Nowhere is the sense of medium felt more strongly, even by the casual reader, than in a story about to end. For the novelist the problem is no longer how to tell his tale, but how to close it down; how to switch imaginative energies which have been used in sustaining the tale, into energies which will not just stop it, but will resolve it. The process of telling must be made to predicate itsown conclusion. For the reader, in sight of an ending, the mode of attention shifts, the rhythm alters, and a pressure of significance begins to build up behind the closing chapters. The pace of the narrative begins to slow, the 'ever after' looms, past and present emerge in ever sharper juxtaposition. It is this heightened attentionto the medium that characterises the ending and we are not surprised to find that for some novelists 'endings' seem to play false to the narrative which leads to them. 'Conclusions are the weak points of most authors', George Eliot wrote, 'but some of the fault must lie in the very nature of a conclusion which is at best a negation'.
Wuthering Heights, however it may appear in retrospect, demands a reading of the utmost intensity, the feeling present in the writing seems to seek a matching response in the reading. If we turn from the story that Emily Brontë tells to the kind of story that Hardy tells, we find a markedly different kind of reader being called into being, a reader who is to be drawn not so much into an intensity of response, but rather into a continual oscillation betweenintensity of involvement and contemplative detachment
Indeed, and crucially so, the serial form tookthe control of the novel away from the reader and left him in an imagined space that could not be thought of in terms of the physical space still to be read. At the end of each instalment the reader would contemplate a vacuum, an 'end' which looked forward to a continuing verbal space which he could not measure. He might speculate but he could not know.
Length, I want to suggest, has a peculiar significance for the reader of a Victorian novel and especially so if we are concerned with an awareness of it as a book; a physical object held in the hand.. The distinctive achievement of novels like Bleak House and Middlemarch is an expanding density and complexity towards the creation of a realised and felt fictionalworld. Their imaginative breadth demands both a spatial freedom and temporal capacity equal to the creative intention.. The Victorian novel, then, assumes through its length the possibility of a completed and enclosed fictional world. The reading experience, through a linear and sequential development will be, quite obviously, distinct from, say Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. It is what Josipovici has called the 'swelling continuity' of Victorian narrative, a form which encourages a particular kind of reading response: Reading an intricately plotted nineteenth-century novel is very much like travelling by train. Once one has paid for one's ticket and found one's seat one can settle down in comfort and forget all everyday worries until one reaches one's destination, secure that one is in good hands
When we discuss a novel it is only partially to hear another person's 'view', it is much more to find outwhat we ourselves think in order to possess the text more completely. Such a possession is then a composite one, it is the book itself and the articulated reaction to it. So vivid can be the latter that it is not uncommon to find that the pleasure survives the cause; some novels seem more enjoyable to talk about than to read.
What The Mysteries of Udolpho suggests is how a novel, by presenting phenomena before it present resolutions, can create an on-going, perhaps spurious, but nevertheless compelling dynamic between details which can undermine the ability of form to impose its particular tyranny on the reader's experience: there is a life in the novel which comes from within.
The first unanalysed impression that most readers receive from Jane Eyre is that it has a very violent atmosphere. If this were simply the effect of the plot and the imagined events then sensation novels like Walpole's The Castle of Otranto or Mrs Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho ought to produce it even more powerfully. But they do not. Nor do they even arouse particularly strong reader responses. Novelists like Charlotte Brontë or D. H. Lawrence, on the other hand, are able quite quickly to provoke marked reactions of sympathy or hostility from readers. The reason, apparently, isthat the narrator's personality is communicating itself through the style with unusual directness.
Because it is written by a nineteenth-century American, and because of its closeness to the twentieth century, The Portrait of a Lady foregoes Victorian affirmations. The price it pays, however (together with several twentieth-century novels) is that it eventually leaves the reader, along with its heroine, 'en Vair' amid its self-reflections.
