Alison’s Preparation for the Charles Reade Archive Visit

The Dismembered Novel: The Generic Violence of Reade’s Hard Cash Notecards. Or, following in the sensational vein, I imagine the novel as a body and the notecards as its organs.

Hard Cash represents in its characters the bodily and psychological experience of societal violence, including that of the asylum and of the economic system; indeed, it is frequently remembered as a “sensation novel,” or one whose literary form is informed by a preoccupation with representing and even (re)creating felt experience. In her seminar paper, Christina traces the pleasure of reading the novel to its successful linguistic realism; this heteroglossia is particularly useful to the novel’s realism, she suggests, because it is referential rather than merely representational.  As William Cohen (our intrepid examiner) writes in Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Sense (2009), “The response of [Victorian] writers to the problem of interior being [as being inextricably located in a human body] was at once demystifying, desacralizing, and desublimating, for it flew in the face of a traditional conception of a distinct, immaterial essence. For many reasons, emobodiment came to be the untranscendable horizon of the human.”[1]

We may find, as does Christina, that this narrative life seems organic because of, as Bakhtin suggests via Christina, its referential pluralism. This pluralism does not shock us; indeed, it may heighten our sense of the satisfying unity of the imagined/imaginable narrative world and its materiality (both as a commodity and as a discursive object). The book gives material body—life—to the ephemeral and disembodied imaginations of the authors and readers. The sensation project which preoccupied Victorians seems to have attempted to this realist unity to the materiality of its readers and the imagined materiality of its human characters. The representation of violence, even sensational violence, does not seem to compromise a novel’s realist ambitions.

And then we consider these notecards who claim to verify the referential rather than representational nature of this violence: we find in them evidence that this violence is not just realist but real; it is eviscerated from living history and transplanted into the body of the novel. I  can imagine the notecards spread before us, offered up under bright light and for careful examination. The novel’s realism is splayed before us not as a healthy whole body but instead as dismembered parts that apart do not ‘belong’ to an original body. Its public origin has been exposed, an apparent secret history becomes a scandalous collection of society’s ugliest bits.

Is there an aesthetic to this dismemberment, one that is perhaps abject (or ‘desublimating’, as Cohen puts it)?[2] One that violates the pleasures of the reality effect, turning pleasure into disgust?[3] One that is grotesque, that reminds us that the apparent materialist referentiality of realist novels—via perhaps, for example, the reality effect—or even sensational novels—via the recording of bodily reaction in the prose and the enactment of bodily reactions by the reader—is not an organic wholeness but instead a generic Frakenstein, fabricated out of discarded ephemeral parts and fashioned into a body that has life. But unlike the Frankenstein monster, this ‘form of life’ is sewn not out of flesh but out of bits of paper. Inscribed upon these notecards is an obsession with the horrors society inflicts upon the human body. The realist novel now looms before as a monstrosity, James’s loose baggy monster.

Imperatively, these dismembered parts, in the very violence of their exposure, can be used to justify and make socially meaningful the whole.[4] As an editorial in The Graphic suggests, “whatever may be the faults of ‘Hard Cash’ and ‘It is Never Too Late to Mend,’ it is rather certain that their indictments against social wrongs are neither arbitrarily nor carelessly preferred. In the case of the Lunatic Asylums, Mr. Reade has himself very ably vindicated the truth of his pictures by incontestable facts; and indeed since the publication of his novel the public journals have furnished abundant evidence that some of his most startling incidents are no exaggerations.”[5] We clearly are not the first to open up the materialist stiches that Reade exposes in his preface to see the notecards tha lie underneath. [6] The realist illusion of the novel as a narrative and bookish whole may be suspended in pursuit of the abject reality of some of its parts. As we study the realist project underway in the Victorian novel, how might we literally and figuratively handle these notecards which expose the (Shocking! Horrifying! Disgusting!) referentiality of Hard Cash.

When considering (and perhaps even confronting) that these notecards have their own material and perhaps even aesthetic being, I wish to pursue how bodies, both human and textual, are referenced (maybe represented?) and indexed. Of particular interest, of course, are the Saulian System and Madness cards, both of which record discourse on/of the body and the mind respectively in a series of excerpts and fragments. How do these fragments come together as a ‘system’ or a categorical affliction (‘madness’)? What do they have to say about these processes of vivisection (excepting), reconstruction (the cards and the novel), and dismemberment (our visitation of these cards)? How might the notion of the ‘body’ of the novel be abjected by our very interaction with these cards?

[1] William A. Cohen. Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Sense (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 2009), xii.

[2] Julia Kristeva describes the abject as disembodied objects such as corpses and feces which shock us into the horrifying recognition of our bodiedness.

[3] I refer here not only to Barthes’s effet de reel but to how realism has an effect upon our sense, as readers, of not only the world of the work but the world in which that work was created and to which it refers. The Victorians were particularly interested in this effect; this interest is arguably generically manifested in sensation novels, many of Reade’s works included.

[4] Wish I had time to bring up Leah Price and Nick Dames who both remind us that the practice of excepting the novel is not necessarily violent and might perhaps even be constructive/productive.

[5] The Graphic (London, England), Saturday, September 16, 1871; Issue 94. p. 266

[6] “The madhouse scenes have been picked out by certain disinterested gentlemen who keep private asylums, and periodicals to puff them; nad hve been met with bold denials of public facts and with timid perosonalities, and a little easy cant about Sensation Novelists; but in reality those passages have been written on the same system as the nautical, legal, and other scenes: the best evidence has been ransacked; and a large portion of this evidence I shall be happy to show at my house to any brother writer who is disinterested, and really cares enough for truth and humanity to walk or ride a mile in pursuit of them.” 1888 London ed., p. ii