Victorian fiction has been read and analyzed from a wide range of perspectives in the past century. But how did the novelists themselves read and respond to each other's creations when they first appeared? Jerome Meckier answers that intriguing question in this ground-breaking study of what he terms the Victorian realism wars.
Meckier argues that nineteenth-century British fiction should be seen as a network of intersecting reactions and counteractions in which the novelists rethought and rewrote each other's novels as a way of enhancing their own credibility. In an increasingly relative world, thanks to the triumph of a scientific secularity, the goal of the novelist was to establish his or her own credentials as a realist, hence a reliable social critic, by undercutting someone else's -- usually Charles Dickens's.
Trollope, Mrs. Gaskell, and especially George Eliot attempted to make room for themselves in the 1850s and 1860s by pushing Dickens aside. Wilkie Collins tried a different form of parodic revaluation: he strove to outdo Dickens at the kind of novel Dickens thought he did best, the kind his other rivals tried to cancel, tone down, or repair, ostensibly for being too melodramatic but actually for expressing too negative a world view.
For his part, Dickens -- determined to remain inimitable -- replied to all of his rivals by redoing them as spiritedly as they had reused his characters and situations to make their own statements and to discredit his.
Thus Meckier redefines Victorian realism as the bravura assertion by a major novelist (or one soon to be) that he or she was a better realist than Dickens. By suggesting the ways Victorian novelist read and rewrote each other's work, this innovative study alters present day perceptions of such double-purpose novels as Felix Holt, Bleak House, Middlemarch, North and South, Hard Times, The Woman in White, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.