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Original Copy
Plagiarism and Originality in
Nineteenth-Century Literature


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To my parents, Rosamund and John
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Gratitude is above all due to Robert Douglas-Fairhurst for his brilliance,

generosity, and care. I would also like to thank, for help, encouragement,
advice, and correction at different stages of the book’s development:
Charles Armstrong, William Baker, Gillian Beer, Stefan Collini, Santanu
Das, Eric Griffiths, Julia Lovell, Jeff Mackowiak, Andrew McNeillie,
Garry Martin, Rod Mengham, Daniel Neill, Ralph O’Connor, Tom
Perridge, Corinna Russell, Paul Saint-Amour, Valerie Shelley, John
Stubbs, and Mark Wormald. Thanks are due also to Pembroke and
Emmanuel, the two colleges under whose auspices the book has been
written; and to my grandparents, George and Barbara Macfarlane, for
their help with and interest in my education. Original Copy is dedicated
to my parents, for many reasons.
R.M., 2006
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Abbreviations xi

Introduction 1
Two theories of originality 1
Victorian originalities 6

1. ‘Romantic’ Originality 18
Introduction 18
The new shibboleth 27
The Romantic handover 33
Purloined letters and plagiarism hunters 41

2. Legitimizing Appropriation 50
Introduction 50
Composition and decomposition 52
Victorian selves and plagiarism 67
‘They wot not of it’: unconscious plagiarism 77
Noble contagion 82
Conclusions 88

3. George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 92

Introduction 92
Eliot and ‘entire’ originality 98
Deep originality 103
The onlie begetter 108
The commonwealth and the general mind 113
The uses of unoriginality: Eliot and misquotation 120
Conclusions 126

4. Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 130

Factual fictions 130
The double vision of Charles Reade 136
The ‘Great System’ 141
Conclusions 154
x Contents
5. Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle: Originality
and Plagiarism in Pater, Wilde, and Johnson 158
Introduction 158
The cultivation of style and the breakdown of unity 164
Jewel-setting 168
Novitas: the turn to the dictionary 172
Refinement 177
Talent and tradition: the return to the library 183
‘Ancestral voices’: the ghosts of Lionel Johnson 193
Conclusions 209

Bibliography 212

Index 237

The following abbreviations have been used in the footnotes for fre-
quently cited works.

BP Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the

English Poet (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971).
COC Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition
[1759], ed. E. J. Morley, (London: Longmans, Green
& Co., 1918).
COW Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar
Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (London: Allen, 1970).
CWOW Oscar Wilde, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London:
HarperCollins, 1994).
GC George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (London: Faber
and Faber, 2000).
ITS George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such [1879], ed.
Nancy Henry (London: William Pickering, 1994).
LD Linda Dowling, Language and Decadence in the Vic-
torian Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1986).
LIT Thomas M. Green, The Light in Troy: Imitation and
Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 1982).
LJP Lionel Johnson, The Collected Poems of Lionel Johnson, ed.
Ian Fletcher (New York: Garland, 1982).
OMF Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend [1864–5], ed.
Michael Cotsell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
PL Lionel Johnson, Post Liminium: Essays and Critical
Papers, ed. Thomas Whittemore (London: Elkin Math-
ews, 1911).
PP Marilyn Randall, Pragmatic Plagiarism (Toronto:
Toronto University Press, 2000).
PWWW William Wordsworth, The Prose Works of William
Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington
Smyser, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).
xii Abbreviations

RWE Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works of Ralph

Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson et al., 5 vols.
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971–94).
SA Paul K. Saint-Amour, The Copywrights: Intellectual Prop-
erty and the Literary Imagination (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2003).
SERI Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Ima-
gination (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
SETSE T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays [1932], 3rd edn. (London:
Faber and Faber, 1991).
SOP G. H. Lewes, The Study of Psychology (London:
Trübner, 1879).
WL Oscar Wilde, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert
Hart-Davis (New York: Harcourt, 1962).
WP The Works of Walter Pater, 10 vols. (London: Macmil-
lan, 1910). This New Library Edition does not give
numbers to the individual volumes, only names. These
have been abbreviated as follows:
Appr. Appreciations, with an Essay on Style
Marius I Marius the Epicurean volume i
Marius II Marius the Epicurean volume ii
Pl.Pl. Plato and Platonism
Ren. The Renaissance
Manuscript sources are abbreviated as follows:
LL London Library numbered holdings of Charles Reade’s
scrapbooks. Reade conventionally numbered only the
top right-hand corner of recto pages of the scrapbook.
Unnumbered verso pages are indicated with the suffix ‘b’.

What we call plagiarism is a subject with deep roots in our literature

and huge implications for the crafts of writing and speaking.
(Christopher Hitchens)¹


In Grammars of Creation, George Steiner examines the play of difference

between the two verbs ‘to create’ and ‘to invent’. ‘To create’, he
proposes, intuitively suggests a making out of nothing. By contrast,
‘to invent’—from the Latin verb invenire, to encounter—implies a
coming upon what is already there, and its subsequent rearrangement.²
The key distinction between the two ideas is that of source. Creators
bring entirely new matter into being. Inventors, however, permute pre-
existing material into novel combinations. According to one paradigm
the work of art is an addition to what exists; according to the other, it is
an edition of it.
Western grammars of literary creation have tended to migrate between
these two poles of making. On the one hand, so-called ‘Romantic’
theories of literary creation have assumed an analogy, if not an equality,
with divine creation, whereby the literary work is created from beyond
the material or phenomenal context. Originality is treated by such
theories as an immanent or transcendent value which inheres in the
text, rather than being ascribed to it—it is considered what Edward
Said calls a ‘privileged quality’.³ Writing in 1589, for instance, George
Puttenham declared ‘a Poet’ to be ‘a maker … such as … we may say

¹ Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislators (London: Verso, 2000), 237.

² GC, 13–53.
³ Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1983), 126.
2 Introduction

of God; who … made all the world out of nought’.⁴ Puttenham used
his analogy between poet and God to discriminate between ‘original’
poems and ‘copies’, and thereby also to sort writers into a hierarchy
of importance. He excluded translators from the primary category of
‘maker’ on the grounds that the matter from which they formed their
poems was pre-existing.⁵ What distinguished ‘the very Poet’, according
to Puttenham, was his ability to ‘make and contriue out of his owne
braine both the verse and matter of his poeme’.⁶ John A. Héraud, in
an article for an 1830 issue of Fraser’s Magazine, proposed a similar
account of creativity. For Héraud, the defining power of the ‘poetic’
mind was that of fashioning ideas out of nothing. ‘What are called
original thoughts’, he stated, ‘are underived, indeed original, existent
in the individual soul … the imagination creates its ideas … from
nothing!’⁷ Such visions of literary making are intimately linked with
the concept of a singular creator: the creative urge is dramatized as
pulsing deep within the fastness of the individual self, and the solitary
writer is seen to conjure ideas into the influence-proofed chamber of
his or her imagination. When the work of literature thus conceived is
presented to the world, it is therefore, to borrow Coleridge’s accolade
for Wordsworth’s poetry, ‘perfectly unborrowed and [the poet’s] own’.⁸
It is unindebted either to peer or to predecessor. Creation of this order
is not conventionally associated with labour, but is rather spontaneous
and unbidden: the writer effortlessly constellates words into an entirely
new and unforeseen formation. Historically, such theories of creation
have tended to be accompanied by a well-defined sense both of literary
property (the ownership of words) and of literary propriety (how to
behave with regard to the words of others). The possibility of pure

⁴ George Puttenham, ‘The Arte of English Poesie’, repr. in G. Gregory Smith (ed.),
Elizabethan Critical Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), ii. 3.
⁵ For specific discussions of Renaissance theories of poetic origin, see Maren-Sofie
Røstvig, ‘Ars Aeterna: Renaissance Poetics and Theories of Divine Creation’, Mosaic,
3:2 (Winter 1970), 40–61; E. N. Tigerstedt, ‘The Poet as Creator: Origins of a
Metaphor’, Comparative Literary Studies, 5:4 (1968), 455–88; David Quentin, ‘Upon
Nothing’, in Nicholas Fisher (ed.), That Second Bottle: Essays on John Wilmot, Earl of
Rochester (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 89–100; and David Quint,
Origins and Originality in Renaissance Literature: Versions of the Source (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1983).
⁶ Puttenham, ‘English Poesie’, 3.
⁷ J. A. Héraud, ‘On Poetical Genius Considered as a Creative Power’, Fraser’s
Magazine, 1 (1830), 59, 63.
⁸ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria [1817], ed. J. Shawcross (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1907), ii. 124.
Introduction 3

origination makes possible the notion that language—that most public

and publicly created of domains—can be privatized by an individual.
What can be privatized, of course, can also be expropriated, and such
theories of literary creation have historically also been hostile to modes
of writing which are in some way repetitious: imitation, for example, or
allusion, quotation, parody, and pastiche. Literary resemblance is held
to be suggestive of unoriginality, and unoriginality reveals in the writer
both an intellectual servility and an imaginative infertility. According
to these theories, repetitious modes of writing are always aesthetically
unsuccessful, because the bona fide work of art has to be ‘perfectly
unborrowed’. Of all literary crimes, therefore, plagiarism is the most
reprehensible. It is the unoriginal sin.
Despite its fundamental ontological difficulties—how can something
come of nothing?—and its failure to acknowledge the inescapably
dialogic nature of language use, this conceit of making ex nihilo has
remained a compelling literary creation myth, proving highly resistant to
attempts to discredit or obliterate it, including the systematic criticisms
of origin proposed by post-structuralism and its theoretical offspring.
‘Originality’ survives as a desirable quality for literature; to call a literary
work ‘original’ is still to evaluate it approvingly not in terms of what it
might have in common with other works, or in how its writer might
be trying to communicate with other writers across historical periods
and genre boundaries, but rather in terms of what is unanticipated
or rare about it. The notion of the originating hero-artist or ‘onlie
begetter’ also continues to prosper in the literary-cultural consciousness.
If anything, indeed, it is more unshiftably ensconced there than 200
years ago, when it is generally taken to have been devised. The mutually
defining triumvirate of genius, originality, and creativity underpins both
Anglo-American copyright law and the European droit d’auteur: for a
work to be protected under copyright, one of the things it has to prove
is its ‘originality’. Finally, originality remains enshrined in academic
discourse. Despite the accretive and highly indebted nature of academic
research and writing, and despite post-structuralism’s lessons, delivered
from deep within the academy, that ‘originality’ is nothing more than
a special effect of reception, it remains a cardinal value for academic
This, then, is one account of literary creativity: one pole of making. It
is the pole represented in Steiner’s binary by the verb ‘to create’ and most
often alluded to as ‘Romantic’, an unsatisfactory terminology which is
discussed at greater length in the first chapter of this book. At the other
4 Introduction

end of the spectrum, clustered around the verb ‘to invent’, are those
theories of literary creation which refuse to believe in the possibility of
creation out of nothing, or in the uninfluenced literary work. These
inventorial or recombinative theories—such as those espoused by the
imaginative logic of literary postmodernism, or by Augustan aesthetics,
which privileged the act of making out of extant material; consider, for
instance, Johnson’s Platonically inflected third definition of ‘original’
in his Dictionary (1755–6) as ‘first copy’—assume that the writer is
merely a rearranger of bits and pieces: an administrator rather than
a producer.⁹ Given that language is an inherently communal medi-
um—‘a sort of monument’, as Emerson put it, ‘to which each forcible
individual in a course of many hundreds of years has contributed a
stone’—it is unfeasible for a work of literature to be ‘perfectly unbor-
rowed’.¹⁰ As social beings, working with and in the social emulsion of
language, each writer is compulsorily heir to innumerable predecessors,
and indebted to innumerable contemporaries. These theories hold, as
Auden put it, that ‘[I]t is both the glory and the shame of poetry that
its medium is not its private property, that a poet cannot invent his
words and that words are products, not of nature, but of a human
society which uses them for a thousand different purposes. … Even
the language of Finnegans Wake was not created by Joyce ex nihilo; a
purely private verbal world is not possible.’¹¹ The shaping pressures of
historical context, and of contemporary literary expectations and con-
ventions, mould the work of literature from the outside. It is therefore
more accurate, according to these recombinative theories, to think of
the creating mind as a lumber-room in which are stored innumerable
verbal odds and ends. The supposedly ‘original’ writer in fact works
with ‘inherited lexical, grammatical, and semantic counters, combining
and recombining them into expressive-executive sequences’.¹² For this
reason, these recombinative theories treat originality not as a privileged,
trans-historical category, but as a cultural convention. An exposition of
them can be found in Paul Valéry’s ‘Letter about Mallarmé’. ‘We say
that an author is original’, Valéry wrote there, ‘when we cannot trace

⁹ Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are
Deduced from their Originals (London: J. and P. Knapton et al., 1755), ii, sig. 18S1v .
¹⁰ RWE, iii. 136.
¹¹ W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 23.
¹² GC, 150.
Introduction 5

the hidden transformation that others underwent in his mind. What a

man does either repeats or refutes what someone else has done—repeats
it in other tones, refines or amplifies or simplifies it.’¹³ For Valéry, all
literature is irredeemably second-hand. Originality is not an indwelling
quality of writerly production, but instead a function of readerly per-
ception, or more precisely readerly ignorance (the failure to discern a
writer’s sources). Writing is a continual process of tuning out (‘refutes’),
turning up (‘amplifies’), or fine-tuning (‘refines’) what someone else
has done, and all writers thus either inhabit or inhibit the language
of ‘others’. Creation is always, and appropriately anagrammatically,
reaction. Valéry was implying—to use an image from Tristram Shandy
(an image which Sterne had decanted without acknowledgement from
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, who had himself borrowed
the image from the Latin of J. V. Andrea)—that ‘new books’ are all
made ‘as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one
vessel into another’.¹⁴
These recombinative theories of literary creation have tended to be
tolerant of repetitious modes of writing, and to downplay the claims
of literary property. At their most acute, they have assumed the same
radical instability of language which Derrida identifies in ‘Signature,
Event, Context’. There, Derrida coins the term itérabilité to describe
the semantic drift which inevitably occurs between consecutive uses of
the same text. His neologism exploits the derivation of the Latin verb
iterare (meaning ‘to repeat’) from the Sanskrit word itara (meaning
‘other’), an etymology which, Derrida notes, valuably emphasizes ‘the
logic which links repetition to alterity’.¹⁵ For Derrida, the repetition of
a text inescapably involves its alteration: you can never step twice in
the same poem, paragraph, or word. He himself partakes of the same
logic which underwrote Borges’s droll parable about Pierre Menard,
who succeeded, according to Borges, in rewriting the Quixote, word for
word and line for line, ‘without falling into a tautology’.¹⁶

¹³ Paul Valéry, Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé, trans. Malcolm Cowley and James R. Lawler
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), 241.
¹⁴ Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman [1759–67],
ed. Ian Campbell Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 275.
¹⁵ Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, in A Derrida Reader: Between the
Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 90.
¹⁶ Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, in Labyrinths, ed. and
trans. Donald A. Yates et al. (London: Penguin, 1970), 67.
6 Introduction


Two contrasting cultural narratives exist, therefore, to explain literary

creation. One is a hallowed vision of creation as generation—which we
might call creatio—the other a more pragmatic account of creation as
rearrangement, which we might call inventio. The former conventionally
connotes some brief, noumenal moment of afflatus or inspiration, while
the latter has the tang of the atelier about it. Creatio is associated with
the artist, inventio with the artisan. Creatio exalts the individual author
to the highest level, inventio abstracts the author into language, and
erodes his or her powers of agency and intention. Generally speaking,
attitudes to originality and plagiarism have moved between these poles
in a dialectical fashion. That is to say, a period in which creatio has
been valued has usually been followed by a swing back towards inventio.
By extension, at times when prevailing attitudes have been attracted
towards the pole of creatio—as is conventionally assumed to have
occurred during the Romantic decades in Britain, for instance—those
modes of writing which confess to an indebted relationship with another
text or texts have typically become relegated to the status of secondary
literature, or have even been stigmatized as plagiaristic. Contrastingly, at
times when attitudes have tended more towards the pole of inventio—as
during much of the twentieth century—techniques of appropriation
and repetition have been legitimized as modes of composition: we
might think here of the quotations which litter Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or
Marianne Moore’s fondness for texturing her poetry with snippets from
Vogue, or the ‘pseudo-plagiarisms’ of William Burroughs and Kathy
Acker (whereby texts are appropriated from different sources, modi-
fied—rewritten, misquoted, fragmented, re-layered, gender-swapped,
disordered—and then patched into a new context), or the typology
of creative plagiarisms—‘blockplags’, ‘implags’, and ‘difplags’—which
Alasdair Gray sets out in his 1981 novel Lanark.¹⁷
This book investigates one of these historical swings: specifically,
the reappraisal of literary originality and plagiarism which occurred in
Britain between 1859 and 1900. So much scholarly work has been
undertaken on these two ideas that anyone approaching them faces
a neatly reflexive question: how is it possible to say anything new

¹⁷ See Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1981),
Introduction 7

about them? They have been scrupulously investigated in respect of

the Renaissance (the incipience of modern notions of authorship),
the eighteenth century (the resurgence of a poetics of imitation),
Romanticism and its aftermath (the entrenchment of originality as a
literary virtue), modernism (‘making new’), and postmodernism (the
intertextuality industry).¹⁸ The development of these ideas in the
second half of the Victorian years, however, has been far less assiduously
examined, despite abundant evidence that originality and plagiarism
were significantly rethought in this period.¹⁹
The broad aim of this book is therefore to provide an intellectual
cartography for these ideas during that period of time. Its particular
contention is that, in the last four decades of the nineteenth century,

¹⁸ For scholarly surveys of originality and plagiarism in the Renaissance, see Harold
Ogden White, Plagiarism and Imitation during the English Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1935); Stephen Orgel’s influential article ‘The Renaissance
Artist as Plagiarist’, ELH 48 (1981), 476–95; and Laura J. Rosenthal, Playwrights and
Plagiarists in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). On
originality and plagiarism in the Augustan period, see BP; and Patricia Phillips, The
Adventurous Muse: Theories of Originality in English Poetics, 1670–1750 (Stockholm:
Uppsala, 1984). On originality and plagiarism in the Romantic period, see SERI ; Leslie
Brisman, Romantic Origins (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978); Paul A. Cantor,
Creature and Creator: Myth-Making and English Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994); Zachary Leader, Revision and Romantic Authorship (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1996); and Jack Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary
Genius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). On originality and plagiarism in
modernism, see Elizabeth Gregory, Quotation and Modern American Poetry (Houston:
Rice University Press, 1996); Stan Smith, The Origins of Modernism (Hemel Hempstead:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994); Louis Menand, Discovering Modernism (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1987); and Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-garde and
Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985). Beyond these period-based
studies, there have been a series of trans-historical surveys, of which the two most useful
are PP; and Thomas McFarland, Originality and Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1985).
¹⁹ The only book-length study which exists is SA. Saint-Amour’s brilliant book,
which Original Copy both draws on and hopes to draw out, focuses on the transition
to modernism: he has insightful chapters on Wilde, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and also
usefully maps late nineteenth-century shifts in economic theories of value onto shifts
in theories of literary value. Excellent work on the adjacent subjects of forgery, and
intellectual property, is to be found in, respectively, Nick Groom, The Forger’s Shadow
(London: Picador, 2002), and Clare Pettitt, Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and
the Victorian Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Valuable author-specific
work has been carried out by Lilian Nayder, in Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens,
Wilkie Collins and Victorian Authorship (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002),
Josephine M. Guy, ‘Self-Plagiarism, Creativity and Craftsmanship in Oscar Wilde’,
English Literature in Transition (1880–1920), 41:1 (1998), 6–23, and Christopher
Ricks, ‘Tennyson Inheriting the Earth’, in Hallam Tennyson (ed.), Studies in Tennyson
(London: Macmillan, 1981), 66–104.
8 Introduction

a reaction manifested itself in Britain to the ideas of creatio which

had been in the ascendant earlier in the century. From the late 1850s
onwards, received notions of originality (as the pre-eminent literary
virtue) and plagiarism (as the pre-eminent literary sin) came under
increasingly sceptical scrutiny. Victorian writers and thinkers began to
speak out against the overvaluation of originality as difference, and
against the excessive animus which existed towards literary resemblance.
The representation of literary creativity as origination ex nihilo, forged
in the first decades of the century, was challenged by models which
envisaged creativity as a function of the selection and recombination
of pre-existing words and concepts. The account of the autonomous
creator—which Karen Burke LeFevre usefully dubs the myth of the
‘isolated atomistic inventor’²⁰—was also disputed, and a counter-
theory was proposed of the writer as an assimilator and transformer; an
individual who possessed and practised the ability, as Ruskin put it in
1860, ‘in some wonderful way [to] extract and recombine’.²¹ Finally,
‘plagiarism’ was substantially redefined as a necessity of literature, rather
than a felony committed against it. As the scholar-journalist Brander
Matthews proposed in 1886, ‘much of which is called plagiarism’ was
‘not criminal at all, but perfectly legitimate’.²²
A dispute occurred, in other words, over the imaginative terms by
which literary originality could be understood: a dispute which had
profound implications for concepts of intellectual property, and for
attitudes towards reuse and resemblance in literature. It is proposed
here that, from the late 1850s onwards, unoriginality—understood as
the inventive reuse of the words of others—came increasingly to be
discerned as an authentic form of creativity. In his book on Beckett
and repetition, Steve Connor notes of the decades since 1970 that ‘the
relationship of originality and repetition has become an obsessive theme
… in philosophy, linguistics, sociology and other human sciences’.
He goes on to draw a contrast between ‘the fixed polarities of creative
originality on the one hand and plagiarizing imposture on the other’, and
characterizes postmodernism’s pervasive concern with repetition ‘as an
attempt to shift and complicate the fixity of each of those positions and to

²⁰ Karen Burke LeFevre, Invention as a Social Act (Carbondale: Southern Illinois

University Press, 1987), 13.
²¹ John Ruskin, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander
Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903–12), vii. 207.
²² Brander Matthews, ‘The Ethics of Plagiarism’, Longman’s Magazine, 8 (October
1886), 629.
Introduction 9

explore the problematic interrelationship that exists between originality

and repetition’.²³ It is part of the argument here, however, that this
‘complication’ happened much earlier than is conventionally thought.
This book commutes towards the conclusion that, over the course of
the second half of the Victorian period, indebtedness, borrowedness,
textual messiness and overlap came more and more to be perceived not
as qualities furtively to be hidden or disguised, but as distinguished
features of a literary work, to be emphasized, explored, and in various
ways commemorated.
In any given era, literary-critical ideas—such as those of originality
and plagiarism—are most obviously manifested in the literary-critical
discourse of that era. It would be possible to describe a coherent out-
line for the history of these ideas with reference only to periodical
articles, forewords, prefaces, lectures, and other such critical documents
produced in the decades under discussion. However, the later Vic-
torian discourse of originality and plagiarism is approached here as
something which not only found its way onto the essay and review
pages of the Victorian press, but which also significantly—and perhaps
unexpectedly—informed both the subject matter and the texture of
more intendedly creative writing. Writing in 1955, Alain Robbe-Grillet
observed that ‘After Joyce … it seems we are more and more moving
towards an age of fiction in which the problems of writing will be
lucidly envisaged by the novelist, and in which his concern with critical
matters, far from sterilising his creative faculties, will on the contrary
supply him with motive power … Invention and imagination may
finally become the subject of the book.’²⁴ ‘Invention’, this study shows,
was the subject of ‘books’ long before Joyce moved it centre-stage. It
reveals how, for numerous important writers of the later Victorian years
(George Eliot, George Henry Lewes, Charles Dickens, Charles Reade,
Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Lionel Johnson among them), the very
elusiveness of the idea of originality—its refusal to stay still, or to
remain rigid as a category—was an inspiration to creativity. Originality
and plagiarism offered a resource to these and other Victorian writers:
as ideas, they were the subjects of Victorian literature, as well as what it
was subject to.

²³ Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Oxford: Basil Black-
well, 1988), 3.
²⁴ Alain Robbe-Grillet, ‘Towards a New Novel’, in Snapshots and Towards a New
Novel, trans. Barbara Wright (London: Calder & Boyars, 1965), 46–7, 63.
10 Introduction

A surprising amount of later Victorian writing bears the imprints

of its authors’ sensitivity to ideas of originality and plagiarism. One
of the chief concerns of Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is to stage
the fate of ideas of authorship in an increasingly market-driven literary
field.²⁵ On the one hand, Gissing depicts Edwin Reardon, a writer who
has swallowed whole idealist conceptions of authorship, and who is
consequently besotted with the idea that in his writing he must be both
utterly sincere and utterly original. On the other, Gissing depicts Jasper
Milvain, one of the new pragmatists of the literary field: an unrepentant
marketeer who seeks not to create a literary taste for himself—as
Wordsworth, borrowing Coleridge’s observation, suggested the ‘great
or original’ author must do—but instead to pander to an already
existing one.²⁶ Milvain’s literary products are shaped from without
by the demands of the market, tooled and turned so that they fit
snugly into a contemporary aesthetic niche. ‘I am the literary man of
1882’, Milvain declares famously in the opening chapter of the novel.
‘Literature nowadays is a trade … Your successful man of letters is
your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets.
[Reardon is] the old type of unpractical artist.’²⁷ The primary quality
which is being battled over by Gissing’s principal characters, although it
is never named as such, is the capacity of the author-artist to originate.
Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is similarly preoccupied with questions
of priority and previousness. In particular, it is eloquent of Dickens’s
testiness at what Richard Altick calls ‘the Victorian obsession with the
new’:²⁸ few characters in the novel get shorter shrift than the ‘bran-new’
Veneerings, whose name is an indictment of their fascination with the
garishly novel. As it condemns the meaningless worship of originality, so
Our Mutual Friend also strongly endorses both a poetics and a politics
²⁵ See, for a fine and fuller discussion of Gissing’s vision of authorship, Patrick
Brantlinger, The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century
British Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998); also Norman N. Feltes,
Literary Capital and the Late-Victorian Novel (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
²⁶ ‘[N]ever forget what I believe was observed to you by Coleridge, that every great
and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the
taste by which he is to be relished.’ Letter to Lady Beaumont, 21 May 1807. William
Wordsworth, The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest de Selincourt,
2nd edn., rev. Chester L. Shaver, Mary Moorman, and Alan G. Hill (Oxford: The
Clarendon Press, 1967–93), ii. 150.
²⁷ George Gissing, New Grub Street [1891] (London: The Bodley Head Press,
1967), 8.
²⁸ Richard D. Altick, The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian
Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991), 10.
Introduction 11

of reclamation. It is filled with characters who profitably reuse refuse:

taxidermists, mudlarks, dredgermen, philanthropists, dustmen, doll-
makers. Nothing in Our Mutual Friend comes of nothing. It is a novel
which replaces a typically Victorian interest in cause and consequence
with an interest in process: with what Nancy Metz calls ‘the multiple
and continuous acts of putting the world together that the individual
imagination performs’.²⁹
If the self-consciousness concerning originality whose history this
study tries to excavate can be said to have had a beginning, it can
most usefully be dated to 1859. This date has been triangulated as
a useful point of departure from three pieces of evidence. First, it
was the year in which Emerson’s ‘Quotation and Originality’ was
published, an essay which made an eloquent and lengthy case for the
acknowledgement—even the acclamation—of cultural unoriginality.
Secondly, it was the year in which Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard
Feverel appeared, a novel which in its opening paragraphs expressed a
wry resignation at the passing of the possibility of originality. Thirdly,
it was the year in which The Origin of Species was published, a work
which so influentially advocated repetition with variation as a paradigm
of change leading to newness. The synchrony of these three events
makes 1859 one convenient date with which to begin, though by no
means a definitive one: it would run squarely against the grain of the
argument to suggest that these ideas were originated for the first time
in that year. Indeed, one of the book’s first acts is to track backwards in
time, and provide an account of the emergence of the heroic narrative
of originality out of later eighteenth-century literary theory, and the
reception of this narrative in the Romantic decades.
The book ends its detailed examination in 1900, a date chosen in
part because it marks the death of Wilde, the last of my plagiarists,
and in part because it provides a parapet from which to look forward
into a century in which unoriginality would become such a conspicu-
ous aesthetic characteristic of modernist and postmodern literature.
As Isobel Armstrong, among others, has noted, modernist writers, in
‘trying to do without history’, worked hard to ‘repress whatever rela-
tions the Victorians may seem to bear to twentieth-century writing’.³⁰
Modernism’s dramatization of itself as an exercise in rupture was for

²⁹ Nancy Aycock Metz, ‘The Artistic Reclamation of Waste in Our Mutual Friend ’,
Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34:1 (June 1979), 60–1.
³⁰ Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge,
1988), 1.
12 Introduction

decades endorsed by secondary criticism; consider, for instance, Paul

de Man’s admiring description of modernism as ‘a desire to wipe
out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point
that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a
new departure’.³¹ More recently, however, valuable critical work by
Michael Levenson, Maud Ellmann, Paul Saint-Amour, Ronald Bush,
and Josephine Guy, among others, has focused interest onto the 1890s
as a vital matrix of modernism. Investigating the origins of modernist
theories of originality thus offers a peculiarly compacted, and usefully
involuted, example of modernism’s debt-ridden relationship with the
fin-de-siècle. For modernism can profitably be read not as a movement
preoccupied with newness, but instead as one obsessed with return,
and ghosted by a sense of afterness. Offering as it does an analysis
of the mycelial growth of ideas of unoriginality out of the later nine-
teenth century, and into modernist literature’s intricate performances
of origin, Original Copy answers, belatedly, to the challenge implicitly
laid down by W. T. J. Mitchell in 1990, when he observed that
the ‘formalised twentieth-century histories of intertextuality themselves
have histories, and that these histories have not yet been sufficiently
This study is thus partly a history of a vital conceptual element
of aesthetic modernity: extreme self-consciousness about origin. Its
centre of gravity, however, is emphatically late Victorian. What the
nineteenth-century authors discussed here have in common is that in
their writing they grappled, more or less explicitly, with the questions
of what constituted originality in literature, and what this meant for
an understanding of the creative mind. More exactly, they were all
discontented with the narrative of originality which prized authentic
works as unindebted. Eliot, Dickens, Pater, Wilde, and Johnson were all,
in different ways and for different reasons, celebrants of unoriginality.
They variously subscribed to the belief that, as the copyright lawyer and
essayist Augustine Birrell put it in 1899, ‘the essence of Property is an
unwillingness to share it, but the literary art lives by communication; its
essence is the telling of a tale with the object of creating an impression
and of causing repetition … the author’s rights are not based on a desire

³¹ Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight, 2nd edn. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1983), 148.
³² W. T. J. Mitchell, ‘Influence, Autobiography, and Literary History: Rousseau’s
Confessions and Wordsworth’s The Prelude’, ELH 57 (1990), 646.
Introduction 13

to exclusive possession of that which he has written’.³³ Charles Reade,

the sixth major figure in the book, refuses to fit as easily as the other
authors into this category. An instinctive embracer of paradoxes, Reade
is at once the boldest and most bashful of these dealers in unoriginality.
What the nineteenth-century texts discussed here have in common is
that they all in some way call their readers’ attention to their own unori-
ginality. Instead of seeking to conceal, deny, or abolish the very notion
of a precursor or precursors, they perform a narrative of their origins.
All tip the wink that they are in some way begotten, by devising ways of
gently nudging, or sometimes of forcefully shoving, their provenance to
the fore. All possess, it might be said, a historical self-consciousness: by
acknowledging that they have come from somewhere, and not out of
nowhere, they flag up their involvement in the chaotic textual process
of history. For this reason, it is suggested throughout, later nineteenth-
century debates over originality and plagiarism helped to define not only
how Victorian writers perceived themselves to be unique, but also what
they had in common. Of the many Victorian writers who scrutinized
ideas of originality and plagiarism, the most tenacious, perceptive, and
noteworthy were brought to contemplate not only how words related
to or could be distinguished from one another, but also how relations
between individuals, species, countries, disciplines, and even forms of
matter were constituted and apprehended. Apparently narrow, private
arguments about literary originality (what or why did x steal from
y) turn out to be in liaison with much broader processes of cultural
self-definition; when examined as mutually involved concepts, origin-
ality and plagiarism provide a unique window through which to view
important Victorian ideas concerning the dependence, independence, or
interdependence of consciousness and text, and concerning contingency
and accident in creativity versus design and intention.
Originality and plagiarism are in many ways the invisible men of
literary history. That is to say, they do not exist in any positive or
objective sense, accompanied by textual features which would allow us
to recognize them in the same way that we may be able to recognize a
lyric poem, a sonnet, or even, tenuously, a novel. Attempts to describe
plagiarism trans-historically, for example, find themselves consistently
thwarted by inconsistency—one person’s plagiarism is discovered to
be another’s originality. Plagiarism and originality are, therefore, what

³³ Original emphasis. Augustine Birrell, Seven Lectures on the Law and History of
Copyright in Books (London: Cassell and Co., 1899), 15.
14 Introduction

Marilyn Randall terms ‘pragmatic’, rather than textual, phenomena.³⁴

They are judgements, in other words, and as such are ‘determined
by a wide variety of extra-textual criteria that constitute the aesthetic,
institutional, and cultural contexts of production and reception of the
work’.³⁵ Because they are both evaluative or adjudicative categories, they
exist only in description. They are always argued over and discussed
by analogy with other cultural narratives (psychological, for instance,
or anthropological, imperial, philological, or ethical). Consequently,
close attention to the way originality and plagiarism are described—the
analogies which are used to explain, defend, or attack them as ideas—is
essential to any attempt to understand how attitudes towards these ideas
might exist or be altering at a given time.
A study of this sort, which seeks to map a transition phase in
the history of a critical idea or ideas, faces two main problems. The
first is that of the difficulty of describing causality: how to index the
agents of change, and how to index the change itself. It is important
to avoid what Walter Jackson Bate calls ‘epiphenomenalism’: ‘noting
several things that occurred at the same time, connecting them, and
saying that one produces or at least helps to produce the other’.³⁶
Nevertheless, ideas do flex and mutate, and the ideas surrounding the
theory and practice of originality and plagiarism were unmistakably
reshaped during the second half of the nineteenth century. Moreover,
the question of causality does not disappear merely because no easy
explanation for its mechanisms is available. Concepts of unbroken,
regular evolution are misleading in the history of ideas, but so too
is any approach which throws up its hands at the first suggestion
of aetiology. This book endeavours throughout to steer a safe course
between overgeneralization and surrender to indeterminacy. In part, this
endeavour involves deploying items of evidence which are insubstantial
in themselves but substantial in aggregate, and which can thus be
transformed into a reliably scholarly form.
The second problem is that of periodization. In the course of the study,
period labels such as ‘Romantic’, ‘Victorian’, and ‘modernist’ are used.
The objection to these terms is evident: that they break literary history up
into floes, where it in fact exists as a continuum or weave. ‘Romanticism’,
perhaps above all, is freighted with enough contradictions to make it
worse than useless as a denominator. Jonathan Bate has baldly pointed
out that ‘to generalise about Romanticism is to be an idiot’ (which,

³⁴ PP, 3–20. ³⁵ Ibid. 4. ³⁶ BP, 66.

