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Pam Morris, Imagining Inclusive Society in Nineteenth-Century Novels: The Code of Sincerity in the Public Sphere (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, $44.95, 272 pages, ISBN 0-8018-7911-6)Gerardo Del Guercio, Independent Researcher


British culture underwent a major shift during the decades spanning the Reform Act of 1832 through 1867 that saw the fall of a naturalized royal order and the rise of comodified mass culture. Literary critic Pam Morris’s book Imagining Inclusive Society in Nineteenth-Century Novels: the Code of Sincerity in the Public Sphere argues that English political leaders sought to create an inclusive cultural code that would efface traditional hierarchical power. The Reform Act of 1832 was the primary reason for implementing an inclusive cultural ideology because rural landowners had been recently given the right to vote. English politicians commodified a traditionally elitist culture to win the popular vote among rural England. Pam Morris formulates her discussion around Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley; William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, Esq.; Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend; Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South; and George Eliot’s Romola. My review will argue that an inclusive English society was impossible to achieve because most leaders based their political platform on maintaining power for the old-money class. Instead, politicians replaced the traditional code of civility with an often-manipulated code of sincerity to sway the electorate.

Pam Morris defines the code of civility as traditional etiquette practiced by the nobility to create an exclusive world order that would maintain the interests of the aristocracy. The code of sincerity replaced the code of civility and started a novel form of rhetoric that tried to incorporate the English population into politics. Morris’s study attempts a reconfiguration of Jurgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society  to prove the idea that the following two points are what caused English culture to shift from an exclusive to an inclusive society:

The first compromised a struggle to bring into practical reality the universalism that was only an abstract ideal of the eighteenth-century sphere: the inclusiveness of all voices in the population. The second transformation constituted a rejection of that ideal of inclusiveness and effected the permanent division of the public sphere into the popular sphere and a sphere of cultural distinction. [17]

Post-1832 British politicians could no longer base decisions on traditional practices. They had to implement a collective language into their discourse to have English voters understand human nature as a conglomeration of each individual’s interior self. What occurred was a conflation of the public sphere and countrywide consciousness that swayed England’s voting individuals to elect the leader who would, they felt, most accurately reflect English nationalism. That conflation did not meet its goal because English politicians tended to have close affiliations with the upper classes. The upper classes would often fund political campaigns for candidates who were public favorites in return for increasing support for legislation that protected the aristocracy’s power.

Victorian England also saw the emergence of inclusive leadership. Charlotte Brontë and William Makepeace Thackeray deemed that leaders must reflect their nation. According to Morris, leaders gain power over their audience by demonstrating a charisma that “both Brontë and Thackeray recognize [as a] narcissistic identification with glamour and erotic attraction to power” [61] that is “probably inseparable from effective projections of charismatic authority.”  Leaders won elections by utilizing their appearance and a “bi-lingual or bi-dialectical” [69] language. Inclusive rhetoric usually established a restoration of traditional male values and aristocratic rule. Morris argues that the English public was employed to register the large amount of ballots necessary to maintain an inclusive national order. For instance, Brontë’s Shirley and Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., draw the reader into their plots through repeated usage of collective pronouns such as “I,” “you,” and “we”. The reader is then expected to embed his or her own personal experience into the significance of the text.     

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House questions who possesses power in the public sphere. Morris believes that the saviors, or professional people like doctors, lawyers and educators held power in Victorian England’s public sphere. Although the saviors were qualified to guide the public, they were still forced to work within the paradigms created by the aristocracy. Therefore, power is consequently not invested in one’s occupation but in semantics. Terms that characterize social deviance like “irrationality,” “nonconformity,” and “insubordination” [118] were defined by the nobility. Deviance was then allocated to women and the poor so that a traditional male hegemony and code of sincerity could prevail.

Pam Morris continues her examination of the English public sphere with a discussion of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Victorian England was a nation that was not founded on an equal distribution of wealth, but instead “upon private property” and “a shared sense of cultivated rational sensibilities” [138]. Women were to cultivate sensibility in their children from the home. Children were then to spread sensibility to the public sphere once they became adults. Acts of civility like bowing before company became acts of sincerity meant to charm audiences.   

George Eliot structured the plot of Romola around the idea that physical appearance indicates one's level of intelligence. The media determined which physical attributes were visibly appealing and excluded individuals who did not meet the popular standard. A prototypical leader was one who used his appearance to demonstrate his heightened consciousness. Morris notes that a fusion of interior and exterior qualities exemplified an ideology that England’s public sphere was transforming into a culture divided “into the realm of elite culture and the popular realm” [169]. Elitists were defined as those who could afford the luxuries that tabloids and magazines deemed beautiful. The popular realm included the common people who were unable to spend large sums of money on lavish products. Eliot’s prose empowered a system that favored the wealthy classes since they were the ones able to purchase goods that would enhance their charisma and help them win the public’s favor.

Pam Morris concludes her discussion on English inclusive society with a close reading of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Dickens stresses that interiority “is not connected with any upward evolutionary scale toward a refined moral sensibility. Instead, inner motivation is associated only with the most aggressive and primal impulse of visual speculation” [203]. Following a pre-established social norm is therefore imperative to achieving success. A potential national leader had to follow a norm that had been established by the gentry if he hoped to gain access into the mainstream. By establishing the norm, the aristocratic culture retained its power over the public sphere, civility, and sincerity.

Although Pam Morris’s Imagining Inclusive Society: the Code of Sincerity in Nineteenth-Century Novels is a well-researched study, it provides readers of Victorian scholarship with no actually new insight or interpretations of nineteenth-century English literature. Morris draws heavily on Thomas Carlyle, Mary Poovey, and Michael Foucault with little personal opinion. The reader gets somewhat entangled in a conflation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary theory, without knowing what Morris’s stance is on such canonical criticism. Researchers contemplating the use of Morris’s text beyond introductory university English courses may as well construct the theoretical framework of their study on works written by Thomas Carlyle, Mary Poovey, and Michael Foucault themselves.            

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