Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work-in-Progress seminar series. All welcome, no registration necessary. Sandwich lunch and refreshments provided.
Dr Jan-Melissa Schramm (English, Trinity Hall)
According to Adam Smith, writing in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, sympathy is the process by which we ‘change places in fancy’ with another and extend thereby our capacity for compassion. For authors of the Victorian novel, this imaginative substitution was seen as the means by which goodness may be imparted to a mass audience of anonymous readers consuming fictional texts in private. Yet what is goodness and how is it learnt? Is it best fostered by doctrinal instruction, or illustrated for us by the aesthetics of example? For the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, goodness retained theological significance, and their novels seek to model for the reader a virtue of character that is dependent upon the morally educative value of affect. As England experienced both national upheaval (Chartist protest) and international conflict (the Crimean War), these novelists dramatised the recognition of mutual goodness across boundaries of class as a basis for wider social concord.
But critics of the Victorian sentimental tradition, and indeed contemporary philosophers, have expressed scepticism about the extent to which the promotion of proximity and friendship can in fact foster just communal relations between third parties. In Paul Ricoeur’s analysis, proximity cannot bring strangers into wider social relations of fairness and equitability: instead, just institutions should protect the interests of strangers and neighbours alike. That the novel often critiques institutions and seeks instead to particularize ethical obligations is, according to this model, an inadequate basis for any claim it may make for the advocacy of just behaviour. Ricoeur’s concerns have been widely echoed – by Jacques Derrida, Terry Eagleton and Gillian Rose, amongst others. In this project, I want to explore further the gap signalled here between the ethical claims made upon us by the singular other and the universal dictates of more abstract codes of the law – a gap registered in such allegedly incommensurable categories as the particular vs. the general, and the ‘hard-case’ vs. precedent or statute law, and the systems of logic and experimental praxis which seek to mediate between them.
About Jan-Melissa Schramm
Jan is currently a Fellow and College Lecturer in English at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. She practised as a lawyer in Australia before undertaking doctoral research in the Faculty of English here in Cambridge. She works on nineteenth century fiction (primarily the novels of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell) and on interdisciplinary approaches to narrative epistemologies. Her first book explored the implications for narrative form of changes in the law of evidence (Testimony and Advocacy in Victorian Law, Literature and Theology, CUP, 2000), and her second monograph interrogates the ways in which the rhetorical trope of substitution works towards the reconciliation of contending forces in mid-Victorian fiction (Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative, forthcoming soon with CUP). She has also co-edited a volume of essays due out shortly with Macmillan, entitled Fictions of Knowledge: Fact, Evidence, Doubt.
The project on goodness in nineteenth-century narrative builds on her earlier work and gestures towards a larger enquiry into Victorian economies of knowledge and virtue. To begin with, it will provide the foundation for two studies – on the tension between grace and works in mid-Victorian theology, and on the writings of Frederick Denison Maurice and the idea of a ‘national conscience’ in Victorian literature.
For administrative enquiries and a link to readings please contact Michelle Maciejewska.