Introduction 15

while it nods knowingly towards one of the marginalia Blake made in

his copy of Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses —‘to generalise is to be an
idiot’—itself risks making an unhelpful critical generalization).³⁷ The
notion of the Victorian period also has its problems, chiefly that it
encourages umbrella comments to be made about works of literature
which are as far apart chronologically and aesthetically as, say, Carlyle’s
The French Revolution (1837) and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900). As
Hugh Kingsmill noted in 1932, the longevity of Queen Victoria’s reign
lends an artificial homogeneity to the cultural texture of the nineteenth
On the one hand, it is suggested here that it is possible to discern how
perceptions of periodization affected contemporary cultural production
in the decades under consideration. What legitimizes the careful critical
use of these periodizations is that they are made and that, once made,
they become part of the ongoing process of intellectual history which
they seek to partition. In 1876, for instance, the anthologist and critic
E. C. Stedman published a critical volume entitled Victorian Poets, which
he claimed was the first volume to regard the poetry of the previous forty
years from a periodic point of view. In the opening chapter, Stedman
contrasted the ‘Victorian’ period with the highly ‘creative’ era which
immediately preceded it and characterized the previous four decades
as a ‘transition’ period; stronger on criticism than on creation, more
innovative in terms of technique than of content, and distinguished
by ‘composite’ rather than by ‘original’ art.³⁹ Stedman’s comparative
technique, and its effect upon his representation of the literary character
of the years 1836–76, is one among numerous examples of how ideas of
periodization can operate on the ground, as it were, and do not have to
be misleading critical retro-fits. Other relevant instances might be how
William Hazlitt’s description in 1818 of the ‘Lake School’ of poetry
as obsessed with the ‘new and original’ did much to cement the idea
of originality as a primary literary value of the early 1800s, or how, in
the 1910s, British literary modernism began to define itself explicitly
in antithesis to supposedly ‘Romantic’ doctrines of acute subjectivity
and expressive sincerity.⁴⁰ To object absolutely to the use of period

³⁷ SERI, 12.
³⁸ Hugh Kingsmill, ‘1932 and the Victorians’, English Review, 9 (June 1932), 684. I
am grateful to Stefan Collini for drawing my attention to Kingsmill’s observation.
³⁹ E. C. Stedman, Victorian Poets (London: Chatto & Windus, 1876), 21–3.
⁴⁰ For instance, T. E. Hulme’s essay ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ took its cue
from Pierre Lasserre’s attack on the ‘Romantic’ aesthetic in Le Romantisme français. See
16 Introduction

labels, therefore, is to overlook the interactive nature of these labels with

literature itself. Literary history is not contrived in a sealed antechamber
to literature: the two endeavours mingle and affect one another. Literary
periods get essentialized, and then become culturally reactive in that
form. Interpretations of past writers, schools, and periods shape the
ideals and aspirations of later creative life.
On the other hand, this study is concerned with how the concept
of periodization is inappropriate to the history of ideas. One effect of
schemes of periodization is that cultural change comes to be presupposed
as something which takes place at the beginning or end of a period,
rather than as an ongoing procedure. An important aspect of the
argument here is that the reassessment of the imaginative terms by
which originality and plagiarism were understood changed slowly and
blurrily over several decades, and that roots and outgrowths of this
change can be traced more or less as far backwards and forwards as
one chooses to go. At no point is it asserted that the resurgence of
ideas of inventio between 1859 and 1900 entirely abolished theories of
creatio. Indeed, it was in the middle of the period under discussion that
strongly heroic interpretations of the idea of original authorship became
institutionalized in copyright law, following the passing of the Berne
Convention of 1883, which grafted the Continental tradition of droit
moral into the heart of the Anglo-American copyright tradition, thereby
altering it drastically and permanently.
None of the writers under discussion, it is also important to emphasize,
has a fully resolved relationship with the idea of originality as inventio.
Each is attracted—philosophically, politically, aesthetically—by certain
aspects of the narrative of creatio, but in each writer, too, a tension can
be discerned between this intellectual interest in the idea of writer-
as-arranger, and the powerful and egotistical affection for the idea of
writer-as-originator. George Eliot, for instance, in the 1870s, struggled
to reconcile her belief in her own specialness, and in a hierarchy or
clerisy of thought, with her conviction—inherited from Lewes—of the
deterministic importance of the ‘General Mind’. While Dickens came
in the 1860s to endorse an economic and aesthetic protocol of recycling,
his vehement fights over copyright protection for his work in America
expounded a very different conception of ‘general circulation’. Although
Walter Pater’s writings in the 1880s redefine originality as a form of

Michael Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

1984), 82–7.
Introduction 17

etymologically sensitive word-salvage, Pater never entirely manages to

abrogate the vigorous individualism of the first Conclusion to Studies in
the History of the Renaissance (1873).
The two narratives of originality under discussion here can, therefore,
best be thought of as becoming interestingly enmeshed during these
decades, or existing in a kind of helical wrap: each requiring the other for
its support, counter-definition, and continued existence. Neither ever
obliterates the other. What is explored in this book is how one version
of the idea of originality (creatio) was contested by another (inventio)
in the years roughly between 1859 and 1900, why this contest came
about, and what its consequences were for Victorian literature.
‘Romantic’ Originality


The heresiarch of originality is usually held to be Edward Young,

whose Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) has served as a point
of departure for numerous genealogies of originality and plagiarism.¹
Young’s opinions as laid out in that work—his exasperation with
imitation, his conviction that true literature was uninfluenced, his
beliefs that retrospect meant relapse and that infatuation with the
literary past was fatal to the literary future—are now frequently taken
as a manifesto for Romantic poetic theory concerning originality avant
la lettre. Benjamin Kaplan, for example, remarks that ‘Edward Young’s
Conjectures on Original Composition, that wondrous effulgence from a
dark poet, was written in 1759, and Young’s appeal for a new kind of
genius seemed to be answered by Shelley and Keats after the turn of the
century.’² ‘An Original’, conjectured Young:
may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it rises spontaneously from the vital root
of genius; it grows, it is not made: Imitations are often a sort of manufacture
wrought up by those mechanics, art, and labour, out of pre-existent materials
not their own.³

¹ Thus Christopher Ricks’s comment that ‘Edward Young … is usually blamed these
days for having … set the world on a grievously wrong course’ (that is, for having
asserted that originality could exist in and of itself). Christopher Ricks, ‘Plagiarism’,
Proceedings of the British Academy: 1997 Lectures and Memoirs, 97 (1997), 164. Compare
Marilyn Randall: ‘The watershed moment in eighteenth-century development of theories
of originality is generally considered to be Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original
Composition.’ PP, 49. Nick Groom characterizes Young’s tract as heralding ‘a change
of mood’ regarding originality. Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 43. Joel Weinsheimer makes
the important point that Young was not in fact the first to try to distinguish between
imitation and originality. Joel Weinsheimer, ‘Conjectures on Unoriginal Composition’,
Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 22 (1981), 58–73.
² Benjamin Kaplan, An Unhurried View of Copyright (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1967), 23.
³ COC, 7.
‘Romantic’ Originality 19

These distinctions are now familiar: the original work of literature

is unbidden, native to an individual, and comes into being out of
nothing. The imitation, by contrast, is laboured over, refashioned from
‘pre-existent materials’, and therefore does not belong to the individual
artist. Like Shaftesbury before him, and Schelling and Coleridge after
him, Young envisaged genius as a seed or bulb pre-natally present in
the poet. By implication, the genial matter is perfectly indigenous to
the individual, and requires only the proper environment to flourish.
Society and culture are nothing more than the atmospheric conditions
required for genius to unfurl itself.
Young’s paragon of original genius was Shakespeare. As incomparable
in texture as in stature, Shakespeare’s writing, according to Young, owed
no debts but was wholly unprecedented.⁴ This was of course a delusion,
born of bardolatry and a lack of historical research into Shakespeare’s
sources—but it was a delusion shared by many in the eighteenth
century. Pope announced in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare
If ever any Author deserved the name of an Original, it was Shakespeare … The
Poetry of Shakespeare was Inspiration indeed: he is not so much an Imitator, as
an Instrument, of Nature; and ’tis not so just to say he speaks from her, as that
she speaks thro’ him.⁵

Similarly, Nicholas Rowe, the editor of the first complete edition of

the plays, wrote approvingly of Shakespeare that ‘the greatness of this
Author’s Genius do’s nowhere so much appear’ as when he ‘raises
his Fancy to a flight above Mankind and the Limits of the visible
Several further tracts devoted to proving the superiority of originality
over imitation followed the publication of Young’s Conjectures. All
sought, as Young had, to yoke originality to the modish concept of
genius in a reciprocally defining partnership. Exemplary among these
was William Duff’s An Essay on Original Genius (1767), in which Duff
defined originality in uncompromising terms:

⁴ Ibid. 80.
⁵ Alexander Pope, ‘The Preface of the Edition to The Works of Shakspear’, in The
Prose Works of Alexander Pope, ed. Rosemary Cowler and Norman Ault (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1936–86), ii. 13.
⁶ Nicholas Rowe, ‘Some Account of the Life &c. of Mr William Shakespear’, in The
Works of Mr. William Shakspear (London: Jacob Tonson, 1709), i. 35.
20 ‘Romantic’ Originality
by the word original, when applied to Genius, we mean that native and
radical power which the mind possesses, of discovering something new and
uncommon in every subject on which it employs its faculties.⁷

Duff went on to nominate three great ‘original’ geniuses, and in

doing so he gave three hostages to fortune. Homer, his first choice,
would during the nineteenth century be revealed as not a single
historical persona, but rather a convenient authorial name for the
plurally authored Iliad and Odyssey. Shakespeare was Duff’s second
choice: Shakespeare’s uses of antecedent sources would be steadily
catalogued during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and
his extensive indebtedness would, as we will see, prove a considerable
embarrassment to those Victorian aficionados of so-called Romantic
originality. And Ossian, Duff’s third duff choice, was one of the two
great literary hoaxes of the later 1700s—the other being Thomas
Chatterton’s Rowley poems—which revealed the inadequacies of the
newly intimate relationship between the individual and his or her literary
work presupposed by expressivist theories of creativity.
Duff’s bold demarcation of original genius as ‘native’ is a reminder
that one of the main obstacles which these theories of originality as
creation ex nihilo had to overcome was the Lockian prescription of
knowledge as arising purely from the perception of the phenomenal
world. One of the most influential late eighteenth-century rebuttals of
Locke with regard to originality came from Isaac D’Israeli, father of Ben-
jamin and author of the popular The Literary Character, Illustrated by the
History of Men of Genius (1818), which began life in 1795 as the shorter
An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character. D’Israeli
was an early example of a species of writer most usually associated with
the post-Freudian era: the psycho-biographer. What D’Israeli chose to
psychoanalyse, however, was not an individual but a type: the great
writer. Comparing the life histories of numerous acceptedly canonical
authors, he compiled lists of the ancestry, personality qualities (dili-
gence, for example, or great conversational facility), and environmental
factors (income, day-to-day duties) which were common to them. He
was thereby able to draw up a demographic profile and curriculum vitae

⁷ William Duff, An Essay on Original Genius (London: Edward and Charles Dilly,
1767), 86. Compare also Alexander Gerard in 1774: ‘In order to determine, how far
[a man] merits this character [of a genius], we must enquire … whether he has … in
the arts, designed some new work, different from those of his predecessors.’ Alexander
Gerard, An Essay on Genius (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1774), 8–9.
‘Romantic’ Originality 21

for the archetypical ‘great writer’. His book was, in effect, a statistical
analysis of the nature of literary genius—and he slanted his statistics
in order to substantiate his firm belief in the doctrine of poeta nascitur
non fit. For D’Israeli, greatness in letters was thrust upon individuals, it
was not earned. His increasing interest in the biological ‘temperament’
of original genius can be seen by comparing subsequent editions of the
work (it ran through four editions between 1795 and 1828, Byron con-
sulted with D’Israeli for the 1818 edition, approving reference was still
being made to it in periodical articles from the 1830s, and it continued
to sell briskly through the remainder of the nineteenth century). Over
the course of his revisions, D’Israeli increasingly pathologized the ‘man
of genius’, completely turning around, for example, his characterization
of Rousseau between the 1795 and the 1818 editions.
In the opening chapters of The Literary Character, D’Israeli mounted
a general assault upon the idea of the tabula rasa, as well as upon the
work of the contemporary associationist philosopher Dugald Stewart,
whose writings explicitly built on Locke’s thought, and that of Dr James
Currie, who had used Locke’s work to refute the idea of pure literary
originality in his 1800 Life and Letters of Robert Burns.⁸ D’Israeli
found the doctrine ‘of the equality of men’, which lay at the political
heart of the Lockian epistemology, to be ‘monstrous’, and proposed
instead an account of human nature which emphasized endowment
over acquisition. He then teased out the implications of this account
of human nature for conceptions of literary talent. Original genius, he
proposed uncompromisingly, ‘originates in constitutional dispositions’
and is ‘that creative part of art which individualises the artist, belonging
to him and no other’. Thus, you ‘cannot invent invention’.⁹ D’Israeli’s
account of originality, like that of Duff, was based upon a highly
possessive theory of mind, which arrogated the power of verbal creation
only to specific elect individuals.
Due in part to the writings of Young, Duff, Gerard, D’Israeli, and
others, over the closing decades of the eighteenth century increasing
reverence was directed at the quality of originality in literature, and
increasing disparagement directed at imitation. Originality came to
be understood as consisting chiefly in a resistance to influence from

⁸ James Currie, The Works of Robert Burns; with an Account of his Life and a Criticism
on his Writings (London: W. Davies and W. Creech, 1800).
⁹ Isaac D’Israeli, The Literary Character [1795], 3rd edn. (London: John Murray,
1822), 33, 36, 14, 32.
22 ‘Romantic’ Originality

other writers.¹⁰ It was felt that the writer—as Wordsworth would

put it in his ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ (1815)—should
‘owe nothing but to nature and his own genius’.¹¹ This stress upon
private ownership of literary products constituted a distinct shift from
the neoclassical aesthetics of the earlier eighteenth century, which had
recommended imitation as a compositional technique by which valuably
new literature could be born. Originality, according to these theories,
largely meant newness in the sense of modest individuality, and was
perceived as an achievement to be gained by inventively swerving from
a model predecessor. Joshua Reynolds remarked in his Discourses on
Art that ‘I am … persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even
originality of invention, is produced. I will go further; even genius,
at least what generally is so called, is the child of imitation’—thereby
furnishing an epigraph for Augustan literary aesthetics and a straw
man for subsequent theorists of originality.¹² Imitation, as outlined by
Aristotle and Longinus, was regarded not as a mode of composition
which connoted slavish inferiority on the part of the imitator, but rather
as a process akin to inspiration. ‘When the original is well chosen’,
Samuel Johnson mused in The Rambler on 12 October 1751, ‘and
judiciously copied, the imitator often arrives at excellence’.¹³
Even before Reynolds declared genius ‘the child of imitation’, how-
ever, a migration away from a poetics of imitation and towards one of
‘unborrowed’ originality had begun. ‘Imitators only give us a sort of
Duplicates of what we had, possibly much better, before’, Young had
written disparagingly in his Conjectures, slyly conflating imitation with
duplication, such that the imitator’s version seemed to be no longer a
rewriting, but merely a facsimile of ‘what we had … before’. Imitations,
Young continued, ‘increas[e] the mere drug of books, while all that
makes them valuable, knowledge and genius, are at a stand. The pen
of an original writer, like Armida’s wand, out of a barren waste calls
a blooming spring.’¹⁴ The tracts of Young, Duff, and Gerard were
translated into German, and helped to shape the German Romantic

¹⁰ See SERI, 1–21; and BP, 105, where Bate notes that from the 1750s onwards ‘some
of the least original minds of the time were beginning to prate constantly of originality,
thus setting a precedent with which the intellectual has since been condemned to live’.
¹¹ PWWW, iii. 73.
¹² Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. R. R. Wark (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1981), 96.
¹³ The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. W. J. Bate, Albrecht B. Strauss,
et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958–71), v. 107.
¹⁴ COC, 7.
‘Romantic’ Originality 23

preoccupation with originality, which in its turn fed back into British
thought. In 1790, Kant could declare in his Critique of Judgement
that ‘Genius’ is defined by ‘a talent for producing that for which no
definite rule can be given … Hence originality must be its first property
… Everyone is agreed that genius is entirely opposed to the spirit of
imitation.’¹⁵ In the same year, Novalis declared poetry to be ‘the true
absolute Real. … The genuine poet is all-knowing—he is an actual
world in miniature.’¹⁶ This burgeoning cult of original genius to which
Kant referred (‘everyone is agreed’) celebrated a literature that was both
independent and self-begetting.
As a consequence, those forms of writing which relied on techniques
of repetition or resemblance for their effects were often stigmatized
as derivative, and transgressive of the literary qualities of sincerity,
authenticity, and uniqueness. Repetitive literature was widely held to be
bogus literature. As Kaplan puts it, the new attitude evoked by Edward
Young and his compatriots also served to ‘justify strong (legal) protection
of intellectual structures in some respects ‘‘new’’ [and] encourage[d] a
more suspicious search for appropriations even of the less obvious types,
and to condemn these more roundly when found’.¹⁷ By the end of
the century, in Roland Mortier’s account, ‘preference [was] accorded to
direct and immediate expression that was faithful and sincere to feelings
and ideas. The fact of borrowing images, formal schemas, and existing
structures [was] considered as an infraction of that sincerity.’¹⁸
Why did originality become so highly regarded as a literary value?
One reason concerns what Walter Jackson Bate memorably names ‘the
burden of the past’. Bate suggests that by the middle of the eighteenth
century a ‘remorseless deepening of self-consciousness’ was under way in
Britain concerning the extent to which, in literature, all had already been
said and done.¹⁹ According to Bate, ‘the Augustans’, more acutely than
any previous literary generation, were aware of the welter of published
words, the increasing impossibility of saying anything which had not
been said before, and the futility of adding to this verbal superfluity.

¹⁵ Original emphasis. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard

(New York: Hafner Press, 1951), 150–1.
¹⁶ Novalis, Pollen and Fragments, ed. and trans. Arthur Versluis (Mich. Grand Rapids:
Phanes Press, 1989), 49–50.
¹⁷ Kaplan, Copyright, 24.
¹⁸ Roland Mortier, L’Originalité (Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1982), 134–5. Quoted by
Marilyn Randall, PP, 48.
¹⁹ BP, 4.
24 ‘Romantic’ Originality

They suffered from intellectual fatigue syndrome. As well as inducing a

powerful inferiority complex, Bate suggests, the pressure exerted by the
burden of the past enhanced the allure of the concept of originality. In
market terms, as the available commodity became scarcer, so demand
grew proportionally more urgent. This sharpened sense of competition
with the past also altered writers’ relationships with earlier models: a
general proof of Empson’s throwaway thesis in Some Versions of Pastoral
that ‘the arts are produced by overcrowding’.²⁰ Once writers came to be
troubled by a sense of the senescence of literature in their own time, as
John Beer puts it, ‘the innocence with which they formerly went to their
predecessors for patterns and exemplary modes disappear[ed], leaving a
sense of inadequacy as a new premium [was] set on originality’.²¹
Two other large-scale reasons might be proposed to explain the
increased admiration of literary originality. The first concerns the status
of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In The
Forger’s Shadow, his fine history of the role of forgery in English
literature since Chatterton, Nick Groom links the ‘obsession’ with
originality to ‘the rise of industrial society and commodity culture’
over the course of the eighteenth century. The increasing ease of
mechanical reproduction ‘caused imitations to be contrasted to the
genuine or authentic, such as in the composition of manufactured
luxury goods, and indeed the composition of fiction’.²² A crisis of
authenticity in literature, in other words, was brought about by the
advent of techniques of mass production, and this crisis resulted in the
increased valuation of originality (which can be likened to Benjamin’s
concept of ‘aura’).²³ Edward Young had compared imitations to ‘a
sort of manufacture wrought up by those mechanics, art and labor,
out of pre-existent materials not their own’, while William Cowper
had pronounced his ‘aversion’ to ‘imitation’ on the grounds that ‘it is
servile and mechanical’.²⁴ This anxiety that indebted work was in some
way equivalent to the unthinking reproduction of machines, that it
shared the same homogenized, production-line values, would recur in
the literary imagination of the late eighteenth century, and the ubiquity

²⁰ William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1935), 6.
²¹ John Beer, Providence and Love (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 2.
²² Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 43.
²³ Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,
in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992),
²⁴ Quoted Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 43.
‘Romantic’ Originality 25

of the sentiment lends credence to the idea that the promotion of

originality was in part a direct response to the growth of the market.²⁵
In Jane M. Gaines’s explanation, the idea of the transcendent originating
author was deployed ‘as a means of rescuing the artist’s work from the
market and from the hostile public for whom mass production might
make the work available as it had never been before, but at the price of
turning it into an industrial product’.²⁶ Confronted with a proliferation
of authors, an attempt was made by literary theorists such as Young
to differentiate authentic ‘original’ authorship from mere mechanical
invention, and both to mystify and to privilege the former.²⁷ Or, as
Terry Eagleton less tolerantly puts it, the representation of the artist as
transcendent genius is born ‘just when the artist is becoming debased to
a petty commodity producer’: this mystification should be understood
as a ‘spiritual compensation for this degradation’.²⁸
A second and adjacent reason for the apotheosizing of originality
has to do with a new form of selfhood, and therefore of intellectual
proprietorship, that was being wrought in Britain during the second
half of the 1700s. It was a form which emphasized the self-determining
capacity of the individual, and imbued the concept of the individual
personality with an authenticity, stability, and authority.²⁹ The stability
of this reworked self allowed for the production of a new sort of stable
meaning, and writing began to name its source in independent-minded

²⁵ See McFarland, Originality, 197–8.

²⁶ Jane M. Gaines, Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice and the Law (London:
British Film Institute, 1992), 115.
²⁷ See Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1993), 119–20.
²⁸ Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990),
64–5. See also Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 84.
²⁹ In Two Treatises of Government, Locke posited a labour theory of value, which
he applied to the production of material goods, but which came to be applied to
the results of intellectual and artistic labour as well. See John Locke, Two Treatises of
Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 287–8.
For a more detailed discussion of Locke and individualism, see C. B. MacPherson, The
Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1962); and Rose, Authors and Owners, 32–3, 114–26. For a fuller account
of the relationship between ‘Romantic’ selfhood and literary originality, see Gregory,
Quotation, 12–13; McFarland, Originality, passim; and Charles Taylor, Sources of the
Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989),
368–90, 408–16. This chapter draws on Rose’s Authors and Owners, and on Keith Aoki,
‘Authors, Inventors and Trademark Owners: Private Intellectual Property and the Public
Domain’, Columbia VLA Journal of the Law and Arts, 18 (1994), 197–267.
26 ‘Romantic’ Originality

individuals.³⁰ As M. H. Abrams discusses in his classic study of the

image-repertoire of literary creation, The Mirror and the Lamp, while
mechanistic-mimetic models of originality had represented the author
as a selective replicator of the real world, later eighteenth-century literary
theory began to invert this arrangement, and to locate the source of the
literary work deep within the individual. The metaphors used to indicate
the topography of literary creativity started to emphasize a movement of
thought from in to out—poetry was figured as ‘spontaneous overflow’
or, as J. S. Mill would later put it, ‘the expression or uttering forth
of feeling’.³¹ The writer’s imagination came to be revered as what
Wordsworth called ‘the source from which every thing primarily flows’
and the classical reflective model of authorship was thus supplanted by
an expressive one.³² According to the earlier paradigm, one looked into
a poem to find oneself; according to the latter, one looked into oneself
to find a poem.
The relocation of the source of literature from outside to inside
the individual was crucial in making possible the claim for aesthetic
autonomy which is now associated so strongly with Romanticism: the
claim that, as Wordsworth put it, a work of literature consists of ‘those
thoughts and feelings which … from the structure of his own mind, arise
in [the poet] without immediate external excitement’.³³ This new subject
position, according to which words were seen to emanate from within
the individual, also encouraged the concept of authenticity (that the
author meant what he or she wrote), and therefore also the imaginative
logic of literary property. ‘I do not know, nor can I comprehend any
property more emphatically a man’s own,’ thundered Justice Aston in
one of the eighteenth century’s two most important copyright cases,
‘nay, more incapable of being mistaken, than his literary works.’³⁴

³⁰ In The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal
Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), Nancy Armstrong
and Leonard Tennenhouse date this process of relocation of subjectivity from outside to
inside the human body to the turn of the seventeenth century.
³¹ In ‘The Romantic Concept of Mimesis: Idem et Alter’, in John Beer (ed.),
Questioning Romanticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 179–208,
Frederick Burwick offers a valuable corrective to Abrams’s overly binary model. He
suggests that the ‘turn’ from mirror to lamp was less definite, and the barrier between
imitation and expression in Romantic doctrine more porous, than Abrams asserts.
³² PWWW, iii. 26. ³³ Ibid. i. 138.
³⁴ Justice Aston, opinion in Millar v. Taylor, 98, Eng. Rep. 201, 218 (1769). The
other being Donaldson v. Beckett, 1, Eng. Rep. 257 (1774), which recognized the
perpetual common law copyright of the author, but decreed that the 1710 Statute of
Anne replaced this with a statutory right, such that once a work had been published, the
‘Romantic’ Originality 27

The historical contingency of this vision of authorship becomes clearer

when it is compared with pre-eighteenth-century trends of literary
activity, such as the scribal medieval mode³⁵ or the collaborative mode
of book production which was occurring in Germany until at least the
1750s, and according to which the writer was represented as one among
many craftsmen involved in the production of a book: ‘not superior to,
but on a par with other craftsmen’.³⁶ Despite its contingency, however,
this sense of this personal and acutely proprietorial relationship between
a writer and her or his ‘literary works’ would have a long afterlife.


