Gavin Edwards, Narrative Order, 1789–1819: Life and Story in an Age of Revolution (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), viii + 207pp. ISBN 1-4039-9211-8; £47 / $69.95 (hb).
This informative and often densely argued work brings together three main components in exploring a range of texts spanning Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744) to Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), with a concentration on the revolutionary years of the later eighteenth century. On the first front, it charts a situation where the concept of orderly narrative, involving a sequential movement from endings to beginnings, came under a variety of pressures, with a resultant shift from third-person accounts and the exhibition of ‘character’ to the first person and a prioritisation of ‘self’—in broad terms from biography to autobiography. An integral part of the argument here is a connection between narrative and the idea of contract, an area which is also seen as becoming increasingly problematical.
Along with this, the book shows a sophisticated awareness of the complex semantics of a range of keywords in the literature of the period, their multiple and/or shifting meanings, and of how certain words came under pressure through the dynamics of social change. The third main component of the book lies in its concentration on one cataclysmic historical event as a means of accounting for the narrative and linguistic changes described. Gavin Edwards acknowledges an allegiance ‘to that tradition of analysis which credits the revolution in France with an epoch-making (or period-making) role in British literary culture’ (p. 10); though this stance is modified by reference to other contributory elements, such as broad social changes within Britain from the 1760, while at some points the focus can become surprisingly specific (as in references to the positions of Scott and Wordsworth in the invasion-wary climate of 1805).
One of the main strengths of the book lies in the tightness of the specific ‘case-study’ analyses of individual authors and texts which constitute the main chapters. Here Edwards is capable of quite brilliant exegesis, especially through an ability to bring together dynamically different levels of approach. The account of Johnson’s need to impose order through a forward-moving narrative, which so doggedly resists in the Life of Savage the impulse to return to and change beginnings, is elucidated by a combination of factors, ranging from Johnson’s own psychological intensities to the context of contemporary Jacobitism and the desire to return to a status quo ante. Edmund Burke, in turn, directly responding to a revolutionary discourse where beginnings become precedents or (more threateningly) endings and beginnings collide, is seen as valorising instead middles and mediations. The occupant of the entailed estate (a key motif) is thus seen as being part of a kind of continual middle state of ‘passing through’, in this sense a ‘life-tenant’ rather than proprietor or owner. In an exceptionally fine passage of linguistic analysis, ‘we’ is seen as the controlling pronoun in Burke’s rhetoric, and the present perfect the controlling tense.
Edwards then consciously widens and complicates the picture with a fine chapter on the British officer/writer Watkin Tench, whose two publications describing the British colonisation of New South Wales receive similarly sharp and wide-ranging analysis. A focal point of the argument here is the complex relationship between ‘journal’ and ‘narrative’ in Tench’s recording and writing up of material, especially in view of the interlocking of their publication history with the outbreak of revolution in France—though arguably it is the situation in Australia itself, the untracked terrain and the breakdown of normative social relations, which threatens most starkly conventional forms of narrative ordering. After a slightly more routine chapter on Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), in which ‘character’, ‘narrative’, and ‘family’ are among keywords under scrutiny, Edwards provides a quite stunning commentary on the signification of ‘moving accidents’ in a variety of Wordsworthian texts. While Wordsworth’s allusion to the source passage in Othello has evidently elicited a fair amount of discussion amongst his critics, one doubts whether it has been carried anywhere close to the level of semantic intensity as found here. In particular, Edwards focuses on the three meanings of ‘accident’: the Shakespearean one of ‘incident’ or ‘event’, largely defunct in Wordsworth’s day; the philosophical one of ‘chance’, or ‘not essential’; and the more modern one of ‘mishap’. In a sequence of fascinating analyses, Wordsworth’s texts are shown to include aspects of all three meanings, often caught in fluid states, the final possibility intriguingly offered by Edwards being one where the ‘slighter’ modern form overlays the more ‘heroic’ Shakespearean one, the resultant model being not unlike that of the Freudian consciousness/unconsciousness.
