Two late Victorian novels—George Gissing's The Nether World (1889) and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide (1894)—share something peculiar: both prominently feature scenes of vitriol thrown at or exploding in a character's face. I argue that vitriol proved alluring to these novelists because they understood fictional representation itself as an assault, a means of revenge, a vitriolic mode of writing. For both writers this had everything to do with their conception of realism—and with their own participation in the quintessential late Victorian debate about realism in fiction. The Nether World, more than any other Gissing novel, emerged from a spirit of enmity and revenge. The novel was born out of the experience of Gissing's first wife's death amid poverty and degradation; he saw the novel as a means of avenging injustice, a way to channel resentment into art. The antagonistic vapors swirling around Gissing in life he transmogrified into fiction, such that the vitriol attack on Clara Hewett in The Nether World comes to stand for his own brand of realism: fiery, punishing, and unsentimental. Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide, written by a novelist not known for adhering to the realist movement, nevertheless exemplifies a similar tendency in violent representation. As he worked further on the novel and especially its vitriol-soaked finale, Stevenson felt himself pulled helplessly into a kind of fiction he called realism: “I have got too realistic,” he confessed. This essay contends that vitriol was the perfect metonym for late Victorian realism, a mode of fiction characterized not by its claim to the documentary but by its commitment to the explosive.
Aaron Matz; Some Versions of Vitriol (the Novel Circa 1890). Novel 1 May 2009; 42 (1): 23–39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2008-002
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