Will Abberley, English Fiction and the Evolution of Language, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015) 247 pp. $80.00 PDF, £64.99 Hb. ISBN: 9781107101166
Will Abberley’s English Fiction and the Evolution of Language 1850-1914, as the title suggests, explores the development of the English language through fiction, arguing that the influence of fiction on the development of modern English language is overwhelming and complex but highly significant to an understanding of the Victorian period and the literature it produced. Abberley focuses on the influence of fiction writing by tracing a relationship between Victorian science and the language of works of fiction, suggesting that the influence of Victorian science on works of fiction also affected the development of English language more generally.
As Abberley explains in the introduction, his principal argument is that 'fiction both helped to build the imaginary edifice of objective, scientific language and exposed the cracks in the foundation' (4); he aims to fill these 'cracks' by considering how fiction developed a 'dialogue with speculative philology' of the period and experimented 'with linguistic possibilities that the field made newly imaginable' (5). Focusing on the works of Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy, and H G Wells, Abberley explores the relationship between fiction, science, and language, and expands the discussion to consider what types of fiction, and scientific language interacted.
The introduction to Abberley's study establishes a general argument, conceptualizing language as an object to be studied or, as per the introductory chapter’s title, 'put under the microscope'. To ground the discussion, the chapter introduces several different theories about language prevalent during the Victorian period. Abberley mentions the Victorian philologist, Friederich Max Müller, and the philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer; Müller, he argues, 'reified language as an object apart from its users' (2), building on the metaphor of language as an object under the microscope. Spencer, on the other hand, is credited with portraying 'the progressive mechanization of language as part of a monistic evolution that collapsed opposition between nature and society' (7). Abberley then proceeds to demonstrate how converging ideas about science and language thus 'pervaded Victorian and Edwardian literary culture' (7) and '[c]ontinuous prose' and the novel, particularly (7), becoming 'bound up with epistemologies of observation and testimony' (7-8). As Abberley argues and indeed stresses throughout the study, '[t]he methodical description of prose fiction enabled authors to depict imaginary evolutions of language like anthropologists relating their observations' (8). Abberley suggests how different characteristics of language and its usage in the Victorian period - in particular language progression, language vitalism, and the 'dialogue' between nature and culture- converged to bring about a mental enfranchisement from inherited language supporting the development and exploration of objective knowledge, which Abberley defines as a foundation for Victorian science.
The first chapter, entitled 'The Future of Language in Prophetic Fiction,' examines the artificial language of Polish linguist Espernato Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof in order to connect his procedures in developing an artificial language to the development of contradictory visions of language progression that align in various ways to fiction usage. 'By inventing languages,' Abberley suggests, 'either as practical systems for communication or imaginative visions of the future, Victorians and Edwardians seemed to demonstrate the progress of their ties and bring the dream of objective language closer to realization' (23). Looking at the mechanizatiion of language, Abberley explains how the 'gradual diversification of language revealed by comparative philology suggested that speech evolved independently of human intention' (23), how language appeared to become a force of its own and was increasingly understood as such by novelists.
In the second chapter, 'Primitive Language in Imperial, Prehistoric, and Scientific Romances,' Abberley argues that 'visions of primitive language grew in tandem with forms of romance fiction, which offered speculative spaces to elaborate and test these visions' (56). The chapter considers the speculative spaces as much as the language types, looking at the relationship between language and the body. He then considers imperialism and colonialism through an examination of the 'insurmountable gulf between primitive and civilized' (64), exploring how novels such as Grant Allen’s The Great Taboo contend with these issues through language.
The third chapter, 'Organic Orality and the Historical Romance', explores a contrasting perspective on language framed by a review of another Victorian philologist, J. W. Donaldson and with a focus on how Victorians perceived language vitalism as growing 'from romantic and biblical traditions which idealized a past golden age before modern degradation' (91). Abberley suggests that '[l]anguage vitalism in Victorian historical fiction was characterized by negotiations of the gap between speech and writing' (92). Looking particularly at Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855) and Hereward the Wake (1866), Abberley argues that the 'pseudo-orality' of the narrative in these texts, exposing the space between written and spoken language, is striking but 'undercut by a scholarly register stressing the tale’s historical accuracy' (97). The chapter also explores the themes of language nostalgia and race, unpacking how the 'historical heterogeneity of English lent a note of despair to efforts to excavate pure racial-linguistic heritage' (105), given that these issues also informed language development through fiction.
Abberley’s study offers a detailed and invaluable contribution to the study of fiction and language in the Victorian period, including 'invasion fiction' (106) such as George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking and nostalgic fiction such as William Morris’s novels.
Drawing together the arguments of the previous three chapters, 'Instinctive Signs: Nature and Culture in Dialogue', the fourth chapter, picks up on the ways that progressivism and vitalism 'refined' language (128) and facilitated a new mechanism of language. Abberley considers the works of Butler, Hardy, and Wells, concentrating on The Way of All Flesh and the phonological rendition of hereditary speech, Butler’s 'vision of language as an inheritance' (129), as well as Hardy’s idea of 'love and sexual attraction' (140) through language and '[t]he idea of instinctive emotional signs' (141) that provide a framework for speaking of sex. The analysis of Wells considers '[c]reativity and babbling instinct' in his early novels, looking particularly at the way that dialogue and narrative voice use language as mechanisms for exploring concepts about language: aspects of philology that Abberley discusses throughout the book but also ideas about gender and psychology.
The conclusion synthesizes the arguments and ideas of the four chapters with an appropriate widening of the lens to consider the broader implications of the overall argument about the development of language through fiction between 1850 and the start of the First World War. With the conclusion providing the keystone and emphasizing the scope of the work, its concentration on the works of three writers of fiction, Abberley’s study breaks fresh ground in the study of Victorian ideas about language.
Charlotte Fiehn, University of Cambridge