Following chapters point to further undermining of narrative order: firstly in the ‘conservative’ George Crabbe, in whose verse the ‘parable’ is seen as wilting under the pressure of irresistible changes in the social order; then in the more ‘radical’ Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, in whose fictions beginnings and ends are confused or denied, contracts both attract and bind, first-person accounts override the third-person narrative, and stories are told in a desperate but often vain effort to form relations. The strengths and potential dangers of Edwards’s approach are most strikingly visible in the book’s final chapter. This begins by speculating an affinity between The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (published one year later), as representatives of two major forms to emerge from the formal instabilities of the early nineteenth century, the short lyrical poem and the historical novel. The main weight in this chapter falls on the Bride, the interpretation of which hinges on the preliminary chapter involving a discussion between the rustic painter Dick Tinto and the putative author Peter Pattieson, concerning the aesthetics of narrative painting. Edwards from this launching-pad enters into several potentially productive areas, such as the relationship between sketch and finished product, one particularly insightful observation here being how the reader is invited to anticipate in the main story a movement from the first to the second. Arguably however some of the connections made border on the tendentious. Tinto’s exclamatory mention of ‘Sir Joshua’ leads for example a little too smoothly into an assumption that ‘Scott probably did have Reynolds’ Discourses in mind’ (p. 162)—an assumption which is subsequently transferred into something more like a certitude: ‘as I have suggested, Reynolds’ views are very much in evidence throughout the argument between narrator and painter’ (p. 165).
Similarly, while it is a credit to Edwards that he is alive to the possible significances of the narrative’s temporal setting round about the 1707 Union between England and Scotland, it is perhaps wrong to talk about ‘uncertainty’ on Scott’s part as to whether the time is pre-1707 or not. The 1819 first edition of the Bride is fairly clearly set before the Union, and it is to the still extant Scottish Parliament that Edgar Ravenswood is envisaging an appeal—references to an appeal to the House of Lords, making the period unequivocally post-1707, probably only entered into the 1830 Magnum Opus text of the novel though Scott’s insecurities over accuracy. The point might seem a purely technical one, but in fact a realisation of the original pre-1707 setting can help liberate a whole area of meaning from the novel, vital to Scott when writing, in which the dual possibilities of marital union in the novel parallel two alternative political unions, a consensual federal union and an enforced incorporating union. Edwards’s analysis certainly touches on such pivotal oppositions, but it is to a position of the ‘undermining of narrative meaning’ (p. 178) that one is finally led. On a more particular front, there are signs that the writer’s knowledge of Scott is not so advanced as in the case of other authors discussed. It is surely an exaggeration to say that ‘many of Scott’s novels [are] narrated by Peter Pattieson’ (p. 159); and it is almost certainly wrong to talk of Ravenswood’s father as ‘the old Master of Ravenswood’ (p. 172), since ‘Master of Ravenswood’ is a courtesy title applying only to Edgar his son (‘Master of’ referring to the heir apparent of a Scottish barony). In view of these and other oversights, one is inclined to be sceptical about the proven status of some more sweeping statements, e.g. the assertion (made twice) that the Bride of Lammermoor is ‘Scott’s most Burkian novel’ (pp. 15, 161).
As a whole, this is a brave, accomplished, and challenging book. Its concerns have clearly been fomenting in the author’s mind for some time, one symptom of this being the high degree of interrelationship evident in the discussions of themes, authors, and works. The texts are well selected and operate in relation to each other in fruitful and sometimes surprising ways. At the same time, it is very much a book which accentuates modern interpretation as a primary level of activity, to the extent that aspects such as contemporary readerships and publishing conditions tend to be dealt with in a relatively cursory way. In this respect, notwithstanding its strong historical agenda, this book might ultimately tell us more about ourselves (or a section of ourselves) than its purported subject.