In her discussions of six representative works of British fiction written between 1843 and 1890, Audrey Jaffe, Associate Professor of English at Ohio State, offers fresh, insightful readings that reinforce the interrelationship between visualisation, commodification, consumption, production, labour, capital, the professional of the nineteenth-century writer, and the acts of writing and reading themselves. Scenes of Sensibility serves to remind us that a classic is a work constantly awaiting re-discovery, re-interpretation, and renewal through a temporal recontextualisation that brings the reader the joy of apprehending what should have been obvious upon that reader's first making that text's acquaintance. The objects of her skilful analysis are Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Conan Doyle's "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Gaskell's Ruth, Wood's East Lynne, Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of the six, highly readable chapters, the first three are slightly reworked versions of previously published articles. Chapter One first appeared as "Spectacular Sympathy: Visuality and Ideology in Dickens's A Christmas Carol," in PMLA 109 (1994); Chapter Two as "Detecting the Beggar: Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Mayhew, and 'The Man with the Twisted Lip'," in Representations 1990 (31); Chapter Three as "Under Cover of Sympathy: Ressentiment in Gaskell's Ruth," in Victorian Literature and Culture 21 (1993). Thus, this book, published in 2000, represents nearly a decade of one extremely knowledgeable scholar's Feminist, Reader-Response, and New Historicist-oriented re-readings of several main-stream and several minor Victorian works of prose fiction.

The introduction argues that the Norfolk Biffins in "Stave One" of A Christmas Carol do not merely invite both Scrooge and the reader to buy and possess them as objects of beauty, they also invite the spectator of the dazzling scene of conspicuous plenty to consume them —just as the visually attractive little red book with colourized frontispiece and gilt edging invited the book-buyer of Christmas 1843 to purchase, possess, and consume the text. However, whereas the Biffins seem to invite individual consumption, A Christmas Carol

Part One, "Sympathy and the Spirit of Capitalism," begins with a chapter on A Christmas Carol — "Sympathy and Spectacle in Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol'," which shows that Scrooge, who at first epitomizes the hard-hearted and socially alienated Victorian man of business by the story's close reflects the more benign effects of

modern capitalism, which created the cognitive conditions that made humanitarianism (in particular, the abolition of slavery) possible, conditions such as the development of conscience and the necessity of living "partly in the future," anticipating the long-term consequences of one's actions.[p. 43]

Thus, we may regard Dickens's first Christmas Book as a conversion text because it graphs how witnessing scenes of joy and of sorrow among various social groups, especially the Cratchit family, leads to a change of heart in the viewer. A Christmas Carol functions therefore as a literary production (and product) that connects a commodity (the text), a producer (the author), and a religious-cum-commercial holiday in the affirmation of the birth, "resurrection and eternal presence" (45) of the spirit of Christmas itself, of a spiritual saviour, and of a re-born faith.

Ironically, then, the little Christmas Book "may have given both Dickens and Christmas new currency by revealing the fungibility of self and time implicit in both Christian conversion and modern consumer culture" (45). In A Christmas Carol, Dickens, contends Jaffe, uses sympathy and spectacle to dissolve social and economic disparities, and he thereby provides an apparent resolution of the political problems of the Hungry Forties by transcending problems of class and an uneven distribution of wealth through an assertion of common socioeconomic and through an effacement of the "bodily markers that signify difference" (15).

Chapter Two, "Detecting the Beggar: Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Mayhew, and the Construction of Social Identity," turns to a more complex example of sympathy. Whereas the beggars and homeless of A Christmas Carol reify Scrooge's greatest fears, in the short story "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Conan Doyle compounds the identity of a gentleman (Mr. Neville St. Clair, respectable family-man), a hideous beggar (Hugh Boone), and an amoral capitalist (the identity that in principle connects the other two, class-based identities). Jaffe describes the point of the story as "the attenuation of self required by social sympathy [that] reproduces the structure of exchange that both defines and dismantles identity under capitalism" (47). The gentleman's suburban home and his actual workplace, the inner-city opium den, exemplify the contradictory but complementary aspects of this successful capitalist's private and public selves, which Holmes does not merely detect and define but which he also reintegrates with the assistance of the guardian of domestic virtue, Mrs. Neville.