The cultural narrative of originality as creatio, therefore, was devised

and popularized in Britain over the course of the second half of the
eighteenth century, predominantly by prose theorists. It is now, however,
a critical piety to nominate ‘the Romantics’ as the initiators of those
traditions in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary thought which
treat ‘originality’ uncritically as an imperishable literary quality. As a
‘new shibboleth, along with the notion of ‘‘sincerity’’ ’, writes Thomas
Mallon, originality formed ‘the fearful legacy of the Romantics’, while
Elizabeth Gregory asserts that ‘the Romantics … invented the notion of
originality as we know it’.³⁷ Most explicitly, in her introduction to The
Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature
(1994), Martha Woodmansee proposes that our modern concept of
authorship is:
the result of a quite radical reconceptualization of the creative process that
culminated less than 200 years ago in the heroic self-representation of the

perpetual common law copyright was eliminated and the work instead became subject
to the chronological limits of statutory law. This represented a setback for authors and
publishers. See Rose’s discussion of Donaldson v. Beckett in Authors and Owners, 92–112,
and in his article ‘The Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Beckett and the Genealogy of
Modern Authorship’, Representations, 23 (Summer 1988), 51–85.
³⁵ See George H. Putnam, Books and their Makers during the Middle Ages (New York:
Hillary House Ltd., 1962), i. passim.
³⁶ See Martha Woodmansee, ‘The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal
Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘‘Author’’ ’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 17 (1984),
425–48; and Roger F. Cook, The Demise of the Author: Autonomy & the German Writer
1770–1848 (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 112.
³⁷ Thomas Mallon, Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism
(New York: Harcourt, 1989), 24 (the quotation is from BP, 107); and Gregory,
Quotation, 12.
28 ‘Romantic’ Originality
Romantic poets. As they saw it, genuine authorship is originary in the sense that
it results not in a variation, an imitation, or an adaptation, but in an utterly
new, unique—in a word, ‘original’—work which, accordingly may be said to
be the property of its creator and to merit the law’s protection as such.³⁸

An important figure in establishing this close relationship between the

Romantics and creatio is Jerome McGann who, in The Romantic Ideology
(1983), identified and denounced several self-replicating critical char-
acterizations which he claims to have been launched by the Romantics’
own theorizing, and which have, in his account, subsequently dogged
and distorted Romantic studies.³⁹ Chief among these is the myth of
the autonomy of the poet, and of his or her capacity to write an
‘utterly’ original work of literature. McGann called for critics to make
a concerted effort not to treat the Romantics on their own terms, and
in doing so he inaugurated a critical tradition whose own wariness of
Romanticism’s self-representations has become the principal subject of
its study. ‘We must intellectually and ethically grasp our distance from
romanticism in order to analyse it and not be subject to its unrelent-
ing myth of transcendence’, proclaims Anne Janowitz, an exemplary
McGannian ephebe, at the start of Lyric and Labour in the Romantic
Tradition (1998).⁴⁰ Janowitz’s ‘unrelenting myth of transcendence’,
itself a mighty simplification of Romantic doctrine, is a paraphrase
of the ideology which McGann feels to be both the most persuasive
and pervasive of Romanticism’s myths: that of poetic autonomy, and
by extension of the quality of ‘uniqueness’ which it is claimed the
Romantics claimed was inherent in their writing. For McGann, ‘the
idea that poetry, or even consciousness, can set one free of the ruins of
history and culture is the grand illusion of every Romantic poet’. This
yearning for autonomy, he suggested, was what prompted Romantic
poets to develop certain rhetorical strategies of evasiveness—which he
called ‘dramas of displacement and idealization’—through which they
could disguise their own involvement in the processes of history, and
lay claim to transcendence. He concluded that this counterfeit idea
of artistic autonomy and originality ‘continues as one of the most

³⁸ Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (eds.), The Construction of Authorship: Textual
Appropriation in Law and Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 2–3.
³⁹ Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1983), p. ix.
⁴⁰ Anne Janowitz, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), 1.
‘Romantic’ Originality 29

important shibboleths of our culture, especially—and naturally—at its

higher levels’.⁴¹
There are two difficulties with this widely held assumption that the
Romantic generation invented originality as we know it. The first is
a version of the Cretan Liar paradox: to argue simultaneously that
originality is a constructed category and that the Romantics originated
our modern sense of the idea is unsustainable, for it attributes to the
Romantics the very capacity to originate which it also seeks to deny them.
The second, more formidable, difficulty is that no unified or consistent
doctrinal position towards originality and literary resemblance can easily
be abstracted from contemporary Romantic documents. Undeniably,
Romantic writers can be shown to have espoused the idea that the
authentically great creator should be intellectually aloof from his or her
place and time, and they can be shown to have coveted novelty and lack
of influence as vital poetic criteria. However, they can also be shown
to have written in direct response to social and political events, and
to have addressed with varying degrees of cynicism and disbelief the
concept of originality as creation out of nothing. They did associate
genius with originality, but they also perceived creativity as a function
of description, assimilation, and arrangement. They did deplore the
effects of influence, imitation, and repetition, but they also all had richly
allusive relationships with many of their literary predecessors, notably
Shakespeare and Milton. As Jonathan Bate and Nick Groom among
others have shown, for instance, allusion was central to much Romantic
composition, offering as it did a discreet way in which forebears in the
literary tradition could be acknowledged, not through ‘imitation’ in the
neoclassical sense of the word, but as sublime echoes or shadows.⁴²
Shelley provides a representative example of this doubleness of
attitude. Undoubtedly, Shelley found seductive the idea of the poet
as a maker of what Woodmansee, in her overstated description of

⁴¹ McGann, Romantic Ideology, 91.

⁴² See Cantor, Creature and Creator; Leader, Revision; Stillinger, Multiple Authorship;
and John Livingstone Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927).
On the tussle over Coleridge’s originality or otherwise, see (council for the prosecution)
Norman Fruman, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972);
and (council for the defence) Thomas McFarland, Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1969), and Thomas McFarland, ‘Coleridge’s Plagiarisms Once More: A Review
Essay’, Yale University Review, 62 (1974), 252–86. A summary of the debate can be
found in Peter Shaw, ‘Plagiary’, American Scholar, 51 (Summer 1982), 325–37. Jonathan
Bate devotes a valuable chapter to Coleridge and the ‘problem of inherited language’ in
SERI, 22–42.
30 ‘Romantic’ Originality

Romantic authorship, calls ‘the utterly new’. In A Defence of Poetry

(1820–1), for instance, Shelley notes that poets possess the ability to
create ‘forms of opinion and action never before conceived’; later in the
same essay he identifies the primary function of the ‘poetical faculty’
as ‘creat[ing] new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure’.⁴³
Shelley’s commitment to the idea of creation ex nihilo also expressed
itself as an anxiety at influence. In his introduction to The Revolt of
Islam he declared unequivocally that he was ‘unwilling to tread in the
footsteps of any who have preceded me’, and that he had sought ‘to
avoid the imitation of any style of language or versification peculiar to
the original minds of which it is the character—designing that, even
if what I have produced be worthless, it should still be properly my
own’.⁴⁴ Sole ownership is here held up as more important to Shelley
than artistic ‘worth’; indeed, the proprietorial sentiment of this sentence
might remind us that one meaning of ‘properly’ is ‘in one’s own person,
for oneself; as one’s own, as private property, privately’ (OED).
Concern about unoriginality and about ownership is a recurrent
theme in Shelley’s letters. After the failure in the marketplace of The
Revolt of Islam, he began to doubt his abilities as a writer. ‘I exercised
myself in the despair of producing any thing original,’ he wrote to
William Godwin on 25 July 1818.⁴⁵ He voiced the same worry in a
letter to Thomas Love Peacock, remarking despondently that ‘I have
lately found myself totally incapable of original composition.’⁴⁶ These
anxieties returned the following year; in November of 1819, he told
Leigh Hunt that he had turned to translating Latin because he ‘could
absolutely do nothing else … original’.⁴⁷ Some two years later, a sense of
inferiority regarding the achievements of ‘Lord Byron’ again threw him
into ‘despair’ at his unoriginality. ‘I write nothing and probably shall
write no more’, he lamented to Peacock in August 1821.⁴⁸ Later the
same month, his anxiety at his lack of originality had compounded itself
into a complicated longing for self-abolition. ‘I am, and I desire to be,
nothing’, he wrote, wishing, in a sort of inverse cogito, to think himself

⁴³ Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley’s Prose, ed. David Lee Clark (London: Fourth Estate,
1988), 293.
⁴⁴ Ibid. 317.
⁴⁵ Letter to William Godwin, 25 July 1818. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F.
L. Jones, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), ii. 22.
⁴⁶ Letter to Thomas Love Peacock, 25 July 1818. Ibid. 26.
⁴⁷ Letter to Leigh Hunt, 14–18 November 1819. Ibid. 153.
⁴⁸ Letter to Thomas Love Peacock, 10 August 1821. Ibid. 331.
‘Romantic’ Originality 31

out of existence; a final negating act of creative agency prompted by a

sense of the lack of just such an agency.⁴⁹
It would be, therefore, given such aggregated evidence, very possible
to portray Shelley as a writer perpetually anxious at his unoriginality, and
also, either as a result or as a cause of this, as a passionate propagandist
for the poet’s ability to create the ‘utterly new’. However, if we turn
to the preface to Prometheus Unbound, we find Shelley limning a very
different version of creativity from the account he gave in A Defence: one
which tends much more towards the pole of inventio. ‘As to imitation,’
he wrote there, ‘poetry is a mimetic art’:
It creates, but it creates by combination and representation. Poetical abstractions
are beautiful and new, not because the portions of which they are composed had
no previous existence in the mind of man or in nature, but because the whole
produced by their combination has some intelligible and beautiful analogy with
those sources of emotion and thought, and with the contemporary condition
of them.⁵⁰

The Shelley of A Defence espoused the possibility of the creation

of wholly ‘new materials’; while the Shelley of Prometheus Unbound
envisaged creativity only as an activity of combination and ‘analogy’:
the two theories are category-distinct. It is similarly instructive, or
confusing, to compare the desire Shelley expressed so ardently in the
early passages of his preface to The Revolt of Islam—to write what was
‘properly [his] own’—with the sentiments of its conclusion, where we
find him openly acknowledging the power of unconscious influence
upon a poet, and his inability therefore to own a piece of writing
‘properly’. ‘[T]here must be’, wrote Shelley adamantly, ‘a resemblance,
which does not depend on their own will, between all the writers of
any particular age … [T]his is an influence which neither the meanest
scribbler, nor the sublimest genius of any era can escape, and which
I have not attempted to escape.’⁵¹ This admission of the inevitably
collaborative nature of writing is of a piece with Shelley’s description
in A Defence of all literature as a mass of interconnections—‘that great
poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind,
have built up since the beginning of the world’—a description which,
in its sentiment and its vocabulary, anticipates the growth of communal
models of thought later in the century.⁵²

⁴⁹ Letter to Leigh Hunt, 26 August 1821. Ibid. 344.

⁵⁰ Shelley, Prose, 328. ⁵¹ Ibid. 318. ⁵² Ibid. 287.
32 ‘Romantic’ Originality

For each declaration which Shelley made on the subject of originality,

therefore, an equal and opposite declaration can be found, and a simil-
arly sustained ambivalence characterizes the writing of other Romantic
writers on the originality question. Despite the assertions of critics such
as Woodmansee, who would like to depict ‘the Romantics’ as obsessed
with armouring themselves against influence, abundant data exist to
prove that for many writers of the period, the ‘burden of the past’ was
understood not solely as a mass of earlier literature which precluded
the possibility of originality, but also—according to that other, more
benevolent meaning of ‘burden’—as a chorus, a multitude of past voices
which added depth and definition to their own poetry. These writers
were, in other words, caught in the classic double-bind of avant-gardism:
the exasperation with tradition which provokes a desire to make it new,
and the simultaneous understanding of the impossibility of achiev-
ing a clean break. Bearing this in mind, and returning to McGann’s
declaration that the concept of ‘artistic autonomy and originality’ is
the brainchild of the Romantic poets, it becomes clear that McGann is
practising precisely the kind of ideological broad-brushing—the refusal
to be attentive to local variations or anomalies—of which he accuses
his Romantics. Reading McGann, indeed, one might come away with
the sense that Romantic writers practised a form of premeditated cor-
porate deception or suppression, deciding among themselves to omit or
withhold certain literary-theoretical opinions in order to present a more
united doctrinal front (Woodmansee’s ‘heroic self-representation’), and
thereby dupe future scholars. In fact, a survey of the rich range of
Romantic statements about originality reveals ‘the Romantics’, as far
as such a tribe existed, to have enjoyed no such unity, but instead
to have adopted intellectual positions only to abandon them years,
months, or even weeks later. As late as 1996, Zachary Leader contended
that the idea of ‘the Romantic author as spontaneous, extemporising,
otherworldly, and autonomous’ was still ‘a fiction much in need of
revision’.⁵³ What might be concluded here is that the real ‘fiction in
need of revision’ concerning Romantic authorship is that Romantic
writers always claimed to be ‘spontaneous, extemporising, otherworldly
and autonomous’.
What is proposed in the next section of this chapter is that the
definition of originality as the creation of something ‘utterly new, unique’
was actually invented after Romanticism had largely run its course.

⁵³ Leader, Revision, 1.
‘Romantic’ Originality 33

That is, the myth of ‘Romantic’ originality to which Leader, Gregory,

Woodmansee, McGann, and others so confidently allude did not
originate with the Romantics. Rather, it crystallized afterwards, notably
during the late 1820s and 1830s, when Romantic doctrine on the subject
of originality was simplified and mythified. The Romantics’ conflicting
pronouncements on originality underwent a process of selective editing,
and were brought into line with the ideal of creatio promulgated in the
late 1700s: the notion, as Bate puts it, that ‘the Romantic poet conjures
something out of nothing through the sheer force of his imagination’.⁵⁴
Romantic acknowledgements of the importance of tradition were largely
suppressed, while those that exalted the original, originating individual
were themselves exalted. This editing process eased the passage of the idea
of creatio through intellectual history, and it has been in this chastened
form that subsequent literary generations have reacted to the misnamed
idea of ‘Romantic originality’. In order to comprehend the consequences
of that editing process, it will be necessary to examine how Victorian
literary theory concerning originality grew out of Romanticism in two
important senses: that is, what it took from Romanticism, and what it
left behind.


In an 1876 essay entitled ‘Romanticism’, Walter Pater attempted to

sort nineteenth-century literature under the two headings of ‘Classical’
and ‘Romantic’. Defining the characteristics of the latter, he noted
that ‘born romanticists’ were those writers who ‘start with an original,
untried matter, still in fusion; who conceive this vividly, and hold
by it as the essence of their work; who, by the very vividness and
heat of their conception, purge away, sooner or later, all that is not
organically appropriate to it’.⁵⁵ Pater’s definition is an amalgam of
several ideas which we have already encountered: D’Israeli’s doctrine of
the innateness of Romantic originality; Young’s organic vision of the
processes of genius; and the stress upon the ‘original’ and ‘untried’—i.e.
first-hand—nature of the matter with which the poet works. What the

⁵⁴ Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), 68–9.
⁵⁵ Original emphasis. WP, Appr., 257–8. The essay first appeared in Macmillan’s
Magazine in November 1876, and was reprinted in 1889 in Appreciations under the title
34 ‘Romantic’ Originality

survival of these doctrines suggests, and what Pater’s deployment of them

to define ‘Romanticism’ confirms, is that by 1876 Romantic thought
concerning original authorship had been purged of its contradictions.
Shelley’s sense of the collaboration which inevitably proceeded between
the individual and what Keats called the ‘general and gregarious …
intellect’⁵⁶ had been elided, as had Wordsworth’s stress upon the
incorrigible plurality of the sources of thought.⁵⁷
Tracking the fate of an inherited literary idea is an awkward task at
the best of times.⁵⁸ Acts of cultural transmission of even the simplest
ideas take place haphazardly, or heuristically, and the diffusion of a
compound idea such as originality is correspondingly more complex
and less predictable. In the current case, too, the danger is always
present of reading a modified conception of ‘Romanticism’ back onto
the nineteenth century: of discovering only what one has chosen to search
for. George Whalley’s essay ‘England: Romantic–Romanticism’, which
remains the most subtle study of the rise of the ideas of Romanticism,
describes the first half of the nineteenth century in particular as a ‘dead
zone where navigation is difficult’, and where conclusions can only
‘be inferred, largely from negative evidence’.⁵⁹ Despite these difficulties,
however, it is possible to record at least some of the pressures which were
brought to bear on the ideas of literary originality as they were inherited
from the Romantic decades, and to trace how those inherited ideas
then became essentialized. A key figure controlling the transmission of
the idea of literary originality was William Hazlitt, who looks both
back into what we now call Romanticism, and out to the remainder of
the nineteenth century. It is Hazlitt’s double role as participant in and
assessor of an intellectual movement that informs the tone both of his
Lectures on the English Poets and of the critical essays which were collected
in Table Talk. In these essays, Hazlitt can be seen to lay considerable

⁵⁶ Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 3 May 1818. John Keats, Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder
Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), i. 281.
⁵⁷ ‘Who shall point as with a wand, and say | ‘‘This portion of the river of my mind |
Came from yon fountain’’?’ William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. J. C. Maxwell (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 84.
⁵⁸ On the reception of Romanticism in the Victorian nineteenth century, see George
Whalley, ‘England: Romantic–Romanticism’, in Hans Eichner (ed.), ‘Romantic’ and
its Cognates: The European History of a Word (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1972), 157–262; Armstrong, Victorian Poetry; John Beer, Romantic Influences:
Contemporary, Victorian, Modern (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993); Andrew Elfenbein,
Byron and the Victorians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Stephen
Gill, Wordsworth and the Victorians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
⁵⁹ Whalley, ‘England’, 235, 244.
‘Romantic’ Originality 35

stress upon the idea that authentic literature flowed from a source within
the individual writer, and that it was this quality which furnished true
literature with its distinctive ‘originality’. In his essay on Walter Scott,
for instance, he defined true literature as ‘pure invention’, noting that ‘a
poet is essentially a maker’, who fashions his works out of ‘the resources
of his mind’.⁶⁰ Similarly, in his essay on William Godwin—whom
he compared favourably with Coleridge—Hazlitt applauded Godwin’s
writing for being so unmistakably a product of ‘the ardent workings of
his own mind, … the teeming and audible pulses of his own heart’. He
went on to admire the first-handedness of Godwin’s intellect, which he
contrasted with other ‘pilfering’ writers:
the chains with which he rivets our attention are forged out of his own thoughts,
link by link, blow for blow, with glowing enthusiasm: we see the genuine ore
melted in the furnace of fervid feeling … and this is so far better than peeping
into an old iron shop, or pilfering from a dealer in marine stores! ⁶¹
This same striking image of the poet’s mind as a furnace in which truly
original thoughts are smelted recurred in the essay on Byron, where
Hazlitt again accentuated the endogenous nature of authentic creation:
‘Instead of taking his impressions from without, [Byron] moulds them
according to his own temperament, and heats the materials of his
imagination in the furnace of his passions.’⁶²
Hazlitt’s most significant contribution to the simplifying of the idea
of originality was made in the last of his lectures, ‘On the Living Poets’,
delivered in 1818. In the course of the lecture, Hazlitt attempted to
partition the recent literary past into schools, and to identify affinities
and disjunctions between these schools. He was, in effect, trying to
draw the first major map of early nineteenth-century literature. The
most conspicuous feature of Hazlitt’s cartography was what he called
the ‘Lake School’, the group of poets headed by ‘Mr. Wordsworth’.
Hazlitt claimed that this school, in which he included Southey and
Coleridge among others, had effected a drastic revolution in British
literary principles and values. ‘The change in the belles-lettres’ brought
about by the Lake School, wrote Hazlitt:
was as complete, and to many persons as startling, as the change in politics,
with which it went hand in hand … According to the prevailing notions, all

⁶⁰ William Hazlitt, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London:
J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930–4), xi. 60.
⁶¹ Ibid. 25. ⁶² Ibid. 69.
36 ‘Romantic’ Originality
was to be natural and new. Nothing that was established was to be tolerated. All
the common-place figures of poetry, tropes, allegories, personifications, with
the whole heathen mythology, were instantly discarded … A striking effect
produced where it was least expected, something new and original … was all
that was aimed at.⁶³
To the modern critical eye there appears to be a bad fit between Hazlitt’s
summary of the poetry of the Lake School, and its actual character and
ambitions. Consider, for example, Hazlitt’s suggestion that everything
‘common-place’ was instantly discarded. This will not square with the
Lyrical Ballads, a collection which was pervasively concerned both with
common places—the open ground, moorlands, and fellsides in which so
many of the characters of the Ballads, themselves ‘common-place figures’,
are encountered—and with the commonplaces of speech which make
up the language of men. However, despite its misrepresentation of the
Lake School poets—or rather because of it—this is an arresting passage.
For what Hazlitt says here is not incorrect, but incomplete; he aligns
originality (the ‘new’) with authenticity (the ‘natural’), and characterizes
the Lake School according to its disregard for the tradition and its wilful
rupture with all pre-existing convention. It is a partiality which would
be repeated in the numerous subsequent accounts of British Romantic
writers as unremittingly and unsubtly obsessed with originality. To give
only one instance of the reiteration of Hazlitt’s summary later in the
century, in Literary Epochs (1887), George Underhill devotes one of
seven chapters to the ‘Lake School’ and concludes after it that ‘the
essential qualit[y] for forming a new school of literature’ is ‘the creation
of original ideas never before conceived’.⁶⁴
Virgil Nemoianu suggests in The Taming of Romanticism that it
was during the late 1820s and 1830s that ‘the sheer energy of the
romantic breakthrough [was] captured and tamed in a long phase of
late romanticism that has a configuration of its own’.⁶⁵ In the case of
the idea of originality, this process of ‘taming’ and ‘capturing’ took the
form of a simplification, and the later 1820s and 1830s were the years
when this simplification was working at its fastest. During this period,
the connected topics of literary genius and literary originality were
frequently under discussion in the major literary periodicals, and the

⁶³ Hazlitt, Works, v. 161–2.

⁶⁴ George F. Underhill, Literary Epochs: Chapters on Noted Periods of Intellectual
Activity (London: Elliot Stock, 1887), 213.
⁶⁵ Virgil Nemoianu, The Taming of Romanticism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1984), 28.
‘Romantic’ Originality 37

idea of originality as creation ex nihilo received the imprimatur of some

important writers. In the New Monthly Magazine, a publication which
rode the hobby-horse of original genius notably hard, Edward Bulwer
and Isaac D’Israeli wrote a series of theoretical articles on the nature
of genius. The New Monthly Magazine also carried a series entitled
‘Specimens of German Genius’, which featured articles on and extracts
from, among others, Novalis, Schlegel, Goethe, and Richter. Harriet
Martineau and R. H. Horne contributed pieces on the subject to Tait’s
Edinburgh Magazine. John Forster and Leigh Hunt wrote on the topic in
Blackwood’s, or came at it through case studies, anatomizing the genius
of canonical figures such as Molière.⁶⁶ The assumption of the majority
of these articles was that original genius was indisputably an innate
capacity—a gift given rather than acquired—and that the writer-
artist was to be cherished as an exceptional individual. The original
genius was described as standing alone—uninfluenced, ‘unique’. Leigh
Hunt’s article ‘Lord Byron and his Contemporaries’, for example, which
appeared in Blackwood’s in March 1828, was typical in referring to the
‘Great Poets’ as ‘the Chosen Few’,⁶⁷ and in its advancement of the
idea that poets were not simply linguistic craftsmen, but privileged
souls whose personalities were indivisible from their literary output.
Another Blackwood’s article which appeared two years later—a review
by ‘Christopher North’, the pseudonym of John Wilson, of Moore’s life
and letters of Byron—described great poets as ‘fixed stars’ forming their
own ‘celestial clubs’.⁶⁸ Authentically great poetry was unmistakable,
the article implied: it emitted a sidereal light beneath which other
artistic produce appeared shabby and second-hand. By the time Sir
Egerton Brydges’ ‘An Essay on Originality of Mind’ appeared in Fraser’s

⁶⁶ See, for example, ‘Specimens of German Genius I–V’, ed. and trans. Sarah Austin,
New Monthly Magazine, 28 (April 1830), 311–17; 28 (May 1830), 444–50; 28 (June
1830), 519–26; 28 (July 1830), 34–42; 28 (August 1830), 180–9; Isaac D’Israeli,
‘The Genius of Molière’, New Monthly Magazine, 37 (April 1833), 429–40; John
Forster, ‘Evidences for a New Genius for Dramatic Poetry I’, New Monthly Magazine, 46
(March 1836), 289–308; R. H. Horne, ‘Genius, Talent, Science and Learning’, Tait’s
Edinburgh Magazine, 4 (January 1834), 483–4; R. H. Horne, ‘Men of Genius and the
Public’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 3 (September 1833), 739–44; Harriet Martineau,
‘Characteristics of the Genius of Scott’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 2 (December 1832),
301–14; and Harriet Martineau, ‘The Achievements of the Genius of Scott’, Tait’s
Edinburgh Magazine, 2 (January 1833), 445–60.
⁶⁷ Leigh Hunt, ‘Lord Byron and his Contemporaries’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh
Magazine, 23 (March 1828), 362–4.
⁶⁸ John Wilson, ‘Moore’s Byron (Part I)’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 27
(February 1830), 389.
38 ‘Romantic’ Originality

Magazine, in 1837, these ideas concerning the hard-wired nature of

original genius had been repeated so often as to sound themselves more
than a little hackneyed. ‘The power of throwing the light of an original,
vigorous and just mind on whatever subject it touches’, declaimed
is of course an endowment very highly to be esteemed, and venerated … What is
derived at second-hand from impulses borrowed from others or from forebears
… betrays itself in faintness, in exaggeration, or in servile identity. No one can
rationally hope that his fame will live who has been made an author by accident,
and without peculiar gifts from nature.⁶⁹
The most definitive in aim and uncompromising in tone of these articles
on original genius was John Abraham Héraud’s ‘On Poetical Genius
Considered as a Creative Power’, a ten-page theoretical account of
literary originality which combined English (Coleridgean) with German
(Novalian) notions about genius, and which appeared in the first issue
of Fraser’s Magazine. Héraud’s ambition in the article was to define and
defend the idea of creation ex nihilo. Like D’Israeli, whom he invoked in
support of his argument, Héraud began by attempting to dismantle the
Lockian epistemology of empirical association. Materialists, he wrote
dismissively, believe that:
the sentient is all—the spiritual nature of man, nothing … with them, all ideas
are derived, and fancy and imagination phlegmatic imitators, or, at best, but
quick collectors and appropriators of the goods of others … they communicate
nothing, but derive all. To them, the mere assumption [of the possibility of
an original idea] will be ridiculous … We shall, nevertheless, contend for the
creative faculty of genius in its literal signification, and assert its power of
creation in the most extended sense; not only in the combination of ideas, but
ideas themselves, primarily and underived, as its own absolute and independent
production … we shall endeavour to prove, that the human, like the Divine
mind, doth possess this living fountain—a creative power in itself to produce
the sublime, the beautiful, and the new! … By the term ‘creation’ we intend a
power of creating ideas, and submit that what are called original thoughts are
underived, indeed original, existent in the individual soul.⁷⁰
For Héraud, the materialist account of literary originality as collection,
appropriation, and derivation was intolerable, for it denied to humans
the capacity to originate, and therefore robbed them of their status

⁶⁹ Egerton Brydges, ‘An Essay on Originality of Mind’, Fraser’s Magazine, 15 (May

1837), 585.
⁷⁰ Héraud, ‘On Poetical Genius’, 56–7, 59.
‘Romantic’ Originality 39

as ‘partaker with Deity of his most incommunicable attribute’: the

ability to create out of nothing. Héraud was unequivocal as to the
capacity of the human mind to create ‘in the most extended sense’, in
‘absolute and independent production’, and he defended this assertion
with considerable verve—and without ever once suggesting exactly how
‘what are called original thoughts’ came to be generated out of nothing.
‘Such reflections as these’, he concluded modestly, ‘may perhaps suffice
to defend the propriety and appositeness of the term ‘‘creative genius’’,
which is the fountain of all poetry and art, upon which good critics
insist so much, and whereof bad philosophers understand so little.’⁷¹
Héraud’s article appeared in February of 1830. By 1840, following
a decade of entrenchment in the major literary periodicals, the idea
of originality as creatio enjoyed widespread endorsement within British
literary culture, and 1840 can usefully be considered as the high-water
mark of originality as creatio within Britain. Testimony to this can be
found in two important documents from 1840. The first is Mill’s essay
on Coleridge, which contrasts him with Bentham. In that essay Mill, as
Hazlitt had done two decades earlier, advanced the idea that authentic
literature emanated from a source located within the author, and that it
was thus intellectually autonomous from its context. This was consistent
with Mill’s other writings on the psycho-mechanics of literary creation:
as M. H. Abrams puts it, for Mill ‘in so far as a literary product
simply imitates objects, it is not poetry at all. As a result, reference of
poetry to the external universe disappears from Mill’s theory, except to
the extent that sensible objects may serve as a stimulus or ‘‘occasion
for the generation of poetry’’.’⁷² In 1833, Mill had famously defined
poetry as ‘the natural fruit of solitude and meditation’ and as ‘feeling
confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude’,⁷³ definitions which
carried echoes of Keats’s isolationist dictum that the ‘creative must
create itself ’ (a phrase coined in a letter to James Hessey in which Keats
also declared his desire to ‘write independently [sic]’).⁷⁴ Also in 1840,
Thomas Carlyle delivered a lecture entitled ‘The Hero as Prophet’, in

⁷¹ Ibid. 60, 62, 63.

