[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity Fair — George P. Landow.]
o borrow a phrase from A Tale of Two Cities, this book "recalls to life" two Victorian concepts: duty and empathetic identification. Jan-Melissa Schramm avoids the term "duty," favoring instead "atonement," "obligation" and "sacrifice," but in her citations of contemporary ethical theory, Victorianists will recognize an old idea made vital by new clothes. "The philosophical tension on which this study is centered," Schramm writes, is that articulated by Levinas and Ricoeur, namely, "the type of self we become under the pressures of accusation and obligation" (23). In the words Schramm quotes from Levinas' "Language and Proximity," the "I" becomes a "permanent sacrifice [that] substitutes itself for others" (qtd. 23). Now that narrative ethicists have restored the critical reputation of readers' identification with characters, Schramm considers how this identification has been ethically complicated by the theologically inflected reading practices of the nineteenth century. Building on analyses of scapegoating by Girard and Michiel Heyns, Schramm argues that "the affect which moves a reader to the crucial task of moral renewal is often generated by the spectacle of unmerited or excessive suffering" (31). Nineteenth-century readers experienced this phenomenon preeminently through scriptural accounts of Christ's martyrdom, which contradictorily pressed them to empathize with his suffering and to recognize the guilt they bore for it. Derrida, Schramm notes, starkly asserts that death is the final guarantor of our "irreplaceability, our singularity" (33). What sense, then, does it make to lay down one's life for another?
In her detailed analyses of the historical conditions under which nineteenth century Britons approached these questions, Schramm finds specific continuities between current debates about ethics and the ethical questions probed in narratives wrought by Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, and Trollope, (among other novelists). She convincingly argues that Victorians' experiences of public executions, persecution of Chartists, slaughter in the Crimean War, and other traumatic events — each processed through Christian doctrines of atonement and sacrifice — posed fundamental ethical challenges. What is more, Schramm demonstrates how Christian theology and theories of scripture reading governed debates over legitimate political representation. Partly because of the influence of novel-writing and reading, this is another legacy from the nineteenth-century that is due for critical excavation. As in her influential previous book, Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature, and Theology (2000), Schramm's argument displays a breathtaking mastery of the full range of discourses available to Victorians: literature and theories of reading, law, theology, ethics, politics, and even statistical probability. In taking up these interrelated problems, Schramm does for nineteenth-century British culture what Susan L. Mizruchi did for the other side of the Atlantic with The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory (1998).
Taking the early nineteenth century as the "Age of Atonement," Schramm begins by examining "sympathy and substitution on the scaffold." Just as theologians probed the symbolic significance of the one Christ dying for the many, utilitarian philosophers as well as political theorists, economists, and novelists were all preoccupied "with enumeration and symbolic representation" (41). Public executions posed questions about justifications for legal murder, whether spectators were vicarious sadists or sympathetic observers, and the spectacle of a condemned prisoner vividly reminded Christian observers that all sinners must eventually face death and judgment. "For Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Thackeray," Schramm writes, "representations of the moment of death offered powerful opportunities for scrutinizing the types of work that sympathy could perform and the limits of the vicarious imaginative identification or substitution it could encourage us to undertake" (49). The 1840 execution of Courvoisier for the murder of his master drew responses from Dickens and Thackeray, both of whom witnessed the event. In Testimony and Advocacy, Schramm notes Dickens's contempt for Courvoisier's barrister, Charles Phillips, and his belief that fiction was a more honorable medium of public advocacy. In the present book she contrasts Dickens's response to the hanging with Thackeray's imaginative identification in "Going to see a Man Hanged." These responses exemplify the paradoxical pressures that executions put on efforts to reconcile justice with mercy. Narrative demands of anagnorisis implicate readers in determining guilt and innocence, recognizing failures of judicial judgments, and acknowledging complicity in rationalizing punishment of individuals — fellow sinners — for the good of the many. Even Dickens would later devote himself to "literary display[s] of innocence," most spectacularly in Sydney Carton.
