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Realism’s Revenge

Do we have more to learn from the nineteenth-century novel?

The Afterlife of Enclosure: British Realism, Character, and the Commons by Carolyn Lesjak[*]. Stanford University Press, 256 pages.

Inventing a quote from a seventeenth-century historian in The Red and the Black, Stendhal proclaims the novel “a mirror you take for a walk down the road.” If this is the case, he says, and if the world is immoral, as Stendhal also tells us, then anyone who accuses the novelist of immorality is missing the point. When a mirror shows us gaping potholes and mounds of dirt in the road we venture along, it is not the mirror that is to blame. The mirror can only reflect the wrongs of the world; the blame must lie elsewhere, with the street inspectors and agents of the state who let these conditions remain. For Stendhal, the political role of realism is then a simple one: it is to make us see more clearly those wrongs, to focus our attention on the damage along the way.

George Eliot, grasping tight to this tradition and pulling it back across the English Channel, turned from Gallic mirrors to Protestant paintings. Halting the narrative of Adam Bede mid-flight, she pauses to justify her position as novelist and ours as reader. Speaking of Dutch paintings, she says there is “a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence,” and a “precious quality of truthfulness” that resists the idealizing portraits of so many clever novelists. “Paint us an angel, if you can,” she intones,

with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes.

A mirror or a painting that reflects the world as it exists, a world that is filled with cruelty and injustice, can be a blunt instrument, say both Stendhal and Eliot, as hard as any club or hammer. But what if the world, on seeing itself represented, can only gawp back in return? What if all that it produces is a slack-jawed incomprehension at the injustice all around?

On the eve of the Second World War, with the horrors only increasing in intensity, Walter Benjamin wrote from his Parisian exile to demand not reflection but destruction in the service of justice. The world, he says, has tired of mirrors. The realism of the nineteenth century is like a child’s kaleidoscope; whichever way you twist and turn it, it will produce a picture of stability from the chaos. “The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of ‘order’ to prevail,” he writes. It is our job as dissenting intellectuals and political radicals to not merely reflect back the world as it is but to intervene in it, to change it: “The kaleidoscope must be smashed.”

What would happen were we to dust off the mirror of realism once again?

Today,  the fierce battles fought over the nature of realism are a distant echo. Relatively authoritative is the thesis of Terry Eagleton, who in his history of the English novel places realism on the side of an ascendant Victorian liberalism. Discussing Eliot’s Middlemarch and the death of the tedious old pedant Casaubon from a “fatty degeneration of the heart,” Eagleton says that even with so egotistical a man, Eliot cannot resist giving us an encomium on his rich inner life as the boring blowhard breaths his last. Per Eagleton, the realist novel is constructed in order to demonstrate the deep interiority of its characters, in a quest for “some mid-point between ardent empathy and Olympian detachment.” This interiority is a mirror of the ascendant liberalism’s ethic of individualism; “liberalism and the realist novel are spiritual twins.”

If realism’s political fate is thus sealed, then its scholarly fate seems no less precarious. Quoting the literary scholar Rachel Bowlby, Carolyn Lesjak writes that realism has come to be regarded as “the tasteless spam in the sandwich of literary and cultural history,” caught between the enticing chunks of romanticism and modernism on either side. If realism is merely a cultural slab of unappetizing pap, then the nineteenth-century novel would seem a particularly unappealing dish to be served up for contemporary readers. But maybe the image of order so often seen in these novels is nothing but a mirage. What would happen were we to dust off the mirror of realism once again? Perhaps we would find a cracked and splintered image of the world reflected back. Can we look once more at those deep potholes along the road, crevices that have waited for the movement of history to reveal themselves anew?

Less a pothole than a gaping chasm is our violently one-sided relationship with nature. This is a crisis so terrifying that even attempting to find a narrative form capable of grasping it seems impossible. In her latest book The Afterlife of Enclosure, Lesjak asks what we could possibly hope to find in the nineteenth-century realist novel that might help us with this task.

While there’s lively debate about the exact origins of our present ecological crisis, there’s little doubt that by the time manufacturers in Northern England swapped their waterwheels for steam engines in the early nineteenth century, the world was firmly on the path toward catastrophe. The standard narrative of Britain’s nineteenth century runs along the same lines, all its history moving with unstoppable force from the rural to the urban, from the rolling hills to the infernal slums. Here we follow Hobsbawm’s ages of revolution, capital, and empire: the industrial revolution turned Britain from a rural society into the workshop of the world, placing it at the center of an empire on which the sun never set.

