewer for criticizing a passive, insipid characterization, until we note that he devalues passivity because he likes women who are active on behalf of others. And note how plural female characters quickly modulate to a single female figure: “her” tenderness, “her” strength, “her” powers. No female liberation was implied in this active ideal: as a later North American reviewer wrote of Cooper, “the most rabid asserter of the rights of woman is scarcely more ignorant of woman’s true power and dignity” (January 1852).
The character most troubling to reviewers was (not surprisingly) Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Not only did Becky ignore the pattern of the true woman; she was a convincing and artistic characterization, and (even more alarming) readers liked her, not least because she was like a man: that is, self-directed, individualistic, assertive. “Our favorite,” the Democratic Review wrote in October 1848, “is Rebecca Sharp, clever, keen, pliant little ‘Becky.’ What though she is heartless, selfish, designing, intriguing; we love her because she is talented, energetic—and successful.” The Christian Examiner for January 1856, in contrast, fulminated that “no modern writer has done more to strip from the very name of woman all associations of moral beauty. … One would imagine that it had never been Mr. Thackeray’s privilege really to know, intimately to appreciate, and absolutely to recognize, a truly noble, gifted, lovely woman.” Another reviewer for the journal argued in September 1860 that “if Thackeray is sharpsighted to detect the foibles common to the sex, no man has truer sympathy with woman’s peculiar trials, nor has any one reverenced more those virtues peculiarly her own.” Attack and defense are over neither the artistry of the creation nor the achievement of memorable individual portraiture, but rather the degree to which the character represents something “common to the sex”—trials and virtues peculiarly woman’s own. Of course no parallel mode exists for talking about male characters.
Were women really so different from men in this basic particular? Did they really lack individualities of their own, so much so that the wonderful achievement of the novel in individual portraiture had to be suspended in their case? Was it possible that men too lacked individualities, and that the false ideal was of the individual rather than the type? Such questions were not asked. Not a single reviewer in the period seemed to notice that two entirely different systems of evaluation were operating when character in the novel and female character were discussed. Accordingly, none thought to notice that each evaluative approach put the other in question.
And only two critics even seemed to see that the question was, at the least, a vexed one. Both wrote in the North American, one in July 1826, the other in July 1853. The earlier reviewer was talking about Cooper, and he said that there is “no task of the novel writer more difficult, we suppose, than that of delineating a good female character … whether it be, that the softer sex is less marked by striking and individual character, or because we are less accustomed to see them in scenes which call it forth, or because their genuine peculiarities are of too ethereal a cast … or because our tastes are somewhat capricious upon this interesting topic.” The later reviewer, writing about Thackeray, commented that “no portraiture of the female mind that shall be complete, and altogether satisfactory, is to be expected from one of the other sex. It is hardly possible that any being should see deeper into the mind of a being of another race, than the point where those qualities lie from which arise the interrelation of the two races. … If men are unable to penetrate the important secrets of the sex, women are no less unwilling to reveal them. It is only one who has herself overleaped the bounds of tyrannical custom, who ever ventures to depict that struggle which, at some period of life, a proud and ardent woman can hardly fail to pass through. And when such a picture is presented … the sex itself is always foremost to cry out against it, as unfeminine and monstrous. It is in fact a betrayal—a revelation of internal weakness to the common foe.”
These comments put the matter of characterization in the novel in question in various ways. If the inner nature of one gender is closed to the other, how can the novelist pose as a discoverer of profound interior truth? And if truths that are known cannot be uttered—for whatever reason—how can the novel be celebrated for its revelation of psychological secrets? In effect, then, the genre that critics were praising for its revelations they knew in the most important instance to be rather a concealer than a revealer of secrets: men could not, women would not, and both sexes should not, tell. The real function of at least female characterization was to deceive—for some, in order to inspire women to strive toward an ideal; for others, to screen women from the betrayal that the new demands of psychological characterization could not but lead to if they were seriously heeded. In either case the issue of female characterization so far as the genre of the novel is concerned makes it seem possible that the novel—even and perhaps especially the “best” examples of the genre, by which I mean those that were most praised by reviewers for their characterological content—never really could achieve what it was praised for, fidelity or insight into human nature.
The issue can be expanded beyond women—on whom I have concentrated because there is so much, and such disingenuous, discourse—to the companion issue of sexuality, which in all these purportedly revelatory novels had apparently no place at all. While Foucault may be correct that our talk about sexuality to some degree has “invented” it in modern times, it has surely had some role in human behavior and motivation through the ages; but one would not guess so from any discussion of character in these journals. As we shall see in chapter 9, novels treating sexual matters were generally condemned; the right way to treat sex was to ignore it. Novelists who ignored it were considered superior as psychologists to those who dealt with it; the latter were sensationalists. But since novel readers, according to reviewers, continued to read for story, they may not have been fooled by those who sought to instruct them by presenting ethical norms as psychological realism.