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Realism, Form, and Representation in the Edwardian Novel

Synthetic Realism


Charlotte Jones


Oxford: University Press, 2021

Hardcover. xxvi + 301 p. ISBN 978-0198857921. £75


Reviewed by Georges Letissier

Université de Nantes



Realism is an elastic concept, premised on two elusive notions: real and reality. The first immediate acceptation of the titular adjective, “synthetic”, appended to “realism”, resides in the negotiation and tension between theories of literary realism and ontological and epistemological philosophies, underpinning the dynamics of this extremely rich and trail-blazing study. It might seem audacious indeed to broach for the umpteenth times this question of realism which has been so abundantly covered over the years. However Charlotte Jones asserts firmly her intention to read “realism against the grain of its detractors in order to prove that it is in fact more ambiguous, polysemous, and politically heterodoxical than perhaps it seems” [x]. Precisely, it is in the acknowledgment of metaphysics as intrinsic to realism that lies one of the book’s strongest argumentative lines; the fact that the world of noumenon, the Thing-in-itself, unmediated by human consciousness, is by definition unattainable. So, far from being content with merely replicating the world through language, “synthetic realism” has to tackle the complex issue of how to represent the unrepresentable, by binding meaning to a boundless and forever receding referent. To illustrate her point, Jones ingeniously selects the Edwardian era because it affords a crucial transition between Victorian realism and fin-de-siècle naturalism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Modernism. But there is also another reason to her choice. Indeed, whilst contemporary critics increasingly document the interpenetrations of Edwardianism and Modernism, little, if any, attention is paid to the type of realist writing belonging to this period on the grounds that realism was but an “ossified form” of the so-called “classic realist” novel [xxiii]. So, this absence of much-deserved critical attention to the specificities of Edwardian realism is what this study purports to remedy, by putting together in the spotlight five writers who, barring Arnold Bennett, one may not spontaneously associate with realist aesthetics: Joseph Conrad; May Sinclair; H.G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford.

Jones’s book opens with a twofold substantial threshold: a Preface [vii-xxvi] and an Introduction [1-35], whose function is to set out the premises of the study. In the Preface, a quotation from Howards End situates a tension inherent in the modern condition from the impossibility of “seeing life” simultaneously “steadily” and “whole” [viii-ix]. The divorce between the embodied perception of fragmented parts and the desire for a total, absolute realism raises metaphysical questions about the real’s outer limits. It may also entail political consequences since any attempt to grasp the whole reality necessarily involves an act of domination, by imposing limits and homogenising plurality through inclusions or exclusions. So the philosophical perspective is introduced from the very beginning by addressing the link between the perception of real, tangible data and abstract universal forms or general essential categories. Plato’s world of Ideas which is imperfectly illustrated through their imperfect copies in the transitory material world has long influenced literary realism, through the conviction that the real was bound to never be attained: “the relation of knowing to not knowing” [xv]. For her part, Jones wishes to claim a plural realism that reaches out beyond and through visible reality and is therefore irreducible to mimetic representation. The method she applies is borrowed from synthetic philosophy, which proceeds from causes to effects, or “from general laws and principles to their consequences or particular instances” [xvi]. Thus the common point between literary realism and synthetic philosophy lies in the fact that they are both predicated on contextual theories of knowing. In other words, Jones’s study does not concern itself with how words correlate with things in the world but rather with the interplay between philosophical categories and aesthetic choices as programmatic of literary realism. Said differently, what matters is not so much to establish a fixed image of what realism stands for, as to expose different processes of ontological enquiry taking different forms at different moments. So ultimately, Jones’s acceptation of realism is “imbricated in the impossibility of the real as an object of knowledge” [xxi]. In short, her take on realism is both relational – straddling philosophical enquiries and literary classifications – and also, to some degree, aporetic.

