My intent is not to solve the problems of realist representation from outside or beneath, or to find a justification for realism. My purpose tends instead to be either to clear the ground of obscuring theoretical underbrush or to seek out examples to help define a realist habit of mind. (ix)

Harry E. Shaw claims that realism in historical fiction is not merely a palpable three-dimensionalism of objects and people described in an historical novel, but a social realism dependant upon such objects and people. Whether historical figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie or characters such as Romola, who is placed in a moment in history, they must matterin a social defined context. Drawing on Erich Auerbach's Mimesisin particular, but also utilizing the work of Jürgen Habermas, J. L. Austen, George Lukacs, David Lodge, and Roland Barthes, Shaw defends the New Historicist conception of realism as it may be applied to Scott's Waverley Novels (in particular, the novella "The Two Drovers"), Austen's Pride and Prejudiceand Northanger Abbey, and Eliot's Adam Bedeand Middlemarch. Shaw contends that a nineteenth-century British novelist working in the medium of the historical novel did not attempt to provide a transparent access to such a world as the Scottish Highlands of 1745 or Coventry on the eve of the Great Reform Bill. No matter how well the novelist understood the period in which he set the novel's action, the novelist used narrative to permit the reader to feel how different it was to live in that earlier society. In other words, difference, not transparency, was the goal of realism as a style.

Not all of the material in this sometimes challenging text is new: what Shaw has to say about Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian, and The Talisman, for example, he had already laid out in "Scott's 'Daemon' and the Voices of Historical Narration" in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology88 (1989), and his final chapter on Eliot draws on "Loose Narrators: Display, Engagement, and the Search for a Place in History in Realist Fiction" in Narrative3 (1995).

One does not need to be conversant in the works and theories of the various literary critics that Shaw has synthesized in order to follow his train of thought about realist narratives. However, without such grounding in Post-Modernist theory, one is compelled to take Shaw's word about the contents of the boxcars in that train. Hence, what appears to be a book accessible to a reasonably well-informed generalist who has read some of the major works of Scott, Austen, and Eliot is in fact a dialectic for the extremely perceptive specialist who has read both the critical works and the specific works of fiction to which Shaw alludes. Up to page 46, there is a great fluttering of critical wings and preening of scholarly pinions, the chief of these being the work of George Lukacs. Only with Shaw's consideration of Sir Walter Scott's historical and ideological "objects" in Waverley; or, 'Tis Sixty Years Since(1814) does the great bird of the nature of nineteenth-century British realism begin to rise.

Shaw's preface asserts that twentieth-century critics have generally been hostile to nineteenth-century realism as a way of construing the meaning of a literary work. In contrast, he regards the type of realism found in Victorian fiction as inviting readers "to come to terms with realities, imagined and real" (xi). He provides an overview of Scott's, Austen's, and Eliot's underlying intentions in their realist narratives. Chapter One,"Realism and Its Problems," argues that "realism doesn't worry about epistemological issues, it simply posits a real world" (14). Lionel Trilling regards the experience of reading about characters in the context of a fictional work as beneficial insofar as they are "struggling against illusion" (3) because so doing gives the reader "a sense that the individual will is entirely determined by external forces" (3). In his historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott embodied these "external forces" in his characters as he described the individual and collective behaviors and the social orders that affected the course of history. Realism, as we experience it in the works of Austen, Scott, and Eliot, explores "issues that include general questions about the intersections of history, ideology, knowledge, and narrative form, . . . [including] the use and significance of free indirect discourse" (4). Realistic fiction, he contends, must "be read in quite complex and interactive ways" (36).

