The study of novel in literature and literary history has been of great interest to literary critics. The Victorian novel has been hailed as outstanding in its realism and form for well over a century. But was it always seen so perfect by critics over the decades? In Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel (Princeton University Press, 2019), Elaine Freedgood explores this question.
Freedgood introduces readers to her approach to the topic before presenting her analysis in detail in 5 succeeding chapters, each one centered on a characteristic of realist fiction against which to assess the Victorian novel’s realism: denotation, omniscience, paratext, reference, and ontology. Her analysis concludes that critics did not always see the Victorian novel as deeply realistic until 1960s as we have come to think of it afterward.
The individual chapters in Worlds Enough include interesting discussions of select novels from the Victorian period, exploring lexical (text), syntactic (contextual), and semantic (meaning) elements, all gauged with historical references. The author contrasts the Victorian novel’s realism repeatedly against the assessment of European, particularly French novel, by critics of literature.
Despite its fairly interesting take on the Victorian novel’s realism, Freedgood’s book falls short of building a convincing case for her conclusion—the lack of realist excellence in the Victorian novel on the whole. One main problem with the author’s analysis seems to be its very limited selection of works from the Victorian literary period—hardly half a dozen novels—that hardly represents the period’s volume and diversity of fiction. Even of those, the analysis excludes in-depth discussion of the literary work while building more on the author’s own conceptions of what other critics thought about the work. There is a lot of telling than showing in this analysis—something literary critics ideally need to avoid.
In her conclusion, Freedgood raises the question of aesthetic racism possibly accounting for the commonly known acknowledgement of realism in the Victorian novel. Her position comes virtually unexplained, taking the discussion of fiction out of the literary and into the political realm. Thus, Worlds Enough doesn’t really end but leaves more questions for the readers, including the question of authorial intention and mode of exploration of text and meaning.
Worlds Enough is not a book for the general reader who just wants another entertaining or interesting book to fill their time with; it’s surely an interesting academic foray that creates a trail connecting literature to history and then vaguely to politics and only students of or readers interested in literary criticism of Victorian fiction from a historical perspective are likely to enjoy walk this trail.
Disclaimer: The reviewer is a graduate in English Literature and has not read some of the works picked for analysis in the aforementioned book.