A less common way to think of the nineteenth century is as an age of enclosure: those seemingly minor acts whereby the open fields of the British countryside were slowly closed off via hedgerows and fences, and the dispossessed and the poor were denied their rights to freely work and roam across land formerly held in common. It’s not hard to see why. An industrialist moving his cotton factory into Manchester to huddle among those dark satanic mills is a fairly simple image to picture in the long continuum we call history. Enclosure has no similarly definable center; its causes and effects stretch for centuries on either side. As Lesjak says, the act of enclosure was less like sudden violence—a punch to the head or a knife to the stomach—and more like the many cumulative acts of “slow violence” (a term she borrows from Rob Nixon) that make up the climate crisis, which taken together form far more than the sum of their catastrophic parts.

At the same time, the processes of industrialization and enclosure are not as separate as one might imagine. They can be seen as two sides of a single movement. Not only was the slow violence of enclosure, beginning in the fifteenth century, if not earlier, a central element in the development of agrarian capitalism in the British countryside, but by forcing peasants and small-hold farmers off their land, it contributed to the creation of those “free laborers” who would go on to become the human raw material of the industrial revolution. Such a view, one that folds the changes in the rural landscape in with the smog-ridden urban slums of the city, helps also to displace the usual conservative and nostalgic vision of the bucolic vistas of rural Britain. On both the left and right, the countryside has often been seen as an unchanging and unchanged space of twee pastoral and Morris Dancing farmers—an image that allowed Marx and Engels to speak of the “idiocy of rural life,” and compelled Irving Howe, normally an astute critic, to describe the Dorset-inspired countryside of Thomas Hardy’s novels as seemingly “unaffected by history or technology, flowing through the centuries like a stately procession of verities and recurrences.”

A less common way to think of the nineteenth century is as an age of enclosure.

As Raymond Williams tartly observed, you would hardly imagine from Howe’s description of the organic community of Merrie Olde England that just “six years before Hardy was born, in a village only five miles away, the best-known event of British 19th-century trade unionism had taken place: the trial and transportation of the Tolpuddle martyrs.” You might also miss that the very processes that are so central to Hardy’s Wessex novels—the tragic consequences of the great weight of the social—are intimately tied to Britain’s burgeoning industrial capital. Reading the Wessex novels, you can almost feel the ground sliding beneath your feet and the walls closing in on you. Great seismic shifts are occurring just off-stage, but their effects continue to seep into all aspects of social intercourse, consuming Hardy’s characters: poor, tragic Jude and Sue burying their children in Jude the Obscure; Michael Henchard selling off his wife and child in a drunken stupor at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge; Giles Winterborne losing house and home when it is swallowed up by Mrs. Charmond’s great Hintock House estate in The Woodlanders.

Departing from Howe, Lesjak writes that the claustrophobia of the Wessex novels is Hardy’s attempt to “bring the global home”—to bring the slow violence of processes beyond individual comprehension to bear on his characters. As Hardy writes of those two Woodlanders, Giles Winterbourne and Marty South:

Hardly anything could be more isolated, or more self-contained, than the lives of these two walking here in the lonely hour before day, when grey shades, material and mental, are so very grey. And yet, looked at in a certain way, their lonely courses formed no detached design at all, but were part of the pattern in the great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres, from the White Sea to Cape Horn.

Hardy was no pessimist. The action of his novels occurs in the gap between his characters’ dreams and their inability to realize them—or as Terry Eagleton says, they “come a cropper . . . because they fail to adapt to circumstances or are trapped between aspiration and frustration.” It is not the inhuman power of a malevolent universe that causes these tragedies, but rather the greater force of material circumstances and changing social conditions. As Jude says to Sue after their children have been killed and Sue has miscarried again, it is not “the ancient wrath of the Power above us” she cites that has sought its vengeance on the couple: “It is only . . . man and senseless circumstance.”

Materiality is also present in Hardy’s writing through his deep feeling for physical things and place, both of which seem to acquire their own power. One need only think of the trees in The Woodlanders, whose deep roots provide many of the inhabitants of Little Hintock with a livelihood, and the contrast they form with the social anxieties—and shallow roots—of some of the novel’s characters. Take Edred Fitzpiers, whose modest practice as a country doctor only accentuates how far removed he is from his good breeding, or Grace Melbury, who is sent from Hintock to school elsewhere by her father so that she may climb the social ladder, making her an outsider in the village in the process. Nor can we forget the seemingly living power of the tree outside Marty South’s father’s window, the felling of which ends in his death.