Chapter Two, "Realism and Things," defines "transparent" realism as the attempt to present in fiction and in film a version of the world as "objective" and "immediately available for our inspection" (38). However, Shaw notes that such realism is at best an illusion created by words and images that purport to constitute "an authentic account of the actual experiences of individuals" (42). The new realism of the eighteenth-century novel, which offered a fuller depiction of interiors than previous literature, presents numerous objects "with a maximum of immediacy, and with something of the randomness that allegedly characterizes our experiences of objects in real life" (43). In The English Novel, Ian Watt accords a higher place to Richardson than to Fielding for the former's "realism of presentation" (43); Shaw contends that Watt should have laid a greater stress on Fielding's "realism of assessment" of characters and their motivations and his superior rhetoric, which "is more concerned with purposes existing in an intersubjective field than with objects extended in space" (43). An object, then, is only real to Shaw insofar as the writer's purposes in describing it transcend the object's physicality and convey some notion of what that object tells us about the characters, their society, and ourselves. Shaw develops the example of the pistol with which Edward Waverley is shot in Scott's novel to show how Scott employed social realism; the pistol conveys why the Jacobite Rebellion initially succeeded and ultimately failed: it symbolizes the strengths and weaknesses of clan loyalty. "The Pretender could provide himself quickly with fiercely loyal adherents, the more loyal because their country was economically backward and their very way of life threatened by incursions of the more modern English society. Yet this power base was inherently unstable" (46).

The third chapter, "An Approach to Realist Narratives," presents Erich Auerbach's "habit of mind" (92) as central to understanding the historicist realism found in nineteenth-century British novels. In Mimesis, Auerbach examined the ranges of phenomena that writers in different literary periods have included "in their representations of the real" (92). Shaw focuses on Auerbach's concept of "figural realism," which as a result of Christianity's central belief in the "providential design" (93) of history infuses the mundane realities with universal significance and "participate in the ultimate human reality" (93). A particularly interesting example of "figural realism" that Shaw discusses in some detail is Sir Everard Waverley's badly out-of-date copy of Dyer's Weekly Letter, which stands for much more than mere "local colour" in the second chapter of Scott's Waverley:

The mail service is a causal agent in the process [of subtly alienating the old Jacobites of the North from news of events in the Hanoverian court]. Its inefficiency helps to ensure that Sir Everard will stay insulated from the current of action: it keeps him in a state of political (and perhaps more important, of mental) suspended animation, where issues never quite come to a head. [105]

"Austen: Narrative, Plots, Distinctions, and Life in the Grain" (chapter four) argues that "realist plots are, for readers, primarily a matter of developing affect, not of objective structural patterning" (126). The plot of the novel, which typically unfolds over time, engages the reader at the level of narrative, which Shaw terms "the grain of the novel" (127) as he or she becomes swept up in hopes and fears connected with the characters. Shaw thus conceives of plot as being "a temporal ordering that is part of the dynamic, developing transaction between narrator and reader" (128). Such a character who arouses both our hopes and fears as we imagine her situation is Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot's Middlemarch, which over a considerable span of time — and of her life — required the reader to respond to her emotionally. Shaw's

way of defining historicism, the key ingredient of modern realism, has reflected the notion that plot serves texture. . . . historicism is based on two perceptions —a sense of the systematic wholeness and otherness of different cultures in time, and a sense that despite difference, we encounter them in a productive manner. [130-131]

Shaw provides and example of how to "read against the grain" by examining Henry Tilney in Austen's Northanger Abbey, in which the reader comes to grips with the real by "making distinctions and accepting hierarchies" (156). In fact, asserts Shaw, Austen's style is intimately bound up with differentiating in order to create identity.

Chapter Five, "Scott: Realism and the Other," contains Shaw's chief contribution to a modern appreciation of Scott — his explanation of the place of dialect in Scott's vision of the historical "Other." For that alone, this book is worthy of a careful reading. This is not, however, a coherent and focussed exegesis of the works of Austen, Scott, and Eliot, either individually or in aggregate; rather, Shaw deploys their works — some of their works — as objects for citation, allusion, and example to buttress his arguments about the purposes and effects of realist plots and characters as aspects of narration, whose claim to authority is Shaw's chief concern. Nevertheless, Shaw does offer up some very cogent analyses of several works by Scott (The Talisman, Waverley, and "The Two Drovers") as well as of Austen's Northanger Abbey.

As good as Shaw is in Chapter Four on Austen's Gothic spoof Northanger Abbey, he is superb in his consideration of the cultural "Other" in one of Scott's principal novels, The Heart of Midlothian, as well as in two often underrated and seldom read Scott classics, the tragic short story "The Two Drovers" and the novella about the Crusades, The Talisman. One should definitely familiarize oneself with these pieces prior to reading Shaw's highly original, compelling analyses, which admirably support his earlier sortie into the first of the Waverley novels, which, as Shaw remarks "offered Scott the ability to negotiate, with various degrees of ease, between positions in and above his own consitutive prejudices and cultural positioning" (196).