The case of Eugene Aram provides the focal point of chapter two, on narrative reversals. Suspected of having murdered a fellow member of a gang of Yorkshire fraudsters in 1745, Aram absconded and wasn't discovered until 1759, by which time he was a respected scholar and teacher in King's Lynn. After Aram was convicted and executed, his case begot a swarm of criminal biographies and other literary treatments. Schramm reads this case and its literary offspring in light of eighteenth-century theories of virtue, ranging from Aristotelian and Christian to sentimental and commercial. Problematically, Aram's reformed life evinced both Christian repentance and utilitarian value, which execution reversed, but his identity as a scholar and teacher raised questions about the virtues of literature and learning.
From The Fable of the Bees to The Beggar's Opera to Pamela and , literature had its say on this case. Reflecting on the justice of it, Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) proposed that by comparison with legal analysis, realist fiction could better explore the complexities of virtue because it could imagine the inner life of its characters. Later, even critics of the 1836 Prisoner's Counsel Act, dismayed by forensic eloquence deployed on behalf of guilty parties, acknowledged that professional legal representation might have saved Aram from the scaffold. These points were examined in Thomas Hood's poem "The Dream of Eugene Aram" (1831), Bulwer Lytton's Eugene Aram (1832), and other Newgate novels. In Schramm's view, however, these texts do not promote what Franco Moretti has called a "cult of innocence" in the English Bildungsroman. Rather, the instability and sometimes alternate structure of their endings (as in Caleb Williams) demonstrate that within theories of punishment and virtue, justice and mercy could be irreconcilable. While fiction writers might have claimed that they could represent interiority better than a court of law could, they nonetheless recognized that they should not try to justify crime. "In an age of mass literacy," writes Schramm, "there was an ethical responsibility to avoid narratological defense of violence" (103).
From the ethics of hanging Schramm turns to the Chartist trials, explaining how various professions competed to represent individuals, or "stand for the people." After the Treason-Felony Act of 1848 criminalized speech that incited violence, the conviction of a Chartist orator named John Fussell showed that evidence of seditious speech could be taken from often unreliable and sensational reports of Chartist oratory. Within a year of the law's enactment, virtually all of the Chartist leaders were imprisoned, "[e]ntrapped by the words of press reporters and the actions of government informers" (111). Dickens knew all too well how unreliable their reports could be. As Schramm observes, the protagonist of Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) comes to see with alarm "the dubious ethical activities involved in the production of a speech in the House" (114), and David Copperfield's study of stenography (in a novel written as the Chartist trials were ending) leads him to reflect on "the instabilities of the stenographic or transcriptive process which attempted to capture the substance of these orations" (114). The "creative" nature of reporting and its failure to make authentic copies of Parliamentary speech — to say nothing of Chartist speech — may have led Dickens to see uncomfortable parallels with social fiction. In Barnaby Rudge, Schramm argues, Lord George Gordon's address to the people may be read as Dickens's critique of the mass circulation of careless or politically mediated representations of speech.
Related thoughts about representation inform Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, published amid the Chartist trials. In a fresh approach to this best-known novelistic treatment of Chartism, Schramm highlights the concept of "private assassination" as a mode of justice in tension with jury trials, which base their verdicts on forensic evidence and thus rationalize legally-sanctioned murder as execution. In effect, Schramm notes, the 1794 Treason trials had criminalized the imagination by construing mens rea as "imagining the King's death." In Mary Barton, Schramm adds, John Barton's motives for his "private assassination" of Harry Carson "are articulated to a sympathetic readership but never brought before an attentive jury" (135). And, by putting Jem Wilson on trial in place of John Barton, Gaskell not only enables Barton to repent and be privately reconciled with Carson's father, but also ennobles a working class male, Jem. Carefully avoiding exaggerated claims for Gaskell's radicalism, Schramm observes that by the time Mary Barton was published, "there was almost no one left to be aroused or inflamed to violent action by a reading of the novel" (139). But by representing the inner life of a working man, encouraging sympathetic identification with motives for private assassination, and pleading for God's mercy on "us sinners," Mary Barton offers a powerful model for later novelists: what Schramm calls "a crucial mid-Victorian dramatization of the Unitarian departure from Anglican orthodoxy" (138).