If the commons were once a deeply rooted place, providing food and shelter for the poor and landless, then “common” could also be used to describe those who lived on them. As Raymond Williams wrote, “common has an extraordinary range of meaning in English,” many of which are tied to very particular social histories. Common is not only that which is shared, or that which connects all members of a community, or a commonwealth; it also signifies a sense of social division—the common or commons against the lords and nobility. Bridging both of these meanings is a further semantic form: common as a synonym for vulgar, as in “he’s so common,” or “it’s common to eat with your elbows on the table.” What is common is both a shared trait as well as a class marker. The common people are the vast majority as well as the crude lower orders.

If the commons were rural, the common people are usually identified with the urban: that great plebeian mass that comes together in cities. And if there is one British writer whose subject is the urban commons, it is Charles Dickens. Indeed, Dickens is perhaps the British urban writer, and his characters are given form as much by the crowds they comprise as their own individuality. Lesjak traces the roots of Dickensian characters back to eighteenth and nineteenth century “character books,” catalogues of extraordinary personalities both real and imagined that were popular throughout Regency and Victorian Britain. Against the accusations of “flatness” of character that have long been levelled at Dickens’s work, she argues that the common people in fact become remarkable in his novels by virtue of their typicality. There’s a “democratic optimism” here, a faith that the extraordinary can be found in the most ordinary; Dickens attempts to re-enchant a world deadened by the objectification of modernity.

Today, we are experiencing a new set of enclosures, now of a financial as well as physical variety, the social and environmental effects of which we seem incapable of even thinking through, let alone resisting.

Lesjak is a sensitive and intelligent reader of literary texts, and her analysis often throws up enlightening details, including a wonderful account of how the “wrenched” stems of trees moving in a gale “like a bone in a socket” in Hardy’s Return of the Native connect the arboreal casualties of enclosure to its human ones. The Afterlife of Enclosure is a smart and tightly argued work of Marxist eco-criticism, even if Lesjak doesn’t use the term herself. But when she strays away from this territory, things can falter. Her reading of the “commonplace cosmopolitanism” of George Eliot is perhaps the book’s weakest chapter, and there’s something a bit alter-globo about her writing on the commons. References throughout to works like Hardt and Negri’s Empire trilogy and paeans to the power of the Occupy movement’s global commons all feel a little 2011—as if you were once again surrounded by crusty-looking dudes in hiking shoes and moth-eaten jumpers eating bowlfuls of flavorless vegan slop, an experience I’d personally rather not repeat.

Still, there is undoubted power in the kind of democratic feeling she recovers from the nineteenth-century novel. If there are fresh political lessons here, they aren’t to be found in wistful analogues to now-failed movements, but in these writers’ experiences of living through a rapidly changing, perhaps even dying, culture. By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, most of the common land throughout Britain was already enclosed, but the particular cultures these commons produced had afterlives that continued on. An act of reading that recovers these remnants does much to puncture the certitude of Eagleton and the like, however correct his analysis of the twinned genesis of liberal individualism and literary realism may be.

Today, we are experiencing a new set of enclosures, now of a financial as well as physical variety, the social and environmental effects of which we seem incapable of even thinking through, let alone resisting. Against these crises, Lesjak marshals Walter Benjamin’s idea that in such moments of danger, things from the past, often its most maligned or ignored products, gain a new power. Rereading Hardy or Eliot with the environmental disasters of the Anthropocene in mind can yield thrilling new insights. Whole new avenues within even the most well-thumbed classic may appear when it’s approached as something more than an artifact. These readings, Lesjak tells us, can even open up new ways of thinking through the challenges of our time. “Less blueprints than visions,” they still have “the power to unsettle the capitalist order of things and to inspire alternative ways forward.”

Call me a pessimist, but I find it difficult to walk all the way with Lesjak here. The capitalist order still seems solid, if a little shaken. What smashing the kaleidoscope would look like today is an intractable question; if even the certain knowledge of our impending doom can’t wake us from our slumber, then I don’t hold out much hope for Jude the Obscure. Yet equally I find little to be optimistic about in the impasse of contemporary English-language fiction. There is nothing prescriptive in Lesjak’s work; she does not hint at the barest outlines of what this unsettling literature might look like. But like a clearing in the undergrowth spotted from a distance, just because it is dimly perceived does not mean it is not needed. In this there is both a political and a formal imperative. As Lesjak suggests, what is required is both a renewal of the political role of fiction as well as the renewal of fiction for its own sake. Maybe, then, realism isn’t so dead after all.

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Carolyn Lesjak’s name as “Carolyn Lesjack” throughout.