The final chapter, "Eliot: Narrating in History," claims that "the narrator is the key to nineteenth-century realist fiction. A significant challenge to the realist narration employed by Austen and Scott arises from the interest in exploring human interiority and inwardness that gains momentum as the century proceeds" (218). Unlike Scott, who often uses Scots dialect to reveal his characters' interiors, Eliot often employs a unique narrative voice to explore a character's mentality "as it is informed by his culture" (220). To reveal the nature of Adam Bede, for example, Eliot appropriates the cadences and diction of the Bible to suggest his connection with the essentially conservative and elemental nature of his immediate society. Eliot juxtaposes social structures, connections, and things with the character's mindset to let us "imagine the web of relations that connects them" (221).

Eliot uses a second kind of narrative voice, a traveller or outsider who acts as an observer or lens, to ease the reader into the scene —a figure such as the lone horseman who observes Dinah preaching in Adam Bedeor the spirit of the Renaissance man of Florence in the Proem for Romola. Eliot does not expect us to accept the traveller's opinion completely: "The voice of the narrator quite separate from the passenger weaves in and out of our focal attention" to provide "full historical objectification" (223). Yet another method of revealing character is seen in Eliot's closely associating a character such as Silas Marner with objects (in Marner's case, the loom and the treasure trove of gold). "His depiction is a striking example of Eliot's fascination with the idea that particular conjunctions of ideology and social relations can create minds that aren't like hers or her putative reader's" (227).

After examining Eliot's methods of characterizing Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch), Shaw makes the by-now standard argument that realism is a matter of rhetoric rather than "transparency." The narrator, like the characters, operates in a nineteenth-century historical novel under the constraints of the period in which the story is set. The historical novelist uses a narrative voice that "implies a preoccupation with historical forces" (239) and "enters into the imaginative space in which the characters live," (239) even though the narrator may be said to occupy a "discourse space" and the characters a "story space" (239). The function of the narrator, after all, is not to act as a disembodied camera but to tell a story in words. Consequently, as in Scenes of Clerical Life, Eliot can have her narrator both frame and enter the "scenes" described.

Eliot employs a variety of modes of narrative presence and address to manipulate the distance between the reader and her fiction, ranging from the half-ironic, half-sentimental reminiscences of an explicitly male narrator, to heavy-handed attacks on the reader's supposed preference for conventional fictions over real life, to earnestly "engaging" narration . . . . [240]

Thus, Shaw rebuts the present dominant view that historical realism, the realism of Scott and Eliot, is no longer our realism: our world is not sufficiently different from that of Scott, Austen, and Eliot to warrant the assertion that we cannot participate in it because such writers were able to balance the "local and global consciousness" (262).

Some Conclusions

The text's strengths lie in the writer's critical knowledge and his applying the New Historicist perspective to the historical realism of Sir Walter Scott's "The Two Drovers," The Talisman, Waverleyand The Heart of Midlothian. Although most of this book is simply not suitable for the generalist ungrounded in Post-Modernist criticism, the fifth chapter is clear, succinct, and transparent, the work of a master thoroughly immersed in his subject and prepared to share his passion with us. His conception of historical realism, once grasped, is appealing in that it involves "historicist metonymy" (267), the timeless truthfulness of metaphor, and the possibilities of multi-voiced narrative.

Shaw's tendency to refer to the work of other critics tends to render his writing about PostModernist ideas rather abstract. Certainly a generalist would encounter dense passages of criticism that are reluctant to yield their meaning to the uninitiated. The meaning of a phrase such as "the hermeneutics of suspicion" (266) is not immediately apparent even to the reader conversant with the major works of Victorian fiction, so that even an informed reader sometimes feels excluded from Shaw's observations. What is most memorable about Shaw's book is his sustained analysis of the workings of the narrative voice in the works of three of nineteenth-century Britain's greatest writers. He makes a compelling case against what he terms "transparent realism" and for a social realism that invests characters and objects with cultural significance.

Related Materials: Sample Passages from Narrating Reality


Shaw, Harry E. Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, and Eliot. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xiv + 280, including four-page index. ISBN 0-8014-1592-6.

Last modified 18 October 2004