NARRATIVE HOSPITALITY IN LATE VICTORIAN FICTION: NOVEL ETHICS by Rachel Hollander, Reviewed by Tara MacDonald
 

NARRATIVE HOSPITALITY IN LATE VICTORIAN FICTION: NOVEL ETHICS
By Rachel Hollander
(New York: Routledge, 2013) 218 pp.
Reviewed by Tara MacDonald on 2013-11-28.

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Among Victorianists, the salience of sympathy in the nineteenth-century realist novel is now largely accepted as commonplace. Perhaps the best -- and most frequently cited -- example of such sympathy is George Eliot's famous chapter in Adam Bede, "In Which the Story Pauses a Little," where the narrator writes:

And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields -- on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice. (Adam Bede II.17, qtd. 178)

As Rachel Hollander remarks, Eliot here conflates her description of the subject of the novel with the "world in which we live," implying a direct link between reading about characters and interacting with actual people (Hollander 29). Eliot thus demonstrates the role of fiction in crafting a sympathetic mind. Elsewhere in this novel, for instance, the narrator urges the critical reader not to fault Adam's misplaced love for Hetty ("pray ask yourself if you were ever predisposed to believe evil of any pretty woman" [Eliot 152]), aligning Adam's feelings with those of the reader (at least the male reader). Adam is knowable, the narrator implies, because he arouses our sympathy. Along with the critical assumption that sympathy drives the Victorian realist novel, Hollander takes the primacy of sympathy in Eliot's novels as a point of departure for her exploration of later Victorian fiction.

What happens to the novel, Hollander asks, when its characters no longer provoke a sympathy that makes them knowable? If the cultivation of sympathy and the marriage plot are intertwined, as Rachel Ablow has argued, what role does sympathy play in the novels of Thomas Hardy and the New Women writers, who map the breakdown of the marriage plot? These are timely questions for Victorian critics. In her clearly-written book, Hollander suggests that in late Victorian fiction, an ethics "based on sympathy ... gives way to an ethics of hospitality, in which respecting the limits of knowledge and welcoming the stranger define fiction's relationship to both reader and world" (1). In late Victorian texts, which express something between mid-Victorian sympathy and "modernist alienation," Hollander finds writers contemplating -- if not always explicitly celebrating -- the limits of knowledge and the self (3). She develops this point by examining at length three late Victorian novels: George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, and Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm. She then turns in the final chapter to a modernist text, Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, and ends with an afterword on a contemporary novel, J. M. Coetzee's Foe.

In consistently assuming that the "ethics of hospitality" mandates an "ongoing openness to the other" (6), Hollander adopts Levinas's conception of what we owe to alterity. As Hollander explains, Levinasian ethics posits not a consolidated self but a self that welcomes the absolutely other, which is unassimilable. This gesture of welcoming the other, which Hollander reads as the essence of hospitality, can in turn "re-orient the self's relation to the world" (12). Hollander also quotes Derrida's comment that Levinas's Totality and Infinity is "an immense treatise of hospitality" (qtd. Hollander 14), a term Levinas himself seldom uses. Derrida's analysis of hospitality has been used by many literary critics, perhaps especially those in postcolonial studies, but few scholars have applied his or others' interpretations of Levinas to the Victorian novel. Hollander uses Levinas to read Daniel Deronda and Derrida to read The Woodlanders; tangentially she uses Luce Irigaray and Homi Bhabha to read The Story of an African Farm; and finally she uses Irigaray's interpretation of Levinas to read Jacob's Room.

In relying on these critics, Hollander casts the net of her argument well beyond "scenes of home or particular instances of welcoming the stranger" (14). Instead of confining her concept of hospitality to the traditional act of welcoming a stranger into the home, as in classical or Biblical examples, she uses Levinasian and Derridian notions of hospitality to unpack any ethical relationship between self and other. While hospitality as traditionally defined turns the stranger into a familiar figure, Hollander argues that the guest remains a stranger in post-structuralist understandings of hospitality, where the guest is not only unknown but also perhaps unknowable, absolutely other.

