Wednesday, August 8, 2012

I hope there will be nonsense in it - two Victorian literatures

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.


  1. The way I see it, no other national literature has contributed as much as the British did to popular culture. Other countries doubtlessly had better writers - Russia, of course, but Russia only had great novelists. It's curious that from Russia, Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Austria, Portugal we didn't get spy novels, horror novels, detective novels, fantasy novels, westerns, pirate novels, or none as important as those in English. But the British had all these great storytellers who invented and perfected genres and concepts that continue to shape much of our popular entertainment.

    Perhaps only France can compare with it - Jules Verne and Paul Feval and Guy de Maupassant, and Arsene Lupin and Fantomas. But even so it's a poor comparison.

  2. Your remarks about French Crazy Lit caused me to smile. Have you read Huysmans or Rachilde? Both are crazy in their own fashion, Rachilde is sultry crazy, Huysmans is sickly crazy. It was this sort of thing that meant, for years, I couldn't face the likes of Eliot, Gaskell et al because they were so long and so sensible. But with age comes alterations in taste and I'm becoming more able to appreciate them now.

  3. Great post, and of course, if I had been making a set of guidelines meant to be truly complete and authoritative (but what a foolish 'Key to all Mythologies' project that would be) I would have had to do it in at least two sections and probably more. Perhaps I should sneak in "some" or "the best-known" into my title! The fraught "novel" / "romance" distinction might save me. A bit.

    I wonder why we have to call the assumptions that might guide our reading of Lewis Carroll "modernist." Perhaps instead we should rename the modernists.

    Interesting point about the gender line between "sense" and "nonsense." Are there nonsensical women (or books by women) we just don't know about? Probably.

  4. The two Borges lists include no women writers, also probably meaningful in some way.

    Great post(s).

    1. That's an interesting observation; I hadn't noticed. Hm...

  5. To expand on Miguel's point, it is not just popular culture. The craze for epistolary novels, Gothic novels, historical novels - these were all international events that profoundly changed every national literature, and they originated in England, often transmitted via French translations. This actually reinforces Miguel's idea, come to think of it - these were all "genre" innovations. Popular novels. Byronism is another example, although a little different.

    Huysmans I at least know if not well. Rachilde I did not know at all. Holy cow! A subject for future research, there.

    Rohan, I will clarify my shorthand. We do not have to call our Carrollian assumptions modernist. But: if I have been reading Borges and Kafka and André Breton and then turn to an Alice book I will do quite well without putting any assumptions aside. Maybe if I were reading Camus and Mann, also Modernists, I would have more trouble with Carroll, but would be more likely to glide right into a good approach to Middlemarch.

    So yes, please, someone rename the modernists! Too big, too much piled onto one label.

    Mary Shelley, to slip backwards a bit, would fall into the inventive side of the divide, and my understanding is that the best-selling late Victorian author was the fantasy writer Marie Corelli, although her artistic example may not be so useful. What is interesting is what the best writers did with their time and talents. Eliot was perfectly capable of writing a good supernatural story when she wanted.

  6. Maybe the author of The Bhagavad-Gita was a woman. Then there would be a woman writer in the Borges library. Or maybe some of the Arabian Nights stories?

  7. Sometimes I think that Alice is a parody of the Victorian novel, but that could just be me seeing everything through my Modernist spectacles. This is an excellent post. At some point, I swear, I'll read Rohan's guide.

  8. Really? I am intrigued but would have to hear more. Sui generis is how it looks to me.

    The poems are mostly parodies, certainly.

    Before I forget - what is Shaw doing on the Borges list? Caesar and Cleopatra, Candida, and Major Barbara are the specific works. Seems odd, but I barely know Shaw, and why should everything fit?

  9. Tom, I had no idea my anti-British lit comments would have such a long shelf life away from my own blog. What a comic surprise to see them again here and to see myself mentioned alongside that famous Anglophile Borges in the same sentence no less! On a less egocentric note, I have to ask you whether you really think Lautréamont belongs to Evil Lit instead of Crazy Lit? The Count was a lot more humorous and inventive than the Marquis in my book, so I tend to weight his crazy "sensation novelist" side more heavily than his "sadistic" or evil side. In any event, I look forward to your upcoming tome on 1,001 Evil Lit Books to Read Before You Die and the subsequent blog tour it will no doubt inspire. That should be fun.

  10. Well, your old slag, however one wants to take it, makes a good, strong point. These literary traditions are not just the same thing with different linguistic paint jobs. They are really different from each other and there is no reason every reader should be at home in all of them.

    At some point - I do not remember where - I promised you a list of Victorian literature for fans of Argentinean literature. Something like that. This is basically it. What Borges says, plus that unbelievable Douglas Brown novel. Plus "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". Plus - no, that's plenty. (Marlowe, Webster, Swift, Sterne).

    In Maldoror Ducasse deliberately joins what is already a long Satanic tradition in French literature. That chapter I discuss in my link is a conscious gesture. So I'm sticking with Evil for Maldoror - Poésies if of course consciously anti-Satanic. It is all just a stance or theoretical position. The fact that Ducasse is far more interesting and better writer than Sade is a separate point!

    1,001 sounds like a stretch. Think of the kooks you would attract if you tried to write that book.