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What is style, and why does it matter? This book answers these questions by recovering the concept of 'stylistic virtue,' once foundational to rhetoric and aesthetics but largely forgotten today. Stylistic virtues like 'ease' and 'grace' are distinguishing properties that help realize a text's essential character. First described by Aristotle, they were integral to the development of formalist methods and modern literary criticism. The first half of the book excavates the theory of stylistic virtue during its period of greatest ascendance, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when belletristic rhetoric shaped how the art of literary style and 'the aesthetic' were understood. The second half offers new readings of Thackeray, Trollope, and Meredith to show how stylistic virtue changes our understanding of style in the novel and challenges conventional approaches to interpreting the ethics of art.


‘Matthew Sussman offers an eye-opening account of style in the nineteenth century … wonderful, and rigorous … It is one of the rare books that has helped me understand much better a term—'style’—I use every day. It is a book to be grateful for.’

Jesse Rosenthal Source: Nineteenth-Century Contexts

‘Matthew Sussman fascinatingly connects two concepts that today’s reader would be more likely to oppose: style and virtue. Sussman’s striking claim in the book is that the verbal qualities of a text, even when considered separately from the text’s content, can have ethical or moral value … One of its invaluable contributions to the field is to situate Victorian fiction in a long history of rhetorical criticism that takes Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric as its source of inspiration. In chapters that are both philosophically robust and painstakingly researched, Sussman establishes how stylistic virtues resemble moral virtues in providing a characterological ideal.’

Source: 2021 AUHE Prize for Literary Scholarship

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