Discussions of the effects of serial publication of Victorian novels on their authors and readers1 usually draw attention to the author's peculiar opportunities for cliff-hanging suspense, as, for instance, when Thackeray has Becky Sharp counter old Sir Pitt's marriage proposal at the end of Vanity Fair's fourth number with the revelationthat she is already married, and the reader must wait a month before the husband's identity is revealed. Or it may be pointed out how the author can modify his story in response to his readers' complaints or recommendations, as when Trollope records in hisAutobiography how he wrote Mrs Proudie out of the Barchester Chronicles after overhearing two clergymen in the Athenaeum complaining of his habit of reintroducing the same characters in his fiction.
Novels begin and end with, consist of, and indeed in one sense are nothing but voices. So reading is learning to listen sensitively, and to tune in accurately, to varying frequencies and a developing programme. From the opening words a narrative voice begins to createits own characteristic personality and sensibility, whether it belongs to an 'author' or a 'character'. At the same time a reader is being created, persuaded to become the particular kind of reader the book requires. A relationship develops, which becomes the essential basis of the experience. In the modulation of the fictive voice, finally, through the creation of 'author' and 'reader* and their relationship, there is a definition of the nature and status of the experience, which will always imply a particular idea of ordering the world. So much is perhaps familiar enough, and a useful rhetoric of Voice' has developed. Yet I notice in my students and myself, when its vocabulary is in play, a tendency to become rather too abstract or technical, and above all too spatial and static. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves what it can be like to listen to close friends, talking animatedly and seriously in everyday experience, in order to make sure that a vocabulary which often points only to broad strategies does not tempt us to underplay the extraordinary resourcefulness, variety and fluctuation of the novelist's voice.
Reading Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë after Jane Eyre is a curious experience. The subject of the biography is recognisably the same person who wrote the novel, but the effect of the two books is utterly different. The biography is indeed depressing and painful reading. It captures better, I believe, than any anysubsequent biography the introverted and puritan pessimist side of Charlotte Brontë, and conveys the real dreariness of the world of privation, critical discouragement and limited opportunity thatso often made her complain in her letters that she felt marked out for suffering. Jane Eyre, on the other hand, is exhilarating reading, partly because the reader, far from simply pitying the heroine, is struck by her resilience, and partly because the novel achieves such an imaginative transmutation of the drab. Unlike that of Jane Austen's Fanny Price or Dickens's Arthur Clennam or John Harmon, JaneEyre's response to suffering is never less than energetic. The reader is torn between exasperation at the way she mistakes her resentments and prejudices for fair moral judgements, and admiration at the way she fights back. Matthew Arnold, seeking 'sweetness and light' was repelled by the 'hunger, rebellion and rage' that heidentified as the keynotes of the novel. One can see why, and yet feel that these have a more positive effect than his phrase allows. The heroine is trying to hold on to her sense of self in a world that gives it little encouragement, and the novel does put up a persuasive case for her arrogance and pugnacity as the healthier alternativesto patience and resignation. That the book has created aworld in which the golden mean seems such a feeble solution is both its eccentricity and its strength.
T this point I would like to return to the question of the plot movement and the different narrative levels of the book. David Lodge raises a crucial issue when he asks 'how Charlotte Brontë created a literary structure in which the domestic and the mythical, the realistic world of social behaviour and the romantic world of passionate self-consciousness, could co-exist with only occasionallapses into incongruity.' As far as the plot and setting go, however, this states the question rather misleadingly, for in fact at Thornfield there begins a progressive plot movement from realism to fantasy. By 'realism' I do not mean the predominance of the every day and commonplace, or an authorial objectivity of treatment, but simply the use of material that the reader can acceptas existing in the ordinary world as well, or of events of a kind that might happen in it without being viewed as extraordinary. That is, things that have a face-value currency of meaning prior to any concealed meaning they may hold or suggest. Thus while Gateshead and Lowood School fit neatly into, and contribute importantly to, the symbolic pattern of the book, they are perfectly believable places in their own right. Even the heavy-handed and obvious satire of Mr Brocklehurst and his family does not invalidate him as a credible conception. But with the beginning of the mystery of the Thornfield attic the plot starts moving away from this facevalueactuality.