Thackeray's decorated initial W The title of David Coombs’s finely-grained study invites two lines of reflection: “reading” as itself an object of study in current debates over critical method, and “Victorian” as a defining moment in the genealogy of the scientific, psychological, and philological investigation of how we perceive. The book’s suggestiveness lies in its combination of a rigorous (but not rigid) theoretical framework with an open-ended series of probes into individual mid- and late-Victorian texts. Both a study of Victorian literature and a commentary on the state of literary studies, Reading with the Senses aims to show how Victorian writers “came to understand reading and perception a experiences of irreducible complexity. The objects of our direct acquaintance –the sensation, the statue, the painting, the building, the landscape – as well as what we know by description – the character, the author, the word, the sentence, the trope – all bristle within a fringe of relations that lead outward to other objects of experience” (175).

Coombs begins by saying that the physical properties of a book – binding, paper, weight, even smell – are negligible compared to other art forms with a wider array of sensory qualities. “In the relative austerity of writing as a sensory array lies the elegance of reading as a perceptual technology. Partly for this reason, literary critics have for the most part remained uninterested in the ways that reading repurposes our perceptual competencies. They have lately, however, become interested in the ways that reading acts as an aid to the perception of the world beyond the page” (2).

The point seems unexceptionable enough, but Coombs develops it in a very special way. His stated project is to chart “the intellectual history of knowledge by description as a perceptual epistemology of reading.” He begins his inquiry with the eighteenth century philosopher Thomas Reid’s tripartite distinction between stimulus, sensation, and perception, a sequence moving from initial neural response to mental apprehension of the object which causes it. This particular line of historical inquiry is pursued in the first chapter, “Knowing Things by Description in Victorian Science.” Here Coombs pursues successive developments through William Whewell’s Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic (1843), Herman von Helmholtz on unconscious inference in science and empirical inquiry, and William James’s employment of the categories of “description” and “acquaintance” in The Principles of Psychology (1890). He then follows up with the series of probes, as I have called them, into individual texts. Because the chapter titles effectively describe Coombs’s intentions, I repeat them verbatim here: “Getting Acquainted with Description in Romola” (Ch. 2), “Reading in the Dark: Sensory Obscurity in The Return of the Native” (Ch. 3), “Tagging the Vatican Museum with Vernon Lee” (Ch. 4), “The Sense and Reference of Sound in Walter Pater’s Kinky Literalism” (Ch. 5), and an epilogue which more briefly treats Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” (1889).

The texts are nicely contextualized. For his discussion of Romola, Coombs draws on John Grote’s Exploratio Philosophica (1865) to support his statement that “Eliot’s career as a novelist coincided with epistemological debates around the distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance” (38); More contemporaneously, he also situates Romola in the context of Georg Lukács’s essay, “Narrate or Describe” (1936). where Lukacs argues, in Coombs’s paraphrase, that narration in the historical novel “sweeps its objects up in the flow of human history by representing them as always intertwined with the long arc of the destinies of the novelist’s protagonists. In contrast, by aiming instead for detached observation in a misguided attempt to make literature scientific, ‘description contemporizes everything’” (37). Most critics have ended to attribute the failure of Romola to a labored overdependence on historical sources; Coombs usefully narrows this critique to identify the phenomenon as in play “most acutely not when the novel portrays the dead environments of history but rather when it portrays the dead historical figures who lived in it.” Eliot writes this problem into the novel itself, particularly in terms of two of the three (historicized but imaginary) scholars it portrays: Bardo, a scholar whose career is terminated by blindness, and Baldassare, whose post-stroke (or stroke-like) condition renders him illiterate for much of the novel (42-43).

