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The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt
Caroline Levine
Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
$39.50, xi + 237 pages, ISBN 0-8139-2217-8 (hardback).

Nathalie Saudo
Université de Picardie Jules Verne


If one looks into E. M. Forster's and Barthes's definitions, suspense appears as pacifying and comforting, anything but subversive, "a literary instrument of social control." To the contrary, Caroline Levine argues, "Victorian writers and readers understood suspenseful narrative as a stimulus to active speculation […], the experience of suspense was not a means of social regulation, but a rigorous political and epistemological training, a way to foster energetic scepticism and uncertainty rather than closure and complacency" [2]. In other words, and not unexpectedly, suspense is more disruptive than soothing.

Victorian science had its word to say about the benefits of scepticism: the fruitful use of hypothesis showed the limitations of Francis Bacon's inductive method, and the suspension of judgement in experimentation was considered to be a prerequisite to groundbreaking, innovative findings, as long as the imagination was kept in check at the same time: "Indeed, the experiment provided both a formal paradigm and an epistemological purpose for suspense fiction in the Victorian period" [6]. Ignorance brings pleasure, and this pleasure is serious because it leads us to reconsider the world.

Caroline Levine's investigation into the theory of suspense in the nineteenth century distinguishes three successive stages: "first the articulation of suspense as a proper ethical and epistemological model for approaching the world (Parts 1 and 2); then a series of focused critiques of the claims of suspense (Part 3); and finally the replacement of suspenseful narrative with anti-suspenseful forms (Part 4)" [4].

The first part deals with Ruskin's theories of suspense and realism, and the intricate links between the two, which form the thesis of Caroline Levine's book: "at the centre of this book is the claim that suspense and realism were inseparable in the context of mid-Victorian England" [10]. Particularly rewarding is the analysis of The Moonstone as it is read "for the first time." A reader of Ruskin, Wilkie Collins made use of suspense and a scientific experiment to unsettle reason. Ruskin's view on the inadequacies of trompe-l'œil as a realist experience is then examined.

Part 2 is devoted to suspenseful experiments in Dickens and Charlotte Brontë: the latter introduced suspense to question the assumptions of gender that lay under the mysterious name of "Currer Bell" and the authorship of Jane Eyre, while Dickens in Great Expectations turns the novel's title into a programme: the reading experience becomes the enjoyment of doubt and hesitation up to the very end of the novel.

In Part 3, Caroline Levine analyses Adam Bede, The Lifted Veil and Romola with the aim of showing that George Eliot uses suspense in order to question the very conventions of the realist genre. Dinah's self-forgetfulness is an obstacle to her achievement: she has to strike a balance between the awareness of herself and of the world. The focus in Adam Bede is especially on the pauses in the narrative which George Eliot devotes to visual representation and aesthetics and the question of gender. As opposed to Dinah, Latimer in The Lifted Veil cannot suspend himself. The veil stands for the knowledge of the self that he is unable to reach. As a bildungsroman, Romola "follows the pattern of empirical science, the sceptical testing of hypotheses against the evidence of experience" [138]. Yet belief and discovery in the novel are also irrational, giving way to a model of knowledge closer to a prophecy. Again the emphasis is laid on visual impressions and the way they become clues that undergo the test of time. The validation of hypotheses operates as a validation of the narrative form itself.

Part 4 is devoted to Henry James's "Travelling Companions," Walter Pater's The Renaissance and Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. James's short story, a travelogue and love story, is written "in defiance of reason and Ruskin" [162] by a narrator with a guidebook in his hand, who has an aesthetic look on the world. The knowledge of otherness appears as constrained by issues of perception and representation, and the experience of tourism is made to represent the rambling nature of the quest for knowledge. The classical marriage plot is submitted to the same treatment. The last chapter explores the last moment of the nineteenth century theoretical exploration of suspense, when "the suspense plot was losing its radical force" [182]. In The Renaissance, Walter Pater encourages the reader to shift his concentration backwards and forwards between reality and representation, a move which brings new perspectives. "Pater, rather than inventing new forms, remains firmly in the tradition of the realist experiment, but focuses our attention on its rhetorical gaps, fissures, and suspensions, which have always permitted meaning to emerge only out of difference" [192]. The Picture of Dorian Gray is read as an answer to Ruskin's Modern Painters. Experimentation and Dorian's back-and-forth movement between his own image and the picture are themes that can be related to Caroline Levine's earlier developments: she suggests that Wilde is truer to Pater than to Ruskin, as Dorian gathers knowledge from both the real and its representation. The contrast between the two generates a desire that is the motor of the narrative. "The Picture of Dorian Gray emerges as a quintessentially reflexive narrative project, where narrative representation has taken itself as its own object" [196].

This book is likely to be useful to those interested in feminist and gender theory. I personally wonder whether the complexity of the author's questioning does not come from the fact that the association between realism and suspense in a literary sense is rather an artificial one, unless it is understood in a very superficial way (in real life, we do not know things before they happen and have to wait). The relationship between suspense and the literary category of realism is not obvious and, rather, needed to be proved and documented before being unsettled.

My feeling is also that the author sometimes spends least time on the elements that most need explanation, or takes for granted what most needs to be questioned or at least justified. Such statements as "since Victorian culture insistently cast self-suspension as a quintessentially feminine virtue, women, it seemed, must be the most acute readers of the real" [85] or that "femininity provides both the content and the form of Victorian realism" [102] may create suspense in the reader, but they may also introduce doubt and suspicion.

Despite these rather adverse comments, the chapters on Ruskin, Charlotte Brontë and Henry James are very stimulating and well worth reading.


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