In turning from Gaskell back to Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities (already evoked by the dust jacket's illustration of Sydney Carton approaching the guillotine), Schramm links this novel and several others to the "atonement controversy" of the 1850s. In particular, the debate over the Judeo-Christian economics of the suffering substitute sheds light on the narrative forms by which novelists represented social upheaval. Like A Tale of Two Cities, novels such as Hard Times, Ruth, and Scenes from Clerical Life all "pondered...the nature of scapegoating...and the complex patterns of inter-relatedness in which the work of substitutionary atonement could best be understood" (140-41). Schramm charts the history of the atonement controversy from the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, when, for example, crises in the Crimea led clergy to call for National Days of Atonement. Clearly, writing on atonement boomed in the 1850s; in a single paragraph (147-48), Schramm cites twenty titles published between 1856 and 1860 alone. . Just as it had throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, debate over atonement sought to adjudicate scripture's apparently competing demands for justice and mercy. But the debate took new urgency from the new forces of democracy, industrial capitalism, mass literacy, and empire, not to mention the emergence of the novel as a potent form of public advocacy.
Schramm briefly but insightfully tracks echoes of this debate in A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, and Hard Times. She could easily have written a book on Dickens alone, clarifying his complex attitudes towards religion. But she chiefly examines the major stages of A Tale of Two Cities: Darnay's acquittal for treason owing to his interchangeability with Carton, Carton's pledge to Lucie to "embrace any sacrifice" on her behalf, Darnay's attempt to rescue his tutor from a revolutionary tribunal and his own conviction before that tribunal, and finally, Carton's substitution for Darnay on the scaffold and the redemptive vision it enables. According to Schramm, these four stages manifest Dickens's "intense preoccupation with heroic suffering and substitutionary salvation in the face of sustained legal and political persecution" (166).
Drawing on Simon Petch's analysis of Dickens and professional culture ("The Business of the Barrister in A Tale of Two Cities," Criticism 44.1 [Winter 2002]: 27-43), Schramm examines the "sympathetic projection between barrister and condemned client." While Dickens had previously despised Courvoisier's barrister, Schramm argues that his new vision anticipates current ethical theory. His narrative achieves what Ricoeur calls the metaphorization of discourse itself, encouraging "readers to sustain a belief in the unique value of these two men [Carton and Darnay], whose act of substitution resists and reconfigures the commercial culture of commensurability and exchange: Carton remains fully Carton, his vicarious life consummated and memorialized, of one substance with Darnay and yet uniquely his own man" (178). This is Dickens's proleptic answer to Derrida's claim that death is the final guarantor of our singularity. In Carton's heroic death, he remains singular while atoning for others and redeeming himself.
Finally, Schramm considers what happens when substitution becomes imposture and usurpation. Her chief example is the Tichborne claimant controversy, which Rohan McWilliam has established as a widely influential event in mid-Victorian culture. Before and after 1866, when Arthur Orton claimed to be Roger Tichborne, returned from years in the colonies to assume his title as baronet and heir of an ancient family estate, "fictons of usurpation" appeared. They included Felix Holt, published a few months before Orton's appearance, and Trollope's Ralph the Heir and Is He Poppenjoy?, published in the wake of Orton's civil trial (Tichborne v. Lushington), which ended in 1872. Indeed, Schramm identifies a sub-genre of fiction — published between 1865 and 1878 — that "seeks to explore the pressure placed upon symbolic relations by the expansion of the franchise" (204). Building on Terence Cave's Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (1990), Schramm considers why Victorian narratives addressed problems of recognition predominantly through inheritance plots. While the Wills Act of 1837 may have simplified inheritance law, debates over the legitimacy of heirs became increasingly complex in ethical, political, and religious discourses. Concluding an argument deeply engaged with obligation and self-sacrifice, however, Schramm explains how inheritance plots come to differentiate individuals from actuarial groups, to distinguish worthy heirs from legal ones, to reveal the ethics of renouncing inherited wealth in favor of earned merit, and to probe the epistemological problems that inheritance entails.