The trope of disability reappears in the chapter on Hardy, which begins with an epigraph from James’s Principles of Psychology on the temporary sensory deprivation of a person entering a dark room and thrown back on senses other than sight for stabilizing objects. Coombs calls attention to Hardy’s “persistent unease about reading, often representing it as a solipsistic and even dangerous act.” Clym Yeobright’s “combination of insight and fatal misunderstanding is literalized . . . when he goes blind from reading too much,” like other characters in Hardy’s novels who “misread each other, with catastrophic results.” Yet reading in the novel is double-edged, “an empowering practice of understanding” as well as a solipsistic act of misinterpretation. Because for Hardy reading is itself “a state of curtailed sensory responsiveness whose most emblematic form is blindness . . . Clym’s blindness is not only the consequence of reading but its precondition” (75-76). What follows by way of deep background is a section entitled “The Associationist Aesthetics of Buildings and Books,” on Hardy’s literary and architectural writings. Here Coombs, reviewing the evidence, strikingly asserts that “Hardy . . . expects his reader to do for the text what Hardy himself had done for decaying buildings when he worked as an architect. . . . Just as the reader restores the imperfect text by completing the vision that has half eluded its author, the restoring architect sees through the dilapidated church to the ideal form it approximates” (78-79). This line of argument sent me back to The Return of the Native with a more vivid awareness of the importance of the senses in the novel, particularly the compensatory potential of sound and touch in the context of visual impairment, and beginning with the darkness of the heath itself. In short, Coombs as a critic does what every good critic does: entice his reader back to the original text for a widened apprehension of its properties.

A rather different kind of project is suggested by the title of the chapter on Vernon Lee, describing her attempts, both in essays and fiction (Miss Brown), to analyze “the tension between description and acquaintance that defined the modern museum, which struggled institutionally with how to frame its display objects with explanatory text (titles, reference guides, and so on).” Whereas the Aesthetic Movement tended to prioritize the art object’s “perceptual suggestiveness – its capacity to call different objects to mind,” Lee’s work stresses perception of form, which both “incites and frustrates our desire for what it perceptually suggests” (p. 13). Pater, by contrast, with his famous declaration in “The School of Giorgione” that all art aspires to the condition of music, draws on Helmholtz’s idea of harmony “as an experience uniquely susceptible to the mental effort to distinguish discrete sensations during the act of perception,” Harmony oscillates between sense and reference, thus exemplifying what Pater called “literal metaphor,-- figures whose figurative significance can only be fully accessed by taking them literally.” Pater’s “kinky literalism issues in thick, ekphrastic descriptions of art objects [see his famous description of La Gioconda] very different from the rigorous attention to precise technical detail in literal reading as it is practiced today in literary studies” (13-14).

The chapters on Lee and Pater expand Coombs’s argument nicely, yet I think they also open up complications that remain largely unexamined in his project. Realistic fiction draws the reader into the orbit of human experience in a way that the visual arts and music do not. In the Victorian era, except in such cases as a public address or a liturgy, reading was primarily a private act, as it arguably still is today: a technology accessible to an audience of one. The other arts, however, presumed a space in which people came together. Today one can access music or an art work electronically as well. But neither of those options was available to a Victorian, except in special cases like that of private art collectors. When the venue is a museum or a concert hall, it is public space, a non-print medium except in the sense that the print mustered for the particular (performative) occasion attempts to account for the objects that the viewer sees in the gallery or that the concert audience (again, in a pre-recording era) hears only in the concert hall. At the same time, for Lee the museum induces disquiet; in protecting works of art from vandals (no small part of the history of Rome), it vandalizes them in another way by removing them from their original site. and the viewer must re-imagine them in something more like the space from which they have been taken: “a kind of museum of the mind” (p. 104). Coombs’s discussion sent me back to Dorothea Brooke’s panic attack in Rome, a vast unmediated museum in which present-day squalor jostles with the confused relics of antiquity.

Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magc-lantern pictures of a doze, and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intentions in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists of the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina. [Middlemarch, 20]

The concluding ophthalmological metaphor signals the physicality of Dorothea’s malaise; just as Clym reads books to excess, so Dorothea over-reads her entire environment; her confused and tearful response reminds us that the function of description in a public space is regulative, even protective, but in Lee’s terms, also potentially disabling.

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nique among the arts in its challenge to literality itself, music (as I have already suggested) occupies a rather special place in these arguments. Doubtless Leonardo’s Mona Lisa can be held in mind as one reads Pater’s “thick ekphrastic” passage on the painting, just as some (doubtless fewer) viewers of the painting will recall the general drift of that passage, if not its exact words. In reading Middlemarch we can linger over a particular passage as I have here, and we can thumb ahead or behind at will. But a piece of music cannot be held in the imagination with the same simultaneity. At the beginning of the section “Pater’s Harmonic Figures: Florian, Marus, Giorgione,” Coombs writes:

Helmholtz . . . singled out musical tones as the paradigmatic instance of our perceptual prowess of synthesis and analysis: when we listen to a musical tone, the ear mechanically unpacks a compound soundwave into several distinct tonal sensations that the mnd, in turn, synthesizes into a simple tone with a recognizable quality. When we listen harmonically, Helmholtz claims, we can thus at once give our attention to the figural quality of tone, as it were – to whether it sounds like a cello or an oboe or a voice that we know intimately – and to the discrete elements giving it that quality (155).