The introduction first propounds useful reminders on the category of realism before establishing the relevance of synthetic realism to the Edwardian novel. It recalls that, as an artistic label, realism appeared rather late in the history of the novel through a mention in Mercure français in 1826. In the field of literary criticism it gained purchase following Ian Watt’s analysis of the correspondences between fictional realism and eighteenth-century empirical philosophy, in 1957. Further back in time, realism is indebted to classical and medieval scholastic philosophers who posited the prior existence of universals on the one hand and the contingent reality of things on the other. Rules of perspectives in Renaissance painting and Cartesian philosophy relying upon the primacy of rational individual experience also contributed to the inception of realism which, as Jones claims, is both time-bound and at the crossroads of different epistemologies. Closer to the Edwardians, “New Realism” or “analytic” fiction, a British declension of French naturalism, crudely exposed stark social realities with writers like Gissing, Moore, Morrison and Hardy. It formed a sharp contrast with the more paternalistic and melioristic earlier Victorian writers, chief among whom Dickens, Eliot and Gaskell. In the early twentieth century, synthetic realism took issue with New Realism essentially for two reasons. The first one is the candid belief in the possibility of getting at the truth of the real through a positivist description of cumulated details, without allowing for the “gaps and silences that obtain whenever the real is pursued as an object of knowledge.” [16] The second reason concerns the necessity to widen the spectrum of what should be eligible for realist representation, by taking into account new scientific discoveries which, on the face of it, seem to de-realise the universe. The turn-of-the-century was indeed characterised by a series of scientific breakthroughs which fundamentally redefined both time and space, from Heinrich Hertz’s electromagnetic waves, Wilhelm Röntgen’s X-ray, Becquerel’s radioactivity to revolutionary Einsteinian Theory of Relativity in 1905. The novelists whom Jones selects illustrate two essential aspects of this concept of synthetic realism, which she constantly defines and refines throughout this book. First their fiction is proof that “[r]ealism must respond to more than one dimension of existence” [23] and second that the materiality of the world is contingent upon perception; upon ways of seeing, for instance, which counted so much for Joseph Conrad.

Joseph Conrad is the first case-study investigated in a section aptly titled “The Visible Universe” [36-86]. Even if Conrad is sometimes regarded as a purveyor of the exotic he also evinces a spirit of faithful realism in his tales of the sea. Poised between late Victorianism and the emergence of Modernism, Conrad’s works are sometimes seen as “unstable” or “unclassifiable” [Fredric Jameson, qtd.38]. By the same token, his failure to comply fully with the rules of realism may be ascribed, Jones avers, to a mischaracterisation of realism, which tends reductively to assimilate realism with Cartesian empiricist and rationalist philosophies of self-knowledge. But what Conrad shows is that realism in art can actually never reach reality. It gestures towards the essence of life only through the veil of appearances. This entails that there is bound to remain a metaphysical dimension in the attempt to get at the real, because there is a boundlessness and a formlessness in the outer world which “the indigence of language” [42] cannot translate literally. So Conrad’s fiction often “presses the reader ‘beyond readability’” [37]. And when the writer co-opts science – by evoking electricity, heat, sound and light – it is to defy the boundaries of empiricism by appealing to a materialist epistemology of sensations, to celebrate the irreducible mystery of the universe. Because, for Conrad, “‘the road to legitimate realism is through poetical feeling’” [qtd. 51]. In this respect, his approach is perfectly consonant with Jones’s definition of synthetic realism, which simultaneously relies on emotions to relate as intimately as is possible with the outside world and keep “intact the mystery of indefinition” [42].

A second section is dedicated to May Sinclair [87-125]. With Sinclair the emphasis is laid on an associationist ontology of mind in which the targeted reality is the mental life or the flux of consciousness. The writer takes up from George Henry Lewes the phrase “stream of consciouness”, which designates both a theory of mind and a literary form. It is in her dual capacity as philosopher and novelist that her contribution to the debate on synthetic realism proves fruitful. Sinclair’s fiction combines naturalistic themes such as heredity, environmental determinism and beliefs in more intangible forms of human experiences. The latter is evidenced by a combination comprising the existence of an ultimate reality beyond material appearance, the intuitive capacity of the subjective mind and the concept of an absolute truth which would consist in the ideal union of all things. This supra-individual monism Sinclair calls indifferently “unity”, “God” (a term she intends as devoid of religious connotations), “Ultimate Consciousness” and “reality”. Sinclair progressively operates a shift from Idealist philosophy, through the influence of both T.H. Green’s metaphysical idealism and F.H. Bradley’s metaphysics of subjectivism to psychology. Indeed, the type of reality which Sinclair’s “social problems” novels document bears on hidden psychological forces or barely discernable impulses: a father’s unconscious jealousy of his child (Mr and Mrs Nevill Tyson, 1898), the consequences of social repression on marriage (The Helpmate, 1907) or the importance of sexual drives and their impact on creativity (The Creators, 1910). It is therefore through her attempt to move beyond the representation of a tangible external referent to venture into “the obscurer regions of psychology” [107] that Sinclair falls squarely within the category of synthetic realism.

