Friday, December 7, 2012

What about Charles Reade?

Charles Reade was a best-selling novelist in his own day, a writer thought by many Victorian readers to rival Dickens and George Eliot.  What happened to Charles Reade? 

Mary Poovey’s admirable piece of criticism, her ELH essay, “Forgotten Writers, Neglected Histories:  Charles Reade and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation of the British Literary Field” (ELH 71, 2004), accounts for neglect of Charles Reade in the twentieth century.  Essentially, Victorian fiction scholars (especially those studying popular genres and writers, it seems to me) are still working themselves out of critical categories solidified by the New Critics, categories that favor narratives of idealism (a critical term from Victorian book critics) over those written in Reade’s style of realism.  Poovey carefully charts the transition from Victorian book reviewing to academic literary criticism, underscoring that Reade was a casualty when critical categories were established in the later nineteenth century:  “[W]riters like Reade, who staked their literary reputation on their ability to animate facts and provoke readers, were relegated to the shadowy nether world outside the academic canon” (449).  Really, I think Poovey is addressing an issue of Victorian fiction aesthetics (idealism versus realism) that generally gets lost today as Victorianists go about studying, researching, and teaching their favorite writers and novelists.  But she clarifies some things about the canon of Victorian novelists we now generally read.  Which brings me to sensation fiction, those novels still somewhat new to the canon of Victorian fiction.

I wonder about what has counted in the critical recuperation of the sensation novel, which owes much to 1970s feminism.  As we reconsider the canon of Victorian fiction, what criteria do we use?  Themes?  Gender?  Aesthetics?   Culture?  Elaine Showalter’s Victorian Newsletter piece and A Literature of Her Own did a lot for establishing critical expectation of powerful and rebellious sensation heroines, especially written by female novelists. As a result, Mary Braddon has been very well recuperated as a sensation novelist in the last three decades.  Mrs. Henry Wood, another novelist of “carefully controlled female fantas[ies]” (Showalter’s term, 163),  somewhat less well.  The renewed enthusiasm for Wilkie Collins’s novels, especially during the 1980s, fits in here, too.  But what about Charles Reade?  In terms of genre and theme, Reade is relevant.  Catherine Peyton, from Griffith Gaunt, is worthy to be considered in this context of sensation heroines, especially when she successfully defends herself in her own murder trial.  Yet, Reade’s fiction remains out of print, mainly because of our inheritance of aesthetic categories in criticism, according to Poovey.  Is there room for Reade to be read and studied as we reconsider those categories?

Why do we choose what novels to read, study, and teach in our classes?

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