Longing: Narratives of Nostalgia in the British Novel, 1740-1890

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Tamara Wagner’s book seeks to “reassess common misinterpretations of nostalgia as a cloying sentimentality or an emotionally distorted memory” (12), and to show that there is much more to be said on the subject. Appreciating the complexity and significance of nostalgia sheds light on a range of crucial scenes in novels such as Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife, where the tears of the hero, Arnold Brinkworth, denote more than a lack of manliness and are a “sign of moral superiority” (11). As Wagner observes, characters such as Brinkworth “raise intriguing questions about changing attitudes to nostalgia as well as to tearful men” (11), and these questions invite critics to think more carefully about the deployment of nostalgia in the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All too often, critics have ignored such questions and dismissed nostalgia as an inherently conservative emotion that is ideologically suspect because of its orientation to the past. The allegation of conservatism is one that Wagner rejects—“Nostalgia for an absent ideal can never be simply pre or ‘con-servative,’ as it is emphatically not thestatus quo that is desirable” (21)—and throughout the book she reveals that nostalgia is much more than an ideological mask needing to be torn away.

The book begins by tracing two meanings of the term nostalgia: a medical understanding of the term, describing a severe state of home-sickness, and the broader use of the word to describe an emotionally wistful longing for an earlier age. Both meanings signal the density of the word nostalgia, and Wagner’s subsequent discussion helpfully shows how conceptions of the term shifted, overlapped and sometimes conflicted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The elusiveness of the term makes it impossible to chart a simple chronology through the period in question, and Wagner responds by focussing on a series of influential historic moments and literary texts. Wagner’s methodology offers an intelligent basis for the examination of nostalgia yet it does not always succeed in reining in a wide-ranging discussion that is sometimes overly ambitious. The problem emerges in Chapter One, which looks at the aesthetics of affliction in the novel of sensibility: while the links between nostalgia and sensibility are clear, the broader debates concerning sensibility and emotion threaten to shift the spotlight away from nostalgia. Chapter Two recovers the book’s focus by exploring competing clinical and Romantic discourses of nostalgia in the novels of Jane Austen, and locating these views under the headings of “headaches” and “heartaches”. Wagner adopts a similar method in Chapter Three when she locates another specific instance of nostalgia, this time regarding the way in which Dickens explores nostalgia and lost childhood through the figure of the orphan; however, the discussion here overreaches itself once again. Part of the problem is that the engagement with a new range of related critical debates weakens the link to Wagner’s previous chapter on Austen. The other difficulty in the chapter on Dickens is that the extensive exploration of the orphan in Dickens makes no reference to Laura Peters’s important study Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire (2000). Of course, any study covering 150 years of literary history is bound to contain a few gaps, but Wagner’s decision to think about nostalgia in the context of a very specific pre-existing debate means that the failure to engage with one of the key works in the field becomes a significant omission, exposing the danger of using too elastic a definition of nostalgia. There are few obvious critical gaps in the broader subject matter of Chapter Four, which considers the idea of homesickness in a selection of Victorian domestic novels, but by the time we get to Chapter Five, on men of feeling in Wilkie Collins’s novels, it is difficult to recall the arguments that have led up to the main subject matter of the chapter. As a result, the intelligent reading of Collins’s later fiction seems rather disconnected from what has gone before, and Wagner does not fully make the case for reading Collins’s later work as an important development within the literary history of nostalgia.

Despite the gaps in the preceding discussion, the chapter on Collins is illuminating. Wagner reads Collins’s men of feeling as recovering older, most praiseworthy notions of nostalgia. Whereas the privileged status of individual energy and a self-help ethic in the mid-nineteenth century had left men of feeling appearing weak and discredited, nostalgia is resurrected in Collins’s later work as a more heroic and insightful emotional state. “[V]ital villains” are shown to contrast with “a series of hypersensitive heroes” (193) in novels such as Man and WifeHeart and Science, and The Evil Genius. Wagner argues that the positive view of feeling in these later novels differs from the more ambiguous descriptions that appear in Collins’s novels of the 1860s. Reading Collins’s later novels in this way offers suggestive links to the rise of the “new fin de siècle antihero, as typified by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray” (215), although Wagner says relatively little about these links and does not consider at length the question of how influential Collins’s work is in this regard.

This book contains a lot of thoughtful material and succeeds in its attempt to encourage critics to take nostalgia more seriously. However, a more focussed argument would have made the case more cohesive, as well as making the book a more fluent read. The writing needs more discipline on occasion, from references to Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White that are too isolated from the surrounding discussion to serve a useful purpose (136), to a paragraph that features six sentences beginning with the word “In” (176-7). Yet in spite of these reservations, I do think that the book has some important things to say and it is encouraging to see a reading of Collins’s fiction that finds a way of interpreting his later work outside the dominant paradigm of sensation fiction.