⁷² Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), 24.
⁷³ John Stuart Mill, Essays on Poetry, ed. F. Parvin Sharpless (Columbia: University
of South Carolina Press, 1976), 13, 12.
⁷⁴ ‘The Genius of Poetry cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation
& watchfulness in itself—That which is creative must create itself.’ Keats’s involuted
syntax carries the thrust of his conviction here, as the syntax works to emphasize not just
the possessiveness of Genius, but its self -possessiveness, its autotelism. Letter to James
Hessey, 8 October 1818. Keats, Letters, i. 374.
40 ‘Romantic’ Originality

the course of which he undertook a description of the qualities of an

‘original man’. An original, intoned Carlyle: ‘comes to us at first hand.
A messenger he, sent from the Infinite Unknown with tidings to us.
We may call him Poet, Prophet, God;—in one way or other, we all
feel that the words he utters are as no man’s words.’⁷⁵ The analogy
Carlyle implicitly draws between ‘Poet’ and ‘God’ gives a measure of
the respect accorded to the ‘original man’: poet and God are on the
same continuum of power, and the language of both is distinctive for
being unmediated by interpreters. The ultimate proof Carlyle proposes
for the identification of an ‘original man’ is that ‘the words he utters are
as no man’s words’: that is, they have never been used before.
The year 1840 was also that in which Sordello, Robert Browning’s
first major poem, appeared. The questions of origin and originality
animated Browning from the beginning of his poetic career, and much
of his poetry—in particular Sordello and The Ring and the Book —bears
the stretch-marks of a writer whose thought is being pulled in two
divergent directions by these questions. Instinctively, Browning was
attracted by the exalted vision of poet as vates: Carlyle’s ‘original man’,
speaking the words of no man. This was an idea which found its
embodiment for Browning most perfectly in Shelley, to whom he
referred as the ‘Sun-treader’. Yet Browning did not accept uncritically
the account of originality as creatio. He was also compelled to worry at
the partiality, provisionality, and ultimately the futility of attempting to
create anything wholly new when working in the medium of language.
As J. Hillis Miller observes, ‘Browning does not fool himself about the
powers of poetry … only God is creatively autonomous. The earthly poet
is dependent on the prior creation by God of the world, and can only
imitate in his poems objects or people which already exist, have existed,
or could conceivably exist.’⁷⁶ The tension between these competing
explanations of originality is what galvanizes The Ring and the Book,
a poem which is simultaneously a lament at the impossibility of pure,
unalloyed origination, and a celebration of the process of ‘interfusion’
which is inherent to poetic making. These contrasting themes, which
are engaged with so openly in The Ring and the Book, are less obviously
under discussion in Sordello. In the poem, Browning explores the

⁷⁵ Thomas Carlyle, The Works of Thomas Carlyle, ed. H. D. Traill (London: Chapman
and Hall, 1896–9), v. 45.
⁷⁶ J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press,
1975), 101.
‘Romantic’ Originality 41

cost of Sordello’s desire to become what he terms an ‘Apolline’ poet

(that is, a poet ‘able to conjure something out of nothing’). As David
Latané suggests, ‘[Sordello’s] is the boyhood of ‘‘genius’’, and part
of Browning’s purpose is to deflate the cult of genius prevalent in
the late-Romantic era, when the bard is exalted as ‘‘representative of
Genius’’ … The description of the boy Sordello in his idyllic setting
might easily fit into Isaac D’Israeli’s ‘‘Youth of Genius’’ chapter in
The Literary Character.’⁷⁷ Browning juxtaposes the Apolline Sordello
with the type of poet represented by Eglamor: the provisional, studious
poet, who achieves his poems through labour, study, and craftsmanship.
Eventually, the two poets face each other in the poetic contest which is
at the heart of the poem. In one sense, therefore, Sordello can be read
as a dramatization of the two alternative visions of creativity which run
through nineteenth-century poetics: one as inspired, spontaneous, and
original, and the other as dutiful, labour-intensive and derived. In his
engagement with these alternatives, Browning can be taken to mark
one of the first emergent signs of self-consciousness about the idea of
originality in the nineteenth century: a sense that the conception of
originality derived and simplified from the Romantic period might not
be as natural and innate as it appeared.


Among the most revealing indices of the early to mid-century veneration

of originality is the evolution of the ‘plagiarism hunter’; a species
of literary journalist which specialized in tracking down allusions,
borrowings, and derivations, and then in listing these examples in an
article as an arraignment of an author’s originality. The goal of the
plagiarism hunter was thus to elucidate the provenance of the literary
object, rather than the synchronic qualities of its literary merit, and in
this respect his rise can be seen as a tributary of the rise of antiquarianism
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which in its literary
form was dedicated to exhuming sources and influences for canonical
art works. In 1827 an infuriated Thomas De Quincey railed against the
‘thousands of feeble writers’ who ‘subsist by detecting imitations, real

⁷⁷ David E. Latané, Browning’s Sordello and the Aesthetics of Difficulty (Victoria, BC:
University of Victoria Press, 1987), 56.
42 ‘Romantic’ Originality

or supposed’ (De Quincey, it is worth noting, was the first to denounce

Coleridge’s so-called plagiarisms in two long articles published in 1834),
one among numerous items of evidence which suggest that Marilyn
Randall is wrong to assert that ‘plagiarism-hunting in the English
tradition has generally been a function of source studies focused on
individual authors or on studies of literary periods, and has rarely been
carried out for its own sake’.⁷⁸ Fifty-five years later, Tennyson summed
up the activities of the plagiarism hunter in a testy reply to a letter from
one ‘Mr Dawson’, the author of a source study of The Princess. In the
course of his reply, he deplored the existence of what he called ‘a prosaic
set’ of belle-lettristes:
editors of booklets, bookworms, index-hunters, or men of great memories and
no imagination, who impute themselves to the poet, and so believe that he, too,
has no imagination, but is for ever poking his nose between the pages of some
old volumes in order to see what he can appropriate.⁷⁹
The ubiquity of the plagiarism hunter can plausibly be attributed to
two principal factors. The first is socio-cultural: the rapid expansion
of periodical journalism in Britain over the nineteenth century. This
boom, from around 300 periodical titles in 1800 to around 6,000 in
1900, was stimulated by technological improvements (the invention of
stereotyping, the paper-making machine, lithography, and photography
from the 1840s onwards), and social adjustments (the revocation of the
paper tax and rising literacy rates), and it provided a forum and a living
wage for increasing numbers of literary hacks. The second explanation
for the proliferation of plagiarism hunters is an ideological one; that
the intellectual climate in Britain was predisposed to welcome a form
of literary journalism the raison d’être of which was the veneration of
originality and the denigration of literary resemblance. These minor
critics wrote from, and justified themselves by, a conviction that literary
resemblance militated against literary excellence. They sought to legislate
and adjudicate the proprietorial relationships between texts: as their
writing makes clear, they perceived themselves as the guardians who
patrolled the unstable boundary between legitimate and illegitimate
literary resemblance. An article from 1889—by which time a reaction

⁷⁸ Thomas De Quincey, letter to the editor of the Edinburgh Saturday Post, 3

November 1827. Reprinted in New Essays by De Quincey. His Contributions to the
Edinburgh Saturday Post and Edinburgh Evening Post, 1827–28, ed. Stuart M. Tave
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 181. Quoted PP, 113.
⁷⁹ Quoted Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 622.
‘Romantic’ Originality 43

against plagiarism hunting had set in—mocked this self-styling of

The whole body of critics [is] placed, as it were, like trusty watch-dogs around
the works of every author, past or present, suffering no man to approach
without a growl of warning. And so many are they in number, as well as keen
in scent, that the wariest intruder can scarcely approach their charges without
being marked and apprehended.⁸⁰
The author of the article concluded that this overdeveloped sense of a
literary work’s necessary individuality was cutting latter-day authors off
from their ‘legitimate resource’—the tradition.
For much of the nineteenth century in Britain, the plagiarism hunter
thrived, buoyed up in public opinion by the high rating of literary
originality. In its closing three decades, however, a counter-movement
concerning originality and plagiarism emerged, which contested the
aesthetic and ethical logic of the plagiarism hunter, and which, to adapt
a phrase from Groom, sought to neutralize ‘the tedious and incessant
critical alarm in the word ‘‘plagiarism’’ ’.⁸¹ The backlash which occurred
against plagiarism hunters was part of a more widespread literary-
critical antagonism towards the hypervaluation of originality. During
the 1860s, and in increasing numbers in the 1870s and onwards, a new
kind of article started to appear in British and American periodicals.
These articles were either defences of plagiarism or, less commonly,
an attack on the notion of pure origination, and their intention was
to rebuff prevailing attitudes towards plagiarism and originality. The
authors of these significant articles—the comparative mythologist and
poet Andrew Lang, the novelist and journalist E. F. Benson, and the
writers Brander Matthews and Edward Wright among them—sought to
destigmatize literary repetition: to argue that those types of writing which
were often denounced as plagiaristic were actually nothing more than the
inescapable, and often the beneficial, effects of literary influence. These
‘plagiarism apologists’—as Paul Saint-Amour refers to them—argued
for the category of plagiarism to be shrunk, until it was only applicable
to the large-scale and entirely furtive interpolation of another’s words.⁸²
Writing in 1887, for instance, Andrew Lang condemned what he
saw as the ‘proliferation’ of plagiarism hunters, and explained their

⁸⁰ Anon., ‘On Plagiarism’, Cambridge Review, 21 (February 1889), 219.

⁸¹ Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 3. Groom has ‘forgery’ for ‘plagiarism’.
⁸² See Saint-Amour’s exemplary discussion of ‘plagiarism apology’, and his list of the
apologists; SA, 37–52, 241.
44 ‘Romantic’ Originality

abundance by reference to the ‘present inflamed moral condition’

regarding literary resemblance.⁸³ Lang’s animus towards plagiarism
hunters was shared by numerous other writers. ‘We have naught but
loathing for those literary detectives’, announced William Walsh in
1893, ‘who are continually hunting on the track of every popular writer
and crying ‘‘Stop thief!’’ at every accidental coincidence.’⁸⁴ J. Cuthbert
Hadden observed in 1896 that:
the question of plagiarism or coincidence is always stirring the literary world
in some quarter or another. Indeed, the cry of literary larceny has of late years
become wearisome. No one knows better than the argus-eyed literary detective
that the prime difficulty with a scrupulous author is to keep his head clear in
the rush and anxiety of composition, and to be sure that he carries off no hat
or umbrella but his own. But the literary detective is usually a fine example of
the man who has plenty of zeal without having any discretion to balance it; and
the great consideration of the pedantic pest is in most cases, not that you shall
escape, but that his own skill shall not go undetected.⁸⁵

Plagiarism is both an ethical infringement, and an aesthetic one.

Objections to it have tended to be either that it contravenes writerly
honour code, or that as a compositional practice it does not result in
good art. Embedded in the etymology of plagiarism, however, is the
suggestion that it is also a civic crime—plagiarism comes from the Latin
plagiarius, meaning a slave-napper or kidnapper—and although it has
never been a legal infraction, plagiarism has always carried this stigma
of criminality with it. It was this implication of illegality which possibly
contributed to the ubiquitous references to the plagiarism hunters as
‘literary detectives’.
The most usual motive attributed to plagiarism hunters was that they
were jealous of the authors whom they accused of plagiarism. ‘The cry of
‘‘Stop thief!’’ ’, wrote W. Davenport-Adams in 1892 (beating Walsh to
the proposition by a year), ‘is so often raised in the world of letters by the
hangers-on of literature, simply to gratify feelings of vindictiveness and

⁸³ Andrew Lang, ‘Literary Plagiarism’, Contemporary Review, 51 (June 1887), 831–40

⁸⁴ William S. Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Criticism (London: William W. Gibbons,
1893), 899–900.
⁸⁵ J. Cuthbert Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, Scottish Review, 27 (April
1896), 336–50 (336–7). Hadden may have absent-mindedly carried his own imagery
off from elsewhere: compare George Eliot (1879): ‘Some absent persons cannot remember
the state of wear in their own hats and umbrellas, and have no mental check to tell them
that they have carried home a fellow-visitor’s more recent purchase.’ ITS, 94.
‘Romantic’ Originality 45

spite; a cry which usually originates in the consciousness of inferiority,

and is sustained by the malignancy of envy.’⁸⁶ In Wilde’s dialogue ‘The
Critic as Artist’, Gilbert attributes the motive of plagiarism hunters to
those who are themselves of an ‘inartistic temperament’. Accusations
of plagiarism, he notes, ‘proceed either from the thin colourless lips
of impotence, or from the grotesque mouths of those who, possessing
nothing of their own, fancy that they can gain a reputation for wealth by
crying out that they have been robbed’.⁸⁷ Indeed, the most penetrating
objection to the work of the literary detective was that his behaviour
had a fatal contradiction built into it. So often did he insist upon
the importance of originality that his insistence became, with every
utterance, further in contradiction of its own sustaining premiss. The
plagiarism hunters themselves became thoughtlessly repetitive: ‘critics
whose one piteous parrot-cry is for ‘‘originality’’ ’.⁸⁸
In seeking to silence the critical alarm which had previously been
inherent in the word ‘plagiarism’, the plagiarism apologists sought also
to create aesthetic and ethical space for literary works which exploited
the creative possibilities of intertextuality. They did not wholly deny the
possibility of genius, but, crucially, they did seek to redefine the author’s
genial power as the ability to assimilate and to transform rather than
spontaneously to produce. They replaced authorial inspiration with
something ostensibly less glamorous: the capacity to gather, combine,
and improve. So it was that, in their writings, they represented the
author as a jeweller, or a flower-arranger, or a tailor. Authors, like these
other professionals, derived their materials from the external world and
then co-ordinated them: they did not, as Emerson put it, weave ‘their
web from their own bowels’.⁸⁹ They also sought to retool conceptions
of literary property. No idea was truly original in the sense of being
created for the first time, they maintained: everything was recycled. ‘If
you merely use old ideas (and there are no new ideas),’ wrote Andrew
Lang, ‘and so produce a fresh combination, a fresh whole, you are not
a plagiarist at all.’⁹⁰ Given the impossibility of producing newness, the

⁸⁶ W. Davenport-Adams, ‘Imitators and Plagiarists’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 48 (May

1892), 502.
⁸⁷ CWOW, 1117. ⁸⁸ Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 341.
⁸⁹ ‘Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality’,
Emerson wrote in his essay on Shakespeare. ‘If we require the originality which consists
in weaving like a spider their web from their own bowels, in finding clay, and making
bricks, and building the house, no great men are original.’ RWE, iv. 109.
⁹⁰ Lang, ‘Literary Plagiarism’, 837. The idea that ‘there are no new ideas’ was advanced
by several of the apologists for plagiarism, who usually invoked Ecclesiastes 1: 8—‘There
46 ‘Romantic’ Originality

apologists argued, it was the author’s ability to convert literary material

that was important, not the provenance of that material. Instead of
literature being the utterly idiosyncratic expression of an individual
personality, it became instead—as Emerson suggested—‘the property
of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place
it’.⁹¹ They endorsed what George Eliot in 1879 called ‘communistic
principles’ of authorship: the disposal ‘to treat the distinction between
Mine and Thine in original authorship as egoistic, narrowing, and
The logical strategy most frequently used by these apologists was
to demonstrate how certain indisputably great and ‘original’ writers
had made use of the work of others. They revealed the poems and
plays of these canonical authors—Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton,
Gray, Bunyan, and, later, Tennyson—to be sites of derivation, where
allusions, imitations, translations, repetitions, and quotations rubbed
shoulders with supposedly more original phrases. In this way, the project
and practices of the plagiarism hunters, who had tracked down so many
of these intertextualities, were deployed to argue against originality.
Shakespeare, more than any other author, was central to the Victorian
conception of great literature—‘Shakespeare is the chief of all Poets
hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record
of himself in the way of Literature’ effused Carlyle in 1840—and it
was for this reason that he provided such a wieldy lever for antagonists
of creatio.⁹³ Research into the textual background of Shakespeare’s
plays had shown him not to be—as Pope had claimed—‘independent
of prior models—a complete original’, but instead a writer who was
heavily indebted to earlier sources. In 1893, Walsh could comment
that ‘Shakespeare of course stole plots, incidents and ideas from his
forerunners’, and make it sound not only like a truth universally
acknowledged, but also a perfectly permissible manner of proceeding.⁹⁴
So many canonical authors were shown to have made use of the words
of others that it was possible for the apologists to argue that resemblance
and repetition were not inimical but essential to great literature. Once
originality had been shown to be a function of reuse, the notion of
‘plagiarism’ lost its sting, or at least its stigma. At their most ambitious,

is no new thing under the sun’—both to provide a biblical precedent for their argument,
and reflexively to show that their idea was not itself new.
⁹¹ RWE, iv. 114. ⁹² ITS, 58. ⁹³ Carlyle, Works, v. 103.
⁹⁴ Walsh, Handy-Book, 892.
‘Romantic’ Originality 47

the apologists tried to reconceptualize the entire history of literature as

a history of borrowing and lending, rather than one of autonomous
geniuses. In his important 1877 article ‘Literary Plagiarism’, for example,
Andrew Lang proposed plagiarism as a natural and needful ingredient
of literature’s progress:
But Bunyan: every library possesses, or may possess, half a dozen earlier
Progresses by earlier pilgrims. But Virgil: when he is not pilfering from Homer
or Theocritus (who notoriously robbed Sophron) he has his hand in the pocket
of Apollonius Rhodius … the ‘Æneid’ was a pastiche, a string of plagiarisms, a
success due to Court influence and the mutual admiration of Horace, Varro,
and some other notorious characters. Yet the ‘Æneid’ remains a rather unusual
piece of work … Homer plagiarized [all his incidents] from popular stories; he
stole the Cyclops almost ready-made. ⁹⁵
Either plagiarism has to be redefined, Lang implied, or the whole canon
is left defunct. This same line of reasoning was used repeatedly by the
apologists, who sensed its potency. Charles Wibley, writing ‘A Plea
for Legitimate Plagiarism’ in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1900, concluded
triumphantly that:
In one sense the literature of the world may be described as a series of thefts.
Tradition, the essence of art, is but a chain which binds lender and borrower
together … In truth, the first step to originality is a knowledge of other
men’s masterpieces … since knowledge of others is necessary to originality,
it follows that all men must, in their moments, be plagiarists. For no man,
sensitive enough to write, is insensitive to influences. The result of study is
half-conscious suggestion, and as Gibbon found his irony in Pascal, as Virgil
found his measures in Homer, so everybody who is worth reading has taken
what suited him from the past.⁹⁶
James Orrock declared in 1883 to his exclusive coterie of bookish
London intellectuals, the Sette of Odd Volumes, that ‘To be a plagiarist
is by the multitude considered mean and dishonourable … In art,
however, no sin is so common, and it has been practised by most of the
great masters’, and invoked Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare to reinforce
his point. ‘On Plagiarism’, an anonymous article which appeared in the
Cambridge Review in 1889, concluded that ‘There is scarcely a poet of
any eminence since the days of Hesiod, who has not gloriously sinned in
this respect. What were Milton, Tennyson, Pope, Landor without the

⁹⁵ Lang, ‘Literary Plagiarism’, 832.

⁹⁶ Charles Wibley, ‘A Plea for Legitimate Plagiarism’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Maga-
zine, 168 (October 1900), 598.
48 ‘Romantic’ Originality

classics? Nay, what were the classics themselves without their classics,
the proto-poets of humanity, the first rude singers of the world?’⁹⁷
Again and again, the ‘sin’ of plagiarism was sophistically rinsed and
rehabilitated into a virtue, a practice absolutely integral to literature, its
methods, and its sustenance. It was presented not as a crime, but rather as
something akin to an inheritance handed down—patrilineally—from
generation to generation.⁹⁸ Inheritance, indeed, came to replace the
image of debt as a way of figuring intertextuality. Groom observes that
later Romantic writers translated Ossian into a figure of inspiration by
‘translating the congress of the Muses into an aesthetic of repetition.
It was a way in which the art of imitation could be practised, not as
‘‘imitation’’ in the neoclassical sense of the word, but instead as sublime
echoes or shadows.’⁹⁹ Half a century later, plagiarism underwent much
the same process of translation, or transfiguration, into a form of
glorious, ineluctable sin.
The second vital claim of those who, like Reade, Lang, and Benson,
summoned Shakespeare and other canonical authors as witnesses in their
defence of plagiarism, was that these authors had palpably improved
what they had taken, and that the common literary inheritance had
thereby been enriched. Priority (and origin) was far less meaningful
than quality. ‘The men who first conceive an idea, a situation, a melody,
a colour scheme, an effect in sculpture, are insignificant. The men
who best conceive these things are great’, wrote Wright.¹⁰⁰ In ringing
these changes, these ‘great’ men also hallmarked the appropriated
material, thereby making it their own. Thus Brander Matthews in
Shakespeare and Molière borrowed from Plautus, as Plautus had borrowed
from Menander; and this again is not plagiarism. Every literary worker has a
right to draw from the accumulated store of the past, so long as he does not
attempt to conceal what he has done … and so long as he has wholly absorbed
and assimilated and steeped in his own grey matter what he has derived from
his predecessors.¹⁰¹

⁹⁷ Anon., ‘On Plagiarism’, 218–19 (219).

⁹⁸ James Orrock, Repeats and Plagiarisms in Art (London: C. W. H. Wyman, 1888),
19. On the different redactions of ‘creative’ and ‘honourable’ allusion, see Christopher
Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
⁹⁹ Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 133
¹⁰⁰ Edward Wright, ‘The Art of Plagiarism’, Contemporary Review, 85 (April 1904),
¹⁰¹ Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 627.
‘Romantic’ Originality 49

The legitimization of literary repetition for which Matthews and

the other plagiarism apologists were campaigning therefore became
yoked to a value-system: decisions as to whether any given repetition
was plagiaristic or acceptable depended upon how successfully it was
thought the appropriated material had been integrated and ameliorated.
The language of these articles was distinctively Victorian, but reading
them now—with their anti-foundationalism, their arguments for the
severance of a work from its human origin, their account of a web or
network of interrelating texts, and their admiration of appropriation
as an original technique of writing—one scents a distinctive whiff of
post-structuralist prophecy. What these articles do not suggest, however,
is why this reaction occurred: what intellectual forces induced such a
dissatisfaction with inherited ideas of literary originality as creatio? To
answer that question, or at least to provide a set of cultural contexts
within which such a dissatisfaction might plausibly have mustered itself,
it is necessary to look outside the bounds of literary-critical discourse,
and to explore changes which were taking place in broader cultural
notions of origins, selfhood, repetition, and individualism from the
1850s until the end of the century.
Legitimizing Appropriation

It is … hypercriticism to class all literary resemblance as plagiarism.

(R. R. Madden, 1869)¹


Early in Our Mutual Friend, the taxidermist and anatomist Mr Venus

describes how he composes whole human skeletons out of the oddments
of other skeletons. ‘I can be miscellaneous’, he declares proudly to Silas
Wegg. ‘I have just sent home a Beauty—a perfect Beauty—to a school
of art. One leg Belgian, one leg English, and the pickings of eight other
people in it.’² Venus’ skill, like that of so many of the characters in Our
Mutual Friend, lies in making something apparently whole out of what
he calls ‘warious’ sources, in creating an integrity for that which has been
disintegrated, and in procuring value from that which has been used. In
addition to Venus there is John Rokesmith, whose bureaucratic talents
bring harmony to the confusion of papers on Mr Boffin’s desk; there is
Lizzie Hexam, who manages to restore some sort of completeness to the
shattered Eugene Wrayburn; there is Silas Wegg—the least sympathetic
of these restorers—with his rehashed, extemporized ballads; and there
is Jenny Wren, who for at least part of the novel manages to keep her
father—who is ‘falling to pieces’—whole, and who makes her living by
fashioning objects of an ‘odd, exotic beauty’ out of ‘damage and waste’
(227, 280). The paradigmatic action for Our Mutual Friend is that
of renewal through transformation of state. As several commentators
have noted, Our Mutual Friend reflects more overtly than any of

¹ R. R. Madden, ‘Plagiarism and Accidental Imitation’, Dublin University Magazine,

433 (January 1869), 114.
² Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend [1864–5], ed. Michael Cotsell (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1989), 80. Hereafter OMF.
Legitimizing Appropriation 51

Dickens’s previous books upon its own imaginative and compositional

processes, and one of the ways it does this is by turning its images upon
itself.³ The novel’s recurring metaphors of reclamation, recycling, and
conversion are aimed not only outwards, as ways of plotting the patterns
of society, but also inwards, as ways of examining and illustrating the
‘articulation’—to use a favoured term of Mr Venus—of the novel itself:
in particular Dickens’s often undisguised refashioning of an assortment
of earlier texts. Dickens had always been happy to consume and recast
the style, plots, and characters of other writers, but in Our Mutual Friend
this act of consumption and transformation is made an important theme
of the novel. Subtly, Dickens outlines and endorses a new model for
literary and imaginative creation, one which finds more that is plausible
in the action of conversion than in the notion of origin or end.
Our Mutual Friend ’s interest in process contrasts with an earlier novel
such as Oliver Twist, in which nobody is able fully to slough off their past
and start afresh, or to transmute themselves into another kind of person.
Beginning, in that novel, is a powerful determinant of being. Our Mutual
Friend moves away from the power of origin to the power of process: with
what Metz calls the ‘multiple and continuous acts of putting the world
together’.⁴ These acts of ‘putting together’ are performed at an imagin-
ative as well as at a material level. The cyclical economy of the city, the
reader’s ongoing struggle to make sense of—to articulate—the different
bits and pieces of the novel, and Dickens’s own creative adaptation of his
sources: each level of recycling enacts and condones the others. Dickens
repeatedly reminds us that even the most apparently new things have
sources: that, to adapt an observation of Wittgenstein’s, it is difficult to
imagine an origin without feeling that you could always go back beyond
it.⁵ What makes Our Mutual Friend so relevant to this book’s argument is
that it illustrates how one intersection between cultural and literary nar-
ratives of originality occurred. For it was in part Dickens’s involvement
with the public policy of sewage recycling, and his subsequent exposure

³ See Garret Stewart, Dickens and the Trials of Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1974), 201; Adrian Poole, introduction to Our Mutual Friend
(London: Penguin, 1997), p. xxiii; Michael Cotsell, introduction to OMF, p. xix; and
Patrick O’Donnell, ‘ ‘‘A Speech of Chaff ’’: Ventriloquy and Expression in Our Mutual
Friend’, Dickens Studies Annual, 19 (1990), 248.
⁴ Metz, ‘Artistic Reclamation’, 60–1.
⁵ ‘It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or, better: it is difficult to begin at the
beginning. And not try to go further back.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, ed. G.
E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1974), 81.
52 Legitimizing Appropriation

as editor of Household Words to scientific expositions of chemical and

physical conversions, which caused him to modify his understanding
of the literary imagination, and which promoted his interest in process
over his interest in origin. Prying into the compositional history of Our
Mutual Friend, we glimpse how developments in public health policy and
in Victorian science were assimilated into literary theory and practice.


Waste and a possible solution to waste, recycling, were ideas with new
relevance and charge in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. In his Essay
on the Principle of Population (1793), Thomas Malthus had designated
waste as the inevitable by-product of a healthy social body. By the early
1840s, however, due to the urban population boom and to medical
science’s miasmic theories of infection, which attributed not just the
spread but also the generation of disease to the accumulation of waste
matter, waste had come to be perceived as a symptom of societal
disorganization and ill-health. Reformers began to argue that social
systems should emulate the natural processes of decomposition and
recomposition, and that waste should not be disposed of but rather
reclaimed to become that paradox, a waste product.⁶ Order and ordure:
to many mid-century Victorians it seemed that to preserve the first, the
second must be redeemed.
The most high-profile recycling initiative in the 1840s and 1850s
concerned the use of human and animal sewage as a fertilizer for crops.⁷
The groundbreaking work of the German chemist Justus von Liebig on

⁶ The verb ‘to recycle’ is relatively new; the OED records its first usage as 1926.
Its Victorian cognates were ‘reclamation’, ‘restitution’, ‘redemption’—with its spiritu-
al overtones—or ‘recombination’; this last is among the slew of ‘re-’ prefixed words
newly coined in the mid-century, including ‘rearrangement’, ‘reordinate’, and ‘reorient’.
‘Recombination’ brought with it a sense of renewal, of newness arising out of reor-
ganization rather than out of generation. ‘Re-orient’ was first used by Tennyson in In
Memoriam (1850)—‘The life re-orient out of dust’—to mean re-arisen, or re-risen.
⁷ See Nicholas Goddard, ‘Nineteenth-Century Recycling: The Victorians and the
Agricultural Utilisation of Sewage’, History Today, 31:6 (June 1981), 32–6; and ‘ ‘‘A
Mine of Wealth?’’: The Victorians and the Agricultural Value of Sewage’, Journal of
Historical Geography, 22:3 (July 1996), 274–90. See also Tina Young Choi, ‘Completing
the Circle: The Victorian Sanitary Movement, Our Mutual Friend, and Narrative
Closure’, http://humwww.ucsc.edu/dickens/OMF/artarchive.html (November 2005).
For a useful essay on waste and recycling in Dickens, see Catherine Gallagher, ‘The
Bioeconomics of Our Mutual Friend ’, in David Simpson (ed.), Subject to History (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 47–64.
Legitimizing Appropriation 53

the mineral composition of manures had been translated into English

during the 1840s, and had cultivated the growth of a vocal British
lobby, led by Edwin Chadwick, who believed that in the recycling
of what Dickens euphemistically called ‘dust’ was a defence against
the Malthusian menaces of overpopulation and global malnutrition.
Liebig’s breakthrough had been to realize that if spread on soil, manure
underwent ‘a grand natural process of … dissolution’ such that its
constitutive elements were unlocked, and could then ‘resume new forms
in which they can again serve as food for a new generation of plants and
animals’.⁸ Drawing on Liebig’s work, Chadwick devised a plan which
was designed not only to remove London’s waste products, but also
to make them productive for the country’s economy by using them as
manure for crops. ‘We complete the circle’, he wrote in 1845, ‘and
realize the Egyptian type of eternity by bringing as it were the serpent’s
tail into the serpent’s mouth.’⁹ That little hover—‘as it were’—is
Chadwick’s acknowledgement of the double relevance of his image: the
self-consuming Levantine serpent archetypically represented circularity,
but it was particularly appropriate to Chadwick’s recommendation that
the British people put in their ‘mouth’ what came out of their ‘tail’.
What needed dissolving, before the advocates of sewage recycling could
hope to see their convictions become policy, was an intuitive public
revulsion at the prospect of eating effluence, however categorically or
naturally transformed in state. The solution of the Victorian advocates
of sewage recycling was to try to win over public opinion by force of
analogy, comparing their project with that of alchemists (turning dung
into gold), or explaining how the reuse of refuse which they proposed
was harmonized with the cycles of natural theology. As one zealous
British scatophage put it, the mysterious soil processes that converted
human excrement into plant life were a ‘transformative miracle by which
the foetid refuse of the population … can become a source of life, of
vigour, of fertility, and of beauty’.¹⁰
The cause of the sewage recyclists nourished and was nourished by
what Joe Amato calls ‘the popular mid-century belief in the cyclical

⁸ Justus von Liebig, Chemistry in its Relations to Physiology, Dietetics, Agriculture,

Commerce, and Political Economy, 3rd edn. (London: Taylor, Walton and Maberley,
1851), 180–1.
⁹ Quoted in S. E. Finer, The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (London:
Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1952), 222.
¹⁰ ‘Editorial’, Builder, 23 (1865), 201–2.
54 Legitimizing Appropriation

quality of all natural things’.¹¹ It was a belief which spread across diverse
regions of thought. Reuse became as fertile a concept sociologically,
theologically, and philanthropically as it was nutritionally: the same
arguments and vocabularies of salvage and reclamation found them-
selves reused in dissimilar intellectual environments.¹² From the 1840s
onwards, a sense grew that the process of reclamation—whether that
be the object of worth redeemed from a context of waste (the valu-
ables which John Harmon rescues from the dust-heaps in Our Mutual
Friend), or waste matter metastasized from a state of uselessness into one
of utility (Jenny Wren’s dolls)—was admirable. What was perceived to
be ‘praiseworthy’, as Christopher Hamlin puts it, was ‘the transforma-
tion of matter from one beautiful and useful occupation to the next, or,
in more technical (and more evocative) terms, the putrefaction, decom-
position, or decay of organic matter and its subsequent reconstitution
in new form’.¹³ In 1842, the same year as its publication, the Poor
Law Commissioner Edwin Chadwick asked Henry Austin, Dickens’s
brother-in-law, to pass a copy of his Report on the Sanitary Condition of
the Labouring Population of Great Britain to Dickens. Although Dick-
ens was initially suspicious of Chadwick as an exponent of the Poor
Law which he so despised, over the course of the 1840s he became
increasingly involved with the issue of sanitary reform, collaborating on
speeches and newspaper articles with Austin, who in 1848 was made
Secretary to the General Board of Health.¹⁴ This political partnership
had significant consequences for Dickens’s fiction: as David Trotter has
convincingly shown, Dickens’s exposure to the socio-political discourse
of circularity and circulation during this decade ‘began to shape his
imagining of the disposition and regulation of society’.¹⁵ It also began
to shape his imagining of the imagination. Circulation—of money,
ideas, objects, particles—came to be one of Dickens’s most characterist-
ic metaphors. As a concept translated into imagery, circulation provided
Dickens with a way to map the lines of filiation which linked apparently
discrete individuals within Victorian society, and to plot what Jonathan

¹¹ Joe Amato, ‘No Wasted Words’, Nineteenth-Century Studies, 12 (1998), 45.