Readers tend to remember Arnold Bennett mostly through Virginia Woolf’s essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, in which the author of the Tales of Five Towns is accused of bothering with “inessentials” and failing to capture life in the process. In her third chapter [126-166], Jones sets out to complexify the picture somehow, first by scrupulously analysing Bennett’s adherence to synthetic impressionism, then by taking account of his aetiology of realism founded upon his indebtedness to Herbert Spencer’s “synthetic philosophy” and finally by exploring his specific treatment of details. Even if he was a francophile and an avid reader of French realism, notably Balzac, whose capacious, panoramic method he admired, Bennett also took exception to the overrepresentation of surface detail. Indeed “presentment”, the techniques of showing forth, ought in his estimation to dominate over the “presented”. Even if his narratological techniques, compared with his contemporary Henry James, could now seem outdated, Bennett nevertheless valued the psychological and spiritual dimensions of existence. His synthetic impressionism, which Jones contrasts with her synthetic realism, consists in rigourously selecting details to conjure a general impression and heighten narrative tempo. This synthetic impressionism also bears the influence of Spencer’s metaphysics of the “Unknowable”; the idea that there exists a “first principle”, prior to language and categorical thought. This has a direct impact on his treatment of chains of causality as readers find themselves embroiled in negotiations of empirical knowledge, without being in a position to trace a path back to the unknowable ultimate reality so that, to cite Jones: “We have, finally, a teleology without the telos” [161]. Finally, unlike the famed Barthesian “reality effect”, which finds in itself its own justification as a momentary escape from the realm of fiction, details for Bennett trigger associations and reinforce each other. They gradually acquire significance through their cumulative effect.

The fourth writer studied is H.G. Wells [167-216], not for his well-known scientific romances, but for his social realist comedies, Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909) and The History of Mr Polly (1910), which afford variations on the paradigmatic “Condition of England Question”. Wells is remembered for vindicating an anti-intellectual stance by lambasting writers like James, Conrad, Garnett and Ford Madox Ford, who all extolled impersonality in fiction writing. For his part, Wells foregrounds narratorial and authorial intrusions to push forward his political agenda. He is indeed a strong believer in “Weltverbesserungswahn – a rage to better the world” [169] and therefore dismisses fiction’s “endotelic” [172] tendency. After all, as Jones recalls, Wells insisted on describing himself as a journalist. What makes Wells eligible for a reflection on synthetic realism is first his treatment of temporality, which explodes the timeframe of realist fiction whilst restructuring and reconceiving the present moment. Starting from this premise, Jones wishes not so much to investigate the realistic strategies of scientific romances, as she chooses to address Wells’s realistic novels, but rather to track prophetic dynamics within these revisited Condition of England narratives. The second reason, which logically follows from the previous, lies in the attempt to widen the scope of realism. Indeed, citing Andrew Miller, Jones contends that “To the extent that realism proposes to give us stories about how things really were, a space naturally opens up within that mode to tell how things might have been, but were not” [172]. Wells in his realist novels denounces the tyranny of the present upon the imagination. But, as T.H. Huxley taught Wells, when he attended the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, reality is unstable – a construct or a projection – so it entails that unreality may be approached from the same angle. Yet, unreality as an alternative version of reality is foreclosed in quotidian life because it is arbitrarily exposed as a figment of the imagination, and thus unachievable.

