A review of Ideas of Books and Reading in Literature, 1880-1914, by Dewi Evans.
Dewi Evans’ dissertation begins with a quotation from Tess of the D’Urbervilles in which the fallen heroine accuses her mother of failing to warn her of “danger,” especially through failing to provide “novels that tell them of these tricks.” Evans uses this moment to explore the debate over controlling women’s purity through restricting novels, the notion of “the book” as both an idea and a material presence within fiction, and the changing conditions of the book at the end of the nineteenth century in Britain. Evans sets the stage of these new conditions, from increased readership to public education to contradictory ideas of books as vessels of moral transcendence and books as mere “moral furniture” (p. 43). This setting struggled with new pressures from the market and new ideas of what reading was and ought to be; Evans proposes to explore these new “ideas of books” through exploring four authors who share “a preoccupation with the relationship between world and word—the ability of the written word to refract ideas and experiences it purports accurately to reflect” (p. 60).
Oscar Wilde’s “On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters” opens Chapter 1, setting up for a Foucauldian reading in which both “author” and “reader” lose their clear boundaries and taxonomies. Evans uses both The Importance of Being Earnest and De Profundis to develop the idea of Wilde’s “Hegelian critique” of truth (and the self) as preexisting and stable (p. 72). Earnest‘s characters are replaced by books, script their fictional futures in diaries, judge and define others through their notebooks; De Profundis, its publication, and reactions to it all demonstrate an uneasy “substitution” of Wilde-the-man for a set of statements within a book (p. 79). Evans invokes Michel Foucault in his depiction of individuals as “biographical subjects” of society. There is also room for resisting this surveillance, however; Wilde’s characters reject the idea that identity is the natural expression of internal essence (which is defined and overwritten by the state). Those characters that can recognize the structures under which they “read” are able to “write” themselves as a series of performances, though always under the threat of being “rewritten” by society.
In contrast, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ideas of books” arise not from a fear of the self as overwritten by society, but from concerns over the failure to recognize the illusory and constructed nature of genre and fiction. Evans begins with Stevenson’s “Popular Authors,” which defines popular writing as a trade and popular fiction as subject to its own standards, rather than those of high culture. Through exploring letters, articles, and commentaries from Stevenson alongside analyses of Treasure Island and Kidnapped as well as their competitors and forebears in the popular adventure genre, Evans develops a picture of Stevenson as “anxious of influence.” Stevenson dismisses literature as “real” experience; literary experience is always simplified and abstracted, and therefore not a simple repository of truths. Evans draws out moment after moment in which “the reader is confronted with the fictionality of the narrative” in Stevenson’s works (p. 160). This is not merely a subversion of the genre, but rather a means of drawing readers’ attention to the ways in which their own preferences and desires are being shaped by the material conditions of the book as a published, printed, marketed object.
As the fin-de-siécle period went on, different pressures came to bear on the landscape of books and readers. Reading had less “risk” to morality, and instead was championed as a means of uplifting and improving readers, so long as they read “the right kind of text in the right ways” (p. 190). Both M. R. James and E. M. Forster challenge this model through characters who lack any awareness that readers participate in the act of reading rather than receive passively. James’ protagonists in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “Number 13” approach texts with an antiquarian mentality that separates them from the potential for haunting and the uncanny. In Howards End, Leonard Bast struggles to reach the high culture of the Ruskin he reads, and instead feels isolated from that “life of culture” (p. 192). Reading serves to separate him from life until he can see his own experience within it. Both styles of reading are partial, placing moral improvement or taxonomic categories above imaginative and personal engagement; both styles of reading handicap their readers from the fullness of the experience. Evans explores this theme through several of James’ and Forster’s other works, then interprets these anxieties over reading as part of a wider set of concerns with the “other” in both authors’ works. Forster’s “idea of books” becomes a means of simultaneously understanding and banishing cultural others; James’ antiquarian reading connects with archaeology and the idea of the past as text, demanding an open-ended reading.
By the end of the dissertation, we can see precursors of modern reader-response theories developing out of Wilde, Stevenson, James, and Forster’s “ideas of books.” The readers of these books (and the readers within the books) are not receiving knowledge passively stored within books, but shaping and responding to a text with the fullness of their own experiences. Evans deftly shows how these four disparate authors are all engaged with a similar concern: the shaping of the reader’s experience through preexisting structures, the need for readers to be aware of those proscriptions, and the act of reading as constructing not only “readers” but “selves.”
Evans’ work demonstrates how books reflect the publishing and critical discussions into which they emerge, as well as how books themselves take part in those discussions. This dissertation will prove useful not only for its exploration of constructing readers and selves, but also for its interweaving of literary analysis and the socio-cultural setting of books and authors.
Department of Religion
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson
M. R. James, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories
E. M. Forster, Howards End
Cardiff University. 2012. 284 pp. Primary Advisors: Anthony Mandal and David Skilton.
Image: Oscar Wilde. Library of Congress Open Digital Collection.