Preoccupied with inheritance law and dispossession, Felix Holt represents for Schramm "a complex portrait of the function of moral and political recognition at mid-century" (187). Significantly, Eliot uses inheritance to examine not willing frauds but characters who misrecognize their own identities: Harold Transome, who discovers his illegitimacy, and Esther Lyon, who discovers she is the legitimate heir. In light of these plots, Schramm argues that Eliot questions the legitimacy of Felix's claim to represent working men, and the legitimacy of representative democracy, generally. On one hand, consider Esther's decision to renounce her inheritance and speak on behalf of Felix at his trial. Over law and politics this act privileges "the choice of good deeds, feelings, and moral substance" as the source of an authentic form of representation and ethical national inheritance: the son of Esther and Felix will genuinely stand for the people. Yet on the other hand, Felix's appearance as a true and noble Radical in his "Address to the Working Men" indicates Eliot's ambivalence.
Ambivalence likewise marked public response to the Tichborne claimant. Though Orton bore no physical resemblance to Roger Tichborne, Lady Tichborne identified him as her son. In so doing, Schramm notes, she recalled the wife of the sixteenth-century French peasant Martin Guerre, who willfully misidentified a sympathetic impostor as her long absent husband so as to substitute him for her cruel spouse (a favorite subject of nineteenth-century melodramas). Both stories strain our resistance to imposture. Though a jury found Orton guilty of it (with the approval of George Eliot), and though he was imprisoned for it, a significant portion of the British public remained sympathetic to him, and his cause continued to be argued in fiction, journalism, and on the stage.
Two novels by Trollope treat relatively simple problems in inheritance. In Ralph the Heir, as Schramm notes, two Ralph Newtons personify the contrast between legal and ethical legitimacy. While the legal heir is dissolute and unpromising, his illegitimate cousin is intelligent and sympathetic. Yet despite the personal shortcomings of the legitimate heir, the tenants are relieved to see him inherit the estate, thereby reaffirming that the social utility of the law trumps personal merit. But death, of course, can trump them both. In Is He Poppenjoy?, Trollope solves an elaborate inheritance problem by simply killing off an infant heir.
As compared with these two novels, however, the novels of Dickens, Gaskell, and Eliot give Schramm more scope for the complex ethical analysis of legitimate representation. Closing her final chapter with readings of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, Schramm finds each a story of atonement as well as inheritance. Both novels, she writes, "dwell at some length upon the means by which restitution may be offered for wrongdoing — whether words of repentance and forgiveness are sufficient, or whether such formulae can be dismissed as 'simply a doctrinal transaction' with no measurable impact upon conduct" (211-12).
In a conclusion that is far more than a summary, Schramm considers — among other things — how nineteenth-century narratives helped to engender the concept of human rights. Having produced a book that is extraordinarily learned, nuanced, and comprehensive, Schramm clearly has even more to say on atonement, self-sacrifice, and the ethical work of narrative.
Bibliography (including reviews of books on related subjects)
Frank, Cathrine O. Law, Literature, and the Transmissison of Culture in England, 1837-1925. Ashgate, 2010. viii + 250 pp. [Review by Jane J. Lee]
Schramm, Jan-Melissa. “Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Cambridge, 2012.
Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Nineteenth-Century Law, Literature and History. Eds. Margot Finn, Michael Lobban and Jenny Bourne Taylor. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. viii + 191 pp. [Review by Robert Barsky]
Last modified 21 September 2023