In spite of their usefulness, these two understandings of hospitality often compete in the book: a few pages after cutting the cord between hospitality and domesticity, for instance, Hollander stresses the importance of the home, noting that hospitality underscores the relationship between public and private spheres and thus re-negotiates the boundaries of the home (17). Also, the book is often strongest when examining the politics of space and the home in these novels. In general, therefore, this book could have used more historical evidence on the value of the home as a space of refuge or familiarity in the Victorian period.

In the chapter on Hardy's The Woodlanders, for example, Hollander explores Grace Melbury's position as a married woman living in her father's house. Though she usefully cites Derrida's concept of the hostess as one who must welcome others but does not equal the master of the house, Hollander could have reinforced this point by considering the historical position of the Victorian wife and daughter as vulnerable hostess. While she notes that the burgeoning suffrage movement and the New Woman prompted new debates about women's domestic roles, she gives no specific examples.

Hollander also touches upon late-Victorian social debates about colonialism, the nation, feminism, and the stranger, and she considers national identity in Daniel Deronda, changing gender roles in The Woodlanders, and gender and colonialism in The Story of an African Farm. But as with the status of the hostess, more historically-specific details could have enhanced her treatment of these topics, especially the status of the stranger in Victorian society. As James Eli Adams and others have noted, the Victorians revealed their discomfort with strangers in their etiquette books, their preoccupation with secret societies, and their literary treatments of blackmail, all of which helps to explain why the ideal Victorian gentleman was a man of straightforward, honest speech and behavior (Adams, Dandies and Desert Saints [1995] 13-14).

Yet if Hollander tends to overlook Victorian attitudes toward the stranger, she gives ample space to debates about morality and the role of the novel in the 1880s. Citing in particular Zola's theories of the novel, the essays of Walter Besant, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Thomas Hardy on "Candour in English Fiction" (published in New Review in 1890), and Henry James's essay "The Art of Fiction," Hollander shows how these debates marked a crisis in the history of the realist novel; more specifically, Hollander argues that these discussions of obscenity, censorship, genre, and the morality of the novel mark the beginnings of "narrative hospitality" (23). That is, these debates interrogated the relationship of literature to home (both literally and in terms of national identity) and the self's ability to understand the other (again in both domestic and global terms). Some critics worried that the French novel was invading English homes and affecting the English one. Modern novelists, wrote Andrew Lang, "have an almost unholy knowledge of the nature of women" which "makes one feel intrusive and unmanly" while reading such fiction (qtd. in Hollander 37-8). The effect on the reader, Hollander explains, was not sympathy but "an emasculating intimacy with women's secrets" (38).

Hollander thus argues that issues of hospitality drive the form as well as the content of the late Victorian novel. Besides contraposing "literal scene[s] of hospitality" (such as when Daniel Deronda receives his mother's letter at home) to the more diffuse notion of post-structuralist hospitality, Hollander also suggests that the structure of the novel can promote an ethics of hospitality. This point is not entirely clear. While Hollander persuasively glosses the "Candour" essays, they will probably not be new to most specialists in late Victorianism, and the relationship between candor and hospitality remains somewhat indistinct.

Daniel Deronda, Hollander argues, not only departs from Eliot's prior emphasis on sympathetic care but also represents hospitality as something distinct from domesticity. In "self-consciously address[ing] the potential de-centering of the self in the encounter with otherness, or the ethics of hospitality" (62), she contends, the novel relieves Daniel of a "home-centered identity" and thus opens him to the presence of others; also, the novel's divided structure is a "deliberate manifestation of narrative hospitality" as it is unsettled by the open-endedness of Gwendolen's future and reveals an ambivalence about traditional realist closure (63).

