Novel Politics: Democratic Imaginations in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2017) by Isobel Armstrong

In Novel Politics: Democratic Imaginations in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Isobel Armstrong seeks to challenge the conventional wisdom that the novel in the nineteenth century is inevitably structured and guided by a bourgeois ideology. To do so, her study focuses not on issues that might be thought of as explicitly political, but attempts to read for the democratic within subjects and aesthetic judgements apparent in the texts. The volume primarily focuses on six novels – by Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Moore, and Walter Scott – and the primary reason for their selection is the focus at least in part on the notion of illegitimacy, an idea that Armstrong takes as a device for reading the various texts’ challenges to the accepted mores of late-Georgian and Victorian society. The book is then divided into two sections: Part I, Democratic Imaginaries and Part II, Poetics for a Democratic Imagination. Part I attempts to lay out Armstrong’s method of figuring the democratic imagination within the novel. The second, longer part offers readings of the six primary novels.

While the general critical consensus has been that the nineteenth century novel ultimately reflects or even sustains dominant middle class values, Armstrong argues something rather different. However, she begins her study on ground that is central to such ideas, arguing for the centrality of family and genealogy. In doing so, Armstrong resituates the political away from more obvious areas such as the franchise and instead seeks to explore the way texts interrogate the most closely held views of society. The chapter begins by arguing for the significance of family and genealogy not only as cultural forms but also as specifically legal ones, with legitimacy or illegitimacy having a distinct bearing on one’s rights and status. Having demonstrated the recurring interest in character’s fictive genealogies in novels of the period by her key authors and others (such as Thackeray, Hardy, and Trollope), Armstrong turns in the concluding part of the first chapter to George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical (1866). Here, she offers an example of her thesis at work. Since the radical politics of Felix Holt are ultimately somewhat lacking when it comes to the representation of the working classes, one can find a more radical message in its treatment of the privileges of aristocracy. In this novel, family lines are interrupted, and inherited status cannot be trusted. While Eliot’s novel cannot escape from bourgeois attitudes concerning the extension of the franchise, this does not prevent other radical political possibilities that emerge from critical inquiry into the flawed social systems of Victorian Britain. Illegitimacy comes to seen as a potent challenge to the structural conditions of full human subjectivity, and this is explored in a more figurative sense through some brief readings of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Pip is imagined as an honorary illegitimate child, as an orphan who exists outside conventional genealogical lines, while Shelley’s text introduces a more categorical challenge to ideas of personhood. The first section then concludes by restating that fiction of this period is less comfortably bourgeois than the critical consensus argues, and maintains that we must not read the conservative denouements in these novels as inevitably and totally shutting down any moments of anxiety that the texts raise elsewhere.

This observations leads into Part II, which begins, in chapter four, by comparing the nineteenth-century novel with another form of writing: namely, the inquiry. In doing so, Armstrong repositions the novel not as something that is always fundamentally didactic and moving towards a moralist conclusion, but as something that is exploratory and, necessarily, begins from questions and seeks to investigate a hypothesis through to its conclusions. While this does not empty political significance out of the novels since all inquiries must start from a particular subject position, this does still, to borrow a phrase from the book itself, mean that the novel “is an evolving, not a preordained thought process.”

Having taken detours through a variety of other authors including John Stuart Mill, de Tocqueville, and Hegel (and with a number of stops to consider moments in several Dickens’ novels), the next three chapters offer more extended readings of the six primary texts by the authors listed at the beginning of this review. Chapter five is framed around the concept of illegitimate mothers and the use of this frame to explore the legitimacy of political questions. Armstrong suggests that in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the illegitimate union of an unmarried couple has a political parallel in the union between Scotland and England. Through various frames which interplay and comment on one another, and an intermingling of generic conventions, the text works to critique the underpinnings of both an Anglo-centric and patriarchal ordering of society. This continues with the contention that Gaskell’s Ruth (1853) inquires into social stigma and illegitimacy in a probing way, even if it ultimately cannot escape the realist conventions that seem to demand that Ruth die for her earlier sins. The chapter concludes with an examination of the illegitimate mother against the backdrop of urban deprivation in Esther Waters (1894). In the following chapter attention turns to novels of illegitimate children, and Armstrong introduces the idea of peripeteia, arguing that it is a common trait despite its obvious divergence from the supposed characteristics of the realist novel.

The focus on the social consequences of illegitimacy begins with an examination of the effect that Harriet Smith has on the social order that we encounter in Emma (1815), but of more interest here might be the following section, when the text turns to a discussion of Collins’s No Name (1862). Armstrong suggests that in No Name, Collins includes a melodramatic peripeteia but makes no effort to resolve the tensions between this mode and realist fiction, using those same tensions to instigate a new generic form. As literary conventions are destabilised, so too are notions of illegitimacy and, by turns, legitimacy, as the very idea of the legitimate family is revealed by the text’s inquiry as nothing more than a legal fiction. The final chapters of the book turn more towards an examination of space in these six texts, and then towards the way in which they figure aesthetic concerns, analysing whether there is a radical potential in their treatment of visual art or music. In the former case the argument takes in the views of Ruskin and the move from painting to the newer form of photography, and the conclusion Armstrong reaches is that the aesthetic itself can become a form of questioning, and is itself a part of the inquiry that narrative prose undertakes in this period.

Perhaps inevitably, when one travels away from a strictly defined understanding of the political and into more contentious areas, some of the examples and points of argument are more convincing than others. That a rather large number of nineteenth-century figures are considered here might be a factor too, and the examples that are taken up for only a brief time could be something of a concern. Aside from these minor criticisms, however, Armstrong’s text is a valuable reminder that all subjects are at some level political, and that great Victorian reforms are not the only place to look for radical thinking. The suggestion that the nineteenth-century novel should be treated as an inquiry, an examination of a particular position in the world rather than an inevitable march towards an approved ending, is a significant point and an important counter to any claim that literary conventions are incapable of providing a challenge to the dominant discourse.