Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy

An Alternative to the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Here’s some more info about my book.


The book has an epigraph from Marx which sums up the main subject matter:

“…that splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

The jacket will tell you that:

This book explores the importance of sympathy as a central idea behind Victorian fiction, and an animating principle of novel reading generally. Sympathy, Brigid Lowe argues, deserves a much more important role as both a subject and a guiding principle for literary criticism.

Over the past thirty years, much literary theory has approached literature in general, and Victorian fiction in particular, in a spirit of suspicion. It has tried to purge criticism of the human subject, and of that distinctively human faculty, sympathy. Reading in a contrary, sympathetic mode, Lowe turns the tables on theoretical orthodoxy by submitting some of its central premises to the sympathetic suggestions of novels by Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik. Their explorations of such diverse issues as history, imagination, individual rights, family, and social responsibility, highlight sympathy as a cornerstone of human nature and humane conduct. Lowe argues that not only literary theory, but our culture more generally, would greatly profit by opening itself up to a sympathetic exchange of ideas with another age, and giving Victorian intimations of sympathy a sympathetic hearing.

Lowe’s exploration of sympathy as part of the dynamics of reading will be of interest to academics and students working on fiction in all periods, and especially to those concerned with aesthetic and critical theory. Her investigation of the role of sympathy in a range of nineteenth-century cultural debates, in particular in relation to gender and the family, should also interest cultural historians. The engaging argumentative momentum of Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy will appeal to anyone interested in why we do, and should, go on reading Victorian fiction.

“This is the best work of criticism I have read in a long time…the straight and serious book on the Victorian novel I have been waiting to read.  Lowe conducts a moving, exciting exploration of sympathy  – as involved recognition and embedded love – perhaps the novelist’s most vital probe. She is outstandingly good on the shapes things have to take in the period and the often profitably dense confusions that are the necessary realist ways of both living with and partially changing those shapes. This book is very important and genuinely brave and real.”

Philip Davis, Professor of English at the University of Liverpool

“This is an ambitious, intelligent and courageous book. Well-read in fields
of thought that abut on the literary, including philosophy, psychology and
political thought, Lowe also displays the virtues of the good historian
intent on understanding the past in its differences from the present. She
presents an unusually forceful answer to the question of what we might
learn from reading Victorian fiction. We might re-enter a world in which
the problem of ‘sympathy’ was debated and our capacity for it explored,
and this might in turn revitalize some of the withered ways in which too
many people now read great works of literature.”

Adrian Poole – Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cambridge

“This is a wonderfully – well – sympathetic reading of some classic Victorian
fictions in their extended engagement with the large matter of human
Sympathy, a matter often touched on by literary historians but never with
Brigid Lowe’s reach nor anything like her delicately probing touch. Not
least compelling is the author’s kept-up contention with readers and
readings disposed to play down the human subject or even dismiss it entirely
from from the critical task. So this book’s considerable merit and
attraction are double: the way it contributes so strongly to the vital
business of humane, human-centred criticism as well as giving us such a
nicely up-close sense of how Victorian humaneness got worked out in the

Valentine Cunningham – Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University.

You can buy the book here

I would also have liked to have mentioned on the cover that the book engages with a lot of ‘theory’ from domains quite apart from those in which Literary Theory generally anchors itself. My argument draws on C19 historiographic theory, C20 philosophy of language and aesthetics, C21 philosphy of mind and cognitive science; history, the history of ideas, and moral and political theory. I hope it’s also a scholarly exercise in lit.crit., but it’s certainly not just that. If you don’t like patchwork, you might not like it…

This is quite an argumentative book, and I had to battle through a lot of negative readers’ reports from outraged Theory-heads in order to get it published. Anthem were very supportive, even though one of their readers also wrote a report in which he/she declined to engage with my argument, because (more or less) she felt I should really just go and stand in a corner and think hard about what I’d written until I realised how wrong I was. I’m interested to see whether the reviews (if I get any) are also that fiery! I’m hoping someone who disagrees with me will actually engage with my argument at some stage.


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