The last chapter bears on Ford Madox Ford [217-263], a choice which is perfectly justified since, as Jones avers, the champion of literary impressionism “stretches the paradoxical ontology of synthetic realism to breaking point” [263]. Ford is well-known through his emphasis on the visual, epitomised by such tenets as “‘You must render: never report’” [qtd 234]. So, in his aesthetics, premised on visual perception, facts do not matter per se, it is the processes whereby the retina is affected which counts and the potential distorsions that may interfere in the space between the observed object and the observing eye. For example, colours are reflected by light and do not originate in the perceived object, which in a sense dispels the certainty of a materialist foundation of the outer world. Moreover, seeing whilst being immersed in the materialism of a bewildering world, and therefore being at a loss to infer any pattern or design, implies being confronted further and further to the experience of the unintelligible. This entails that with Ford the question of realism is indistinguishable from that of delimiting knowledge, circumscribing the boundaries of what can be apprehended. The two antagonistic opposites are, on the one hand, Walter Pater’s insistence on the foundational value attached to the impression of the object, and on the other, Matthew Arnold’s priority accorded to the object which should be apprehended as in itself it really is. Ford’s epistemology floats between these two poles, subjected to “the hazards of circumscription” [222]. This is why Ford is, in a sense, beyond the pale of mimetic realism, by proceeding to a complete reconceptualisation of the function of referential writing, propounding as many angles as may be on the real, and also shifts in zoom and focus, according to varying lenses of perception. To cite Jones “Ford figures ‘everything’ as a mode of epistemological scepticism” [222] and this transpires in his fiction. Two examples are adduced to demonstrate the argument: A Call (1910) and The Good Soldier (1915). In the former, through the novel technology of the phone, a voice is heard but stays unrecognised, blurring the absence and presence dichotomy while ushering in a parenthical existence. In the latter, the narrator Dowell (a homophone for “dual” aptly illustrating Ford’s homo duplex theory) has to come to terms with the unsolvable alternative between “seeing whole” and “seeing clearly” and his seemingly rambling narrative metafictionally raises questions of reference and figuration as it unfolds.

In her conclusion [264-274], Jones remarks that her study participates in the renewal of interest in realism which has gained currency over the past 15 years. The emphasis has been shifted from a concern with the literary transcription of a “real” reality, existing outside of the text, to the reality that a novel calls into being. Synthetic realism goes one step further by arguing that realism “might also function as a framework for not understanding the real; for inscribing that desire as a site of frustrated impossibility as much as a figuring forth.” [265] It is also typical of her approach, in which meaning accrues and ramifies permanently, that a further development as to the acception of “synthesis” should be included at the moment of finishing. “Synthesis” is indeed contrasted with “totality” in an ultimate sleight of hand. Whereas totality postulates the processes allowing a diversity of multiple elements to form a unified, cohesive whole, synthetic realism posits structures of connectedness in a networked global imaginary. So the focus of literary studies of realism, following the principles of this synthetic acceptation, should no longer be representativity but relatedness: “connectivity as a metaphysical imperative, too.” [270]

Jones’s study is replete with thought-provoking analytical perspectives. It succeeds in establishing a fruitful dialogue between philosophy and literature, which remains accessible throughout as Jones does not hesitate to provide useful recaps which never hinder the tempo of the argument (on neo-Hegelian metaphysics: 92-99, on Spencerian evolutionary change: 138-139, or on Huxley’s ethical evolution: 176-177, among others). It is also remarkable that this mostly theoretical study should be illustrated by superb passages of close reading, displaying consummate expertise in rhetorics and stylistics. Jones has a tendency to favour a sophisticated lexicon: “banautic”, “hodological”, “consuetudinal”, “cathetic”, “hylomorphic”, “colligation”, “kerygmatic” and so on – a dictionary may come in handy at times ! – and a few minor typos have been left [35, 121]. One cannot help wonder on what precise criteria the five writers who serve Jones’s magisterial argument have been chosen. Said differently, it could have been interesting to explain why some other writers from the same period are not eligible, or at least were deemed not a priority, D.H. Lawrence, for example, who could probably have qualified as another Edwardian representative of synthetic realism. The order in which the writers are treated is another question, for example Conrad and Ford occupy respectively first and fifth positions, when their well-known mutual collaboration, notably on literary impressionism, could have been an incentive to treat them one after the other, in a sort of diptych.

This said, Jones’s study is a major contribution to literary studies, a landmark reference book that henceforward specialists will not be able to do without.



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