Phrased that way, the argument – prepared for by Coombs’s account of Pater’s reading in Plato, Taine, and Max Müller, and his metaphors of “unweaving” and “reweaving” the literal and figurative sense and reference – does provide a serviceable entrée into Pater’s narrative method. The problem lies in the distinction between Helmhnoltz’s theory on the one hand and harmony as it is more commonly employed in both music and art criticism: namely, to describe the separable components of a visual or musical composition: the way objects or patterns are seen on a canvas or heard in, e.g., a C-major triad. Helmholtz’s theory does not account for the formal components of a musical composition; moreover, it does not account for a chord, nor is it intended to do either of those things. The meaning of harmony in his sense has to do with the way that the ear automatically sorts out the overtones that accompany the striking of a single note. Certainly an individual chord can induce pleasure, but music is by nature succession, whether harmonic or melodic or both, nd pleasure is not derived primarily from our ability as hearers to arrest it (at least not before the advent of sound recording), but from our surrender to its flow. As hearers in situ, we may respond to, even if we do not have the tools to analyze, such devices as thematic repetition and elaboration, or the contrapuntal interweaving of voices. All this, as Pater’s arguably most famous dictum suggests, is notoriously resistant to verbal formulation. (Like Coombs, I exclude the mixed medium of vocal music). The difficulty of verbalizing what one hears is reflected in the tendency of writers of concert program notes, except to the extent that they may be biographical, to oscillate between a simplistic description of the mood a passage might convey, and the technical language of music theory likely to be inaccessible to the layman.

At this point I confess regret at Coombs’s decision to “bracket” Victorian poetry as less central to his project than “the Victorian novel and the Victorian Aesthetic Movement” (p. 8). Certainly a ekphrastic poet-painter like D.G. Rossetti would appear to be as central as Pater to Coombs’s theme, while Browning’s dramatic monologues, as “imaginary portraits” in their own right (even when they are portraits of historical figures), open up some potentially fruitful lines of inquiry into how poetry and music might be mutually illuminating. One thinks here of poems such as “Abt Vogler,” in which the aesthetics of musical improvisation, by its very nature evanescent (at least before the advent of sound recording), both reflect and direct the moods of the speaker. In “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the brilliance of the toccata form underscores the superficial pleasure-seeking of late eighteenth-century Venice, while the brooding, skeptical nineteenth-century Englishman, who is both speaker and detached historical observer, dwells on the transience of an mannered rococo musical style that reflects the formulas of an exhausted culture. In such poems, Browning draws on the technical language that describes musical intervals as well as (more particularly in the “Toccata”) the dominant-to-tonic chordal progression which mirrors the thematic resolution of the poem itself. But even if we dismiss Browning’s poetry as a rather specialized case, the aurality of poetry – what and how one “hears” it even if one reads it silently while still being aware of the sensory pressure of such techniques such as prosody or rhyme – makes for an experience rather different from reading a realistic novel. Even if one does not read it aloud, one is more likely to feel one’s vocal chords stimulated.

How succession in music might be conveyed in literary form remains outside the scope of this book. Coombs does link Helmholtzian acoustics to the question of narrative by essentially interiorizing music. With “his growing interest in music” (a process that Coombs does not describe), Pater turned increasingly to that art form “to account for the ethical dimensions of aestheticism.” Hearing the “pain fugues” of the starling whom he has caged away from her nestlings, Florian (in “A Child in the House”) learns to empathize with the pains of others (though it is not clear how precisely Pater understands what fugues are). Florian’s English home itself signifies his larger social enculturation: in Pater’s own words, “the sense of harmony between his soul and its physical environment became, for a time at least, like perfectly-played music” (quoted 157).

