By Elisha Cohn
(Oxford, 2016) ix + 260 pp.
Reviewed by Debra Gettelman on 2017-04-09.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Do Victorian studies have to be so Victorian? A growing body of work has been questioning what many see as the field's predominant, even monolithic, historicism. The V21 Collective has drawn both praise and criticism for its Manifesto, which calls -- indeterminately, by its own admission -- for "new speculative and synthetic methods . . . that might equip us to speak and to know outside the verificationist Victorian frame." Elisa Cohn's new book was recently featured in a forum on V21's website, perhaps because this fine monograph -- though it is thoroughly historicist -- finds that Victorian narratives contain a model for just such a new, "speculative" mode of critique.

Cohn's nuanced contribution to the field's current metacritical discussion actually calls into question its second defining term: Victorian studies. Must the analysis of texts, she asks, take the overly arduous form of "studies"? Through acute close readings, Cohn shows how hard-working Victorian bildungsromane are punctuated by lyric moments of diminished consciousness. At such moments, both the character and the reader linger in feeling and pause from the arduous labor of developing a productive self--or tracking that development. Rather than always seeking out the "sociopolitical implications" of every text, she suggests, literary critics might savor the evocation of feeling for its own aesthetic sake, "modestly return[ing] to the practices and varied modes of attention that have long been at the heart of literary reading" (187). Recent discussions of how literary criticism is being practiced -- as distant reading, surface reading, reparative reading, and so on -- have largely ignored practices such as daydreaming and reverie, which literary critics have long associated with common readers. In our present, self-critical moment, Cohn's book is a welcome defense and stimulating analysis of what is often overlooked as reading for pleasure.

This book invites us to complicate one of our most commonplace assumptions about the Victorian novel: that its most exemplary genre, the bildungsroman, is relentless in its drive for what David Copperfield calls "getting on by resolution and exertion" (Dickens, David Copperfield [Penguin 2004] 355). Victorian novels of development are notorious for "getting on," both ideologically, in celebrating the protagonist's pursuit of self-cultivation, and narratively, in what critics have long viewed as the "forward drive" of the Victorian bildungsroman (18). But as Cohn observes, even Victorian strivers occasionally need a break. Specifically examining novels of development by writers who also wrote poetry -- Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy -- Cohn finds that authors, protagonists, and readers of such hard-driving narratives welcome lyrical passages that "relieve the pressures of self-formation" (3).

But here's the catch: these lyrical passages suspend consciousness for only a moment, in a temporary, perhaps pleasurable, but inevitably short-term escape from the march of development. According to Cohn, such moments -- think Snapchat for the Victorian era -- serve as "quiet avowals of art's non-transformative fascinations" within a culture vastly committed to an instrumental understanding of art (6). Moral consciousness gives way to aesthetic pleasure in scenes of reverie, trance, and sleep that enable a character to luxuriate in abstracted states of feeling, and--through him or her--to let the reader appreciate "the narration of experiences unavailable to conscious reflection" (26). For Cohn, such moments constitute a Victorian aestheticism, "an alternative approach to narrative that elicits but does not legislate feeling" (193). These narrative pauses, in "refusing to reveal how to value them" (185), also model a new critical mode which might allow us to concentrate on the experience rather than the function of novel reading.

Moments of still life tend to occur within narratives of blocked, or at least painfully qualified, development, from Villette to The Mill on the Floss, Modern Love, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. For in these moments, Cohn argues, characters and readers are held back "at least a little while" from being accommodated to a common social world. The forward momentum of the narrative halts, and the novel of development makes fleeting space for ambivalent feelings "that evade the socially acknowledged forms of emotional and rational belonging" (187). In Cohn's first two chapters, Brontë and Eliot are both said to be "self-divided" in this way (27): writing narratives of self-cultivation, but seeing such growth as unattainable and, even if it were attainable, constraining. In Villette, a novel known for its "evasion of a developmental plot" (49), Cohn finds that repeated lapses in narrator Lucy Snowe's consciousness shift the novel's focus to narrating "a life of feeling" (51), for during its scenes of reverie, "nothing but feeling happens" (63). By thus allowing both Lucy and the reader a temporary respite from the social, a moment "of physically necessary rest" (49) in sensation, Brontë insinuates a critique of troubled social conditions; but according to Cohn, she does "no more than this" (64), merely enabling us to sense what a culture obsessed with self-cultivation leaves out.

Though Cohn's reading of Villette threads a purposely narrow argumentative course, her chapter on Eliot offers a fascinatingly bolder, darker picture: in Eliot's novels, she argues, reveries become moments of "dismantling . . . her own construction of interiority as the basis of a progressive humanity" (69). Against the more familiar background of her fiction, Cohn shows, against the march of progressive, organic, Spencerian logic, Eliot sets contrasting scenes of almost "sculptural" stillness (71). In these pauses, which are often quite lovely, filled with "the pleasures of opacity" (94), Eliot surprisingly "lets efforts towards knowledge and self-knowledge fail" (66). Throughout The Mill on the Floss, for instance, dreamy passages--discontinuous, fragmented, and unproductive states of mind--are said to allow for an "unwilled pleasure" that we hardly associate with Eliot (96), "riding out the rhythms of consciousness . . . without moral imperative or social use" when the social world asks too much (98-99).

