Wednesday, January 30, 2008

They're Not Texts, Damn It

Philip Davis on Brigid Lowe's Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy:

It is a brave book, with one big simple message: all too often literary scholars merely use books (they call them 'texts') for the sake of their own agendas and careers. Here's the novel; here's the ideological agenda to which it is to be fitted; and here's the critical mallet to whack it into shape. For example, here is the opening of another recent book on Victorian Sympathy from Stanford University Press which goes something like this: 'The Victorians were very interested in sympathy - which was all about consolidating the male sense of identity, and an early example of interpellation in action.' So that's what it's all about.

Instead Ms Lowe offers a vision of sympathy—both within Victorian novels and in the reading of them—that is too generous and too complex for prescriptive and self-righteous narrow-mindedness. A character in Mrs Gaskell will have a prejudice, a theory, a plan or a principle—and then suddenly, when confronted by a particular person in a specific human situation and moved or pained, will give it all up. That's what the novel does, and it is what novel reading helps to foster.

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