Okay, so since approximately nine people have forwarded it to me–and since it was discussed pretty intensely on the VICTORIA list, I suppose I have to be the one to mention here that earlier this week, the Guardian reported something that all of us in this semi-private club already know: that reading Victorian novels totally makes us better, more cooperative, more Dorothea Brooke-like people. Or something.

I refer, of course, to Wednesday’s article, “Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists.” I’m not going to go into much detail on it or quote from the article–it’s more or less what it says, and the reaction has been more or less predictable, if you can make it through the comments page and the VICTORIA thread. (I do think that spec, one of the Guardian commenters, makes an excellent point, though.) And, of course, I’m something of an outsider to all this, since Rod Blagojevich rather forcefully demonstrated that Victorian poetry is poor insurance against being an asshat.

On the same day, we also got John Sutherland’s Guardian blog post, “Believing in 19th century novels.” He talks about a man named Bill Stone, recently deceased at the age of 109, as one of the last incarnations of “Victorian values”–the same ones, we infer, being communicated through the novels:

Newborn as he was when it ended, Stone’s life explains much about the huge global success that Britain enjoyed in the 19th Century. He and his kind believed in country, King (or Queen), and God. A whole cluster of other beliefs spun off from this core: duty, decency, marital fidelity, paying your way, doing your bit, playing fair.

You probably don’t need me to poke holes into this. Sutherland concedes that the whole thing might well be a delusion, but argues that Stone (as an individual) and England (as a country) was better off for having held it.

I don’t actually have a problem with the premise that Victorian novels (at  least some Victorian novels–Sutherland’s own research has been crucial in demonstrating just how hard it is to generalize about them) had a role in promoting certain values, or that books can influence their readers in all kinds of ways. (Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone?)

However, the way I see it, the major flaw in all of this is the focus on characters. If you read the first article, you’ll see that the study’s methodology involved asking scholars to fill out a questionnaire on certain characters from (canonical) Victorian novels. (In fact, as one VICTORIA contributor realized, the researcher had actually distributed the survey on the list itself–and I’m pretty sure, thinking back, that I myself may have participated.) That assumes that the only thing we get out of reading a Victorian novel is the identification with characters, and that readers are only interested in plot insofar as it develops characters’ identities, punishes the bad, vindicates the good, and so on. It also assumes that the only way that novels influence their readers is through these seemingly  unmediated identifications with individual characters.

And that all seems kind of stupid; it flattens 0ut the complexity of what happens between the text and reader in even a casual reading experience. The not-stupid version of this argument would be something like the premise of Caroline Levine’s excellent 2003 book, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense. Levine argues that Victorian realist novels provided a kind of “epistemological training” that encouraged readers to become more skillful and critical, to consider all the possibilities before making a decision, to respect the otherness of the world and the limits of sympathy–and that such reading practices could be translated into other areas of life, such as science and politics.

We’ll notice, of course, that “suspension of judgment” or “skepticism about received ideas” doesn’t make Sutherland’s list of Victorian values, but I’d say it’s at least as important as something like “duty.” The Victorians weren’t perfect, but I give people like, say, Matthew Arnold a lot of credit for promoting the importance of a good-faith inquiry and the effort to disabuse oneself of preconceived notions.

But that, of course, doesn’t make for a pithy headline. It’s something that’s intangible, and it doesn’t quite provide that pungent nineteenth-century antidote to a twenty-first century problem. (If anything, skepticism is seen as a more “postmodern” problem, something that distracts us from duty and cooperation.) But it’s frustrating, sometimes, to see articles like this because, when it comes down to it, I do think that there’s a lot we gain by reading Victorian novels (or literature in general, for that matter)–just not in the ways that this study suggests.

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