¹² See Christopher Hamlin, ‘Providence and Putrefaction: Victorian Sanitarians and
the Natural Theology of Health and Disease’, Victorian Studies, 28 (1985), 381–411.
¹³ Ibid. 381.
¹⁴ See K. J. Fielding and A. W. Brice, ‘Bleak House and the Graveyard’, in Robert
B. Partlow (ed.), Dickens the Craftsman (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,
1970), 115–39; and David Trotter, Circulation (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 104.
¹⁵ Trotter, Circulation, 104.
Legitimizing Appropriation 55

Arac calls the new ‘social motion’ of mid-nineteenth-century Britain:

the forces of capital, democracy, and industry which were ‘tear[ing] the
world apart, simultaneously unsettling from its old place all that had
existed and bringing into being ever fresh novelties’.¹⁶ From Martin
Chuzzlewit (1843–4) onwards, freedom of circulation plainly emerges
as a desideratum in Dickens’s work, and circulation’s obverse, blockage,
is figured as hateful: the images of grease, fat, ooze, and miasma which are
so ubiquitous in his fiction, and which are the physical consequences of
congestion, all designate moral or metaphysical stagnancy of some sort.
So thoroughgoing and ubiquitous is Dickens’s return to the metaphor of
circulation, and its dark inverse, blockage, that it can be presented as an
intellectual a priori for Dickens: a metaphor which preceded rather than
registered thought, and which extended and organized Dickens’s grasp
of all major forms of social process—political, commercial, financial,
epistemological, pathological—as well as his sense of literary creativity.
Dickens’s engagement with the issues of sanitation and health carried
over into his editorship of Household Words, the weekly periodical
which he launched on 3 March 1850. In his ‘Preliminary Word’,
published as a leader to the first issue, Dickens made plain his intent
that the journal should serve to chastise and reform as well as to
entertain, and to that end he commissioned and accepted dozens of
articles on sanitation: dealing with impure water supplies, inadequate
drainage, sewerage, river pollution, and festering city graveyards, among
other topics. In almost all cases the solution proposed was that of
recycling. Dickens’s editorship of Household Words also brought him
into intellectual contact with forms of conversion and reclamation other
than the pragmatically sanitary. Throughout its nine-year run, Household
Words demonstrated a primarily scientific fascination with the concepts
of conversion, regeneration, and cyclicality.¹⁷ New life was continually
depicted taking new forms from wasted and dying shapes: circulation
via transformation was extolled as a fundamental process of the material
universe. Edmund Saul Dixon, for instance, in an 1858 article entitled
‘Dirty Cleanliness’, declared that ‘the physical circle whose laws we are
compelled to obey, whether we like them or not, is a never-ending
round of absorption, digestion, assimilation, and rejection; of birth,

¹⁶ Jonathan Arac, Commissioned Spirits: The Shaping of Social Motion in Dickens,

Carlyle, Melville and Hawthorne (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979), 4.
¹⁷ See Nancy Metz, ‘Science in Household Words: ‘‘The Poetic … Passed into our
Common Life’’ ’, Victorian Periodicals Newsletter, 11 (1978), 121–33.
56 Legitimizing Appropriation

growth, increase, life, death, decomposition, and dispersion; and then

of life and growth again’.¹⁸ Ernest Abraham Hart, writing in 1854 on
the ‘Lives of Plants’, quoted Ariel’s song in The Tempest as an authority
for the scientific principle of ‘vegetable decomposition’ which he was
Nothing of us that doth fade
But doth suffer a slow change
Into something rich and strange.¹⁹
Hart here recomposes Shakespeare’s song—it is no longer a ‘sea change’,
but a ‘slow change’—to fit the tempo of the processes of renewal he
is discussing. In so doing he also, of course, enacted the theme of
his article, extracting value out of ‘used’ matter by converting it. In
‘Done to a Jelly’, George Dodd reported approvingly that Richard
Owen—the palaeontologist, originator of the word ‘dinosaur’, and
regular contributor to Household Words —had lectured on how the
‘seemingly most worthless parts of animal bodies, are turned to uses of
the most unexpected kind by the inventive skill and science of man’.²⁰
A lead article titled ‘Penny Wisdom’, also by Dodd, discussed the
utilization of waste products and refuse: how horses’ hoofs could be
turned into gelatin, and how ‘old bones, and old rags’ might provide the
unexpected constituents of cosmetics and ornaments.²¹ Dickens, who
was not always admiring of Dodd’s writing, singled out ‘Penny Wisdom’
in a letter as ‘very interesting and good’, and old bones and old rags
would become the two substances out of which Our Mutual Friend ’s
most appealing recyclers, Mr Venus and Jenny Wren, compose their
products.²² ‘Old rags’ was itself a phrase which circulated unpredictably
in the period: to Tennyson, Carlyle described the biblically sponsored
notion of an afterlife as ‘old Jewish rags!’, W. H. Wills wrote an early
article for Household Words about a bank note, which began by reviewing
the note as a much-desired new novel, before giving an account of its

¹⁸ Edmund Saul Dixon, ‘Dirty Cleanliness’, Household Words, 435 (24 July 1858),
122–3. Compare Edmund Saul Dixon, ‘The Circulation’, Household Words, 377 (13
June 1857), 561–5.
¹⁹ Ernest Abraham Hart, ‘Lives of Plants’, Household Words, 200 (21 January 1854),
486. Compare Ernest Abraham Hart, ‘Nature’s Changes of Dress’, Household Words,
216 (13 May 1854), 304–6.
²⁰ George Dodd, ‘Done to a Jelly’, Household Words, 222 (24 June 1854), 438.
²¹ George Dodd, ‘Penny Wisdom’, Household Words, 134 (16 October 1852), 101.
²² Quoted by Anne Lohrli in Household Words (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1973), 262.
Legitimizing Appropriation 57

manufacture, including its origin as ‘old rags’, and Dickens, describing

the stagnant atmosphere of Tellson’s Bank in A Tale of Two Cities,
observed that there, ‘your bank-notes had a musty odour, as if they were
fast decomposing into rags again’.²³
The most noteworthy of these articles praising the virtues of recycling
was entitled ‘Important Rubbish’, and was written by the journalist and
freethinker John Capper. Capper’s subject was the potential for recyc-
ling offered by rubbish mounds.²⁴ There were, Capper suggested, two
main types of important rubbish to be found in a mound. The first was
valuable items which had been inadvertently discarded—‘occasional
coins or pieces of jewellery’, for instance. A second and less immediately
obvious source of value, Capper pointed out, was located in the coal-dust
and half-burned ashes which could be pressurized and baked into build-
ing bricks. Capper’s article, with its gently self-mocking title, also tacitly
acknowledged a third category of value which might be gleaned from
rubbish mounds: good journalistic copy. As Kate Flint has observed
with respect to Capper’s article, ‘a visit to the dust-yards, showing a con-
comitant fascination with recycling, [subsequently] became something
of a mid-nineteenth-century journalistic standby’.²⁵ Capper concluded
his article with a meditation on the affinities which existed between ‘art
and science’. Both endeavours, he suggested, practised an alchemy of
the everyday, applying their transformative powers to apparently waste
or wasted substances, and thus extracting use, value, and beauty from
them. Both, he wrote ‘have been brought to bear upon things before
thought worthless: the refuse of the smithy, the gas-works, and the
slaughter-house, have been made to yield products the most valuable,
results the most beautiful’.²⁶ Capper’s easy translation of ideas between
art and science was characteristic of Household Words, which from its

²³ Carlyle’s comment is reprinted in Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A

Memoir by his Son (London: Macmillan, 1897), ii. 410; W. H. Wills, ‘Review of
a Popular Publication in the Searching Style’, Household Words, 18 (27 July 1850),
426–31. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities [1859], ed. Andrew Sanders (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998), 60.
²⁴ John Capper, ‘Important Rubbish’, Household Words, 337 (19 May 1855), 376–9.
Fossicking was one of Capper’s specialities: two years earlier he had published The
Immigrant’s Guide to Australia (Liverpool: George Phillip & Son, 1853) which contained
‘the full particulars relating to the recently discovered gold fields, the government
regulations for gold seeking, etc.’ Compare also John Capper, ‘Waste’, Household Words,
220 (10 June 1854), 390–3.
²⁵ Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001), 47.
²⁶ Capper, ‘Important Rubbish’, 379.
58 Legitimizing Appropriation

beginning sought to cultivate a hybridity of subject matter. Intellectual

partitions were there to be vaulted over or knocked down: Dickens
instructed his writers that everything was to be presented in a ‘fanci-
ful’, ‘imaginative’, or ‘picturesque’ way. ‘Liveliness’ of writing was the
keynote; ‘dullness’ was anathema.²⁷ A result of this editorial policy was
that between the covers of Household Words, the vocabularies of science,
history, politics, and literature were free promiscuously to intermingle.
Chemical or physical terms were loosed from their moorings as strict
designators of scientific meaning, and used to elucidate other discip-
lines, other strands of thought. What was literal in one context became
metaphorical in another.
Dickens himself converted and exported into his fiction some of the
scientific principles he encountered in Household Words. The metaphors
of combustion and contagion which organize Bleak House, and in
particular the notions of conversion and reclamation which operate
throughout Our Mutual Friend, can plausibly be sourced to articles in
the journal.²⁸ For Dickens, as for Capper, ‘art and science’ shared a
lively border—their modes of enquiry were different in method but not
in goal—and the articles on recycling which Dickens commissioned
and edited for Household Words not only concentrated and purified his
sense of reclamation as a vital physical process, but also suggested to him
the kinship which existed between the transformative processes of the
material world revealed by science, and the transformations which the
creative imagination wrought upon the raw material it encountered.
The articles provided him with new terms and new ways to envisage the
creating mind at work. Dickens himself transformed and humanized
these ideas of transformation, of course, as they passed out of the
scientific context and into the aesthetic, and it would be difficult to
justify an aetiology for his thinking on originality in Our Mutual Friend
which ascribed it solely to the articles he commissioned and edited
in Household Words. However, given the aggregated evidence, it is
reasonable to suggest that it was in part due to his collaboration with
Henry Austin on sanitary reform in the 1840s, and then to his job as
‘conductor’ of Household Words during the 1850s, that Dickens arrived
at the vision of the creative mind which he proposes in Our Mutual
Friend: a vision according to which the imagination does not conjure

²⁷ Lohrli, Household Words, 9.

²⁸ See, for one among several good articles on this topic, Trevor Blount, ‘Dickens and
Mr Krook’s Spontaneous Combustion’, Dickens Studies Annual, 1 (1970), 183–211.
Legitimizing Appropriation 59

ideas out of thin air, but continually reworks and converts pre-existing
intellectual matter.
A telling contrast can be found between Bleak House (1852–3), a
novel in which dirt and waste is chafed and chased out of existence, and
Our Mutual Friend, which promotes throughout an economy not of
waste disposal but of waste conversion.²⁹ Disintegrity is acknowledged
in the novel as an inevitability, but it is countered, as we have seen,
by reorganization and transformation. Those who promote circulation
by the action of conversion—Rokesmith, Wren, Venus, even the
‘young dredgers and hulking mudlarks’ (214) who fossick through
the estuary mud of the Thames for objects which they can sell—are
portrayed as affirmative forces within the novel. All of these characters,
as Nancy Metz notes, ‘find ways to turn to positive account the natural
cycle of birth, growth, death, decomposition, and renewal invisibly
operative around them’.³⁰ Conversely, obviously oppressive characters
are associated with blockage. Mr Podsnap’s dogmatism, for instance,
prevents the circulation of free thought and conversation around the
dinner table; he is the intellectual equivalent of a blood-clot. His
domestic environment is deliberately constructed to impede freedom of
movement. ‘Hideous solidity’, as Dickens puts it, is the ‘sentiment’ of
decor which characterizes Podsnap’s house, and which extends from the
‘walnut and rosewood tables’ of the ‘dim drawing room’ right down
to the ‘pot-bellied silver salt-cellars’ (130–1). Imitation—another form
of transformation—also recurs in Our Mutual Friend, where it is
represented as a highly successful strategy. Jenny Wren sneaks into high-
society events, in order to be able to imitate the latest fashions in the
dresses of her dolls. Sloppy’s ability to impersonate and ventriloquize
is most valuably put to use when he pretends to be the foreman-
representative of the dust contractors, thus keeping Silas Wegg awake
for two weeks in punishment for his scheming. Mr Boffin imitates a
‘regular Brown Bear’ (773), and by so doing convinces Bella of the evils
of cupidity. Out of all of these successful imitations, value is created.
Only Bradley Headstone, who seeks to ‘copy’ Rogue Riderhood’s
appearance, fails to imitate successfully, and his penalty is death. He and

²⁹ David Trotter has dated the idea of ‘creative waste’—that is, of waste being
characterized ‘as a necessity rather than a problem’—as contemporaneous with ‘the
period of Anglo-American Modernism’. David Trotter, Cooking with Mud (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000), 23. I would suggest that at least glimmerings of this idea
can be discerned considerably earlier.
³⁰ Metz, ‘Artistic Reclamation’, 68.
60 Legitimizing Appropriation

Rogue Riderhood plunge to their mutual ends locked in a reciprocally

engirdling bear hug. Those who do not circulate, Dickens’s plot appears
to assert—those who are fixed, and those who are fixated—end up as
victims of their own stasis.
In this respect, Our Mutual Friend shares family resemblances with
Dickens’s other novels of the later 1850s and 1860s. A Tale of Two Cities
(1859), for instance, clearly subscribes—in Trotter’s description—‘to
Dickens’s anxiety that political restrictions are the cause of revolution’,
that ‘ideas and resentments damned-up [sic] when they should flow freely
will eventually burst their bounds’.³¹ In Great Expectations (1860–1),
Dickens explores the consequences of stagnant time, instead of stagnant
space, within Miss Havisham’s grimly immobile demesne, which is
characterized by the ‘arrest of everything, this standing still of all
the pale decayed objects’.³² Both novels illustrate the durable and
malevolent effects of thwarted circulation; one has to retreat to Little
Dorrit (1855–7) to find a novel which cannot be quite so easily
fitted into such a schema, containing as it does a form of recurrence
or recycling which is far from benevolent (the compulsively repeated
traumatic vision of the prison house which so haunts Dorrit).³³
Our Mutual Friend not only examines the processes of recycling, it also
practises them. Throughout the novel, other texts are recycled, more or
less explicitly. Dickens used several articles which appeared in Household
Words to build the factual infrastructure of the novel. Capper’s article
on dust-heaps has already been mentioned: in addition are Richard
Horne’s article ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed’, which contains a detailed
description of dust-heaps, and George A. Scala’s ‘Powder Dick and
his Train’, which discusses the dredgermen of the Thames.³⁴ These
covert sources—unacknowledged in the novel—are less interesting,
however, than the various sources which Dickens openly recycles. Of

³¹ Trotter, Circulation, 102.

³² Great Expectations [1860–1], ed. Margaret Caldwell (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1993), 61.
³³ Cathy Caruth, in her important study of trauma and literature, Unreclaimed
Experience, defines trauma as experience which is ‘not fully assimilated as it occurs’; a
connection to the idea of assimilation and originality; see Chapter 3 for a discussion of
the changing understandings of ‘assimilation’ in the 1800s. Cathy Caruth, Unreclaimed
Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1996), 5.
³⁴ R. H. Horne, ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed’, Household Words, 16 (13 July 1850),
379–84; George A. Scala, ‘Powder Dick and his Train’, Household Words, 163 (7 May
1853), 235–40.
Legitimizing Appropriation 61

these, the most significant is the plot line about Mr Boffin’s feigning of
miserdom, which Dickens appropriated from James Sheridan Knowles’s
The Hunchback (1832), a work so popular that Dickens described it in
an 1854 letter as ‘the play of modern times best known to an audience’.³⁵
The novel also contains numerous other borrowed tropes, images, and
plot lines. As Adrian Poole observes, ‘in the repetition of stories and
forms derived from old scripture and prayer-book, new science, fairy-
tale, nursery rhyme, popular ballad, theatre, newspaper, education …
The very idea of repetition, endlessly varied, [is] the novel’s keynote.’³⁶
What is unusual about Our Mutual Friend, and what makes it especially
pertinent to this discussion, is that Dickens does not try to disguise the
multiple sources of his novel. Rather, he draws attention to them. In a
novel which is so conspicuously full of paper—‘that mysterious paper
currency which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here
and there and everywhere … It hangs on every bush, flutters in every
tree, is caught flying by the electric wires’ (144)—Dickens lays down
paper-trails for the reader to follow, leading to his numerous sources.³⁷
The desire to appear as the sole originator of a literary work is less
important to the Dickens of Our Mutual Friend than the desire to
analyse both the workings of his own imagination, and the construction
of his novel. Wordsworth proclaimed genius to be ‘the introduction of a
new element into the intellectual universe’, but according to Our Mutual
Friend the universe, intellectual as well as material, is a sealed system,
into which new elements cannot emerge.³⁸ Whatever will be made, will
be made of pre-existing components, and the skills of the artist, as of the
artisan, are those of selection—‘picking’, to use Mr Venus’ term—of
rejection, and of conversion. The self-anatomizing metaphors of Our
Mutual Friend have also become self-fulfilling prophecies. For just as
the novel is composed from disparate sources, put together in a feat of
bricolage, so it has been disintegrated and recycled in subsequent texts.
Like the dust-heaps which it describes, it has been raked over, combed
through, and selected from. Notably, the two most allusive, indebted,

³⁵ Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House et al. (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1965–2002), vii. 446.
³⁶ Poole, introduction to Our Mutual Friend, p. xi. See also Cynthia De Marcus,
‘Wolves Within and Without: Dickens’ Transformation of ‘‘Little Red Riding Hood’’
in Our Mutual Friend ’, Dickens Quarterly, 12:1 (March 1995), 11–17.
³⁷ See also Richard D. Altick, ‘Education, Print and Paper in Our Mutual Friend ’,
in Clyde de L. Ryals (ed.), Nineteenth-Century Literary Perspectives: Essays in Honour of
Lionel Stevenson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984), 237–54.
³⁸ PWWW, iii. 82.
62 Legitimizing Appropriation

and self-consciously ‘unoriginal’ works of modernism, The Waste Land

and Ulysses, both assimilate Dickens’s novel into themselves.³⁹ The fate
of Our Mutual Friend, to use the twinned metaphors which control its
two opening chapters, has been to be dissolved and then reconstituted
in new forms.
We must be careful not to overstate Dickens’s allegiance to reor-
ganizational theories of literary creation, or to downplay his persisting
affection for heroic visions of creativity—especially his own. Anthea
Trodd has described Dickens as the nineteenth century’s ‘most con-
vinced believer in art as the product of solitary genius’,⁴⁰ and many
indications exist of his affection for the heroic theory: his only part-
ironizing references to himself as ‘The Inimitable’, for instance, or his
obsessive revising of contributors’ copy for Household Words —with the
purpose of superimposing his own style—which led to fallings-out with
a number of writers. In her book on Dickens’s collaboration with Wilkie
Collins—a writing arrangement which lasted, with intermissions, from
1855 to 1868, and which involved novellas, plays, and series for House-
hold Words —Lillian Nayder describes the tension which is evident in
Dickens’s attitude to collaboration; the discrepancy between his public
abrogation of claims to sole authorship, and his often aggressive arroga-
tion of credit, financial and cultural, for the joint productions.⁴¹ Collins
and Dickens, Nayder’s study details, claimed on several occasions that
they could write ‘indistinguishably’, and this blurring of their voices
presented a challenge to those who sought to characterize and isolate
an unmistakably ‘Dickensian’ style. ‘I inserted passages in his chapters’,
remarked Collins, ‘and he inserted passages in mine.’⁴² But, as Nayder
also discusses, Dickens proved himself to be belligerently solipsistic in
his dealings with Collins over the collaboration.
Nevertheless, Our Mutual Friend does provide a good example of
the overlap of material and literary ideas of reuse in Victorian literary
culture; of the leakage of socio-cultural concepts of originality into
literary discourse. It is not the only place where such overlap is visible.

³⁹ See Grace Tiffany, ‘Our Mutual Friend in ‘‘Eumaeus’’: Joyce Appropriates Dickens’,
Journal of Modern Literature, 16 (1991), 643–6; and Allyson Booth, ‘ ‘‘He Do the Police
in Different Voices’’: Our Mutual Friend and The Waste Land ’, The Dickensian, 97:2
(Summer 2001), 116–21.
⁴⁰ Anthea Trodd, ‘Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Victorian
Authorship’ (review), Victorian Studies, 45:2 (Winter 2003), 350.
⁴¹ Nayder, Unequal Partners.
⁴² Quoted Ibid. 14, 202.
Legitimizing Appropriation 63

For the arguments of Chadwick, Capper, and other supporters of reuse

also provided a valuable and enduring set of terms and rationales for the
plagiarism apologists, whose work was discussed in the previous chapter.
As human effluence could be used to fertilize healthy crops and the
clinker from coal fires used to build houses, it was argued analogically
by these apologists, so could literary effluence—the verbal outpourings
of others—valuably and productively become literary influence. The
benevolent round of ‘decomposing and recomposing’ to which Henry
Mayhew referred in his 1861 volume of London Labour and the London
Poor, these writers contended, was as relevant to reading matter as to
physical matter.⁴³ An article on ‘Our Dust-bins’ published in Leisure
Hour in 1868, for example, reminded its readers that, because of the
possibility of baking bricks out of the ashes and dust reclaimed from
dust-heaps, ‘our houses may be said to arise again from the refuse they
have cast out’.⁴⁴ The same image provided the foundation for J. Cuthbert
Hadden’s later article on ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’ which appeared
in the Scottish Review nearly thirty years later. Literature was simply a
skilful reconstruction of other literature, argued Hadden, and it did not
matter from where the building materials came, for ‘an author must get
the dust for his bricks somewhere’.⁴⁵ Similarly, the idea of reclaiming
precious but discarded objects—‘pieces of jewellery’—which Capper
had explored in his article on ‘Important Rubbish’, was subsequently put
to use by several plagiarism apologists. Writing in 1889, an anonymous
commentator argued in favour of the reuse of literary material on
the grounds that ‘No critic was bold enough to carp at Aeschylus or
Sophocles for deigning to stoop down and raise from the dust-heap
the imperfect gems of smaller poets.’⁴⁶ Charles Reade, in his forty-
page defence of plagiarism, Trade Malice (1875), observed of Walter
Scott that his ‘works are literally crammed with diamonds of incidents
and rubies of dialogue, picked from heterogeneous works, histories,
chronicles, ballads, and oral traditions. But this is not plagiarism—it
is jewel-setting.’⁴⁷ In his 1899 article on ‘The Art of Plagiarism’,

⁴³ Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Frank Cass & Co.,
1967), ii. 161. For a full list of articles which appeared between 1859 and 1900 arguing
for a less censorious attitude to literary resemblance and reuse, see the Bibliography.
⁴⁴ Anon., ‘Our Dust-bins’, Leisure Hour, 17 (1868), 719.
⁴⁵ Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 341.
⁴⁶ Anon., ‘On Plagiarism’, 219.
⁴⁷ Charles Reade, Trade Malice: A Personal Narrative and the Wandering Heir: A
Matter of Fact Romance (London: Samuel French, 1875), 16–17.
64 Legitimizing Appropriation

E. F. Benson recommended that writers should be permitted to make

use of previously used images. ‘It is good that diamonds should be
stolen’, wrote Benson. ‘They may already have been pebbles in some
barbarous toilet; it is the artist’s business to steal them thence, and make
of them a parure for a queen.’⁴⁸ The barbarous toilet was by analogy
the flawed or forgotten literary work, the regal parure a text in which
the ‘stolen’ diamonds—images or ideas—would be displayed to their
best advantage. Benson concluded his article with a description of the
artistic creator as someone who ‘out of poor material produces what is
of the first order, out of old material produces the new’: a definition
which summarized this alternative concept of creativity.⁴⁹
The reconceptualization of literary creativity as intrinsically recyclical
was unquestionably encouraged by the anxiety, widely remarked upon
by Victorian writers, that there was nothing new left to say. The ‘burden
of the past’ returned to weigh heavily upon Victorian shoulders and
the question which Bate put in the mouth of the Augustans—‘What is
there left to do?’—was also posed by numerous later Victorian writers.⁵⁰
Here, for example, is Brander Matthews in 1886, discussing the limited
materials which were available to the late-nineteenth-century author:
Words are more abundant than situations, but they are wearing out with hard
usage. Language is finite, and its combinations are not countless. It is scarcely
possible for any one to say or write anything in this late time of the world to
which, in the rest of the literature of the world, a parallel could not be found
For Matthews, all that literature of this ‘late time’ could be was a
permuting and re-permuting of dwindling resources—until finally there
were no further permutations to be made. That Matthews’s argument
and phrasing was itself an unwitting restatement of Tennyson’s defence
of his borrowings (‘No man can write a single passage to which a
parallel one may not be found somewhere in the literature of the
world’) proved the point of both men.⁵² A restatement of Matthews’s
proposition can be found in The Plagiarist, a novel from 1896 by
‘William Myrtle’—generally accepted at the time to be a nom de
plume —which made the ownership of literary property both its plot
and its intellectual concern. Various staged dialogues occur between

⁴⁸ E. F. Benson, ‘Plagiarism’, Nineteenth Century, 46 (December 1899), 977–8.

⁴⁹ Ibid. 975. ⁵⁰ BP, 3. ⁵¹ Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 634.
⁵² Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Letters of Alfred Lord Tennyson, ed. Cecil Y. Lang and
Edgar F. Shannon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982–90), iii. 183.
Legitimizing Appropriation 65

characters who debate the degree to which property rights should

subsist in artistic production: the consensual conclusion is that, often,
‘that which was thought to be plagiarism may in reality have been
simply coincidence of thought’⁵³ (by coincidence, Hadden, two years
earlier, had remarked that ‘A writer at the present day has hardly any
other resource than to take the thoughts of others and cast them into
new forms of association and contrast’).⁵⁴ Edmund Gosse, introducing
an anthology of Victorian lyric poetry in 1895, managed to make the
observation that there was nothing new left to say sound repetitious. ‘It
is true’, he wrote, ‘that we cannot pretend to discover on a greensward
so often crossed and recrossed as the poetic language of England
many morning dewdrops still glistening on the grasses.’⁵⁵ Even John
Churton Collins, habitually an unswerving foe of literary resemblance,
acknowledged that ‘We live amid wealth as prodigally piled up as the
massive and myriad treasure-trove of Spenser’s ‘‘rich strond’’, and it is
now almost impossible for a poet to strike out a thought, or to coin
a phrase, which shall be purely original.’⁵⁶ That Collins made use of
both a quotation and a piece of common verbal currency—‘to coin
a phrase’—to explain himself quietly confirmed his argument (one
might also impute an anxiety at this new difficulty of newness to the
ambiguities of Collins’s choice of phrases: ‘coin a phrase’ carries with
it the imputation of counterfeitery as well as of origination; and ‘strike
out’ hovers uneasily between the opposed meanings of ‘pioneeringly
create’, and ‘scratch through’).
The flip-side to this sense of the world’s lapsed intellectual fecundity
was a nostalgia for the era of creativity which must once have existed.
It was felt by many that the most original cultural epoch had been
the Hellenic golden age (the Augustans, as Bate shows, likewise had
inferiority complexes towards the Greeks and the Renaissance).⁵⁷ ‘Old
poets outsing and outlove us, And Catullus makes mouths at our
speech’, wrote Swinburne in ‘Dolores’ (1866).⁵⁸ S. H. Butcher, an
eminent classicist, was certain that everything had dilapidated gradually

⁵³ William Myrtle, The Plagiarist (London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1896),
⁵⁴ Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 341.
⁵⁵ Edmund Gosse, introduction to Edmund H. Garrett (ed.), Victorian Songs (Boston:
Little, Brown & Co., 1895), p. xxxix.
⁵⁶ John Churton Collins, Illustrations of Tennyson (London: Longmans, 1891), p. vii.
⁵⁷ See also Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford: Blackwell,
⁵⁸ A. C. Swinburne, Poetical Works (London: Heinemann, 1924), i. 165.
66 Legitimizing Appropriation

since the Greeks. ‘Greek literature is the one entirely original literature
of Europe. With no models before their eyes to provoke imitation or
rivalry, the Greeks created almost every form of literary art.’⁵⁹ Following
a Hellenic burst of creation, literature had been condemned to a steady
dissipation brought about by imitation. George Meredith played off
the same idea in the opening paragraphs of The Ordeal of Richard
Feverel (1859):
Some years ago a book was published under the title of ‘The Pilgrim’s Scrip.’
It consisted of a selection of original aphorisms by an anonymous gentleman,
who in this bashful manner gave a bruised heart to the world.
He made no pretension to novelty. ‘Our new thoughts have thrilled dead
bosoms,’ he wrote; by which avowal it may be seen that youth had manifestly
gone from him, since he had ceased to be jealous of the ancients. There was
a half-sigh floating through his pages for those days of intellectual coxcombry,
when ideas come to us affecting the embraces of virgins, and swear to us they
are ours alone, and no one else have they ever visited: and we believe them.⁶⁰
By 1892, Meredith’s lubricious ‘half-sigh’ had strengthened into
W. Davenport-Adams’s blurt of envy for the classical era:
In the way of literary ideas, what an advantage had the Greek and Roman
writers over their unfortunate successors! Everything in that golden age was
comparatively fresh and new. Men were not compelled to work up with
hidebound brains a jaded thought or worn-out image. Fancy had liberal course;
and the poet was under no necessity of pulling himself up ever and anon to
consider curiously whether he was unconsciously poaching on the preserve of
some lucky predecessor. It is the sore tribulation of a literary man nowadays
that all his best ideas have been anticipated.⁶¹
By the end of the century, the conviction that there was nothing
new to say, only new ways to say old things, had developed into a
studied fin-de-siècle indifference in the face of originality; manifest, as
we shall see in the final chapter, in the ironic register of Oscar Wilde’s
wilful and abundant plagiarisms.⁶² This broadly shared concern that
literature’s natural resources were running out, perhaps had run out,
encouraged permissive attitudes to literary resemblance, and worked to

⁵⁹ S. H. Butcher, Harvard Lectures on the Originality of Greece (London: Macmillan,

1911), 129.
⁶⁰ George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel: A History of a Father and Son
(Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd, 1902), 1.
⁶¹ Davenport-Adams, ‘Imitators and Plagiarists’, 510.
⁶² See Paul K. Saint-Amour, ‘Oscar Wilde: Orality, Literary Property, and Crimes of
Writing’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 55 (2000), 59–91; and Chapter 5, passim.
Legitimizing Appropriation 67

render acceptable the recyclicality which it is being argued was added

to the economy of letters in the later nineteenth century. New material
had of necessity to be reorganized out of old, as E. F. Benson concluded
in ‘The Art of Plagiarism’; origin was to be considered less important
than end.