Particularly striking are Hollander's readings of Daniel's relationship to Mirah, Gwendolen, and his mother. Anticipating Mirah's desires while considering marriage to her, Hollander notes, Daniel boldly imagines that she "would never be happy in acting against that strong native bias which would still reign in her conscience as remorse" (Chapter 32, qtd. 67). But neither here nor elsewhere does Hollander discuss Eliot's use of free indirect discourse or how the narrator's access to Daniel's thoughts might affect the novel's ethics of hospitality. She is more attentive to its overall structure, such as its divided plot and the relationships between its characters. When Daniel tells his mother that he could sympathetically "imagine the hardship of an enforced renunciation," the Princess responds with a direct, "No ... You are not a woman" (qtd. in Hollander 79). Her response challenges the ethical implications of sympathetic identification and demonstrates, for Hollander, how this novel begins to break with mid-Victorian realist structures.

In reading The Woodlanders, Hollander once again ably probes the relationships between characters, especially Grace and Felice. Though these two women are set up to be rivals, Hollander shows that they achieve a strange intimacy, forging a bond that grows not from sympathy and familiarity but emerges in the face of difference and ignorance. Hollander finds a similarly strange intimacy between Waldo and the New Woman Lyndall in The Story of an African Farm. Though largely inaccessible to one another, these two achieve an intense emotional connection. In a wonderful reading of Waldo's letters to Lyndall, Hollander argues that their intimacy "is based not on being literally in each other's presences, but rather on the ability to communicate imaginatively" (144). While the sending of letters to a dead woman could be read as tragic, Hollander suggests that Waldo's writing serves to "call her into being" (144). Given her overall topic, I was surprised that Hollander did not link this relationship more explicitly to hospitality, especially to the Christian concept of hospitality expressed by the well-known line "I was a stranger, and ye took me in" (Matthew 25:35), which Schreiner uses for a chapter title. Nonetheless, Hollander's chapter on Schreiner's novel is one of the strongest in the book and the novel is a brilliant choice for a study of hospitality and otherness.

On the other hand, Hollander shows, Jacob's Room veers away from the intimacies achieved in Schreiner's novel. By its unique narrative form, she argues, this novel stresses the inaccessibility of others, and in suggesting that "books and people" are impossible to know completely, it strikingly departs from models of narrative sympathy (157): models that imply the desire to know or realize another's consciousness completely, even if they do not always achieve that goal. Jacob's Room thus exemplifies the difference between modernist fiction and the late Victorian novels that occupy most of Hollander's attention. While the latter (with the possible exception of Schreiner's) are ultimately realist narratives riven exceptionally by brief moments of illegibility and otherness, the form and content of Woolf's novel accentuate the theme of "missed connections."

Hollander too sometimes misses connections. Beside the gaps in her references to hospitality, her chapter on literature and morality in the 1880s has little bearing on her readings of Jacob's Room or Coetzee's Foe in the Afterword. Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking, timely intervention in the field of Victorian literature, sympathy, and ethics. It also complements a study that Hollander mentions only briefly, perhaps because it appeared not long before her own: Rebecca N. Mitchell's Victorian Lessons in Empathy and Difference (2011).

Like Hollander, Mitchell applies Levinas's concept of alterity, arguing that even mid-century realist novels such as A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Adam Bede, and Middlemarch show characters learning to appreciate difference. Realist paintings as well as novels such as these, she notes, "demonstrate that moving into the recognition of alterity is a process through which one comes to realize one's limits" (Mitchell 2), a claim Hollander makes only for later Victorian fiction. Hollander might have said more about her differences from Mitchell and whether "fleeting but significant moments of an ethical encounter with otherness" (174) might turn up in earlier as well as later Victorian fiction, if perhaps not with the same consistency or weight. Since Victorian Britain owned nearly a quarter of the earth's land surface and reconstructed concepts of the public and private, we have much to gain by considering how Victorian novelists developed and responded to the ethics of hospitality and difference.

Tara MacDonald is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Amsterdam.


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