Victorian Unfinished Novels: The Imperfect Page

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

Saverio Tomaiuolo’s approach in this volume is to propose something like a ‘great tradition’ of Victorian novels which remain incomplete on account of the death of the author. The works in question are: Charlotte Brontë’s “Emma”, Thackeray’s Denis Duval, Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, Dickens’s Edwin Drood, Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives, Trollope’s The Landleaguers, Collins’s Blind Love, and Henry James’s The Sense of the Past. These narratives vary in states of completeness from “Emma”, a manuscript fragment consisting of the opening two chapters only, to Wives and Daughters, published as a serial in eighteen monthly parts lacking only the dénouement, with all the permutations of interruption in media res in between. Two, Blind Love and St. Ives, were published promptly in versions completed by other hands (Walter Besant and Arthur Quiller-Couch, respectively) as approved by the author or his literary representatives, while most of the rest have received at least one unauthorized ending at some later date, the most notorious being the completion of Edwin Drood, issued in 1873 at Brattleboro, Vermont, by T.P. James, which claimed to be written “By the Spirit Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium” (p. 52).

Tomaiuolo’s forte is explication de texte, so that a good deal of his book is given over to detailed analysis of generous quotations from the narratives in question. It should be noted that, though the author is keen to employ the notion of the literary work as ‘processual’ – elaborated by Sally Bushell in Text as Process (2009), her study of the practices of ‘creative composition’ developed by Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Dickinson – Tomaiuolo’s analysis is overwhelmingly thematic in focus, being concerned only in passing with questions of textual formation, whether authorial or editorial. Typically, then, the novels are dealt with in pairs according to closeness of socio-political context, so that Tomaiuolo also devotes a lot of space to the establishment of this material frame of reference. Gaskell and Thackeray are teamed due to their two unfinished works appearing together in instalments in the Cornhill Magazine and dealing with the fashioning of a young lady or gentlemen; unsurprisingly, Stevenson’s two inconclusive novels are linked because written in tandem and sharing Scottish themes, though distinguished by their author as serious history and light romance; and Trollope and Collins come together on account of their common engagement in their final works with the vexed Irish and Women questions of the final decades of the nineteenth century.

This last chapter is likely to be of most immediate interest to readers of the Wilkie Collins Journal, though it may be run close by that dedicated exclusively to Edwin Drood, which contains a lengthy aside contrasting the hermeneutic interest – the processes of mystification and detection – of Dickens’s final work of fiction and Collins’s Moonstone. This chapter, to my way of thinking, misses a trick in overlooking the anxieties shared by those two novels concerning the perceived threat of ‘oriental’ influence (opium addiction being the most prominent example), and instead focuses on the “paradigm of dissolution and decomposition that characterizes and determines [the] thematic and narrative structure” (p. 52) of Dickens’s unfinished novel, as opposed to that by Collins which is seen as heading more straightforwardly towards the form of closure that shapes the genre of the detective story. (Disconcertingly, Tomaiuolo’s analysis is nevertheless constructed on the premise that Edwin Drood has been done away with and that John Jasper is the murderer, an assumption different from that of the spirited T.P. James edition but with no less teleological implications.) The chapter on The Landleaguers and Blind Love, in contrast, seems to me the best thing in the book, combining as it does a clear and concise overview of contemporary debate concerning not only Irish home rule and land reform but also female suffrage and independence, with a lively presentation of the doubts and confusions characterizing the ideological positions of both Trollope and Collins regarding the two issues.

Altogether, though, I have to conclude that Victorian Unfinished Novels amounts to rather less than the sum of its parts. Tomaiuolo’s prevailing conception of the unfinished Victorian masterpiece is that it somehow prefigures the open, inconclusive qualities of fiction generally associated with the movements of modernism or postmodernism, as though the literal ‘death of the author’ instantly created the deconstructive conditions metaphorically associated with that phrase by Roland Barthes. In the case of Edwin Drood, for example, it is suggested that instability and uncertainty “represent the novel’s most relevant merit, projecting it from the Victorian frame of mind to a Modernist and Postmodern context” (p. 55). This argument seems questionable not only in its own terms – could the same case be made for unfinished narratives from eras preceding the Victorian or cultures other than Western European? – but also because it serves to undermine the careful rendering of specific and material historical context which is Tomaiuolo’s concern elsewhere in the book. A further deficit is the absence of consideration of reasons for incompletion other than the demise of the author. It is not difficult to come up with Victorian novels unfinished on account of the dissatisfaction or distraction of the writer (Stevenson’s “The Great North Road” is a good example), or abandoned due to negative responses from publishers (as in the case of Gissing’s “Clement Derricot”) or from readers (as with the curtailed publication of ‘bloods’ in penny parts due to plummeting sales). Some taxonomy of unfinishedness such as this might have brought the specific concerns of Victorian Unfinished Novels into rather sharper focus.

Finally, I am sad to report that Tomaiuolo does not seem to have been well served by his publishers. The volume has clearly not received adequate copy-editing or proof-reading, as there are far too many grammatical infelicities (“scientific advance did not necessarily brought happiness” [12]), garbled quotations (Dickens is a particular victim), and factual slips (Wilkie Collins’s informant on the Von Scheurer insurance fraud was Horace Pym not Pyn [127]), to do more than begin to list here. Even the title seems to me rather unfortunate – surely Unfinished Victorian Novels would have fitted far better in terms of both sound and sense.