Why did George Eliot portray peasants as she did in Silas Marner? Well, why not look at her comments in “The Natural History of German Life”? This hermeneutic appears neat and systematized, but at the same time, it highlights the difficulty in constructing a consistent system to interpret an inconsistent human being. In “Reading the Periodical Press: Text and Context,” Lyn Pykett examines the complications that ensue when literary critics attempt to read and digest Victorian periodical writing. The temptation to use nonfiction as “secondary confirming evidence” of an author’s fictional views and ideas is strong– and it happens much more often than scholars would probably like to admit (Pykett 102). Like Pykett, however, I agree that an author’s nonfiction must play some role in our understanding of that author’s other works; how important that role is, exactly, is harder to pin down.
These periodical writings are useful as cultural artifacts. Yet when determining how much an author’s periodical writing is a product of her culture, we run up against a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario: does the press shape society, or does society shape the press? It’s almost as frustrating as asking whether novels shape our theoretical framework, or whether our theoretical framework shapes how we read novels. Pykett quotes James Mill, who observes, “Periodical literature depends upon immediate success. It must, therefore, patronise the opinions which are now in vogue, the opinions of those who are now in power” (105). At the same time as the periodical press provided an avenue for those not in power (i.e. Victorian women) to challenge the majority opinion, these marginalized opinions began to push their way to center stage and effect change. The answer to both questions, of course, has to be yes; the influence is mutual.
I believe that one solution is to read these Victorian periodicals as an indication of what topics possessed cultural relevance. Like we read Middlemarch, we should not seek to systematize “Victorian culture” as a monolithic entity; rather, we should seek to enter each article as a different perspective on the same body of current social issues. When applied to individual authors, then, I believe that periodical articles are useful insofar as they highlight what topics were in that author’s mind at the time. Though nonfiction pieces such as Eliot’s “Natural History” or “Notes on Form in Art” should not be used as a systematic proof of an author’s consistent approach to writing, they are useful if we view them as explorations— tentative theories or approaches that the author could challenge or revise at a later time.
While this approach does not provide a satisfying, tidy hermeneutic, I do believe it is more holistic. We’re all human. We make mistakes; we revise our ideas when we encounter new evidence or gain new experiences. It’s certainly unfair to interpret an established literary critic’s theories by a paper he/she wrote in grad school, yet we tend to hold our authors to an unrealistic standard of consistency (and perhaps even possess the illusion of our own eternal consistency). Giving up our need to systematize might just help us remember to accept what we don’t understand, explore mysteries (but admit our limits), and remember to enjoy texts at face value again.