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Saverio Tomaiuolo, Victorian Unfinished Novels, The Imperfect Page

London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 204 p.
Armelle PAREY
Référence(s) :

Saverio Tomaiuolo, Victorian Unfinished Novels, The Imperfect Page, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 204 p.

Texte intégral

1“The moment of closure is the point at which the events of a story become fully intelligible to the reader”, Catherine Belsey explains about classic realist narratives. For Peter Brooks, “only the end can finally determine meaning, close the sentence as a signifying totality”. Victorian novels moreover favoured a tidy closure (Weiss). What then of these novels that were never completed and therefore never reached the point of closure? These are the texts under study in nineteenth-century specialist Saverio Tomaiuolo's Victorian Unfinished Novels. Some of these are well-known and have been critically acclaimed (such as Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Gaskell's Wives and Daughters) but others possibly less so (for instance, Trolloppe's The Landleaguers or Collins' Blind Love). Some may have been originally discarded by critics precisely because of their unfinished nature. Yet poststructuralist and deconstructionist theories' challenges to closure vindicate Tomaiuolo in looking at these incomplete texts, the reading if which he finds both stimulating and enlightening. Taking up Frank Kermode's famous phrase and title The Sense of an Ending, Tomaiuolo ponders on the “sense of unending”in these Victorian novels, trying to interpret the lack of an ending in itself, to draw conclusions from the fact that the novel is unfinished: “The unfinished dimension of the text raises questions on the nature and meaning of novel writing per se” (13).

2In fact, a number of these novels were completed by another writer, following the wishes and notes of the author who had sometimes commissioned him (in the case of Collins). In some cases, the unfinished nature of the text and lack of notes to continue it has led to a multitude of continuations and interpretations. Such is the case of Charlotte Brontë's Emma (discussed in the introduction) and of Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens's is the one that has been granted the greatest numbers of continuations (52-53), all testimonies to the novel's puzzling dimension and to the wealth of interpretations made available by its unfinished status. These continuations are not what interests Tomaiuolo here but for him, they attest of the fascination exerted by unfinished novels on readers left with what Tomaiuolo sees as tantalizing open-endedness, –with its load of instability and undecidability– in these texts that were never fully completed by their authors even if in a number of cases, Dickens's excepted, the writer laid out plans for the end of his/her tale.

3Opening with Charlotte Brontë's “Emma” and closing with Henry James's Sense of the Past (1917), the novels follow chronology, encompassing most of the period and beyond. Readings of incomplete novels are conducted in relation to the rest of the writer's work (18). It is indeed Tomaiuolo's contention that these unfinished novels all “recapitulate their writer's life and poetics in a sort of circular movement” (14). This is a comprehensive study that is throughout concerned with both text and context, offering close readings as well as drawing on biographical elements and always devoting a number of paragraphs or pages to the conditions of production of the novel.

4Serving as an introduction, Charlotte Brontë's unfinished Emma (1955) is rightly considered apart from the other books. It is by far shorter –only two chapters– than the other texts under study. Moreover, this is one of several fragments left by Charlotte Brontë who did not present herself as engaged in writing at the time of her death contrary to the other texts studied by Tomaiuolo. The completion of all the other Victorian novels examined in this volume was prevented by their author's death. We are not dealing here with texts deliberately abandoned by the writer (such as the incomplete detective story by Graham Greene that François Gallix discovered in the archives at the University of Texas), which legitimises Tomaiuolo's point that these incomplete texts participate of the whole œuvre and can thus be studied in the light of the unfinished works by the same authors.

5In Chapter 1, Tomaiuolo jointly studies Thackeray's and Gaskell's opuses that were left unfinished within two years of each other. These two differ in their unfinished dimension as Thackeray's is only half-completed while Gaskell's only has a chapter missing. But both are bildungsromans set in times past in order to better imagine “the future of Victorian society” (22) via new social subjects like Roger Hamley and Molly Gibson.

6In chapter 2, Tomaiuolo chooses to consider Charles Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) as “a finished piece” (56) in order to offer a reading of Dickens's last novel as the novelist's challenge to the form of the Victorian novel , pointing to the manifold instabilities of the text be it in terms of narrative genre, narrator or hero.

7Chapter 3 is devoted to R.L. Stevenson's two texts he was engaged with at the time of his death: Weir of Herminston and St. Ives, two romances considered as unequal by critics, the first one having been hailed as an unfinished masterpiece while finding little to say in favour of the second. While recognising their differences, Tomaiuolo chooses to focus on what they have in common as he considers them in the light of Stevenson's finished texts, all partaking of the writer's questioning of Scottishness as well as of his experimental literary attitude.

8Chapter 4 discusses two novels published respectively by A. Trolloppe and Wilkie Collins within a few years of each other. As both deal with the Irish question, Tomaiuolo is very generous with elements of historical contextualisation to understand the novels. Both novelists left notes (much more detailed in Collins's case) as to the intended ending and both display the anti-Irish attitude of the times (well-documented by Tomaiuolo). Yet, it is Tomaiuolo's contention that here as elsewhere, the absence of ending penned down by the author himself (Collins's Blind Love was completed by Walter Besant) makes for inconclusiveness. Tomaiuolo supports this point regarding Blind Love by insisting on the progressive depiction of female characters that contrast with his very orthodox imperialist view of the Irish question.

9The study closes with Henry James' incomplete Sense of the Past whose themes and unfinished status echo some of Tomaiuolo's preoccupations.

10With its abundant notes and extensive bibliography, Tomaiuolo's study is a well-documented and thorough effort to throw new light on –sometimes neglected– texts by analysing them in relation to the other works by the same author.

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Référence électronique

Armelle PAREY, « Saverio Tomaiuolo, Victorian Unfinished Novels, The Imperfect Page », E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL :

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