The possibility of literary originality, and therefore of literary plagiarism,

depends upon the assumption of the possibility of property in language.
The possibility of property in language depends in turn upon the
possibility of drawing a boundary around the individual mind; of
delimiting what originates from inside that mind, and therefore belongs
to it, and what does not. Language is, in terms of artistic media, the
paradigmatic public domain, and for it to become attributable to an
individual—for it to be privatized—it must somehow bear the unique
stamp of its producer. As was discussed earlier, aesthetic doctrine of
the later eighteenth century conventionally privileged the conception
of art as expression, and therefore perceived an intimate relationship,
both in terms of sincerity and property, between the individual and
his or her literary art. This relationship depended upon a belief in the
imperviousness and limitability of the ‘sovereign imagination’: that is,
the singularity and individuality of the creating mind, and its ability to
control its subjects. As the nineteenth century wore on, however, the
concept of the sovereign imagination became increasingly problematized
by, among other factors, developments in Victorian thinking about the
self. Writing in the preface to Embodied Selves, their anthology of
psychological texts from 1830 to 1890, Sally Shuttleworth and Jenny
Bourne Taylor draw attention to the stubborn persistence of particular
ill-founded assumptions about Victorian ideas of selfhood. ‘It is still
often assumed’, they observe, ‘that the Victorians firmly believed in a
unified, stable ego.’⁶³ Undoubtedly, the Victorians had inherited from
their preceding cultural era a fierce trust in individualism, which they
continued to cherish and which shines through in many aspects of
their activity. However, this much-vaunted Victorian self-confidence
did not remain unexamined, nor did the notion of the robust and

⁶³ Sally Shuttleworth and Jenny Bourne Taylor (eds.), Embodied Selves: An Anthology
of Psychological Texts 1830–1890 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. xiv.
68 Legitimizing Appropriation

singular ego go unchallenged. From the 1850s onwards, psychology

properly emerged and established itself as a specific field of enquiry with
a physiological rather than a philosophical foundation, thus providing a
discursive arena in which, and a vocabulary with which, issues about the
nature of selfhood could more systematically be debated. In particular,
as Shuttleworth and Taylor note, questions about the social formation
of identity were posed concerning ‘the workings of the individual
consciousness; the accountability of unconscious processes … and the
connections between the individual life and the long-term genealogy
of which [they are] a part’.⁶⁴ One significant answer to these questions
which emerged in the period proposed an organic theory of identity
according to which ‘the whole body, not just the brain, was seen as a
collection of conscious and unconscious processes, linking the individual
life to a collective narrative of change’;⁶⁵ or, as the philosopher and
journalist Roden Noel put it, that ‘proximately, individual perception
and thought result from a circulation, or transference of ideas and
Samuel Butler, who enjoyed putting bombs under Victorian conven-
tions, stated the case against the singular self plainly at the outset of Life
and Habit:
We regard our personality as a simple definite whole; as a plain, palpable,
individual thing, which can be seen going about the streets or sitting indoors
at home, which lasts us our lifetime … But in truth this ‘we’, which looks
so simple and definite, is a nebulous and indefinable aggregation of many
component parts which war not a little among themselves, our perception of
our existence at all being perhaps due to this very clash of warfare.⁶⁷
Butler’s prose bears the stress-marks of his argument—there is a
tension between his singular nouns (‘personality’, ‘thing’) and his plural
pronouns (‘we’, ‘our’). He manages to advance at the level of grammar
the principal argument of his book: that ‘the plain, palpable, individual
thing’ is in fact an ‘aggregation’, a multiply constituted and incorrigibly
plural amalgam. The self as Butler perceived it was not only blended
from many sources, it was also vulnerable to change over time. Butler
usefully and scornfully called the belief in the ‘simple definite whole’

⁶⁴ Sally Shuttleworth and Jenny Bourne Taylor (eds.), Embodied Selves: An Anthology
of Psychological Texts 1830–1890, p. xiii.
⁶⁵ Ibid., p. xiv.
⁶⁶ Roden Noel, ‘Memory and Personal Identity’, Modern Review, 4 (April 1883), 382.
⁶⁷ Samuel Butler, Life and Habit (London: A. C. Fifield, 1910), 79.
Legitimizing Appropriation 69

the ‘superstitious basis’ of personality, although he allowed that the

sustenance of this superstition was necessary in order to function in the
world.⁶⁸ ‘We want to be ourselves,’ Butler admitted, ‘we do not want
any one else to claim part and parcel of our identity.’⁶⁹ Yet, he repeated,
this is merely a compulsory, consoling fiction:
We have seen that we can apprehend neither the beginning nor the end of
our personality … Nevertheless, we are in the habit of considering that our
personality, or soul, no matter where it begins or ends, and no matter what
it comprises, is nevertheless a single thing, uncompounded of other souls. Yet
there is nothing more certain than that this is not at all the case, but that every
individual person is a compound creature, being made up of an infinite number
of distinct centres of sensation and will.⁷⁰

According to Butler’s vision of mentality, the individual mind was

an illusion, for ‘every individual person is a compound creature’. It
was but a short step from this position to disavowing entirely the
concept of thought-ownership. ‘What people are pleased to call ‘‘our
own experience’’ ’, wrote Butler indignantly. ‘Our own indeed! What is
our own save by mere courtesy of speech? A matter of fashion. Sanction
sanctifieth, and fashion fashioneth!’⁷¹ Property, even the owning of
experience, was, according to Butler’s criticism of the structure of the
self, only a linguistic convention, underwritten by the convenient myth
of the autonomous individual. ‘Who shall draw the line between [what
is] part of us’, he asked rhetorically, ‘and the external influence of
other sentient beings and our fellow-men? There is no line possible.
Everything melts away into everything else; there are no hard edges; it is
only from a little distance that we see the effect as of individual features
and existences. When we go close up, there is nothing but a blur and
confused mass of apparently meaningless touches, as in a picture by
Turner.’⁷² Identity here is social flux, in which the individual is only a
special effect of perspective.
This Gestalt model of society—emphasizing what G. H. Lewes,
writing in his The Study of Psychology, called ‘the General Mind …
the Mind, Common Sense, Collective Consciousness, Thought (Das
Denken), Reason, Spirit of the Age, & c.’⁷³—which emerged in the
1850s, and strengthened in the subsequent decades, with its interest in
the interdependence of thought, inevitably began to destabilize those

⁶⁸ Ibid. 82. ⁶⁹ Ibid. 98. ⁷⁰ Ibid. 104. ⁷¹ Ibid. 177.

⁷² Ibid. 107. ⁷³ SOP, 159.
70 Legitimizing Appropriation

theories of literary origination and literary property which were reliant

upon the uniqueness and definability of the individual mind. During
the 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson had moved towards a conception of
knowledge as social in its fashioning and origin—‘Great genial power’,
he had written, ‘consists in not being original at all; in being altogether
receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the
hour to pass unobstructed through the mind’⁷⁴—and his essays on
this subject became authorities for those arguing for a more communal
understanding of creativity and artistic property.⁷⁵ ‘There is one mind
common to all individual men’, wrote Emerson in the opening lines of
‘History’ (1847):
Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. He that is once
admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What
Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at
any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this
universal mind, is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and
sovereign agent. … Of the universal mind each individual man is one more
incarnation. All its properties consist in him.⁷⁶
The same, Emerson went on to elaborate, was true of language: words
were the progeny and property of the race or culture, rather than
the individual. Authorship, therefore, was inescapably collaborative, for
the general mind was always a silent partner in any piece of work.
As Pater would put it in his essay ‘Plato and Platonism’ forty years
later, there is ‘a general consciousness … independent indeed of each
of us, but with which we are, each one of us, in communication
… we come to understand each other and to assist each other’s
thoughts, as in a common mental atmosphere or ‘‘intellectual world’’ ’.⁷⁷
Pater, like Emerson, is frequently read and represented as a high
individualist, and undeniably early Pater—particularly the Pater of the
‘Conclusion’—was in sympathy with individualism. By the latter half
of his career, however, Pater had arrived at a contrasting understanding
of the relationship of the individual to his environs. ‘Man’, he declared
in ‘Style’, is ‘not … simple and isolated; for the mind of the race, the

⁷⁴ RWE, iv. 110.

⁷⁵ See Christopher Newfield, The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in
America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
⁷⁶ RWE, ii. 3–4.
⁷⁷ WP, Pl.Pl. 151–2. See also Peter Allen Dale’s suggestive discussion of Pater’s
historicism as Weltanschauung, in his The Victorian Critic and the Idea of History: Carlyle,
Arnold, Pater (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), 171–205.
Legitimizing Appropriation 71

character of the age, sway him this way or that through the medium of
language and current ideas. … remote laws of inheritance, the vibration
of long-past acts rea[ch] him in the midst of the new order of things in
which he lives.’⁷⁸
The impact of Darwinism further accentuated this sense of the
congregational throng of thought. Particularly in the two decades
after 1859, there was a great deepening and elongation of human
as opposed to non-human time. Isabella Duncan’s Pre-Adamite Man
(1860), Charles Lyell’s Antiquity of Man (1863), John Lubbock’s best-
selling Prehistoric Times (1865), and Darwin’s The Descent of Man
(1871) all helped to foster a sense of humanity as a far more prolonged
project than had previously been intuited. The proposition emerged
that contemporary human beings were indebted to their ancestors
not only for their anatomy and appearance, but also for the texture
of their mind. In Life and Habit (1877)—a book which fiercely
dissented from Darwinism, endorsing instead a Lamarckian theory of
the self-willed acquisition of traits—Butler argued that each individual
contained the amassed memories of their ancestors: a thesis which, as
Shuttleworth and Taylor note, became a widely held ‘late nineteenth-
century notion of inheritance’.⁷⁹ G. H. Lewes thought that the crucial
ratio in the creation of a personality was how far this accumulated stock
of thought—which he called ‘inherited tendencies’—combined with
the ‘Collective Experience’ in ‘the formation of individual Experience’.⁸⁰
Alfred Russell Wallace, writing on Hegel (and quoted approvingly by
Lewes), observed that ‘we who live now enter upon the inheritance
which past ages have laid up for us’.⁸¹
For all of these writers, therefore, to think was necessarily to be in co-
operation not only with what Arnold had popularized as the Zeitgeist, the
prevailing trends of thought at any given time, but also with the whole
history of humanity.⁸² Thought extended not only outwards spatially,
but also backwards temporally. One was in inevitable, if sometimes
inaudible, communion with the voices of the past as well as the present;

⁷⁸ WP, Appr., 67. ⁷⁹ Shuttleworth and Taylor (eds.), Embodied Selves, p. xiii.
⁸⁰ SOP, 171. ⁸¹ Quoted by Lewes ibid., 157.
⁸² The OED cites the first recorded usage of Zeitgeist as by Arnold in 1848, then
cites Arnold again 1873 translating it as ‘Time-Spirit’. For Arnold, it should be said, the
Zeitgeist was not a democratic emanation, a product of the people, it was specified and
formed by the clerisy: ideas developed and put into circulation by the ‘born thinkers’ and
the ‘speculative few’. See also William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age; or, Contemporary
Portraits (London: Henry Frowde, 1825).
72 Legitimizing Appropriation

a concept which had significant implications for ideas of originality. As

Butler wrote in his best-known novel, The Way of All Flesh:
Ideas, no less than the living beings in whose minds they arise, must be begotten
by parents not very unlike themselves, the most original still differing but
slightly from the parents that have given rise to them. Life is like a fugue,
everything must grow out of the subject and there must be nothing new.⁸³

By the end of the century, Benson was able to use the issue of ‘heredity’
as a platform from which to argue for a lessening of the strictures
on literary repetition and resemblance. ‘No one [since Adam invented
language] has conceivably been free from the workings of heredity within
him’, he wrote, ‘or from the imitative instinct, which has perhaps more
achievement to be laid to its account than heredity. No one can escape
from it.’⁸⁴ The same idea—of unconscious inherited imitation—would
form the basis of an intelligent short story which appeared in Harper’s
Monthly in 1909, entitled ‘The Plagiarist’.⁸⁵ The eponymous heroine
is given her nickname because of her ‘imitative faculty’ and because of
‘the way she was always caricaturing her father’s designs (though she
did not mean to caricature) and trying to pass them off as original ideas
of her own’. Her ‘plagiarisms’ extend even to her body: her ‘small hand
was a copy of [her father’s] in every line and embryonic muscle’.⁸⁶ The
sardonically implied point of the story is that we inevitably embody and
imitate both our mental and our physical antecedents. As an ‘instinct’,
the urge to imitation is beyond human control (like other forms of
reproduction), and therefore to castigate every repetition as plagiarism
is to be blind to certain fundamental aspects of being human.⁸⁷
This increased sense of the interrelatedness, sympathies, and coincid-
ences of minds also precipitated specific theories of mental influence or
control. Mesmerism, hypnotism, thought-transference, somnambulism,
or telepathy and other previously unimagined forms of psychical contact
became ubiquitous topics of discussion, and all were perceived, as Daniel
Pick has suggested, as ‘examples of a wider set of challenges to the notion

⁸³ Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh [1903], ed. Michael Mason (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1993), 213.
⁸⁴ Benson, ‘Plagiarism’, 979.
⁸⁵ Georgia Wood Pangborn, ‘The Plagiarist’, Harper’s Monthly Magazine (January
1909), 294–9.
⁸⁶ Ibid. 296.
⁸⁷ For a contemporary assertion of the importance of imitation, see Richard Steel, Imit-
ation: The Mimetic Force in Human Nature and in Nature (London: Henry Young, 1899).
Legitimizing Appropriation 73

of the commanding, single, fully-conscious self’.⁸⁸ Towards the end of

the century, these psychical interactions would be technologically con-
summated by the invention of the telephone and the telegraph, which
compressed distance and time and further elided the divisions between
individuals. These new-found senses of the interanimation of minds also
affected attitudes to originality, literary property, and plagiarism. An
apologetic article which appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine,
for instance, suggested that plagiarism was simply an unavoidable form
of ‘literary somnambulism’, whereby ‘men walk like ghosts in the night,
invading the studies of their rivals, and unconsciously appropriating
words and thoughts’.⁸⁹ ‘Since knowledge of others is necessary to ori-
ginality’, concluded the article, ‘it follows that all men must, in their
moments, be plagiarists. For no man, sensitive enough to write, is insens-
itive to influences.’⁹⁰ Concluding Life and Habit, Butler called in light of
the argument of his book for an overhaul of presumptions about artistic
creativity, and specifically about the originating power of the individual
artist and the possibility of solitary utterance. He observed how:
the greatest musicians, painters, and poets owe their greatness rather to their
fusion and assimilation of the good that has been done up to, and especially
near about, their own time, than to any very startling steps they have taken in
advance. Such men will be sure to take some, and important, steps forward; for
unless they have this power, they will not be able to assimilate well what has been
done already, and they have it, their study of older work will almost indefinitely
assist it; but, on the whole, they owe their greatness to their completer fusion
and assimilation of older ideas; for nature is distinctly a fairly liberal conservative
rather than a conservative liberal. All which is well said in the old couplet—‘Be
not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to throw the old aside.’⁹¹

Butler, like Dickens, here reformulates artistic genius as an assimilatory

or transformative power which requires acquaintance with the tradition
(the ‘fusion and assimilation of older ideas’), rather than a purely
generative one. He also implies artistic endeavour to be an ineluctably
collaborative and networked procedure, which draws its strength from
and responds to ‘the good that has been done up to, and especially near
about, [its] own time’.

⁸⁸ Daniel Pick, Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture (London: Yale
University Press, 2000), 80.
⁸⁹ Wibley, ‘A Plea’, 596–7. The American author George Viereck also built his now
largely forgotten 1907 novel about plagiarism, The House of the Vampire, upon this
metaphor of plagiarism as somnambulism, followed by vampirism. See SA, 131–49.
⁹⁰ Wibley, ‘A plea’, 598. ⁹¹ Butler, Life and Habit, 304.
74 Legitimizing Appropriation

As an acceptance of the sharedness of thought grew, so too the

cultural mythology of singular authorship was eroded, and an acknow-
ledgement increased of the socialized nature of invention, literary and
otherwise.⁹² A more benevolent attitude to what might be called ‘choral’
literature—that is, work which is clearly the product of more than one
mind; what Emerson described as ‘no man’s work’—manifested itself.
Yopie Prins has written of the ‘renewed interest in and … increasing
trend toward dual authorship’ which occurred in the last decade of the
nineteenth century: among the items of evidence she describes is Walter
Besant’s approving essay ‘On Literary Collaboration’, which was pub-
lished in the New Review in 1892.⁹³ Emerson and William Morris, too,
argued against the hypervaluation of singly authored books, and drew
readers’ attention to the qualities of literature—the Homeric poems,
Icelandic and Irish sagas, ‘the Law’—which was in some way social
in its modes of production. Emerson called these multiply authored
works ‘world-books’; Morris, quoting the Italian republican revolution-
ary Giuseppe Mazzini, called them ‘bibles’. Such works, Morris and
Emerson argued, laid the whole world under contribution—‘to me they
are far more important than any literature’, Morris wrote in 1886, ‘they
are in no sense the work of individuals, but have grown up from the very
hearts of the people’—and made nonsense of any strict debit–credit
scheme of literary accountancy.⁹⁴
Of the many creative collaborations which did take place in the
Victorian period, two stand out as important in having forced a
confrontation with the possibility that what appeared to be the work
of one author might in fact be the work of many; the long-running
scholarly dispute over the authorship and unity of the Homeric poems,
and the scandal over the working methods of the elder Alexandre
Dumas. The Dumas scandal broke in Britain in 1846 when one of
Dumas’s disgruntled ex-employees, M. Maquet, published an exposé of
his working methods.⁹⁵ Dumas was held to have employed a number
⁹² See, for an example of Victorian mistrust in the creativity of the group over the
individual, Daniel Brinton, The Basis of Social Relations (London: John Murray, 1902):
‘The group as a psychical unit is never creative.’ Compare William Walsh: ‘In England
we have not many instances of successful collaboration since the time of Elizabeth.’
Walsh, Handy-Book, 179. Though there are good counter-instances to this: the Lyrical
Ballads, for example, or Frankenstein. See again Stillinger, Multiple Authorship.
⁹³ Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 75.
⁹⁴ William Morris, Pall Mall Gazette, 2 February 1886, 2.
⁹⁵ Anthea Trodd cites it as ‘the most notorious contemporary example of collaboration’
in ‘Collaborating in Open Boats: Dickens, Collins, Franklin and Bligh’, Victorian Studies,
42:2 (Winter 1999/Spring 2000), 225.
Legitimizing Appropriation 75

of semi-creative amanuenses who researched and wrote sections of his

books: some of his novels he was alleged only to have put his name
to. Dumas’s subsequent, insouciant acknowledgement of his working
methods provoked outrage from those who held fast to the idea of
singular authorship, but it also prompted reflection in other quarters on
how literary creation might be a more plural process than was generally
appreciated. Here was not the writer in the garret, but the writer in
the workshop, crafting stories and words together with the help of
others. Thackeray, who had a pragmatic approach to the production of
literature, and not a little impatience with the idea of the autonomous
artist,⁹⁶ declared in 1862 that he ‘loved the romances of Dumas, that
he did not greatly care how they were manufactured’:⁹⁷
They say that all the works bearing Dumas’s name were not written by him.
Well? Did not Rubens’ pupils paint on his canvasses? Had not Lawrence
assistants for his backgrounds? For myself, being also du metier, I confess I
would often like to have a competent, respectable and rapid clerk for the
business part of my novels, and, on his arrival at eleven o’clock, would say,
‘Mr. Jones, if you please, the archbishop must die this morning in about five
pages. Turn to article ‘‘Dropsy’’ (or what you will) in Encyclopaedia. Take care
there are no medical blunders in his death. Group his daughters, physicians,
and chaplains around him. In Wales’s ‘‘London,’’ letter B, third shelf, you will
find an account of Lambeth, and some prints of the place. Colour in with local
Thackeray’s reasoning, extended and restated by numerous comment-
ators on plagiarism and originality later in the century, inverted Plato’s
dictum that the origin in all things is important. It inverted, indeed,
the entire literary economy, shifting importance away from means of
production and on to the pleasure of the consumer. Thackeray implicitly
condoned a reading politics of ends justifying means.
In 1869 an article appeared in the Dublin University Magazine
entitled ‘Tannhauser and Plagiarism’, discussing the subject of collab-
orative composition and plagiarism.⁹⁹ The article was unsigned, but has

⁹⁶ Thackeray regarded the young Charlotte Brontë’s heroic conception of the author
as ‘high-falutin’ ’, and ‘used to annoy her by referring to his books with exaggerated
unconcern, much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a
salary’. See Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001), 22.
⁹⁷ A paraphrase of Thackeray’s attitude in a sympathetic article on Dumas by Francis
Hitchman, in ‘Alexandre Dumas and his Plagiarisms’, National Review, 4 (1884–5), 388.
⁹⁸ William Makepeace Thackeray, Roundabout Papers (London: J. M. Dent & Sons,
1914), 291.
⁹⁹ A. J. Brown, ‘Tannhauser and Plagiarism’, Dublin University Magazine, 59 (Feb-
ruary 1862), 106–14.
76 Legitimizing Appropriation

subsequently been attributed to A. J. Brown, an intermittent contribut-

or to the periodical. The focal point of Brown’s discussion was a long
and recently published poem entitled ‘Tannhauser’, which had been
accused of being plagiarized from Tennyson’s work. Brown proposed
that although the poem bore in places a noteworthy resemblance to
Tennyson’s poetry, this did not give sufficient grounds to censure it
either aesthetically or ethically as plagiaristic,¹⁰⁰ and her reasoning is
a valuably illustrative example of the way in which the language of
psychology was pressed into service to exculpate plagiarism:
Plagiarism proper there may be undoubtedly in the great world of letters, but I
question whether more than half the resemblances which have been so named
during the last three centuries, are not attributable to a mental law that we
can by no means abrogate. From this law is derived the force of example,
and the stimulus of fine literature; it is that of which Schiller has spoken as
‘the imitative formative impulse, which can undergo no impression, without
at once endeavouring to give it lively expression’ … It is this instinct for
the reproduction, in some shape or other, of every strong impression, which
accounts for many phenomena otherwise inexplicable; for the repetition of
phrases … and for a re-echo, more or less distinct of the ideas and style of a
writer we admire, much too profoundly to dream of imitation.¹⁰¹
Here we see a clever digression being made from the orthodox belief
in originality, which is not a return to the neoclassical doctrine of
imitatio, but to something apparently subtler, more intrinsic, and more
creative: an ‘instinct for reproduction’. Notice also how, in common
with many commentators arguing for a more relaxed attitude to literary
resemblance, Brown did not only try to reclaim as legitimate much
of what is ‘so named’ as plagiarism, but also reinstated the ‘instinct
for reproduction’ as a mechanism essential to the production of ‘fine
literature’. The writer’s mind is figured as a springy, responsive substance
which reacts with Newtonian reliability to every impression it receives,
producing an equal and opposite expression. It is this instinct, argues
Brown, which may range from the tautological ‘re-echo’ and extend as
far as ‘the repetition of phrases’, that is the root and cause of most of
what is incorrectly named as plagiarism.

¹⁰⁰ The poem is independently of interest. It took its name from Wagner’s opera, first
performed in 1845, and would be the subject of Swinburne’s long poem ‘Laus Veneris’
(1866). This verse version of the Tannhäuser myth was published anonymously in 1861,
identified only as the work of a group of ‘young writers’. The Tannhäuser story itself far
pre-dates Wagner, of course, belonging in written form to the early sixteenth century.
¹⁰¹ Brown, ‘Tannhauser’, 107–8.
Legitimizing Appropriation 77

Much the same argument was proposed ten years later by Thomas
Gallwey in an article for the Irish Monthly, in which he talks of
‘plagiarists’ as those:
whose minds may be said to have a peculiar receptivity for the beautiful—men
whose memories are generally ‘wax to receive and marble to retain’ a lovely
image whether verbal or ideal. Men such as these are prone to reproduce in
writing the fruits of their finding, without being conscious of the source of
The line which Gallwey retains is from Byron’s ‘Beppo’: ‘His heart was
one of those which most enamour us, | Wax to receive and marble
to retain.’ Gallwey’s argument was of a piece with a wider Victorian
preoccupation with maximizing the capacity of the memory; another
manifestation of the self-help drive. In the 1870s there was a publishing
boom in the field of mnemonics, and dozens of books appeared on
the market offering techniques for increasing memory capacity. ‘Books
without end have been recently written’, wrote an evidently exhausted
reviewer in the Dublin Review in 1877, ‘with the titles of ‘‘Art of
Memory’’ ’.¹⁰³ ‘Our aim’, concluded another commentator on the same
subject in 1888, ‘should be to maintain in manhood and womanhood
that perfect impressionability of the brain which exists in healthy
childhood.’¹⁰⁴ In this new psychological climate, which emphasized the
multiple and social composition of the self, memory attained a crucial
importance as the glue which bound the individual together and allowed
one to preserve the superstition of the unified personality.

‘ T H EY WOT N OT O F I T ’ : U N C O N S C I O U S

Accusations of literary plagiarism depend upon intent as well as upon

the notion of literary property.¹⁰⁵ The supposed plagiarist must know

¹⁰² Thomas Gallwey, ‘Plagiarism or Coincidence—Which?’, Irish Monthly, 7 (July

1879), 319.
¹⁰³ Anon., ‘Artificial Memory’, Dublin Review, 29 (July 1877), 173.
¹⁰⁴ Anon., ‘Memory’, Westminster Review, 130 (1 August 1888), 173.
¹⁰⁵ Though there was no categorical difference for John Churton Collins, according
to whom ‘plagiarism, in the strict sense of the term, must be conscious and deliberate,
but what may justly render an author liable to the charge of it may be either coincidence,
or unconscious appropriation’. John Churton Collins, Studies in Poetry and Criticism
(London: George Bell and Sons, 1905), 101.
78 Legitimizing Appropriation

what he is doing: must be in his right mind while he is borrowing from

somebody else’s. Inadvertency removes plagiarists ‘from the suspicion
of low devices’, in George Eliot’s phrase—it acquits them from the
constitutive ethical dimension to the transgression.¹⁰⁶ It has already
been discussed how, during the second half of the nineteenth century,
Victorian readers were made newly aware of the discreet interactivity of
apparently discrete minds. Vital to the development of this awareness was
the concept of the unconscious: that mysterious portion or dimension
of the mind which existed and operated out of sight of the will, and
which militated against simplistic notions of self-mastery. Especially for
those Victorian writers contesting prevailing notions of literary property
and originality, the unconscious became an essential argumentative
resource, for it provided a useful realm of non-property where the
associative memory made unaccountable links between phrases and
ideas, and where heed was not necessarily paid to socially constructed
concepts of ownership.
The unconscious, of course, was by no means a Victorian invention.
Nevertheless, interest in its processes gained in breadth and detail
during the century, and by the mid-century the idea of latent thought,
undetectable to the conscious mind but perpetually ongoing, had
become vital to Victorian understandings of the self, especially with
regard to issues of advertency and inadvertency, and the limits of
individual self-control.¹⁰⁷ The 1870s in particular was a significant
decade, for when the English translation of Karl von Hartmann’s massive
Philosophie des Unbewussten (Philosophy of the Unconscious) was published
in 1869, it provoked a flurry of reactions, enlargements, and counter-
theories. One of the key debates over the unconscious concerned the
nature and extent to which it stored information. Clearly, the conscious
mind was not a perfect archive; the simplest act of forgetting proved
that. But equally clearly, the unconscious cached things which the
conscious mind was not aware of, and certain Victorian commentators
in the human sciences became increasingly curious as to how these
consciously forgotten data could be preserved, and could then pass from
the unconscious to the conscious mind.

¹⁰⁶ ITS, 79.

¹⁰⁷ Shuttleworth and Taylor (eds.), Embodied Selves, p. xvi. The most useful essay
on this topic is by Jenny Bourne Taylor: ‘Obscure Recesses: Locating the Victorian
Unconscious’, in J. B. Bullen (ed.), Writing and Victorianism, (London: Longmans,
1997), 137–79.
Legitimizing Appropriation 79

One ubiquitous version of the acquisitive ability of the unconscious

was that it was a barn or storehouse of boundless size which preserved
everything intact, if not always accessibly—a realm which was for-
gettable about, but which did not itself forget. ‘We are told’, wrote
Roden Noel, ‘that impressions are ‘‘stored up’’ in the brain, ready to
re-emerge.’¹⁰⁸ In 1845, De Quincey had likened the mind to a pal-
impsest, whereby mental data were overlain by subsequent data, but
nothing was entirely erased; the ‘palimpsest’ subsequently became the
standard metaphor for the archival capacities of the mind. ‘What else
than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain?’, De Quincey
had written:
Such a palimpsest, oh reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images,
feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed
to bury all that went before. And yet, in reality, not one has been extinguished.¹⁰⁹
The implications for theories of literary resemblance of this notion of
total recall were considerable. For, if the unconscious mind truly were
a catch-all, then particles of memory could drift into it from anywhere
and subsequently emerge into the conscious unbidden—leading to what
one writer on plagiarism called ‘unwary reproductiveness’.¹¹⁰ ‘Some-
where, ‘‘in the abysmal depths of personality’’ ’, wrote another of the
commentators who linked literary resemblance and the acquisitiveness
of the unconscious mind, ‘every combination of ideas, every perception
of facts, remains latent and unnoted, but indestructible, and ever ready
for a sudden recall to consciousness.’¹¹¹ In The Gay Science (1866), the
critic, poet, and aesthetician E. S. Dallas sought ambitiously to merge
the advances in psychological modelling of the unconscious with a
new aesthetic theory which located artistic creativity in the relationship
between the unconscious and the conscious mind. Of necessity, his
book grappled with questions of self-control, inadvertent appropriation,
and the transformative powers of the mind, and it did so specifically
with regard to the artist. Dallas’s thesis was that the artist’s unconscious
gathered or ‘assimilated’—Dallas’s verb—material from experience,
and that this material subsequently underwent a selection and a trans-
mogrification as it was covertly translated from the conscious to the

¹⁰⁸ Noel, ‘Memory and Personal Identity’, 380.

¹⁰⁹ Thomas De Quincey, The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David
Masson (New York: AMS, 1968), xiii. 346.
¹¹⁰ Noel, ‘Memory and Personal Identity’, 382.
¹¹¹ Brown, ‘Tannhauser’, 108.
80 Legitimizing Appropriation

unconscious mind. Dallas used the distinctive image of two concentric

rings, one dark and one light, to model his vision of the mind:
We live in two concentric worlds of thought—an inner ring, of which we are
conscious, and which may be described as illuminated; an outer one, of which
we are unconscious, and which may be described as in the dark. Between the
outer and the inner ring, between our unconscious and our conscious existence,
there is a free and a constant but an unobserved traffic for ever carried on.¹¹²
This ‘unobserved’ flow or transference of thought between the two zones
Dallas christened the ‘hidden soul’. ‘There is a mental existence within
us’, wrote Dallas, ‘which may be called the hidden soul—a secret flow
of thought which is not less energetic than the conscious flow, an absent
mind which haunts us like a ghost or a dream and is an essential part
of our lives.’¹¹³ Like numerous other commentators, Dallas subscribed
to the concept of the mind as perfectly retentive. ‘Strictly speaking’,
he wrote in his discussion of the unconscious, ‘the mind never forgets:
what it once seizes, it holds to the death, and cannot let go.’¹¹⁴ He
returned repeatedly to his image of the mind as an instinctive and
impeccable plagiarist:
the fact stands out clear, that the memory grips and appropriates what it does
not understand—appropriates it mechanically, like a magpie stealing a silver
spoon … The memory cannot help itself. It is a kleptomaniac, and lets nothing
go by.¹¹⁵
The conclusion of Dallas’s investigation into the artistic mind was
that acquisition followed by transformation or ‘assimilation’, and
not generation, was the standard operating procedure of the artistic
mind. Furthermore, memory—which as a faculty ‘lets nothing go
by’—was the prerequisite of originality. Summing up his treatise, Dal-
las approvingly quoted Walter Scott on how ‘the faculty of invention’
is ‘circumscribed in its range, is soon exhausted, and goes on repeating
itself … Thus it is not so much to a trained invention as to a trained
memory that the poet who seeks for variety must chiefly trust; and it will
be found that all great poets, all great artists, all great inventors are men

¹¹² E. S. Dallas, The Gay Science (London: Chapman and Hall, 1866), 27.
¹¹³ Ibid. 199. ¹¹⁴ Ibid. 216.
¹¹⁵ Ibid. In Life and Habit Samuel Butler would reverse this image, using the
kleptomaniac to illustrate the unconscious memory: ‘No thief, for example, is such an
utter thief—so good a thief—as the kleptomaniac … Yet the kleptomaniac is probably
unaware that he can steal at all, much less that he can steal so well.’ Butler, Life and
Habit, 21–2.
Legitimizing Appropriation 81

of great memory.’¹¹⁶ We are leagues now from Edward Young’s edict in

his Conjectures on Original Composition that literary genius should not
be ‘encumbered with the notions of others, and impoverished by their
abundance’, that it keep instead to ‘untrodden ground’, indeed that
‘memory’ is detrimental to literary production.¹¹⁷ Dallas’s important
book was a corrective to this aesthetic of not admitting—in either sense
of letting on or letting in—the tradition. Arthur Koestler would neatly
observe in The Act of Creation that ‘the prerequisite of originality is the
art of forgetting, at the proper moment, what we know’.¹¹⁸ Instead of
this policy of wilful amnesia, however, Dallas re-embraced the creative
possibility, indeed the inevitability, of memory and memorization.
‘Unconscious plagiarism’—unintentional literary resemblance—
became from the 1860s onwards a widely discussed and accepted
effect, and was plaited by several Victorian commentators, including
Dallas, into a theory of creativity.¹¹⁹ What was castigated as plagiarism
was argued to be nothing more transgressive than inadvertent imitation
or echo—‘reverberation’, as Brown named it¹²⁰—born of the practice
of unconscious assimilation. What most writers agreed on was that the
individual had less control than they knew over what they remembered.
There was no bouncer permanently on the door of what James Sully, in
an 1880 article entitled ‘Illusions of Memory’, called ‘the strictly private
apartment of [a man’s] own mind’.¹²¹ Words, images, or ideas might
steal into the writer’s mind, which was categorically different from them
being stolen from other minds. This was not a new extenuation—writers
accused of plagiarism had been professing inadvertence for centur-
ies—but the growing public interest in the unconscious in the later nine-
teenth century provided commentators on the subject with an authority
grounded in psychology for their arguments: another illustration of
how literary attitudes to originality and plagiarism were formed and
deformed by disturbances or adjustments in the wider cultural imagina-
tion. By 1891, in an anonymous and impassioned defence of plagiarism
published in the Spectator, a commentator was emboldened to declare

¹¹⁶ Dallas, The Gay Science, 221–2. ¹¹⁷ COC, 23.

¹¹⁸ Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1964), 190.
¹¹⁹ See, for example, Madden, ‘Plagiarism and Accidental Imitation’; Anon., ‘Uncon-
scious Plagiarism’, The Times, 1 June 1872, 11; Anon., ‘Unconscious Plagiarism’, The
Times, 10 December 1879, 8; Anon., ‘Involuntary Autoplagiarism’, Dial, 1 August 1911,
68; and Isidore G. Ascher, ‘The Plagiarist’, Academy, 23 December 1911, 809–10.
¹²⁰ Brown, ‘Tannhauser’, 107.
¹²¹ James Sully, ‘Illusions of Memory’, Cornhill Magazine, 41 (April 1880), 416.
82 Legitimizing Appropriation

that ‘there is hardly a single public speaker, preacher, or writer who does
not plagiarize to a certain extent, either consciously or unconsciously’.¹²²


This suggestion that information was continually being trafficked,

knowingly and unknowingly, between individual minds was of a piece
with the Victorian fascination with the invisible universe. In particular,
it chimed with the interest in what might be invisibly contained within
that most invisible of substances, the air. In 1862, the American poet
and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes composed a response to an
accusation of plagiarism regarding his short poem ‘The Two Streams’,
published in 1860 in his collection The Doctor at the Breakfast Table.
The poem turned upon the conceit of a stream being parted into
two smaller streams by a boulder, and Holmes’s accuser, a journalist
writing in the New York Evening Post, had suggested that this image
was not legitimately Holmes’s to use on the grounds that he had
‘pilfered’ the image from a ‘baccalaureate sermon of President Hopkins
of Williamstown’. Holmes’s defence ran as follows:
I was at the time wholly unconscious of having met with the discourse or the
sentence which the verses were most like, nor do I believe I ever had seen or
heard either. Some time after this, happening to meet my eloquent cousin,
Wendell Phillips, I mentioned the fact to him, and he told me that he had
once used the special image said to be borrowed, in a discourse delivered at
Williamstown. On relating this to my friend Mr. Buchanan Read, he informed
me that he too had used the image,—perhaps referring to his poem called The
Twins. He thought Tennyson had used it also. The parting of the streams on
the Alps is poetically elaborated in a passage attributed to ‘M. Loisne,’ printed
in the Boston Evening Transcript for October 23, 1859. Captain, afterwards
Sir Francis Head, speaks of the showers parting on the Cordilleras, one portion
going to the Atlantic, one to the Pacific. I found the image running loose in
my mind, without a halter. It suggested itself as an illustration of the will, and
I worked the poem out by the aid of Mitchell’s School Atlas. The spores of
a great many ideas are floating about in the atmosphere. We no more know
where all the growths of our mind come from than where the lichens which eat
the names off from the gravestones borrowed the germs that gave them birth.¹²³

¹²² Anon., ‘The Cry of Plagiarism’, Spectator, 28 February 1891, 305–6. Compare
H. M. Paull’s 1922 remark that ‘Originality has been defined as ‘‘unconscious or
undetected imitation’’.’ ‘Unconscious Plagiarism’, Cornhill Magazine, 3:53 (1922), 484.
¹²³ Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘My Hunt after ‘‘The Captain’’ ’, Atlantic Monthly, 10:62
(December 1862), 750–1.
Legitimizing Appropriation 83

The mitigation of ‘unconsciousness’ is now recognizable; what is of

fresh interest here is the two closing analogies—literary idea as ‘spore’
and as ‘germ’—which Holmes uses to inoculate himself against the
charge of plagiarism. How, he asks, can we hope to put our finger on
the origin of an idea; how can we attribute it to one person? Ideas are
airborne: ‘floating about in the atmosphere’, they disregard conventional
boundaries and can drift unbidden and unnoticed into a mind, or into
more than one mind simultaneously. To try to ascertain a fons et origo for
a single idea, Holmes suggests, would be like trying to say from where a
lichen ‘borrowed’ the germ which gave it birth.¹²⁴ This is a furtively com-
plex image, for how can something ‘borrow’ without first existing? The
implication is that life itself is a borrowing: everything is at the very least
biologically in hock to everything else, and attempting to extricate or pin-
point an origin leads one only into a circle of mutual indebtedness. We
are returned once more to the concept of cyclicality and mutuality with
which this chapter began. Words and thoughts are inevitably used goods.
Just as Leslie Stephen noted of the air we breathe that it had already
‘passed through a million lungs’, so words and ideas have passed through
innumerable minds (and indeed, as speech, innumerable lungs) before
they enter—often undetected—the mind of the individual artist.¹²⁵
This heightened sense of language as a public domain was involved
with developments in philology over the course of the nineteenth
century which had challenged concepts of language as a fixed or static
system. An organic view of language as possessing a history and as
capable of growth and decline had been awakened in Britain in the
early decades of the 1800s. By the middle of the century, the study
of language change had been systematized and institutionalized (the
Philological Society was founded in 1842) and it had become an
orthodoxy that, as Christian Bunsen put it in 1854, ‘all philology
must end in history’.¹²⁶ Richard Chenevix Trench was an important
publicist for philology’s findings. His On the Study of Words (1851)
and English: Past and Present (1855) popularized the diachronic view
of language study, and encouraged his readers to see language in

¹²⁴ Compare Walsh in his Handy-Book, 892: ‘Shall I eschew the benefits of the modern
railroad because I find the germ of the idea in the steam-engine of the pre-Christian
¹²⁵ Leslie Stephen, The Playground of Europe (London: Longmans, 1871), 72.
¹²⁶ Christian Charles Josias Bunsen, Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History as
Applied to Language and Religion (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans,
1854), i. 61.
84 Legitimizing Appropriation

cross-section.¹²⁷ Trench used evocative language—he liked to draw his

metaphors in particular from geology and natural history—to suggest
how words accumulated meanings over time, in a process akin to
sedimentary layering. Crucially, Trench also demonstrated that this
process of semantic silting was continual and ongoing. That language
change could only be documented historically, and not witnessed in
action, was a function of the minute life-span of a human being.¹²⁸ Thus
Trench lecturing in 1855 on ‘Time and Language’: ‘The great innovator
Time manages his innovations so dexterously, spreads them over such
vast periods, and therefore brings them about so gradually, that often,
while effecting the mightiest changes, he seems to us to be effecting none
at all.’¹²⁹ These twinned realizations, which now seem truistic—that
language has a history, and that linguistic meaning is perpetually
fluctuating—militated against ideas of stable, static signification. The
implication that linguistic meaning was not inherent, but contingent
(a function of the accumulation and combination of different usages),
challenged fideistic beliefs in literature’s capacity for revelation, and
provoked a scepticism regarding the stable testamentary power of
words. Philology’s discoveries also suggested that all language was hand-
me-down, not bespoke. More specifically, they advanced the argument
that since meaning is context-dependent, originality—or ‘innovation’,
to use Trench’s word—is an inevitability with every fresh reading.
Literary repetition or resemblance, therefore, did not have to mean the
dreary, derivative succession of the identical. Given this new sense of
language’s contingency, indeed, there could textually be no such thing
as repetition without variation.
Holmes’s image of idea as spore also partook of the contemporary
fascination with what John Tyndall referred to as ‘the floating matter of
the air’. As John Crellin has noted, the 1860s and 1870s were the era
of the particle.¹³⁰ Biads, bioplasts, Darwinian gemmules, germs, grafts,
globules, molecules, ferments, viruses: all were invoked in discussions
of infection, contagion, and origin, both pathological and ideological.
Small particles crammed the air and teemed in the pages of scientific

¹²⁷ Trench is usually credited with having started the Oxford English Dictionary,
thanks to a resolution he suggested at the Philological Society in 1858.
¹²⁸ See Megan Perigoe Stitt, Metaphors of Change in the Language of Nineteenth-Century
Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), and LD, passim.
¹²⁹ R. C. Trench, English: Past and Present (London: Parker, Son and Bourn, 1855),
¹³⁰ J. K. Crellin, Pasteur and the Germ Theory (London: Jackdaw, 1967).
Legitimizing Appropriation 85

journals, offering themselves as the stuff of life.¹³¹ This Victorian

interest in the particles of matter carried invisibly in the air, and
unknowingly inhaled, has frequently been remarked upon.¹³² Less
often mentioned, however, is the connection between floating physical
matter and floating verbal matter: the idea that, as Holmes’s image
implied, words and spores could behave in similar ways.¹³³ The growing
nineteenth-century belief in the existence of a collective consciousness
has already been remarked upon, and this was regularly figured as a
cultural ‘environment’: a pollinous intellectual atmosphere in which
ideas and language circulated and mingled, often in ways beyond the
control of any individual.¹³⁴ As the Victorians came to terms with
the fact that what was transparent—the air—might in fact contain
innumerable material particles which passed in and out of the human
body, so too they began to engage with the concept that ideas too might
float, waft, or migrate invisibly from one person to another. According
to this analogy, getting someone else’s drift might not mean consciously
understanding them, but rather having their ideas imperceptibly float
into your mind: standing intellectually downwind of them, as it were.
This new conception of the intellectual atmosphere restored to the word
‘inspiration’ its meaning of inhalation, ‘the act of drawing in breath’
(OED); one thinks here of the observation Eliot gives to Mr Irwine in
Adam Bede: ‘men’s lives are as thoroughly blended with each other as
the air they breathe’.¹³⁵
As a physician, Oliver Holmes was more likely than most suggestively
to merge the vocabularies of pathology and literature, but he was by no
means the only theorist of originality to miscegenate language registers
in this way during the period. Brander Matthews, in 1886, for example,
imagined a plague of plagiarism accusations: ‘Only too many of the
minor critics have no time to ask what an author has done, they are
so busy in asking where he may have got his hints. Therefore the air is

¹³¹ See Angelique Richardson, ‘How Did it All Begin?’, TLS, 3 August 2001, 7.
¹³² See for instance Flint, Visual Imagination, 40–63.
¹³³ Though see Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives: The Shaping of Influence
in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 85–181.
¹³⁴ Tyndall’s definition of ‘the atmosphere’ as ‘a vehicle of universal intercommunic-
ation’ was typical. John Tyndall, Essays on the Floating-Matter of the Air, in Relation to
Putrefaction and Infection (London: Longmans, 1881), p. xii.
¹³⁵ George Eliot, Adam Bede, ed. Valentine Cunningham (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1996), 423. See also Darwin: ‘We can draw a full and deep inspiration much more
easily through the widely open mouth than through the nostrils.’ Charles Darwin, The
Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872), 284.
86 Legitimizing Appropriation

full of accusations of plagiary, and the bringing of these accusations is

a disease which bids fair to become epidemic in literary journalism.’¹³⁶
Similarly, Charles Wibley, writing to ridicule the ubiquitous cry of
plagiarism in London theatres, observed that:
those who declare that ‘ideas are in the air’ do not speak without reason. Ideas
are in the air, especially in the close air of the theatre … Every man who takes
up a pen to write should have read ‘Faust’, and even if he has not he cannot
help absorbing it through his pores.¹³⁷

Ideas come in through pores; the tradition is absorbed, voluntarily

or involuntarily. There is more than a suggestion here of a Victorian
pathology of plagiarism: a sense that it is an activity, or an inclination,
which can be contracted, carried, and spread. In The Forger’s Shadow,
Nick Groom draws attention to this imagining of plagiarism as ‘a threat, a
fear, a panic, a plague. And like other aspects of social abnormality, such
as illness … it is imagined as despotic—contagious, sickening, unnatural
and terminal.’¹³⁸ Holmes’s images of spore and germ, like the wider
Victorian interest in particles in the air—or in what Dickens’s Silas
Wegg calls the ‘atomspear’¹³⁹—were also inflected by one of the most
well-known medical debates of the 1860s and 1870s: that of spontaneous
generation versus germ theory as the origin of infection. The 1860s
and 1870s were decades characterized by an obsession with origins in
all forms, and this dispute between the two scientific cadres, which so
galvanized intellectual life, was one of the principal manifestations of
that preoccupation with being and beginning. Prior to the revelatory
experiments of Louis Pasteur in the early 1860s, it was widely believed
that epidemic diseases were propagated by a kind of ‘malaria’, or bad
air. Invisibly suspended in this air were dead and decaying particles of
organic matter, and if this matter were somehow taken into the body of a
living organism—through the lungs, skin, or stomach—it was thought
to have the power of spontaneously generating and spreading in the host
organism the destroying process by which it had itself been assailed.
This theory of infection rested upon the possibility of spontaneous
generation: the idea that organic life could originate abiogenetically;
from non-organic matter. Germ theory, by contrast, held that disease and
decay came from vital but imperceptible organisms—germs—which

¹³⁶ Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 621.

¹³⁷ Wibley, ‘A Plea’, 595. Compare Butler, Life and Habit, 21–2.
¹³⁸ Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 27. ¹³⁹ OMF, 654.
Legitimizing Appropriation 87

were transported in the air.¹⁴⁰ The competing claims of spontaneous

generationists and germ theorists provided an analogy for the theoretical
contest between the generative and the assimilative models of literary
creativity which was ongoing in the period. Did thoughts, words, and
ideas just appear in the writer’s imagination, or did they float there
from outside? As Louis Pasteur, whose experiments finally exploded the
durable doctrine of spontaneous generation, put it in his thunderous
address to the Sorbonne Scientific Soiree in April 1864: ‘Mightn’t
matter, perhaps, organize itself? Or posed differently, mightn’t creatures
enter the world without parents, without forebears? This is the question
I seek to resolve.’¹⁴¹ Edward Young’s uncompromising doctrine of
originality had it that literary works entered the world unprecedented:
‘without parents, without forebears’. The emergent, proto-modernist
model of authorship, by contrast, suggested that literary texts were
merely assimilated, transformed, and reorganized versions of earlier texts.
A good example of how the debate over the transmission of particles
was analogized with the transmission of words occurs in the introduction
to John Tyndall’s Essays on the Floating Matter of the Air (1881), an
anthology of his well-known essays on, among other subjects, the
spontaneous generation–germ theory controversy. Tyndall, though not
himself a biologist, had aligned himself vocally with the germ theorists,
and his intervention as a non-specialist had attracted censure from his
opposition. He was more than capable of handling himself in such
scuffles, however. Here is Tyndall dismantling the self-contradictory
language of his antagonists:
It is impossible, in fact, to make any statement bearing upon the essence or
distinctive characters of these fevers, without using terms which are of all others
the most distinctive of life. Take up the writings of the most violent opponent
of the germ theory, and, ten to one, you will find them full of such terms
as ‘propagation,’ ‘self-propagation,’ ‘reproduction,’ ‘self-multiplication,’ and
so on. Try as he may—if he has anything to say of those diseases which is
characteristic of them—he cannot evade the use of these terms, or the exact
equivalents to them.¹⁴²

¹⁴⁰ There are several useful books on the debate, including John Farley, The Spon-
taneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1977); and James E. Strick, Sparks of Life: Darwinism and the Victorian
Debates over Spontaneous Generation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
¹⁴¹ Louis Pasteur, ‘Revue des cours scientifique’, 23 April 1864, in Les Œuvres de
Pasteur, ed. Pasteur Valery-Radot, trans. A. Levine (Paris: Masson et Cie, 1922), ii. 329.
¹⁴² Original emphasis. Tyndall, Essays on Putrefaction, pp. xii, 6–7, 42–3.
88 Legitimizing Appropriation

What is of interest here is how Tyndall turns the subject matter

in hand to work in refuting his adversaries. He draws his readers’
attention to the way that the vocabulary of germ theory has covertly
infiltrated the rhetoric of the spontaneous generationists, and thus
undermined its reason. Terms, like germs, cannot be ‘evaded’—you
cannot efficiently throw a cordon sanitaire about a mind any more than
about a body. Again we encounter the concept that words, and the ideas
they embodied, came to be perceived as circulating in ways that were
frequently beyond the control of individual users. Literary resemblance
was one inevitable consequence of the many types of undetectable
interinanimation which occurred between minds. To ‘class all literary
resemblance as plagiarism’, therefore, was not just ‘hypercriticism’, it
was also a failure to acknowledge the subtle and pluriform processes of
human mentality.¹⁴³


In an arresting passage which comes towards the end of Life and

Habit, Samuel Butler launched an attack on the notion of the sovereign
imagination. ‘Even when we are alone, and uninfluenced by other
people except in so far as we remember their wishes’, he wrote:
we yet generally conform to the usages which the current feeling of our peers has
taught us to respect; their will having so mastered our original nature, that, do
what we may, we can never again separate ourselves and dwell in the isolation
of our own single personality. And even though we succeeded in this, and made
a clean sweep of every mental influence which had ever been brought to bear
upon us, and though at the same time we were alone in some desert where there
was neither beast nor bird to attract our attention or in any way influence our
action, yet we could not escape the parasites which abound within us.¹⁴⁴
Butler disclaims as impossible precisely the conditions of uninfluenced-
ness upon which the essentialized version of ‘Romantic’ originality was
founded. To make ‘a clean sweep’ of the mind—to rid it of all intellec-
tual parasites—is not feasible. Even ‘alone in some desert’, one would
be playing host to ideas that were not one’s own.
The idea that, in Butler’s distinctive phrase, we ‘can never again
separate ourselves and dwell in the isolation of our own single personality’

¹⁴³ Madden, ‘Plagiarism and Accidental Imitation’, 114.

¹⁴⁴ Butler, Life and Habit, 106.
Legitimizing Appropriation 89

was the germ of Fanny K. Johnson’s 1902 story ‘The Unconscious

Plagiarist’, about a poet who tries to preserve himself in a vacuum of
influence.¹⁴⁵ It is an intricate piece of writing: complicatedly ironic
in tone, and witty in its engagement with competing contemporary
narratives of originality and plagiarism. The chief character of the story,
referred to only as ‘the Imaginative Girl’, is a send-up of the cliché of
the Romantic poet. She languishes in a garden, writing poems which
are inspired by the ‘half moon’ and the ‘yellow sunshine’, and which
come ‘directly from the Girl’s soul, which is always to be taken into
account when one considers a poem’. Her foil is ‘The Unconscious
Plagiarist’, an earnest young university man who has decided that he
will become a poet. To preserve himself from influence, and therefore
to guarantee himself originality, he takes ‘such care never to read the
standard poets … Keats and Byron; then Tennyson and Swinburne;
now … Browning’. When the story opens, however, the Unconscious
Plagiarist has discovered that, in a Borgesian twist, although he has
‘carefully refrained from ever reading a line of [Browning] in my life’,
every poem he writes turns out to be a poem by Browning (the secondary
irony here of course is that, having never read any, the Unconscious
Plagiarist cannot know that he is reproducing Browning’s poems). A
third character, known only as The Browning Man, comes up with a
solution to the problem. ‘I can’t see why you take the standard English
poets to steal from’, he counsels. ‘There are plenty of foreign poets
who might make you a standard English poet if you assimilated them
judiciously. There are the Russian or Persian or Japanese,—and no
one would ever know.’¹⁴⁶ The Unconscious Plagiarist is unconvinced:
‘I’ve always held that a poet should be intellectually isolated, even to
the point of living on a Desert Island whenever practicable. If he can’t
be original then, I’d like to know how he can be original when he
deliberately fills his head with other people’s stuff.’¹⁴⁷ Butler’s ‘desert,
where neither beast nor bird can influence your action’ has been shrunk
by Johnson into the archetype of isolation: the Desert Island, which
stands here as a satirical icon for the concept of the ‘isolated, atomistic
inventor’. The reconsideration of selfhood which occurred over the later
decades of the nineteenth century deprived this concept of credibility,
and showed no mind to be an island entire of itself. Changes in
Victorian culture, as we have seen, disturbed settled literary conceptions

¹⁴⁵ Johnson, ‘The Unconscious Plagiarist’, 812–20. ¹⁴⁶ Ibid. 815.

¹⁴⁷ Ibid. 816.
90 Legitimizing Appropriation

of originality and plagiarism, and led to a broadening of the repertoire

of what it was acceptable to appropriate. The young disciplines of
psychology, anthropology, and philology helped to foster an ontology
of the community rather than the individual; their delvings revealed
the inaccuracies of the exaltation of the autonomous creative individual,
and suggested in its stead a vision of the creative intellect as a point of
interchange, continually emanating ideas into, and absorbing ideas from,
the collective consciousness. The root meaning of ‘individual’—from
the Latin individuus, or that which cannot be divided—was, though by
no means abolished, at least challenged by a sense of the individual as
a manifestation of a shared consciousness: a part of a whole. The idea
of ‘personality’ lost its former ease of unification, and the old securities
that enabled one person’s whole identity to be set in relation to that
of another were questioned.¹⁴⁸ Furthermore, the renewed Victorian
interest in the unconscious combined with this heightened sense of
minds as existing in a shared intellectual environment to menace ideas
of self-control, and by extension ideas of intentionality in literature.
Given the ungovernability of the unconscious mind, how was it possible
to divine what went on in the creative process, or from where the
elements which comprised a literary work were derived? How could
the label of plagiarism be applied, it was asked, to that which was
involuntarily acquired, and inadvertently used? Words and phrases got
caught in the drag-net of the unconscious memory, and were hauled to
the surface at unexpected moments: this was essential to the operation
of the imagination. What was often known as plagiarism, it was argued,
could better be explained as an irresistible result of the texture and
substance of the unconscious. Echo or repetition should be taken to
indicate a supple responsiveness of a writer’s mind to the tradition,
rather than a dearth of original power.
A shift in literary theory, therefore, occurred as a result of certain
common historical experiences. Wider cultural-historical developments
pressed upon the literary idea of originality, such that it came to
be perceived no longer as a rigid category, wholly incompatible with
literary resemblance, but as a pliant and versatile quality which could
inhere even in writing that was self-consciously allusive, echoic, or
otherwise derived from earlier literature. While the conception of
originality as the writer conjuring words out of nothing through the

¹⁴⁸ See Raymond Williams on ‘the individual’ in The Long Revolution (London:
Chatto & Windus, 1961), 71–100, especially 73–8.
Legitimizing Appropriation 91

sheer force of his or her imagination did endure, and continued to

possess considerable cultural agency, it began to be challenged by an
alternative version of literary creation which supposed the writer’s skills
to be those of assimilation, conversion, and reorganization, not those
of generation and origination. Precisely this intellectual arc—moving
from a frustration with originality as creatio, through to a sense of
the communality of literary invention—can be traced in the work of
George Eliot, the focus of the next chapter.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism


In ‘Looking Backwards’, the second essay in George Eliot’s Impressions

of Theophrastus Such (1879), Theophrastus reflects on the origin and
ownership of the ‘slice of excellent ham’ upon which he once breakfasted.
It belongs first and foremost, Theophrastus is prepared to admit, to the
‘small squealing black pig’ from whose haunch it was carved. If one
endeavours to determine provenance beyond that point, however, ‘one
enters on a fearful labyrinth in tracing compound interest backward, and
such complications of thought [reduce] the flavour of the ham’.¹ When
read within the wider context of Impressions, a book preoccupied with
questions of both intellectual property and intellectual propriety, it is
clear that Theophrastus’ meditation on the pig is a discreet parable—in
a book full of such parables—for the pointlessness of trying to ascribe
ownership to literary work. The calculation of literary-intellectual debt
Theophrastus suggests to be not only futile, but also disadvantageous:
the actuarial effort involved will result in an impairment of the pleasure
(the flavour of the ham) derived from the literary work itself (the
black pig).
It is, however, worth briefly disregarding Theophrastus’ caveat about
the impairment of flavour, and suggesting a provenance for the parable
of the pig. In Conversations with Eckermann, a book which we know Eliot
to have read, Goethe denounced as ridiculous the scholarly labour of
source-hunting. ‘The doubting of this or that famous man’s originality
and the seeking to trace his sources’ is ‘ludicrous’, he told Eckermann.
One might:

¹ George Eliot, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, ed. Nancy Henry (London: William
Pickering, 1994), 18. Further references are to this edition and will be incorporated into
the text.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 93
just as well question a well-nourished man about the oxen, sheep and hogs
that he ate and that gave him strength. We bring abilities with us, but we
owe our development to a thousand workings of a great world upon us, and
we appropriate from these what we can and what suits us. I owe much to the
Greeks and the French; I am infinitely indebted to Shakespeare, Sterne and
Goldsmith. But the sources of my culture are not thereby established; it would
be an unending and also an unnecessary task to do so.²

‘We appropriate … what we can and what suits us’: Goethe’s comment
has itself been appropriated and developed, a fate entirely befitting its
sentiment. Tennyson once cited it to indemnify his own voracious
reading appetite, and in Impressions George Eliot metabolizes Goethe
into her own textual corpus. Ideas of appropriation, as we have already
seen, have a habit of creating these reflexivities.
Eliot’s playful reflexivity can also be seen at work if we disregard the
caveats of both Theophrastus and Goethe, and attempt to determine
another provenance in Impressions: the source of a source which Theo-
phrastus deploys in the tenth essay of the book, ‘Debasing the Moral
Currency’, ostensibly an invective against ‘the arts of spoiling’, burlesque
and parody (82). Theophrastus begins his essay with an untranslated
quotation which he attributes to ‘La Bruyère’. He quotes La Bruyère,
he tells us, in order to bring greater authority to his own ideas. ‘I am
fond of quoting this passage … because the subject is one where I
like to show a Frenchman on my side, to save my sentiments from
being set down to my peculiar dullness [sic]’ (81). No matter that he
slightly spoils La Bruyère’s original by slightly misquoting it, for the
quotation was not originally La Bruyère’s at all. Theophrastus has taken
it from Caractères de Théophraste, traduit du grec, avec les caractères ou
les Mœurs de ce siècle (1688), La Bruyère’s influential translation-cum-
adaptation of Characters, a set of thirty character sketches written by the
original Theophrastus, a Greek intellectual who lived from circa 370 to
288 bc. We should perhaps have listened to the English Theophrastus,
for here we have entered ‘a fearful labyrinth’ of literary debt. Marian
Evans, writing as George Eliot, writing as Theophrastus Such, attempts

