Category Archives: 19th Century

James Vernon: Hunger A Modern History (2007)

Vernon tracks the concept of hunger as it shifts from being understood as the result of Providence and individual choices of those that are hungry to a result of large social forces existing outside the causal nexus originating in the hungry person. He calls this the “humanitization” of hunger, since it gives rise to humanitarian aide in its modern form. This is a cultural history, Vernon persistently insists, “concerned with elaborating not the material causes or consequences of hunger, but its changing and historically specific meanings” (8). He inherits various paradigms of social power form Foucault: “The struggle to define and regulate hunger produced its networks of power, its own political constituencies…. it was not that hunger was an ungovernable problem; on the contrary, it was so amenable to a range of reforming schemes that the circuits of power multiplied around the many locations in which the war on hunger was fought” (8-9). The book has its most verve when reveling in hunger’s (that most materially based activity) susceptibility to cultural analysis’ ability to understand ideology’s ubiquity.

[For my part, I am curious how this intersects with Blumenberg’s work on non-conceptuality, where something like “taste” or “hunger” cannot be reduced to a range of clear material referents, on the one hand,  nor can it be abstracted from the material world all together. Vernon is working in this middle zone with impressive competence.]

The early parts of the narrative involve a shift in values at the level of statecraft: England slowly moves away from a Malthusian acceptance of hunger (resignation, inevitability, larger healthy body dependent on broad swaths of population dying of starvation because they do not refrain from sex, etc.) to a Smithean belief in the market’s ability to eventually remove hunger from the polis, and finally to a system of groups functioning outside of the market, working to alleviate hunger that has been produce by systems such as Imperialism and neoliberalism.

After the so-called “discovery of hunger,” various political radicals (inside and outside of the metropoloe–suffragettes, Gandhi, etc.) mobilized hunger as a form of political critique, through hunger strikes, fasting, and hunger marches. The wanted to pinpoint the incompetence of British rule. In the first two decades of the twentieth-century, political minorities participated in hunger strikes. Terence MacSwiney fasted to his death (after 74 days) in 1920, which “the whole world watched in anguish” (62). Thomas Ashe died in 1917 from force-feeding (62), causing mass protests in Dublin. Suffregettes in London were routinely force-fed, causing public outrage. The act was likened to rape in the media (67). The government often combated hunger strikes by “demystifying” the physiological processes of the hunger strike.

Vernon focuses more on the attempts of scientists in the early decades of the twentieth century to demystify  the mechanics of hunger. In short, the emergent field of nutritional science shifts the attention from quantity to quality. Nutritional scientists began to hold increasingly important government posts, as cafeterias became a way of maintaining a healthy and productive work force. The focus on production should not be underplayed: the documents that Vernon cites are explicit about efficient and productivity, and their rudimentary metabolic and biochemical science is put to the service of the factory. “Scientific food” was distributed (89). Not surprisingly, Vernon contends, “nutrition was revealed to be a historically specific science whose universality was always breaking down in the process of constitution” (100). Extensive experiments were conducted using animals, but transfering these results to the human “motor” proved difficult. Scientists turned to the colonies in order to make human analogies–Sir Robert McCarrison fed Indian and British food to rats and then imported racial stereotypes to describe their relative weaknesses and strengths. Gandhi would later protest that this revealed a bias towards meat-heavy diets. The English began to revert to older explanations for starvation: the refusal to eat good English food is what caused famine in India. “In this way, nutrition made possible the discourse of colonial development” (109). The tension between biological and social understandings of nutrition still persist:

During the first three decades of the twentieth century our understanding of hunger thus assumed a novel, profoundly technical, form, by contrast with previous definitions of hunger, which were highly politicized, local, and subjective. (117)

The science of nutrition was integral to the establishment of canteens and other public institutions in the post-war years. By 1917, 840 canteens were established, feeding more than 800,000 workers, which increased productivity (165).

These welfare developments were accompanied by a rigorous educations of the domestic sphere—housewives often took the fall for the relative malnourishment of the populace. The Ministry of Food was established in 1917, and it played a crucial role in creating “model” kitchens and nutritional programs. Self-rationing was incentivized, but in 1918 was made mandatory (206-7). The poor and middle-class resented the well-to-do preaching to them about lessening their food intake (Vernon’s end notes are choc full of useful primary resources on this topic…all sorts of great stuff on scientific cooking, etc.). The food industry jumped on nutrition as a means for marketing, and the critiques of industrialized, processed food began. “Natural foods” and “male slimness” became in vogue (215). Vitaman “overdosing” threatened imbalance in diets. Dorothy pell began editing the Daily Mail’s Women’s Page, which constructed a very specific ideal of home efficiency. Exhibitions of the ideal home included contrasting rustic appliances with American counterparts, etc. The “art of living” was ultimate goal (218). During these years, poor housing for the first began to separate out separate rooms for cooking (222).

Vernon concludes:

It has been my contention that, far from being a timeless and unchanging condition, hunger, along with the meaning that people gave to it and therefore the systems used to govern it, underwent a series of dramatic transformations between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. Broadly speaking, although the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus had established hunger as an unavoidable, man-made problem, rather than the curse of nature or providence, their view of hunger removed responsibility for its control from the state….

…[But] in the wake of the New Poor Law and the Irish famine, journalists and social innovators developed new techniques to represent the innocent suffering of the hungry…giving it a human face.

Yet hunger remained a vague object of human  sympathy until, at the turn of 20th century, social investigators enlisted the new science of nutrition to offer a precise definition and measure the extent and social costs of hunger.

When nutritionist redefined hunger as malnutrition after the First World War, it was no longer perceived as the problem of the poor alone but was instead reconceptualized as a nutritional challenge for all…[it] was ceded back to individual consumers, responsible for promoting their own nutritional health.


[Interesting to read Wyndham Lewis’ invectives against vegetarianism in these contexts, as well as Loy’s political radicalism/anti-domestic stance]

Bruce Robbins – The Servant’s Hand (1986)

Servants in 19th Century fiction are represented not as servants, but as generic anachronisms from Roman, Elizabethan and Restoration comedy. They serve a primarily functional role, as a foil to the protagonist, as an object of humor, as a convenient way to round out a plot, etc. Importantly, they are not represented as the proletariat: the narrative of social change (in Dickens, Gaskell and others) doesn’t have room for servants. Realism becomes rhetorical rather than realistic.

When representation becomes “standing in for something that is not present” rather than holding a mirror up to nature or “making present to the mind,” the political valence of art’s capacity to “make us see” seems to demand a different form of servant-representation. Indeed, saying that Collins and Gaskell, for example, simply employed tropes of servanthood seems too simple. Rather, we can read servants as “signs of money” or “signs of signs” crucial to maintaining middle-class status. In this sense, they enter into the literary scene laden with signifying power: tropes and literary tradition can be configured as ideology, that medium through which subjects understand the real conditions of the social. So servants mediate between the masters they serve (as Hegelian recognition) and the conditions of existence.

Robbins reads moments of recognition (even non-emphatic recognition) between servants and masters as moments of utopian prospects (Bloch’s de-realization that holds open the possibility of an otherwise). For instance, Wegg’s theatrical superiority to Boffin ironizes Boffin’s attempts to buy Wegg off, and points to the precarious position of all the nouveau riche with regard to maintaining their positions of power. Further, he uses Auerbach’s reading of the brown stocking in To the Lighthouse to connect randomness (Auerbach’s privileged mimetic possibility) to the way in which servants interrupt hegemonic spaces in ways that may be ephemeral, but poignant and real. In fact, they can trigger all sorts of “subjective” wanderings that are momentarily outside of the middle-class narrative or plot line.

In Bleak House, for example, Phil Squod’s assumption of shared knowledge of the country in his dialogue with Sergeant George both shows the limited imaginative resources of someone confined to the poorer parts of London AND, at the same, time cuts across the anonymity of Chancery. That is, it is utopian to the degree that his ability to dream of the country, of the marshes, his atemporal, not bound to subjective experience. As comic, it binds the reading audience to the servant-character, and takes on pathos in ways external to the dramatic “act.” In this sense, we could connect this dialogue to someone like Beckett, where comedy becomes both a vestige of past utopia, and sign of the future, sorta.

In Vanity Fair, the servant-master interaction between Isidor and Jos Sedley becomes a way of playing out the historical collision of Waterloo. Jos worries that he have his throat cut by Bonaparte’s soldiers because he has dressed his mustache so as to resemble an English soldier, so he asks Isidor (secretly sympathetic to Napoleon’s cause) to “cut him.” The two story lines never connect, but it does show how historical events are getting played out in the domestic affairs, interactions between high and low, etc.

In Bleak House, Hortense can be seen as a refraction of several different characters, all of whom have better reasons for killing Tulkinghorn but resist at the last moment, subduing passion by reason. This is a negative reading, consigning Hortense to the repressed realm of Lady Dedlock’s psyche, for example, but we can also read it as a surrogate action for what Esther can never quite manage, despite her efforts–namely, graduation out of the realm of servanthood, triggered by resentment at not being treated like a daughter. She may refuse Hortense services (in favor of Charlie’s), but Hortense “serves” a literacy (utopian?) purpose nevertheless.

Robbins’ argument is that relegation of servants to scenes of comic absurdity or mystical fate is not disengagement with the social, but an engagement of a different sort. So Passage to India, in “pulling back from the social world to make room for the Hindu World,” does not substitute on for the other, but rather leads to the possibility of two ending existing simultaneously: the broken private friendship and the general public festivity.


On defining “Victorian”

Amanda Anderson (in Victorian Studies, 2005) argues for a richer conception of the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The normal narrative: mid-Victorian writers are beholden to Enlightenment forms of rationality and bourgeois subjectivity, which later Victorian writers (Baudelaire, Wilde, etc.) reject in the form of aesthetic modernity. She wants argue that the Enlightenment, associated with the earlier 19th-Century already had dialectic of internal critique at work: one that we might call sincerity vs. authenticity, or something Trilling-esque like that. She points to Daniel Deronda as exemplary (but that’s still a pretty late work, one should note). In general she cautions literary critics seeking to emulate Foucault’s own evolution from a thinker of systems to a thinker of individual ethos. Thinking from the point of view ethos must not re-write the systems of Enlightenment as homogenous and therefore easily defined and reject-able.

Let me clarify this somewhat complex point about ethos. On the one hand, I am arguing, a turn to ethos as individual enactment gets aligned with the trumping moves of aesthetic modernity. When so aligned, it remains too narrowly conceived and functions to set up Enlightenment modernity as a flimsy construct that is easily dismantled. But if used to draw out a fuller understanding of Enlightenment modernity’s self-conception, ethos can be productively used, precisely to d isable the oppo sition between political and aesthetic modernity.

D.A. Miller – The Novel and the Police (1981)

The novel is not conceived as the doomed attempt to produce a stable subject, but instead would be the successful project of “forming–by means of that very failure–a subject habituated to psychic displacements, evacuations, reinvestments, in a social order where power circulates all the better for being pulverized” (xiii).

Oliver Twist offers a good illustration of this thesis. Despite levying critique of institutions of social control, the novel participates in the logic policing by showing how there is in fact very little tension between the various forces seeking to control Oliver: their methods are different, but Fagin, the police, Monks, and Bromlow all participate in acts of coercion. The space of delinquency is thoroughly implicated with the space of the official police: the workhouse and apprenticeship are shown to be logical steps in an evolution towards Fagin’s gang. Further, Bromlow’s desire to know Oliver’s “story” is an attempt to impose a story that shores up the gaps in the fragmented plot, etc.

Bleak House gives a lightly different model, in which instituions of incarceration/control are not confined to out of the way, peripheral spaces, but in the form of Chancery Court, inhabit the very center of the text. In fact, Chancery is so prominent that its totalizing presence can not be perceived, making inside/outside binaries meaningless or at least inadequate. Furthermore, the contradictory elements of the Court–both efficient and inefficient, etc–are not merely symptomatic of, say, capitalism, but are also constitutive of the novel’s strategy of coercion. The illegibility of the the Jarndyce suit eventually requires reduction to legible “criminal case”: which explains how this sprawling novel turns into a murder mystery. Miller argues that the tension between the law and the law enforcement takes many different guises [one is faceless while the other has a face in Bucket, etc.], it is finally the very contradictions between these terms that the novel actively produces: not consciously, but as part of the novel form itself. The excessively long novel Bleak House differentiates itself from the excessively long court case Chancery by promising a moment in which meanings will be finally revealed, the text digestible, etc: Esther and the anonymous narratorial voice gradually merge, etc.So while the novel trains us to be patient within structures of Chancery-confusion, it makes good on this promise through a logic of delayed gratification: compare Richard and Esther, for example. But this negative relation, productive of a difference that is at first negative, finds a positive dividend in the form of family practice: which is both outside of social institutions, but also, at the same time, invested in carrying out its programs of order and discipline.

Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White offers us different paradigm of control in relation to bodily sensation. The “sensational novel” is relegated to the margins of the canon because it is perceived to mechanically function on the body, the flesh, and therefore to be devoid of meaning, or sense, in a more spiritual sense [already the vocabulary of sense is showing troubling contradictions]. But Miller argues that sensational novels, like that of Collins, provides its own ways of representing and reading bodily sensation: in other words, troubling the critical lens that relegates sensational effects to mere textual immediacy. “Nervousness” is the condition not only of the characters within the novel, but also the affect dimension of the readerly experience. The paradigm for nervousness is found in the 19th-century theory that homosexuality is a case of a female soul imprisoned within a man’s body: which is also a way of describing the plotting of this novel. This upsets traditional privileging of the reader who observes the processes of coercion and social violence but is immune for their effects: in a sensational novel, we feel what the characters feel. When Fosco reads Marian’s journal, we are shocked, but we have also already participated in that form of virtual rape: we identify and disidentify with Fosco simultaneously. The paranoia produced in these acts of identification is productive of the readerly nervousness (suspicion, surprise, etc.) that the second half of the novel, narrated by Walter Hartwright having returned from Central America more masculinized, which seeks to find and fix a determinate meaning ending in domesticity. But Woman in White is unique in that it dramatizes the production of those subjective traits that will need to be overcome in the course of the novel’s development.


ongoing post on Miller::::

Sir Walter Scott – Waverly (1814)

Important as, in many ways, the frist historical novel. It tells the story of Edward Waverly, a rich, quixotic Englishman who finds himself involved in the failed Scottish uprising of 1745. The subtitle, “tis sixty years since” pins down the specific time and place of the story, which toggles between ROMANCE AND HISTORY. Late in the novel, after the Scottish forces attempting to restore Charles Edward to the throne are virtually vanquished, Waverly reflects, “with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced” (414 Penguin). The play between romance and history is crucial, and Scott is self-conscious about the creation of a literary artifact that positions itself as a Romantic intervention into a history that has already been told, officially. Despite the radical possibilities of imagining history otherwise, the romance of Scottish Highlanders is represented in the text as a representation, a painting that Waverly treat as a health sublimation of passion that he can dis-identify with even while drawing from it as a resource for his life as rich, vaguely conservative Englishman.

This isn’t to say that Scott is entirely conservative, or an English nationalist. Throughout, he portrays a gallantry and chivalry that transcends the disputes separating the Hanoverian and Stuart interests. Waverly can recognize in Colonel Talbot a physiognomy of nobel bearing even though he is his enemy.

Towards the end of the novel, Scott will rather clumsily insert his theory of narrative development, arguing for the novel’s great powers of characterological description. Scott will typically pair up characters similar enough to evoke their differences. Thus two small town officials–the politician Melville and the clergyman Morton–are both shown to be sympathetic, well-meaning interpreters of the law, but one is pessimistic while the other is more optimistic with regard to intention and human nature.

Charles Waverly can be connected to the long line of quixotic protagonists, from Quixote himself, to Crusoe, Catherine Morland, all the way up to Lord Jim. The chapter called “castle-building” is a good place to start conversations about architecture in relationship to imagination and history.

Further, one could say that the whole novel si a way of making it possible for Waverly not to be held accountable for his experiences. The sheer amount of luck, money and political maneuvering that allows him to be both Scottish and English, rebel and conservative, beings to point to the moneyed foundations of aesthetic experience tout court (connecting all the way with Forster’s “islands of money” on which the Schlegel sisters sit).

Read Scott in contrast to Austen. The former came to be considered a somewhat sloppy entertainer, while the latter was exalted as paragon of formal control. The former is more content, fact-based, while the latter was psychological, critical. in the former, there is a proliferation of languages and styles, while in the latter there is just Austen’s steady and refined free indirect discourse. But both can be seen as critics of Romanticism in certain ways: Scott levies a pretty serious critique of individualism along with social and political uprising. This pairs with Austen’s critique of sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood, etc.

George Eliot – Silas Marner (1861)

PLOT: Silas Marner, a weaver living in Lantern Yard, is excommunicated after he is framed for robbery by one of the religious elders in his town, who eventually marries the woman Silas had been intending to marry. He leaves and goes to Raveloe, where he weaves on the outskirts of town, amassing a fair amount of gold in the process. Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass (son of Squire Cass) is in a monetary pickle after leading to his dissolute brother Dunsten. To get out of the bind, he lets Dunsten try to sell his horse, but he manages to kill it in the process. Desperate, he robs Silas Marner and goes out into the night. Silas comes home and is stricken with loss–his gold having been his sole comfort and companion. He goes into town, but the thief cannot be found. Meanwhile Godfrey sets about wooing Nancy, the town belle. There’s a big New Year’s party that’s interrupted when Silas comes to announce that a woman has collapsed outside and that a baby has crawled into his house, etc. The woman turns out to be Molly, Godfrey’s first wife that he has tried to hide. He is relieved, and deos not claim his child, who has telling golden hair. Silas raises Eppie. Sixteen years pass. Godfrey has married (no children) and Eppie has grown up. Godfrey finds the skeleton of his brother in the Stone Pits outside Silas’ house. The money is returned. Godfrey confesses all to Nancy, tries to go reclaim Eppie but she refuses. She marries a rustic boy from town named Aaron after her and Silas visit Lantern Yard and see that it has been replaced with a grim factory.

Written between Mill on the Floss and Romola, but it shares, strangely, many of the the mythical preoccupations of the latter historical novel. It is a short, concentrated portrait of rustic life, that is deliberately a-historical (as opposed to Middlemarch)

Gold: the golden coins get replaced by Eppie’s golden hair. The coins allowed him to withdraw from society, whereas Eppie forces him back into social “circulation.”  Connect to the “golden” water at the end of Mill on the Floss: the pastoral can only be accessed through the protocols of the aesthetic: in Silas Marner, deployed as myth and myth-making.

Myth: Not located in a particular time or space. Employs the “sixteen years pass” trope, recognizable from The Winter’s Tale, etc.

History: It consists of the breaking of brown pots and their reconstruction as memorials–c’est tout–or can consist of artistic intervention, plotting, etc (the novel as such). The intrusion of historical time at the end of the novel (factory churning out workers) stands in stark contrast to the de-historicized world of craft and agriculture (Eppie wants to be a gardener). Compare to the ending of Mill on the Floss.

Work: Silas’ work, the act of weaving, has meaning-making capacity. Talk about in terms of craft: Ruskin, William Morris, etc.

Double-plot: a paired down version of a device that will be exploited more fully in Daniel Deronda.

Repeated image of the rivulet: Silas’ mind is likened to a rivulet, which contracts and expands throughout. As Eppie grows up, his mind begins to unfold into things like memory and the social.

Catalepsy: why does Eliot need Silas to be cataleptic? Discuss as plot device.

Short-sighted: Silas is also literally short-sighted. Why these physical disabilities?


Beginnings and Endings

When does the time period that includes “Victorian Literature” begin? I like the idea of 1837-1901 because it’s sufficiently arbitrary in terms of historical grounding. Saying that a certain type of literature can begin or end with any sort of definition violates, amongst other things, the terms set out at the end of the Grundrisse. Marx asks to think about not what makes a certain type of literature possible or not, rather why literature from another time still gives us a pleasure. Borrow that formulation from Marx, and ask what is pleasurable (to me and others) about using Victoria’s life as a way to mark out the contours of the period. I think Lukacs’ claim that the form of the novel is the biography is really telling–it’s the way we give order to an otherwise anarchic ensemble of phenomena. So we have something like David Copperfield, becoming himself in some sort of Aristotlean entelchy or something like that.

But how do we square this with the fact that so many of the poets and essayist saw themselves living in a period that, far from being holistic or bound by a single life, is defined precisely by transition. We can obviously look to Mill, Carlyle and other for various terms: the dynamic and the mechanic, the natural and the transitional, the subject and the objective, etc… And we’re thinking in these non-fictional, non-biogrpahical registers, I’d say that we have to go with Hobsbawm: 1789-1914. That’s a huge range, but i think it is what EBB is refering to when she says “the full-veined, double-breasted Age” that demolishes all boundaries…these boundaries include the life of Victoria.


When does Modernism begin? One needs to decide between finding a particular historical event, a rupture, a break AND finding the moment when people become conscious of that break. So someone like Roger Shattuck argues that the twentieth-century starts 15 year too early with the death of Victor Hugo…or we can take Virginia Woolf’s assertion in Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Brown:

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed.

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

What date is more important: 1924 or 1910? She concludes her essay by saying that “we are on the verge of great moment in English Literature.” Which is the more important verge? I’m inclined to say the latter, but I think 1922 might be a more appropriate date (and August 4, 1914 might be more appropriate than December 1910 as well…but Woolf is aware that is earlier date is arbitrary- “Let us agree,” she writes)…for obvious reasons. As for endings, well, I agree with Jameson: modernism is always already post-modernism, so….