Character Drives: Vitality and the Victorian Novel

Character Drives: Vitality and the Victorian Novel

S. Pearl Brilmyer

Literary historians have long aligned the emergence of the English novel with the rise of individualism in Europe. As scholars argue, with its focus on the action of a self-making protagonist, the nineteenth-century novel validated liberal theories of the subject as a self-sovereign agent. “Character Drives” challenges this narrative of the novel’s development, arguing that some of England’s most influential novelists rejected the ethos of upward mobility and selffashioning long associated with the genre. In works left out of the Victorian literary canon, S. Pearl Brilmyer argues, major British novelists like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy turned away from plot as the expression of protagonistic desire, looking instead to genres which foregrounded “character.” Rather than emphasizing the potential of subjects to “create themselves,” these authors stressed the dependence of “character” on the dynamism of the body and its material drives. These experimental Victorian writers were engaged with a scientific movement called “vitalism” a natural philosophy defining life in terms of “vital forces” beyond human control.

As S. Pearl Brilmyer argued, vitalism saw a major resurgence in England after the publication of Darwin’s infamous On the Origin of Species (1859), a text that induced panic about the biological forces attenuating human agency. Theories of vital force, however, had already begun to converge with Victorian counter-discourses to liberalism through the reception of “philosopher of the will” Arthur Schopenhauer (a student of vitalist scientist Johann Blumenbach) in England. Chapter One of S. Pearl Brilmyer's dissertation, “On the Relationship of Force to Form: Schopenhauer and Literary England” tracks the popularization of Schopenhauer’s vitalist-inflected theory of the will through the publication of an article in the Westminster Review by English dramatist John Oxenford while novelist George Eliot was serving as editor. As she argues, Schopenhauer’s theory of the will facilitated connections between eighteenth-century German vitalism and nineteenth-century British aesthetics, informing debates about authorial intention and design amongst Victorian novelists like Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Walter Pater, and Olive Schreiner.

This historical chapter was complimented by two case studies linking vitalism to the representation of character in the British novel (Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such [1879] and Hardy’s The Well-Beloved [1897]). Chapter Two, “Character Density: George Eliot’s Technologies of Description,” was closely aligned with the aims of the MPIWG Working Group “The History of Scientific Observation.” While scholars have long remarked the pervasiveness of instruments of observation in Eliot’s fiction, in this chapter, S. Pearl Brilmyer considered the relationship of the development of scientific technologies of observation to Eliot’s own descriptive tactics. In her long-ignored final work of fiction, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), she shows, Eliot defines her unique mode of character description in terms of a heightened consciousness about the limits of the individual observer and his capacity to describe “deep” psychic phenomena. This epistemologically modest model of literary description, S. Pearl Brilmyer argues, calls into question the enduring humanism of our discipline’s attachment to characters as people. According to Eliot, the vitality of characters lies not in their “psychological depth,” but in the author’s proliferation of surface details about their behaviors and appearances. “Character Drives” argues that the English novel developed out of sustained contests over the nature of the will, rather than on a one-way path to liberal individualism. Long overlooked due to their sustained engagement with the sciences, the literary texts she analyzed change our perception about the role that human agents—figured as characters—played in the rise of the novel as a literary genre. In these works, S. Pearl Brilmyer argues that the human appears, not as a self-sovereign or heroic individual, but instead, to quote Victorian vitalist, Walter Pater, as a temporary “concurrence, renewed moment to moment, of forces soon parting on their ways.”