Before commenting generally on the art of allusion in Victorian fiction, I want to mention certain broad developments in early twentieth-century fiction. The most important development is related to the self-conscious playfulness of much of this fiction, including some of the short stories and novellas, published in literary magazines at the turn of the century, which mark a transition from late Victorian to early modernist themes and techniques, including the use of allusion. Among these, James’s most famous novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), is a good starting point for any study of twentieth-century fiction, being problematic in its exploration of ambiguities which are different in kind from those of Conrad’s more obviously seminal Heart of Darkness(1902). James himself spoke disparagingly of his story, describing it as ‘essentially a pot-boiler’ and, more interestingly, a ‘jeu d’esprit’.1 Recognising the complexity of the work, however, many critics have trusted the tale and not the teller, and have explored the ambiguities which suggest themselves once the governess’s sanity, and thus the validity of her interpretation of events, are questioned. The names of the two schools of criticism which have emerged, the ‘apparitionist’ and the ‘non-apparitionist’, reflect the central ambiguity of the story.


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  1. 1.
    The Letters of Henry James, selected and edited by Percy Lubbock, 2 vols(London, 1920), I, 306.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Douglas’s and the governess’s accounts of her meeting with her master in London and her arrival at Bly are both vaguely reminiscent of Jane Eyré s story. The young, inexperienced governess is strongly attracted to her master, a ‘bachelor in the prime of life’. Mrs Grose, like Mrs Fairfax at Thomfield, presides over the country house in the master’s absence, and seems to withhold some secret from the governess. Flora is not unlike Adèle in certain respects, flitting about the house like a’sprité(1). Although rather labyrinthine in style, parts of the opening paragraph of the governess’s narrative could almost have been written by Jane Eyre(1). The governess’s account of hearing a distant cry on her first night at the house(1), and her overt reference to ‘a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement’(4), prompt one to ask how we are to respond to the Gothic machinery of the tale. There is, of course, no simple answer. Allusion seems to be part of an elaborate, teasing game, in which questions raised in the reader’s mind are never answered ‘in any literal, vulgar way’.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    It is worth recalling here that F. R. Leavis called that ‘astonishing work’, Wuthering Heights ‘a kind of sport’ in The Great Tradition(1948; reprinted, Harmondsworth, 1962), p. 38. This comment helps to explain the rise of the novel’s critical stock during our own century, particularly among critics whose interests are different from Leavis’s.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot(London, 1954), p. 405.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Avrom Fleishman writes: ‘Virginia Woolf is to be seen as an artist fully at one with the modern movement of experimentation and innovation, but, as is the case with the other major figures of the period, her novelty is most often a variation on traditional themes.’ He also comments that, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf ‘defines character, adumbrates themes, and introduces a pattern of dual impulse—toward life, toward death—based on her use of literary quotations and other elements of her cultural tradition’. ‘Virginia Woolf: Tradition and Modernity’, in Forms of Modern British Fiction, edited by Alan Warren Friedman(Austin and London, 1975), pp. 133–63(pp. 161, 151 ).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Fleishman’s comments in colloquium in Forms of Modern British Fiction, p. 213.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Peter K. Garrett, ‘Double Plots and Dialogical Form in Victorian Fiction’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 32(1977–8), 1–17(p. 2).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature(London, 1975), p. 30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    See Chapter 6, note 2.Google Scholar

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© Michael D. Wheeler 1979

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