Three sisters beg a tale from a math professor:
In gentler tones Secunda hopes
“There will be nonsense in it.”
Secunda is also named Alice; these lines are from “All in the Golden Afternoon,” a poem recounting the origin of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Alice is an eminently Victorian novel, yes? If I compare it to Rohan Maitzen’s advice on How To Read a Victorian Novel, I find myself in a suitably Carrollian mirror world. Do I need tissues, a social conscience, time, or a set of non-modern assumptions? No, no, no, and no. Not really. Modernist assumptions turn out to be particularly useful. The Mad Reader who believes that Alice is the Greatest Novel of the 19th Century (I am speaking of myself in a certain mood) needs a different How To, one based on a different but still coherent set of aesthetic principles.
“Although British literature as a whole has to rank as one of the most overrated examples of a national literature anywhere,” declared Richard at Caravanas de Recuerdos, he found that he enjoyed The Woman in White well enough, as did Jorge Luis Borges. St. Orberose recently discussed Borges’s assembly of a pair of series of books, his “Personal Library” and a “Library of Babel,” both of which contain plenty of Victorians – Kipling, Conrad, Wells, Shaw, Wilde, Collins, the Scientific Romances of Charles Howard Hinton, and perhaps most importantly the Robert Louis Stevenson who argued in “A Gossip on Romance” that “[f]iction is to the grown man what play is to the child.”
Borges put an especially high value on ingenuity and pure invention. Is it new, is it delightful, is it at least a little bit askew? Like Abbott’s Flatland and Stoker’s Dracula, or the visionary Lilith of George MacDonald, and the savage The House with the Green Shutters of George Douglas Brown.
Versus other questions: Is it true, is it meaningful? If I put more weight on the “creat[ion] of the possibility of sympathy” as Rohan Maitzen does, I will spend my time with authors who are more likely to satisfy the latter questions, likely including the exemplary Victorian novelists Rohan mentions in her How To: Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, Gaskell, E. Brontë, Trollope, and Collins (Oliphant and Bulwer-Lytton receive rhetorical nods). Collins overlaps the lists, greasy Dickens straddles the camps, Gaskell wrote ghost stories – the differences are far from absolute. Wuthering Heights is, for example, completely bonkers through most of the novel. I love it when Trollope surprises me, when his characters leap onto the tables, but Trollope’s books, like Gaskell’s and Eliot’s, are nothing if not sane.
The French literary tradition, for whatever reason, has been particularly welcoming to Crazy Lit, to writers like Baudelaire and Nerval, and even to Evil Lit like Sade and Lautréamont (19th century English literature has no equivalent of the latter set, not that I know of). I have mentioned several times that I am fascinated by the way that Borges’s home tradition, the Argentinean Literature of Doom, often seems to consist of nothing but the violent or fantastic or bizarre. Wuthering Heights and Heart of Darkness would fit right in. Middlemarch and Cranford would be the freaks.
As for myself, I think the 19th century English novel is one of the glories of human civilization. Plenty of individual novelists from other literatures are as great or greater (well, maybe not greater than Dickens), but no other literature of the time has the immense scope. Dracula plus North and South plus Through the Looking Glass plus The Mill on the Floss plus Treasure Island. Sense and nonsense, both of the highest quality. I put a high value on both.
For what it is worth, I give the 19th century poetry prize to France.
You may have noted that Rohan’s “sense” list includes many women novelists, while the “nonsense” list includes none. Yes indeedy. This may be meaningful in some way.