While the story invites us to imagine disguise, profession, writing, and, here, reading (Whitney begins his opium addiction in deliberate imitation of DeQuincey) as analogous movements in and out of identity, the idea of opium addiction deconstructs that movement, suggesting that the individual in motion may become stuck, not ion one identity or another, but in that bvery detachment from identity figured here both in the addict's stillness and the City man's incessant movement. [70]

"Fear of Falling, the second part of Scenes of Sympathy, opens with the book's third chapter "Under Cover: Sympathy and Ressentiment in Gaskell's Ruth." In terms of Jaffe's pursuit of a thesis, "Under Cover" continues to develop the idea that disguise can be exploited to engender sympathy — and economic well-being, respectable identity, and the enjoyment of a comfortable domestic space — as we saw in Conan Doyle's "The Man with the Twisted Lip. In this sense, Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853) anticipates both Wood's East Lynne (1863) and its later dramatisation and Conan Doyle's 1891 short story in critiquing the confining nature of middle class conventions and the barriers which respectable society has erected for its own protection. For Gaskell in Ruth, as in Mary Barton and North and South, unalloyed sympathy is "the solution to divisive social problems" (78). Gaskell's focus on the problems of the fallen woman is displaced by the well-meaning Bensons' inventing for Ruth the persona or respectable "cover" of the Widow Denbigh, "ostensibly to shield her from [public] censure" (78).

In Ruth, Gaskell describes an identity so enmeshed in the projections of others, and in literary convention (her name [as a biblical allusion and advance organizer] tells us her story), that it becomes a kind of exposure of the power of the type —an assertion of the capacity of cultural identity to annihilate any sense of individual identity altogether. [92]

The following chapter, "Isabel's Spectacles: Seeing Value in East Lynne," proposes that

East Lynne gives middle-class life both specular and spectacular form by framing it through the eyes of an observer whose life has become, [the author,] Wood puts it, "as one long scene of mortal agony" (516). Like "A Christmas Carol," the novel repeatedly — and relentlessly — positions readers, along with [the protagonist,] Isabel, outside the home, staging window-scenes that set a brilliantly lit East Lynne against a dark background. [107]

Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne (1863) fully exploits the ironic possibilities of having the chastened and disfigured Isabel Vane (doubtless with a pun on "vain") impersonate a governess in order to observe her former husband, Carlyle, and his new wife, Barbara. The book itself is a species of Sensation Novel known as "The Bigamy Novel," since, in having re-married after his wife's supposed death, the respectable lawyer is not in fact legally married to Barbara. His first wife is very much alive, although of course he is unaware that Isabel is alive, let alone that she is playing the role of "Madame Vine" (what a difference a vowel can make!). Once the principal actress in the Carlyle family home, she is now a marginalized figure, a mere spectator to scenes of domestic bliss in which she might have continued to share had she not exercised bad judgment and abandoned the path of middle-class by leaving her husband for the seductive scoundrel Levison, who is later revealed to be a murderer:

In East Lynne, spectacle, both naturalized and psychologized through Isabel's gaze, is identified with both aristocratic excess and an idealized middle-class domesticity. Even when the scenes Isabel witnesses seem to speak of nothing but surface, then — of the shallowness, for instance, of Barbara's managerial mothering — the intensity with which they are visualized figures the intensity of Isabel's longing and invites readerly longing as well. [105]