Turning from Eliot to Meredith, Cohn argues that lyrical suspensions offer an even more tenuous aesthetic respite from social tension in The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, an anti-bildungsroman novel, and in Meredith's sonnet sequence, Modern Love. According to Cohn, these two works share a "diminishing faith in the vitality of self-reflection, attention, and self-cultivation" (115) and show how much, instead, "a non-instrumental understanding of mental life shapes Meredith's approach to voice, tone, temporality and stance in his diverse literary forms" (112). Meredith's long poem in fact mixes and meditates on literary forms. United in its structure by frequent images of sleep and autonomic, physiological rhythms, Modern Love (like the "Spasmodic" poems of the mid-century) is a narrative of resistance to self-building: pessimistically reflecting on the possibility of transformative action that drives fiction, its sonnets instead voice intense, physiological emotion.

Hardy's fiction likewise privileges feeling, but as his career progresses, feeling becomes a means of individuation. In early novels like The Return of the Native, sensation often seems a property of the world at large: "lyricism," Cohn writes, "is a way of giving access to the 'hitherto unperceived beauty' immanent within the unthinking inhuman, yet curiously vocal and expressive cosmos" (175). But in later novels like Tess, Hardy is said to move away from the lyrical and non-instrumental towards subtly valuing individual agency. In his moments of suspended narrative, Cohn argues, the "structures of feeling associated with diminished consciousness" increasingly become "the result of a lack of a social voice with which to express pain and rage, or to demand justice" (175).

Cohn's argument is skillful if narrow: she "admittedly . . . walk[s] a fine line in reflecting on non-reflection" (6). Central to her argument is the unresolvable paradox that moments of suspension in narrative must not serve an instrumental function in order to be quietly instrumental. The book also grapples with an unresolved paradox of its own. In arguing that moments of suspension are intentionally limited, that Villette's "emphasis on inattention and repose," for instance, "is modest, minimal, and non-redemptive" (64), Cohn limits the scope of her argument. As much as Cohn urges otherwise, this can be frustrating for those trained to judge the value of criticism by the breadth of its impact. But in tying the book's argumentative hands, so to speak, Cohn beautifully enacts the very feature of Victorian fiction that she is investigating: she shifts our critical attention from edifying stories of progressive development to the aesthetic pleasure of momentary effects. Still Life also expands a small but increasing body of work by Monique Morgan, Dino Felluga, and others linking poem and novel in the Victorian period. Unpacking the lyrical qualities of novelistic prose, Cohn not only analyzes formal technique but also shows how contrasting moods work within texts, and thereby brings a diffusive term like mood back to the critical spotlight. (If Dorothea Brooke's instrumental value is "incalculably diffusive," Cohn, like Eliot, is a brave defender of diffusiveness.) To demonstrate that the bildungsromane of Charlotte Brontë, Meredith, Eliot, and Hardy exemplify a "mid-Victorian aestheticism," she shows how a genre associated with middle-class striving uses formal techniques of tone and narrative voice to elicit and eulogize "non-instrumental feeling" (17).

The book is filled with well-turned phrases: Lucy Snowe "slip[s] the knot of social evaluation" (45); Chapter Two pursues "a sleepier account of Eliot's novels" (66); Sonnet 10 of Modern Love "opens like an abrupt gasp after a nightmare" (138). Like Cohn's subject, these imaginative phrasings sometimes offer moments of respite, but they are surrounded by prose that can be laborious to read. The book is quite self-conscious of its belatedness, or perhaps of originating in a dissertation, and devotes considerable space to precisely positioning itself on a critical continuum ("I am not the first to notice" is a phrase Cohn uses repeatedly). As a reader I wanted more of Cohn's graceful weaving together of multiple literary texts from an author's oeuvre and stunning close readings of mood, and less summary of other critics' approaches, supported by footnotes with lengthy quotations.

I also found surprisingly little reference to Victorian aesthetic theory, and while the book sometimes treats Victorian psychological theories at length, it does not sufficiently theorize their relevance to states of suspension. Rather than rebuilding the edifice of previous scholarship on Victorian psychology, Cohn aptly cites the now familiar work of Nicholas Dames, Sally Shuttleworth, and Rick Rylance. But I would have liked more precise ways of accounting for her use of this material than that literature repeatedly "echoes" (161) the writing of psychologists and that novelists were broadly "ambivalen[t] about contemporary frameworks of attention, which privilege mental work" (17).

Nonetheless, despite treading some well-trodden ground, Cohn's book does offer new perspectives, such as seeing phrenology in Brontë's work as "a tool for self-improvement" (43). Likewise, careful close readings of Lewes's psychological writings trace multiple notions of aesthetic engagement within his work. Ultimately, however, the book makes its mark not by broadly claiming that Victorians were ambivalent about "instrumental conceptions of mind and text" (26), but by the sensitivity with which Cohn shows how these authors periodically interrupt the narrative of development. With or without psychology in the background, Cohn essentially reimagines how Victorian narrative can proceed, for both character and reader, other than by means of an overwhelmingly forward drive.

Thus, like the suspensions of narrative she examines, Cohn's book asks to be read for its brilliant unpacking of how the mid-Victorian bildungsroman evokes affect through aesthetics, rather than for its developmental arc. "Life is still life, whatever its pangs" is the line from Villette that furnishes her title, highlighting "the ambiguity of the word 'still,' at once an adverb and adjective, [which] makes 'life' both ongoing and negated or deferred" (34). In just such a double-edged way, Cohn's book reminds us that novels are still novels, whatever claims we may make for them. And what's wrong with that? "It is only a novel," Jane Austen writes famously in Northanger Abbey, "only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best--chosen language" (Northanger Abbey [Penguin 1995] 34).

Debra Gettelman is Associate Professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross.

Leave a comment on Debra Gettelman's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed