Victorian Popular Fictions 5.2 12 White

Daniel Tyler (ed.), On Style in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022, 320 pp. Hb £75.00. ISBN: 978-1108427517

Reviewed by Jessica White

Recommended citation: White, Jessica. 2023. Review of Daniel Tyler (ed.), On Style in Victorian Fiction, Victorian Popular Fictions, 5.2 (Autumn): 129-131. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:

Download PDF here

The essay collection On Style in Victorian Fiction, edited by Daniel Tyler,  seeks  to bring to the surface the stylistic concerns of Victorian authors, a study usually associated with the nineteenth-century’s difficult daughter, Modernism. In Tyler’s words, style “makes fictional prose what it is, a representation of, and an invitation to thought, feeling, drama and experience, instead of merely a set of propositions” (4). His introduction provides a compelling and convincing argument for a more serious and unified interrogation of Victorian style, one that moves beyond the commentaries of the time, such as that by Henry James in his The Art of Fiction (1884) and Herbert Spencer in “The Philosophy of Style” (1852). Tyler convincingly argues that an era spanning the best part of a century should not be straightforward to define or thought of in ‘typical’ terms. The concept of this collection is therefore presented convincingly as necessary in the current landscape of criticism, which often takes the style of the Victorians for granted. On Style in Victorian Fiction argues that writing choices across the era are more of a complex landscape than something that can be easily and cohesively defined. The argument set up by Tyler in his convincing introduction, however, is somewhat hampered by the volume’s glaring lack of post-colonial analysis, which is not given, in this critic’s opinion, sufficient space.

On Style in Victorian Fiction begins strongly with Corinna Russell’s chapter on “Novel Poetics: Three Studies in the Craft of Style”. Russell picks out three distinct Victorian texts – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Adam Bede – and argues that each has distinct stylistic quirks that serve important textual purposes. In Stevenson’s text, Ben Gunn’s speech tags are highlighted as part of his physical  mimesis;  Dickens’  sense  of  rhythm  in  Great  Expectations  is  picked  up  on,  and the  grammar  of  different  characters  in  Eliot’s  Adam  Bede  are  at  the  focus  of  Russell’s  studies. Through these subtle stylistic choices, Russell argues, it is possible to discern the underlying features of each text, like how characters morally receive one another, narrative manipulation, and the relationship between “narrative consciousness and represented utterance” (34). Following on from Tyler’s introduction, the need for this kind of textual interrogation is reiterated.

Many of the following essays focus on particular texts and/or particular writers, with some focusing on specific stylistic choices. For instance, Sarah Allison assesses the question mark as a rhetorical device in Victorian Realism, and Daniel Karlin ends the collection with a look at Kipling’s use of the semicolon in his earlier writings. Allison’s argument in “Why Always Dorothea? Rhetorical Question in Canon and Archive” is particularly striking: she presents the question mark as a signifier of the rhetorical, which allows for indirectness – something not usually associated with the nineteenth-century Realist novel. In Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, for example, the title is “haunted by openness” (60), an openness which pervades the reader’s experience of the novel as they attempt to answer a question that is actually rhetorical. In his chapter “Kipling; and”, Karlin takes a thorough look at Kipling’s use of the semicolon, especially in its relation to the conjunction ‘and.’ Karlin not only highlights the need for a reassessment of how we receive Victorian style, but also reflects on which texts are  worth  looking  at  in  this  capacity.  Kipling’s  early  stories  are  a  largely  understudied area of his oeuvre, and so pairing these with an exploration of style, i.e. an understudied area of Victorian reception, feels genuinely refreshing.

A further strength of the collection is that many of the authors ground their essays in Victorian contexts that are not immediately obviously to do with style. Robert Douglas Fairhurst, for example, links together the technology of transport and linguistic change in “Victorian Transport”, and David Trotter analyses new modes of communication as impacting discourse codes in “Telegraphy”. Many critics also bring in biographical details of individual authors, such as John Bowen in his chapter “The Man in White: Wilkie Collins’s Style”, exploring Wilkie Collins’ relationships with other authors and how these manifested in his textual introductions, letters, and novels. One of the authors mentioned by Bowen is Dickens, who is also considered by Garrett Stewart in “The Late Great Dickens: Style Distilled”. Stewart begins his essay, which seeks to definitively round up what makes Dickens ‘Dickensian’ in his writing style, with a review of Our Mutual Friend by Henry James. When read cohesively, one comes away from the collection with the idea that both the influence and the reception of Victorian authors on/by other authors of the period are as vital to authorial style as individual opinions on the question mark or the semi-colon.

The vast majority of the essays in the collection interrogate well-known Victorian texts and authors: Dickens and Charlotte Brontë appear across the collection, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is considered in two chapters. The allure and safety of focusing on well-known novels is certainly understandable when attempting to establish a new approach to reading the texts that considers ‘style’ to be a primary mode of analysis (with the meaning of ‘style’ established as something not as straightforward as it has thus far been received). However, it is undeniable that the truly exciting moments of the collection occur when the critics look askance from the established canon and apply their study of style to other, under-studied works. These moments appear in the aforementioned study of Kipling by Karlin, but also in David Kurnick’s assessment of William Thackeray in “Thackeray: Styles of Fallibility”. As in Karlin’s study, Kurnick looks at some of Thackeray’s earlier writing, most notably The Yellowplush Papers, in which the Cockney footman narrator uses rhetorical devices to reiterate that he is always telling his reader something. This leads Kurnick to an interesting discussion on narrative overbearance and personal space. It is in these moments that the collection feels innovative, in that it looks beyond the canon and utilises ‘style’ as something that can, in and of itself, be innovative.

A particularly bright moment of the collection is in Janet Gezari’s essay, “Jane Eyre’s Style”, in which Gazari compares a passage from Brontë’s novel to the same passage as it appears in the screenplay of the 2011 film adaption, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. She uses this as a way of highlighting how differences in media and contexts impact stylistic choices, and reiterates a need for a critical analysis of style as a way of understanding these texts. This mode of analysis also goes some way in justifying style as something that we should be concentrating on in the present moment.

However, Gezari’s essay also indirectly raises a problem that arises when looking at the collection as a whole. There is a distinct lack of post-colonial study within On Style in Victorian Fiction, despite the rich landscape of work in both post-colonial analyses of style, and post-colonial receptions of nineteenth-century literature, including, for example, recent studies by Sarah Coymn and Porscha Fermanis, David Amigoni, and Yufeng Wang. Despite this rich and convincing landscape – and despite her acknowledgment of the ‘illuminating’ work of those pointing out the racist and imperialist framework in which Jane Eyre was written, Gezari accuses feminist Brontë scholars of “giving way” to postcolonial critics, who do not highlight sufficiently the value of the first-person interiority that she finds key for her understanding of the text (130). This passage might leave the reader wondering why the author mentions but does not engage the many postcolonial critiques of her chosen texts, especially considering the variety of postcolonial interpretations of nineteenth-century texts that incorporate readings of contemporary film and television adaptations. It should be acknowledged that in his analysis of Kipling’s early work, in the final chapter of the collection, Karlin does spend significant time thinking about colonialism in India by Britain and how this impacts the style and storytelling of this writing. These moments, however, are an anomaly, something which leaves open further opportunities for considerations regarding these connections. It is this critic’s opinion that Tyler’s volume would have proved more solid and far-reaching had it dedicated more space to these questions.

Overall, this is a collection that strongly and convincingly establishes a need for style as a focal point of analysis of Victorian literature, and may prove to be a good starting point for this to be a more developed arena in future criticisms of Victorian fiction. The collection in its entirety leaves open opportunities for further study, including the interrogation of style in lesser-known texts and stylistic examinations that position the studied text within frameworks established by postcolonial scholars.

Return to Contents page of VPFJ 5.2

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.