Intellectual debate in the Victorian novel: Religion and science

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The Victorian novel was predominantly a novel of domestic manners, not a novel of ideas. As a general rule, Victorian novelists did not give intellectual propositions the status of themes, or employ characters to debate them - unlike later writers such as Thomas Mann or André Gide. In fact, Victorian reviewers and readers put serious pressure on novelists to downplay intellectual subjects, which were often regarded as anti-aesthetic. Intellectual life was also considered a male preserve, and intellectual subjects a threat to “masculinize” the novel. The strict separation of private and public spheres in Victorian culture necessarily set the domestic novel apart from intellectual concerns. Nevertheless, an influential branch of intellectual fiction was sustained by a few major Victorian novelists - most notably, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. Close attention to the work of these writers (which I will provide later in this chapter) can help define a set of intellectual engagements that were, in fact, broadly shared by other novelists - even if those engagements often took place beneath the surface of domestic fiction, in matters of form and method, or in the intrusion of non-literary discourses, or in novelists' ambivalent fascination with the figure of the intellectual. In fact, intellectual debates informed so many aspects of Victorian fiction so powerfully that it would not be inaccurate to say that those debates governed both the form and the substance of the genre. The veiling of intellectual debate is, however, an important issue - not simply because of the effort it now takes to recognize how, despite appearances, Victorian novels engaged intellectual life, but also because the sublimation of ideas in Victorian fiction helped shape them in particular ways. For example, fiction was one of the few cultural domains in which women could legitimately express themselves, which meant that the novel could inflect ideas with women's perspectives - often covertly. The novel was also a medium in which the impact of ideas on private life, or on non-privileged social groups, could be dramatized. And the novel, given its natural tendency to embody ideas within a social drama, could reveal the dynamics of social power entwined with supposedly disinterested speculation. In other words, the Victorian novel did not simply engage intellectual debates, either directly or indirectly. It also embodied them in the social relations that made up its subject matter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9780511793370
ISBN (Print)9781107005136
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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