In describing Isabel as an aristocrat fallen in class as in morality after a temporary misstep followed by a life of anguish, Audrey Jaffe is particularly interested in the coloured eyes which are the principal feature of Isabel's disguise because they "both frame the scenes she witnesses and make a spectacle of Isabel herself" (97). With what inward groans does the supposed governess act as spectator to the family's happiness, happiness that was hers (though unappreciated) until she abandoned Carlyle (a good, solid English name) for the foreign-sounding "Levison," and the stable and secure middle-class home for an ephemeral and only apparently exotic, foreign and unstable existence on the Continent. Through such bourgeois spectatorship Isabel, the former "lady" of taste, birth, and fashion, comes to value the bourgeois existence she abandoned: "Isabel's body and vision serve (as they do throughout the novel's latter half) as instruments for the recalibration of social value" (98), which Jaffe contends is the chief "effect" of the narrative on the reader.

Assenting to her appropriate role and its generic consequences within the drama of bourgeois representation, Isabel does not die so much as fade; in keeping with the novel's phantasmagoria of vision and value, she diminishes in color and strength as a direct result of "the incessant irritation on the mind" (472) to which she has subjected herself, literalizing in her body the distance from value that becomes the defining feature of her experience. [117]

Isabel views, reflects, then sees herself and others more correctly as she gradually aligns her values and morals with those of respectable bourgeois society, as epitomized by her virtuous lawyer husband and his exemplary wife.

Part Three of Scenes of Sympathy — The Aesthetics of Cultural Identity — begins with a discussion of one of George Eliot's novels. Chapter Five, "Consenting to the Fact: Body, Nation, and Identity in Daniel Deronda," shows how George Eliot explores and interrogates the concept of identity as a construction that balances individual and cultural traits. In particular, the novel depends upon the ways western European society construes the identity of the Jew, balancing the quintessential Jew, Mordecai, and the undetectable Jew, Daniel Deronda himself. Carrying the burden of his race, Mordecai is seeking an idealized image of Jewery, in order "to find a cultural type 'gathered from his memory of faces seen among the Jews of Holland and Bohemia, and from paintings which revived that memory' (Eliot 531)" (Jaffe 126). Young Deronda, on the other hand, searches for his own identity by discovering the secret of his own origins and yet fears what he might find. Jaffe notes that in her characterization of Deronda Eliot contrasts Mordecia's manifest "Jewishness" with Deronda not being "marked" or "distinguished" by any of the usual outward signs. "In making Jewish identity grow out of feeling and require consent, Eliot substantiates the mythos of national identity on which nation-states would increasingly come to rely: the way in which, with the widening reach of empire, feeling increasingly becomes the ground of national identity" (140). Thus, Eliot's interrogation of national versus individual heritage and identity paves the way for such modern considerations of race, ethnicity, and even gender that are the ground of Post-modern literature. And it is but one step from looking for signs of "the Other" among us in Daniel Deronda to Somerset Maugham's narrator's questioning Max Kelada's right to define himself as a "British Subject" in the short story "Mr. Know-All." Ultimately, as both Eliot and Maugham conclude, "identity means knowing whom to sympathize with" (Jaffe 157).

The sixth and concluding chapter, "Embodying Culture: Dorian's Wish," Jaffe reminds us of her thesis, namely that in scenes of sympathy in various Victorian texts "identity takes shape as a social identity: that when subjects confront each other across a social divide, the elements that define this boundary constitute — at least for the moment — their subjectivity" (158). In The Picture of Dorian Gray as in Daniel Deronda, the scenes of sympathy do not operate across class barriers so much as towards an assertion of cultural identity by defining identity as membership in a recognizable group or participation in some sort of corporate identity or social category — in Eliot's novel, the group being Judaism and Jews, in Wilde's novella "late-nineteenth-century aestheticism and modern male homosexuality" (158). "The contrast between the beautiful Dorian and his hideopus picture recapitulates the scenes of sympathy with which the book began: Dorian's picture is a fantasy in which moral decline rationalizes economic anxiety" (159). Jaffe labels Dorian himself, "the identity-defining other," as "both cultural fantasy and self-projection" (159), so that Dorian evokes in the reader feelings of apprehension, repulsion, and attraction, as the reader attempts the unravel the implications of Dorian's "self-picturing", that is, his having replaced himself with a picture in order to defy the ravages of time and the consequences of a wasted, debauched existence. While critics have often taken Dorian and his creator as "prefigurations of aesthetic culture and modern male homosexual identity" (160), Dorian is also very much a character acting inside a literary text, defined by his relationships to other charaters and to his dreadful "other," the repulsive portrait.