These remarks are developed further in a discussion of Marius the Epicurean, in which Coombs perceives a sort of harmony as successive sounds:

[T]he novel seeks to imagine continuity by turning to harmony as the paradigmatic example of a stable configuration of unstable elements – a set of notes that might change (going up or down an octave, being played by a piano or a bassoon), and still be recognized as the same tune as long as their mathematical relation to each other persist. Harmony itself serves as just such a portable configuration, employed now by Helmholtz to figure ontological duration, now by [Pater’s character Cornelius] Fronto to figure historical duration. In short, Pater finds in harmony something like a model for understanding the conditions of possibility for forms. [58-59]

With all due respect for the subtlety of Coombs’s argument – and he is a far more astute reader of Pater than I — this seems troublingly mechanistic. The mere iteration of a musical scale, or the exchange of instruments (piano versus bassoon) for the purpose of playing the same melody, sounds rather like an exercise, not a piece of music that I would be interested in hearing. If the point of comparison were a Wagnerian leitmotif , the analogy might be closer, but such options as modulation from one key to another, or the development of a theme through variations, to name only two possibilities of expansion in music, remain outside this definition. In music as music, what Pater calls “the lifegiving principle of cohesion” surely involves but cannot be wholly contained by the concept of harmony (158-59). In shorthand, one might put it this way: that harmony viewed merely as a single chord (rather than as harmonic progression) is vertical, but the interweaving (that metaphor again!) of voices contrapuntally or otherwise, is horizontal or lateral. The principle of cohesion in music involves the interplay of both. Even if a hearer were not literate in musical notation, the very distribution of print in a musical score could make this rather abstract-sounding point quite clear.

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espite these strictures, I remain impressed and even invigorated by Coombs’s intentions. One of the most powerful pieces of exposition in this book comes at the end of the chapter on Pater, and more than justifies the general drift of his approach. Coombs turns to an actual painting, The Concert, originally attributed to Giorgione but more recently to Titian.

The Concert (also known as The Interrupted Concert. Titian. c. 1509. Courtesy of the Palantine Gallery of the Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Click on image to enlarge it.

Coombs points out that in Pater’s original commentary in “The School of Giorgione” (an example of “exquisite pauses in time,” “some brief and wholly concrete moment – into which, however, all the motives, all the interests of a long history, have condensed themselves,”) combine the idea of “musical intervals in our existence, [when] life itself is conceived as a sort of listening” with the musical definition of the interval as the space between two musical tones. To shift from Pater’s words to Coombs’s summary: “The Giorgionesque sense of harmony . . . brings into view the peculiar double movement of Paterian aestheticism: the gathering up of reference and the breaking down into sense, the arrest of classical outlines and the modern’s analytic flux” (160). Pater describes the picture as one in which the monk at the keyboard, the clerk with his viol, and the youth in plumed hat (presumably a singer), seem to be searching for the true interval for beginning to sing. For this concertgoer, the painting recalls those moments when the first violinist in a string quartet eyes his fellow musicians as he is about to raise his bow to begin the first movement, or when an accompanist is giving an instrumental soloist the note from which to tune (though, perhaps secondarily, the huddling of the figures also that they have just finished a conference). This is a particularly private moment for a performer who must both recognize, and yet for the moment ignore, the presence of the audience, which is appropriately absent from the painting. And it is also the moment in which a restless audience, flipping its program notes and getting in the last few fragments of conversation, falls silent.

The very silence of the painting itself seems to be accentuated by the visualization of musical instruments. Coombs’s phrase, “the arrest of classical outlines,” recall the moment when the viewer of the Grecian urn, dwelling on “the pipes and timbrels” of the players, declares that

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d.
Pipe to the sprit ditties of no tone.

One might infer from Keats that if all art aspires to the condition of music, all music aspires to the condition of silence, but (needless to say) that would appear to lead only to a sensory cul de sac. Pater’s “double movement,” as Coombs describes it, reminds us, rather, that silence and music are interdependent; silences are not only the spaces between “movements” of a suite or symphony, but are written into the score itself, Not only musical notes, but rests of differing duration, have their own hieroglyphs.

Despite my reservations, this is, finally, a gracious book, one that – as I have already said – invites its readers to revisit a particular text, or other work of art, or to pick up a hint and take it further. Coombs has provided an argument, but also a map for further inquiry, whether one’s interest lies primarily in Victorians culture or, more broadly, in how we read, how we see and hear, how we respond, and how we love what we do. Or all the above.


Coombs, David Sweeney. Reading with the Senses in Victorian Literature and Science. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2019. xi + 224 pages.

Last modified 19 September 2020