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The first chapter argues that stylistic virtue was an important concept in British aesthetics that significantly influenced the development of formalism. It begins by examining the prevalence of stylistic virtues in eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century rhetoric, where they were shaped by two approaches that mirror those described in the introduction: a psychological one that viewed style as extrinsic to textual content, and a belletristic one that emphasized the stylistic construction of aesthetic “character.” As the division between rhetoric and literary criticism began to harden, a new generation of Victorian critics co-opted the belletristic approach, placing the analysis of style at the heart of the emerging discipline of “English.” While some scholars have argued that Victorian readers were insensitive to style, this chapter reveals that wide-ranging figures such as Thomas De Quincey, Alexander Bain, David Masson, and Herbert Spencer each centered the aesthetic distinctiveness of literature around small-scale stylistic properties.
Chapter 3 further establishes the significance of Aristotelian virtue theory within the landscape of British moral philosophy, where it has been almost entirely neglected. It begins with the 1874 publication of Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics, which was a significant literary event because it identified virtue ethics with “aesthetic” modes of reasoning. An Aristotelian conception of stylistic character subsequently flourished in the philosophical writings of J.S. Mill, John Grote, T.H. Green, and Bernard Bosanquet, all of whom rejected the dissociation of ethics from aesthetics and imagined character as an aesthetic realization of the self. In this way, philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition provided an ethical justification for aesthetic autonomy and the character-based formalism of Victorian stylistic criticism.
On the surface, the ethical vocabulary of stylistic virtue reflects the fact that moral and stylistic virtues overlap. A “manly” style may connote masculine strength, just as an “honest” author may promise fidelity in representation. However, the “aesthetic” critics of the mid- to late-nineteenth century did not disavow this seemingly moralistic lexicon. Instead, Chapter 2 shows how the doubleness of stylistic virtues made them appealing to critics who sought to provide an ethical justification for formalist methods. By tracing the theory of stylistic virtue in the four Victorian critics most influenced by Aristotle – John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde – it reveals a process of “ethico-aesthetic drift” whereby “ethical character” was increasingly understood as an aesthetic phenomenon that had autonomous value. As literary criticism came to be seen as a creative act on a par with the production of art, it too became an ethically valuable act, investing style and its appreciation with an unprecedented level of attention and esteem.
The introduction sets up the book’s theoretical terrain by providing a synoptic history of stylistic virtue from Aristotle to the present. It claims that stylistic virtues have typically encoded two ways of thinking about style: a referential one that regards style as an embodiment of underlying character and an autonomous one that sees style as conveying an independent character of its own. It explains that the book’s overarching purpose is to unfold the autonomous conception of style and defends its approach through the analysis of an extended Victorian example (“lightness” in Robert Louis Stevenson's work). It concludes by showing that stylistic virtue offers a fresh conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic value of fiction in ways not captured by recent work in either ethical or formalist criticism.
The conceptual framework that accompanies stylistic virtue was the product of over two thousand years of rhetorical, critical, and philosophical development, much of which appears to collapse in the first decades of the twentieth century. However, the Afterword suggests that stylistic virtue persisted in constituent and strategically obscured forms: for example, in T.S. Eliot’s analysis of stylistic “impersonality” and I.A. Richards’s conception of the poem as “pseudo-statement.” The Afterword goes on to claim that contemporary virtue theory provides a promising avenue for the continued defense of style, and of aesthetic value more generally, as an ethical good, offering an innovative way of defending the humanities at a moment of contemporary crisis.
The style of George Meredith represents an opposite extreme from Trollope: dense with epigram and ornament, it is frequently denigrated as extravagant and obscure, violating the realist conventions that Trollope worked hard to establish. However, Chapter 6 demonstrates how Meredith drew on the virtues of Asiatic and baroque styles to create a new form of psychological realism characterized by “fervidness,” the intensity that arises when contradictory principles are held in tension. On the one hand, Meredith gravitated to short forms like epigram to distill complex thoughts into memorable phrases; on the other, he delighted in the flights of fancy permitted by prosaic expansiveness. Through a consideration of major and minor work, this chapter reveals how fervidness is embodied structurally as a drama between conditions of freedom and constraint that impinge upon the development of central characters. In this way, Meredith’s “fervidness” formally replicates a dynamic that plays out thematically, making his style much more referential in terms of its relation to content than that of either Thackeray or Trollope before him.
The second half of the book turns to the novels of Thackeray, Trollope, and Meredith to demonstrate how stylistic virtues offer an historicized hermeneutic that can change our understanding of texts and Victorian prose forms. It begins with William Makepeace Thackeray because he was considered by many to be the period’s most capable stylist, though few understand this assessment today. The fault lies in part with the traditions of Thackerayan criticism. Obsessed with the quality of his narrative voice, many have focused on Thackeray’s unity (or disunity) of tone, leading to dubious interpretations of key early works. By rethinking these interpretations, which stem from thematically oriented criticism, Chapter 4 shows that there is a difference between Thackeray’s satirical personality and the protean adaptability of his stylistic guises. The consequence for readers of major works like Pendennis or The Newcomes is a hyper-awareness of “grace,” a form of stylistic versatility and detachment that exists in productive tension with the author’s other ethical attitudes.
Of all Victorian authors, Trollope comes closest to aspiring to the “degree zero” style that has played such an important role in modern theorizations of prose. Committed to an ideal of stylistic transparency, Trollope sought the unmediated transmission of authorial thought-content, borrowing from the more psychological strains of belletrism. However, Chapter 5 challenges the moralization of Trollope’s “disappearing” style as honest or forthright by cataloguing the acts of formal deception necessary to render such effects. Moreover, Trollope’s writings on style reveal his interest in non-mimetic features of prose such as harmony and rhythm, challenging “ease” and “lucidity” as preeminent realist virtues. The chapter concludes that Trollope’s blend of Attic simplicity with Ciceronian schemes proves his style to be one of the most artfully mannered in Victorian English, creating an impression of aesthetic virtuosity where many critics have seen only functional pedestrianism.
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.
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