Regarding Dorian's moment of self-recognition as he sees the hideous portrait — the external image of his true "inner" self and, therefore a truer marker of his identity than the image he sees in the mirror — Jaffe notes the nagging feeling many of us have that identity lies elsewhere than in the externalization of identity the mirror presents. Are we merely our images? What aspects of our sense of self are, in fact, culturally determined? What of our individual sense of self, our feelings about what we really are as opposed to how others construe us?

There is no less desire in the eye that turns toward the beggar [an allusion to Conan Doyle's short story "The Man with the Twisted Lip" as well as to Jaffe's examination of this story in the second chapter] than there is in Dorian Gray's eye as it turns toward his beautiful picture, for to the extent that the beggar figures the "truth" of middle-class identity, and allows for the construction of an idealized, culturally valued alternative, his gaze will attract that of the subject who, professedly, would rather look away. [179]

Scenes of Sympathy has many strengths: it adroitly blends feminist, socio-cultural, and (to a lesser extent) other critical perspectives to reveal a common thread — one that the vast majority of us will never have previously considered — that runs through five significant nineteenth-century works. It thus demonstrates how Victorian writers both reveal and disturb contemporary ideologies when they attempt to enlist the reader's sympathy for characters and contemporary issues associated with them: Ebenezer Scrooge with Capitalism, Daniel Deronda with the Jewish Question, Dorian Gray with the aesthetic movement, and so on. Situating her discussions in particular in the visual aspect of Victorian culture, Jaffe admirably demonstrates how appearance and spectacle, observing and internalizing the messages implicit in images, played a significant part in the middle class's construction of its own identity, particularly how the visual assisted it in separating itself from the lower orders. Her discussion of Dickens's A Christmas Carol is the most successful of her chapters because it is the most daring and engaging, taking as it does an iconic cultural text and re-evaluating in light of contemporary identity politics and identity construction criticism. Although Jaffe utilizes modern critical vocabulary and concepts, she never lapses into jargon, and she carefully bases her arguments on primary and secondary texts, so that one's understanding of any of the works she analyzes is markedly increased. In particular, her close readings of individual scenes such as Mordecai in the museum gallery in Daniel Deronda are highly perceptive and informative.

It is difficult to describe Jaffe's masterful analyses as having any weaknesses; rather, one is tempted to say that the book has limited itself by virtue of its critical perspective and thesis. A Christmas Carol, for example, was unabashedly a commodity text published in a time of economic depression, The Hungry Forties, and political agitation by the working and lower-middle classes, the Chartist movement (to say nothing of the social implications of Malthus's writings, the Young England Movement, and the venture capital of railway expansion), yet these significant factors in the initial publication of the little red book never figure in Jaffe's discussion of Scrooge as spectator who must internalize the moral lessons that these scenes underscore. Or, again, Daniel Deronda was published in eight monthly instalments, and yet Jaffe does not consider how serialisation would have informed the reader's growing awareness of Daniel Deronda's construction of his own identity, or the reader's increasing sympathy with England's Jews and their racial quest for identity and homeland. Nonetheless, it many insights far outweigh these missed opportunities.

Related Materials

Bibliography

Jaffe, Audrey. Scenes of Sympathy: Identity and Representation in Victorian Fiction. London and Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. 184, including Index. ISBN 0-8014 3712-1.


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