Reflection by Daniel Kasper
If Emily Steinlight’s new book “begins with a fairly obvious premise: that the social worlds assembled in nineteenth-century literature are phenomenally crowded,” (3) that is not where it ends. What becomes clear as you read Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics Surplus Life is that this premise is necessarily more complex. Even in a novel as full to the brim of characters and crowds as Bleak House, the literary portrayal of the crowd or the mass of population is complicated by its own amorphous shape, such that Dickens embodies the crowd into the character Jo or Mary E Braddon fills the body of Lady Audley with the masses of redundant women. This metonymic overfilling of the individual characters means that the promises of liberal governance are always unfulfilled precisely because liberalism relies on there being a series of surpluses in order to justify its existence. This is why, Steinlight argues, Jo is at once so present and so difficult to locate, and why Lady Audley can only ever escape from disciplinary power.
What I find most intriguing about the argument is the left-handed, Gothic canon that Steinlight relies on in order to construct her argument. Whereas other critics might narrate the history of nineteenth century literature with Austen, Thackeray, and the Brontë sisters, Steinlight’s path through Frankenstein and Lady Audley’s Secret illuminates rather wonderfully the unstated ideological underpinning of a liberalism which is not, as it often claims, simply about governing individual bodies. Even so, this selection of texts does not seem to limit the reach of her argument. Just as an example, while I was reading Steinlight, I was struck by the way that Charlotte Brontë deals with the problem redundant women in Shirley, where the daughters of the parish families are almost always massed into an interchangeable crowd; the populaces of “Misses Pearson, Sykes, Wynne, etc. etc.” (Brontë 225) are masses of sisters who have no individual form. This is also the driving impulse, I think, behind the inclusion of the crowds of machine-breakers and Methodists within the novel, with the Napoleonic wars looming in the background. According to Steinlight, creating those crowds is the result of individualizing Caroline, Shirley, and Robert Moore. Even Jane Eyre, the paragon text constructing the liberal individual, brushes up against the identity dissolution of the plague in its early chapters, only to anonymize Jane’s life from the death of Helen Burns until she leaves Lowood. In light of Steinlight’s work, we can no longer consider these moments as aberrations within the project of liberal identity formation; they are part and parcel of the project. The mass is not simply a background to throw the individual character into relief, nor an attempt to show that which cannot be shown. We have to consider the construction of the mass as developing from the impulse to see some bodies and not see others. What I’m left wondering, then, is whether fiction as Steinlight explicates it is actually undermining what Foucault would call state racism—that biopolitical impulse to allow vast numbers of individual bodies to die off due to their unfitness. Surely if the plague is not bound only to the masses, but also reaches the liberal individual, then the binary between making live and letting die stops being a binary?
–Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. The Folio Society, 1968.
–Steinlight, Emily. Populating the Novel. Cornell University Press, 2018.