² Wilhelm Goethe, Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gesprache, ed. E. Beutler
(Zurich: Artemis-Verlag, 1962–82), xxiv. 300–1. Compare A. Mitchell’s comments on
‘Plagiarism’ in The Knickerbocker, 43 (April 1854), 333: ‘An original thinker may be
considered as one who has grown mentally fat upon the food great minds in all ages of
the world have afforded him.’
94 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

to authorize his/her own views by misquoting La Bruyère’s transla-

tion/adaptation/version of another Theophrastus. Who is the author
here?³ We might close the circle, or exit the labyrinth, by saying that
the English Theophrastus is quoting the Greek Theophrastus: that the
author is his own only authority. But this conclusion does not do justice
to the complications of the terms of exchange. Indeed, any attempt
to paraphrase the situation soon reveals the inability of terms such as
‘original’, ‘originality’, ‘author’, and ‘own’ to do the semantic load-
bearing that is required of them under these circumstances. They buckle
under the weight of complications. Source-hunting, to use one of Eliot’s
favourite words, proves a ‘diffusive’ task. Which, of course, is the point.
These ‘complications of thought’, these attempts to trace literary debt,
do not in this instance impair the flavour of the Theophrastan ham, but
rather bring us to a truer apprehension of its taste. For one of Eliot’s
chief purposes in Impressions is to cross-examine the seemingly stable
categories of original and copy, originality and plagiarism, concepts
that she felt to have been falsely stabilized. The essays in Impressions
both describe and enact how freely ideas and language circulate, and
expose everyone as to some degree an intellectual debtor: in hock to
somebody, to the tradition, or at the very least to what Eliot called the
General Mind.
Impressions does not only contain labyrinths of debt and inheritance
within itself; it also creates them. The penultimate essay of the book,
‘Shadows of the Coming Race’, alludes in its title to Edward Bulwer-
Lytton’s 1871 science-fiction fantasy The Coming Race. The essay is a
dark fantasia in which machines come to supplant humanity by evolving
‘conditions of self-supply, self-repair, and reproduction’. Each machine
is able to ‘reproduce itself by some process of fission or budding’ (138).
The machine, created in man’s image and in man’s stead, overruns
man: the copy deletes the original. In 1880, the year of Eliot’s death,
Eliza Savage wrote to her brother Samuel Butler, incensed that ‘the only
bit in the least bit readable [in Impressions] is a crib from Erewhon—a
most barefaced crib’.⁴ ‘I had’, Butler replied modestly to his sister, ‘the
satisfaction of feeling that great minds had thought alike—that was all;
but the resemblance is so close that there can be no doubt where she

³ Theophrastus, it is worth remembering, means ‘spoken by God’—another authority

to be added to the already considerable muddle of authorities. It might also be noted that
the original Characters were first translated into Latin in 1592 by one Isaac Causabon.
⁴ Letters between Samuel Butler and Miss E. M. A. Savage (1871–1885), ed. Brian Hill
and Geoffrey Keynes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935), 210.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 95

drew from.’⁵ There can be no doubt as to Butler’s insinuation: Eliot had

plagiarized his work. But there was some doubt as to whence Butler had
himself ‘drawn’ Erewhon: nowhere was suspected by some of coming
from somewhere. For, after the first edition of Erewhon had appeared,
Butler had been accused of plagiarizing it from Bulwer-Lytton’s The
Coming Race, and he took some pains in the preface to the second
edition to prove that he had finished Erewhon before The Coming Race
had even been advertised.⁶
During the 1870s, the anthologizer Alexander Main edited a volume
entitled Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse Selected from
the Works of George Eliot. The work proved very popular, and went
through a new edition shortly after the publication of each new work by
Eliot. Main was named on the title page as the selector, the volume was
epigraphed by a ‘saying’ from Proverbs 25: 11—‘A word fitly spoken is
like apples of gold in pictures in silver’—and it was dedicated ‘To George
Eliot in Recognition of a Genius as Original as it is Profound’, a phrasing
interesting not least because it simultaneously equates and discriminates
between originality and profundity of thought. Main was keen to
emphasize Eliot’s originality, realizing it to be a valuable commodity
in the cultural marketplace. ‘What of wealth it contains’, he wrote in
the preface to the anthology, ‘is drawn entirely from George Eliot’s
treasury; what of light there is streams from her alone as its source.’⁷
Not quite. Among the fourteen pages of quotations extracted like so
many wisdom teeth from Impressions is one in which Theophrastus—an
inveterate quoter—quotes from The Two Noble Kinsmen: a play usually
attributed to the confederate efforts of Shakespeare and John Fletcher
(113).⁸ What light there is here seems to stream not from Eliot as
its source, but from Eliot’s source: a collaboratively written play (and
therefore a literary work whose very mode of production flouts ideas
of the sovereign creative imagination, or the ‘onlie begetter’). Once
again authorship—the attempt to say what light streams from what

⁵ Letter to May Butler, 10 June 1880. The Correspondence of Samuel Butler with his
Sister May, ed. Daniel F. Howard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1962), 86.
⁶ See Marc Redfield, ‘The Fictions of Telepathy’, www.pum.umontreal.ca/revues/
surfaces/vol2/redfield.html (November 2005).
⁷ George Eliot, Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected from the
Works of George Eliot by Alexander Main (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1880),
p. xii.
⁸ Ibid. 406.
96 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

source—becomes quickly confused: the light waves overlap, and create

complex and irreducible patterns of interference.
The issue of originality—of issue—and, to a lesser extent, that
of plagiarism, came to exercise Eliot greatly in the last part of her
life. Evidence for her interest in the subject is visible throughout her
intellectual career, though it gains prominence in the later works:
Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and, most conspicuously, Impressions.
Impressions was the culminating expression of Eliot’s thinking on the
subject, though it might not have been: she was contemplating a second
series of Theophrastan impressions if the first pleased the public, and
‘supposing I lived and kept my faculties’.⁹ However, considering the
prosperity and the output of the critical industry which George Eliot
sustains, Impressions has received remarkably little critical attention.
Although it is couched partly as a work of fiction, and therefore prima
facie is of greater relevance to an understanding of her oeuvre, Eliot’s
critical essays for the Westminster Review, or even her early sketches
for the Coventry Herald and Observer, have attracted more scholarly
interest. There are two principal reasons for this critical neglect. The
first is the egregiousness of Impressions within Eliot’s canon. The book
strikes an odd note at the end of her triumphant fictional crescendo
of Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.¹⁰ Leslie Stephen
noted in his biography of Eliot that Impressions conveys ‘a tinge of
sourness’, and this gentle regret has been echoed by critics since Stephen,
modulating at times into considerable aggression towards the text from
Marxist scholars, notably Terry Eagleton.¹¹ The second reason is the
inconsistency of Impressions. The book is written in the venerable genre
of the moral essay,¹² but it is infused with whimsy and is pervasively
self-conscious. It is at once startlingly ancient, and startlingly modern.
The surface pleasures of the language are fewer and further between than
in the novels, and its complicated game-playing makes it unamenable
to conventional approaches to Eliot. Critical tools which have been
sharpened on her novels glance off Impressions. There is also a sense in

⁹ Letter to John Blackwood, 5 April 1879. Letters of George Eliot, ed. George Haight
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954–78), vii. 126.
¹⁰ Marc Redfield notes that ‘criticism has systematically ignored [ITS], preferring to
close off Eliot’s career with the grander difficulties of Daniel Deronda’. Redfield, ‘Fictions
of Telepathy’. He then, regretfully, does the same himself.
¹¹ Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (London: NLB, 1976), 111.
¹² Robert Strang locates ITS within this tradition in his excellent essay ‘The Voices
of the Essayist’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 35 (December 1980), 353–76.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 97

which the essays are overloaded with ill-sorted information and ideas:
Eliot seems to be sitting on the suitcase, trying to pack too much into
too small a space. Impressions is seen, in other words, as a late-career
falling-away: arch, orotund, prolix, pawkily ironic, affectedly wise, and
for all these reasons best left well alone.
These objections to Impressions are not entirely ill founded. However,
the cosmetic unattractiveness of the book has led to an overlooking of its
unusual thematic concerns: specifically its revaluations of the relation-
ship between tradition and the individual talent, and its weighing of the
keystones of originality and assignable authorship. Only Nancy Henry,
in her fine introduction to a 1994 edition of Impressions, has grappled
with what might be called the book’s modernist qualities—specifically,
its self-consciousness concerning origin. Henry considers Impressions to
be ‘an experimental departure from her previous works. It comes at the
end of her development as a late Victorian writer of organic form, and
at the beginning of what looks like early Modernist experimentation
through fragmentation of form’ (p. ix). D. J. Enright, by contrast, in the
prefatory essay to his mistitled edition of Impressions contents himself
with generalisms about Eliot’s wit, before proving arrestingly insensitive
to the unusual texture of the book: ‘There is no fashionable ambiguity
or irony’, he declares, ‘no ‘‘subverting’’ shifts of perspective or authorial
stance, no dodging about between different levels of discourse.’¹³ And
while Gillian Beer, in Darwin’s Plots, and Sally Shuttleworth in George
Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning,
have written valuably on Eliot’s growing interest in origins, neither of
them pursues the topic into Impressions.
Although it is usually read as a series of disconnected and discontented
essays, Impressions is in fact united by the grand theme of intellectual
origination. Almost every essay is concerned in some way with author-
ship, creation, and the definition, circulation, and inheritance of literary
property. As befits a work with such interests, Impressions is shot through
with allusion and quotation, and in the manner of landmark modernist
texts such as The Waste Land, Finnegans Wake, or Ulysses, Impressions
is aware of, and in dialogue with, its own vexed status as literary
property. Similarly to these texts, Impressions regards itself sceptically.

¹³ Enright’s titling of his edition The Impressions of Theophrastus Such we know to be

incorrect. In a letter dated 1 May 1879, Eliot wrote to William Blackwood in ‘alarm’
over a misprinted advertisement in Blackwood’s Magazine for the book which read ‘The
Impressions of Theophrastus Such’: she objected to the superfluous definite article. Letters,
vii. 144.
98 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

It directs its own attention, and that of its readers, both inwards—at
its patterns, principles, and fashions of construction—and outwards,
at the ideological operations that define and assign qualities such as
authorship, originality, and unoriginality. A good indication of Eliot’s
desire to throw into question the nature of proprietary authorship and
originality is that for some time she considered publishing Impressions
with a title page that read ‘Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Edited
by George Eliot’.¹⁴ Editorship is a very different job from authorship.
One edits an anthology, or a collection of essays—a composite of other
people’s words. To claim to be the editor rather than the author of a
work is an odd choice, unless the point of your work is that all authors
are to some degree editors.
Despite all of the above, however, Impressions should not be under-
stood as a full-blown assault on the doctrines of originality and
authenticity. Although she espouses a conception of literary prop-
erty which shows itself antagonistic towards those who claim absolute
intellectual monopolies, Eliot does not ‘entirely erase the distinction
between Mine and Thine’ (88). Although she criticizes certain aspects
of the conception of originality as creatio, she does not entirely debunk
its possibility. Impressions contests the topography which locates origin-
ation as taking place in the hollow round of the single skull, and suggests
instead an Emersonian concept of the author as a highly skilled selector
and combiner: an anthologist of language. Finally, while Eliot can be
seen moving towards an understanding of authorship as a quality which
is ascribed rather than inscribed, it is clear that for her the genuine source
of value remains at the scene of production: writing. She does not go
nearly so far as to dissolve the author into a function of discourse. Behind
or through Theophrastus we can hear George Eliot, with her belief in
individual agency and moral autonomy, and the ethical concerns and
purposes of writing.

E L I OT A N D ‘ E N T I R E ’ O R I G I N A L I T Y

Eliot had little patience with the conception of originality as utmost

difference. Pursued to its logical conclusion, this desire for dissimil-
arity would result in literature being written in a private language,

¹⁴ Letter to John Blackwood, 22 March 1879. Letters, vii. 119.

George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 99

incomprehensible to all but its author: incontestably original, but also

incontestably inconsequential. Throughout her fiction, Eliot can be
seen disparaging those who aspire to absolute originality. Politian,
the self-admiring poet in Romola, preens himself for not being in
thrall to ‘servile imitation’, but consequently spends his time ‘run-
ning after strange words and phrases’.¹⁵ The pursuit of ‘strangeness’
for its own sake, Eliot implies, is a wasteful misdirection. The same
wryly derisive tone with which she describes Furness and Politian can
be heard in Adam Bede, when ‘Wiry’ Ben Cranage pushes to the
centre of the room to dance a hornpipe. Keen to be noticed, Ben
tries to inflect the traditional hornpipe with his own terpsichorean
idiom. The result is ridiculous: ‘the main idea of [the hornpipe] was
doubtless borrowed; but this was … developed by the dancer in so
peculiar and complex a manner that no one could deny him the praise
of originality.’¹⁶ ‘The praise of originality’ sounds here like hollow
praise indeed. Then there is Mr Furness in Scenes from Clerical Life,
the vicar who, soon after leaving Cambridge, ‘published a volume of

Mr Furness preached his own sermons, as any one of tolerable critical acumen
might have certified by comparing them with his poems: in both, there was
an exuberance of metaphor and simile entirely original, and not in the least
borrowed from any resemblance in the things compared.¹⁷

Mr Furness’s ‘entire’ originality is here obtained only through an

eccentricity of language which quickly shelves off into meaninglessness.
Eliot goes on to note that his poems ‘were considered remarkably
beautiful by many young ladies of his acquaintance’, and certainly she
seems to have considered young ladies more susceptible to originality
worship than any other demographic tranche. Thus in her essay on
‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’, she castigates Compensation, a ‘recent
novel of the mind-and-millinery species’, in which ‘Linda’ is the heroine
and mother of a precocious 5-year-old: ‘We are assured, again and
again, that she had a remarkably original mind, that she was a genius,
and ‘‘conscious of her originality’’, and that she was fortunate enough

¹⁵ George Eliot, Romola, ed. Andrew Brown (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 79.
¹⁶ Eliot, Adam Bede, 277.
¹⁷ Original emphasis. George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Thomas A. Noble
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 46.
100 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

to have a lover who was also a genius, and a man of ‘‘most original
Originality as exaggerated difference is most thoroughly mocked
by Eliot in ‘A Man Surprised at his Originality’, the fourth essay in
Impressions. Lentulus is a leisured man of letters who, while he has
never committed any of his ideas to paper, and rarely commits them
to speech, considers himself possessed of a superabundance of original
thoughts. His outward manner at first greatly impresses Theophrastus,
who concludes ‘that he held a number of entirely original poems, or at the
very least a revolutionary treatise on poetics’ (42). Over time, however,
Theophrastus realizes that Lentulus’ originality is only a function of
his ignorance: if one knows nothing, then one’s ideas inevitably seem
original, for they are by definition incomparable. Moreover, if one
never writes down or discusses one’s original ideas, their unoriginality
remains imperceptible to others. Because Lentulus is ‘so little gifted with
the power of displaying his miscellaneous deficiency of information’,
Theophrastus mercilessly concludes:
there was really nothing to hinder his astonishment at the spontaneous crop of
ideas which his mind secretly yielded … He regarded heterodoxy as a power in
itself and took his inacquaintance with doctrines for a creative dissidence. (47)

Here is one of Eliot’s clearest statements of belief on the matter:

heterodoxy is not a power in itself; rather it must situate itself with
regard to orthodoxy. The individual talent must accommodate itself
to the tradition. It recalls Samuel Butler’s remark, in The Way of All
Flesh, about Ernest Pontifex’s nervous belief that ‘ideas came into clever
people’s heads by a kind of spontaneous germination, without parentage
in the thoughts of others or the course of observation’.¹⁹ Theophrastus
later reveals that his youthful ignorance once induced in him similar
delusions of originality. Speaking of Pepin, the ‘Too Ready Writer’
of the fourteenth essay who holds forth on all subjects under the sun
and believes himself to do so originally, Theophrastus confesses ‘my
own early astonishment at my powerful originality; and copying the

¹⁸ George Eliot, Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings, ed. A. S. Byatt and Nicholas
Warren (London: Penguin, 1990), 143. Compare Gwendoline in Daniel Deronda, who
‘rejoiced to feel herself exceptional; but her horizon was that of the genteel romance
where the heroine’s soul poured out in her journal is full of vague power, originality,
and general rebellion’. Daniel Deronda, ed. Graham Handley (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1984), 47.
¹⁹ Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 213.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 101

just humility of the old Puritan, I may say, ‘‘But for the grace of
discouragement, this coxcombry might have been mine’’ ’ (116). The
solemn quip is typical of Theophrastus: he copies the words of another
to prove that he no longer labours under any illusions about originality.
Yet of course, he does no such simple thing as ‘copy’: the ‘old Puritan’
is John Bradford, the Protestant martyr who, on seeing a group of
criminals being led to their execution, famously declared, ‘But for the
grace of God there goes John Bradford.’ Theophrastus, like George
Eliot herself, rarely quotes (or copies) impeccably, even when declaring
he is doing just that.
G. H. Lewes had written extensively on the subject of originality,
both in his Problems of Life and Mind and also in his more ostensibly
literary works. In Principles of Success in Literature, which Eliot read at
least twice, he argued for a reformulation of the orthodox definition
of originality as the endogenous creation of new matter. In its place
he proposed an authorial aesthetic of ‘selection and arrangement’.
Lewes acknowledged that he was writing against the ideological grain
of the time: ‘I am prepared to hear of many readers’, he declared,
‘especially young readers, protesting against the doctrine of this chapter
as prosaic. They have been so long accustomed to consider imagination
as peculiarly distinguished by its disdain of reality, and Invention as
only admirable when its products are not simply new by selection and
arrangement, but new in material, that they will reject the idea of
involuntary remembrance of something originally experienced as the
basis of all Art.’²⁰ Eliot, like Lewes, was concerned to redefine originality
as a relational quality. Original art springs from what is known. ‘Creative
dissidence’ is achievable only through an acquaintance with ‘doctrines’.
For Eliot, the fetishizing of originality as sovereign creation was an
intellectual posture that contradicted itself. ‘We mortals should chiefly
like to talk to each other out of goodwill and fellowship’, Theophrastus
observes, ‘not for the sake of hearing revelations or being stimulated by
witticisms; and I have usually found that it is the rather dull person
who appears to be disgusted with his contemporaries because they
are not always strikingly original, and to satisfy whom the party at a
country house should have included the prophet Isaiah, Plato, Francis
Bacon, and Voltaire’ (50). He who lusts after originality finds himself
different to the point of dullness: not part of the ‘party’. Repeatedly in

²⁰ G. H. Lewes, The Principles of Success in Literature, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, repr.

(Westmead: Gregg International Publisher Ltd., 1969), 39.
102 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

Impressions, Eliot alludes to a contemporary nostalgia for a golden era

of origination. This nostalgia, she implies, is a symptom of originality
sickness, of the desire for continuous cultural novelty which has suffused
the corpus vile. In ‘Looking Backward’, for instance, Theophrastus kicks
against the incessant comparison of contemporary creators with their
ancient counterparts, who are charged with originating all that is merely
recycled by recent writers. ‘One wonders’, he begins sardonically:
whether the remarkable originators who first had the notion of digging wells,
or of churning butter, and who were certainly very useful to their own time as
well as ours, were left quite free from invidious comparison with predecessors
who let the water and the milk alone. (15)
We have previously seen how the feeling that, in literary terms, there
was nothing new under the sun acutely affected the later Victorians,
as it had done the Augustans. For Eliot, however, angst of this sort
overlooked a simple but vital paradox: that two identical originalities
could coexist without cancelling each other out. Originality was, in her
opinion, a phenomenon localized in both space and time. The same
truth, insight, phrase, or poem could be had in London in the thirteenth
century and again in the nineteenth century, or in London and Japan
simultaneously, without a diminishment of the originality of either. ‘It
is not an original idea’, she had written in one of her first published
articles, for the Coventry Herald and Observer in 1846, ‘but never mind
if it be a true one.’²¹ Never mind if it be an apparently original idea,
either. In ‘Looking Backward’, Theophrastus says that ‘[E]ven if my
researches had shown me that some of my father’s yearly sermons had
been copied out from the works of elder divines, this would only have
been another proof of his good judgment. One may prefer fresh eggs
though laid by a fowl of the meanest understanding, but why fresh
sermons?’ (20). If a sermon did the job it was supposed to—that of
religious edification—then its originality or otherwise was simply not
of relevance. Emerson had said something very similar, though his
sentiment was a more general one: ‘Whoever expresses to us a just
thought makes ridiculous the pains of the critic who should tell him
where such a word had been said before.’²²

²¹ George Eliot, Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York: Columbia
Press, 1963), 19. Lewes would remark in Principles of Success that ‘Importance does not
depend on rarity so much as on authenticity’ (13).
²² Emerson, ‘Quotation and Originality’, in Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Richard Poirier
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 434. The essay does not appear in RWE.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 103

The paradox of originality as a recurrent phenomenon pleased Eliot.

She makes play with it in Middlemarch, when she describes Will
Ladislaw as showing ‘such originality as we all share with the morning
and the spring-time and other endless renewals’.²³ She alludes to it
again in Impressions, when Theophrastus disparages the modern-day
‘insistence on an originality which is that of the present year’s corn-
crop’ (17), and when, reflecting on instances of ‘folly’, ‘queer habit’,
and ‘absurd illusion’ in the human mind, Theophrastus asserts that
such quirks are not unique: that somewhere, in someone, ‘there will be
a certain correspondence; just as there is more or less correspondence
in the natural history even of continents widely apart, and of islands
in opposite zones’ (104). There was, indeed, a certain correspondence
between Eliot’s arguments against originality in Impressions, and those
tendered journalistically by the plagiarism apologists, whose aims and
arguments have already been examined. E. S. Dallas, for instance, had
written in 1864 of the pre-eminence of the memory in artistic creation.
His argument was reminiscent both of the memory-dependent model
of literary origination which Lewes had outlined in Principles, and of
Eliot’s own notebook statements on the subject of originality. ‘Our
powers of memory are prodigious; our powers of invention are very
limited’, Dallas wrote. ‘The same fables, the same comparisons, the
same jests are produced and reproduced like the tunes of a barrel-organ
in successive ages and in different countries.’²⁴


Hardly any kind of false reasoning is more ludicrous than this on

the probabilities of origination. (96)

Eliot’s intolerance of originality as utmost difference was matched by

her impatience with what we might call ‘deep originality’:²⁵ the study
of origins (cosmogonical, natural historical, and linguistic), in the hope

²³ George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1998), 283.
²⁴ Shuttleworth and Taylor (eds.), Embodied Selves, 150.
²⁵ I allude to John McPhee’s suggestive phrase ‘deep time’, which he uses to refer to
geological time-scales running back far beyond human experience. John McPhee, Annals
of the Former World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 90.
104 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

that the establishment of such beginnings might permit the construction

of a grand unified theory of knowledge. As Gillian Beer points out,
deep originality became especially modish in the decade when Eliot was
writing Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and Impressions, the three books
which are most conspicuously concerned with origin: ‘In the Victorian
period the Romantic search for the ‘‘One Life’’ had been set back in
time and become a search for origins … In the 1870s the search for
origins, the enquiry into their nature, and into their relationship to
development had become an intellectual obsession.’²⁶ Eliot’s annoyance
with grand schemes, particularly their inability to take account of
contingency, is everywhere apparent in her work, most famously in
her portrayal of Causabon, whose search for the key to all mythologies
leads him into impotent scholarly lucubration: ‘plodding application,
rows of note-books, and small taper of learned theory exploring the
tossed ruins of the world’.²⁷ In Romola, Tito muses on the ‘various dull
suppers’ he had sat through in the Rucellai gardens, ‘especially of the
dull philosophic sort, wherein he had not only been called upon to
accept an entire scheme of the universe (which would have been easy
to him) but to listen to an exposition of the same, from the origin of
things to their complete ripeness in the tractate of the philosopher then
speaking’.²⁸ The well-known epigraph which begins Daniel Deronda
suggests the fictitiousness of all beginnings, our need to ‘make-believe’
a start point for any endeavour, and the fruitlessness of trying to feel
our way back to a great, universal origination. ‘No retrospect will take
us to the true beginning’, wrote Eliot, ‘and whether our prologue be
in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presupposing fact
with which our story sets out.’²⁹ The epigraph is itself, of course, a
make-believe of a beginning, made up by Eliot (and in part abstracted
from Hamlet) to beget a beginning for the novel. Its liminal narrative
status as epigraph—do we read it as the beginning of the novel, or the
threshold to the beginning of the novel?—makes it as much a comment
upon itself (the reflexivity that we find amplified and concentrated in
Impressions) as upon the general natures of science and poetry.
Gillian Beer notes that ‘the problem of author as originator which
was never satisfactorily solved in Middlemarch is edged into the open
[in Daniel Deronda]’.³⁰ It is pushed centre-stage in Impressions. In ‘How

²⁶ Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots (London: Ark, 1985), 154, 194.

²⁷ Eliot, Middlemarch, 68. ²⁸ Eliot, Romola, 337.
²⁹ Eliot, Deronda, 3. ³⁰ Beer, Darwin’s Plots, 191.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 105

We Encourage Research’, the third essay in Impressions, Eliot derides

the fashionable obsession with grand epistemological schemata, casting
the academe as a school of ponderous cetaceans: Grampus, Professor
Narwhal, and M. Cachalot. As satire it is slow-moving, but the ideas
which are mobilized are relevant. The central character of the story,
Merman, is reminiscent of Causabon: he is an amateur, autodidact
scholar, intellectually infatuated by theories of origin. His day-job, Eliot
mentions in passing, is as a ‘conveyancer’; not an idly chosen profession.
The OED gives us ‘A lawyer who … investigates titles to property’, but
also ‘a dextrous thief’. As a verb, ‘convey’ occurs frequently in writing
on plagiarism. Thus Austin Dobson: ‘The ballad you sing is but merely
conveyed From the stock of the Arnes and the Purcells of yore’,³¹
or Pistol’s indignant repudiation of the vernacular ‘steal’: ‘ ‘‘Convey’’,
the wise it call. ‘‘Steal’’? Foh, a fico for the phrase!’³² Details of this
kind are almost always worth pursuing in Impressions. For instance,
Mordax, the tenacious and aggressive intellectual of ‘The Watchdog of
Knowledge’, is described by Theophrastus as having equipped himself
with ‘a penknife’ in order to give those who disagree with him ‘a
comprachico countenance’. A comprachico was a child purloined by
gypsies and then defaced to the point of unrecognizability so that it
could be safely sold on, and the comprachico metaphor cropped up often
as a metaphor for plagiarism (it will be recalled that the etymology of
plagiarism is from the Latin plagiarius, meaning ‘a kidnapper’).³³
Merman has an opinion on all significant theories of origin. He
contends, Theophrastus tells us, ‘with a sonorous eagerness against the
personality of Homer, expressed himself civilly though firmly on the
origin of language, and had tact enough to drop at the right moment
such subjects as the ultimate reduction of all the so-called elementary
substances, his own total scepticism concerning Manetho’s chronology’
(28–9). Many of the Victorian intellectual disciplines undertook a form
of intellectual spelunking: going deeper and deeper downwards and
backwards in search of origins—of species, of languages, of elements,

³¹ Austin Dobson, Old World Idylls (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.,
1883), 56.
³² William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. David Crane (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997), i. iii. 20.
³³ Sheridan uses the metaphor in The Rivals and so too, journalistically, do Brander
Matthews, Adam Davenport-Hines, William Walsh, and Edward Wright. Each user
slightly alters the context of the image in order to make it particular to himself, thereby
enacting the image.
106 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

of cultures, of the cosmos—and it is this trend which Eliot is parodying

here. She provides a roll-call of major nineteenth-century debates on
origins: on the originality, or at least the individuality, of Homer, on
Manetho’s account of the origins of the pharaohs, on the chemical bases
of matter, and on the heated debate concerning the origin of language,
which had in the 1870s been stoked by the work of Max Müller,
Andrew Lang, and others.³⁴ Merman, it emerges, believes himself to
have developed an ‘original theory’ about origins—inappositely enough,
given the mythic and portmanteau resonances of his name—and after
much refinement and fact-checking, he launches his theory into the
intellectual waters in book form. His work is savaged by the academy; he
is declared unpardonably ignorant and self-vaunting. Finally, Grampus,
the academic against whom Merman initially pitted himself, appropri-
ates Merman’s idea—conveys it—and, using his own respectability,
proposes it as his own: ‘The main idea which was at the root of [Mer-
man’s] too rash theorising [was] adopted by Grampus and received with
general respect’ (40). ‘At the root’: the origin of Merman’s original
idea about origins ends up being plagiarized. The moral to Eliot’s fable
seems to be two-pronged. First, that all speculation on deep origina-
tion is fruitless (‘ludicrous’) and, secondly, that authorship/origination
and literary property are very often attributed or perceived rather than
indwelling. Grampus’ purloined research is received with general respect
because he is thought to be the sort of man who would produce such
work; Merman is ridiculed for the opposite reason. Later in the book,
Theophrastus reflects on these processes of reception:
It is a commonplace that words, writings, measures, and performances in general,
have qualities assigned them not by a direct judgment on the performances
themselves, but by a presumption of what they are likely to be, considering who
is the performer. (95–6)
Authorship is ‘performance’, and the valuation of the work of literature
is shown to be staged, implicated, and directed by the ideological
formations and mythologies of the marketplace.
Eliot’s most explicit and unmediated statement on the subject of
originality is to be found in a notebook entry headed ‘Value in

³⁴ George Eliot’s notebooks record her to have read F. A. Wolf ’s Prolegomena ad

Homerum on 2 December 1870. Wolf was one of the two best-known German Homeric
‘separatists’—Schliemann was the other—who held the Iliad and the Odyssey to be the
work of many minds. See George Eliot’s Middlemarch Notebooks, ed. John Clark Pratt
and Victor A. Neufeldt (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979),
47, 134. I am grateful to Gillian Beer for having brought this detail to my attention.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 107

Originality’, composed some time in the mid-1870s.³⁵ ‘It is foolish to

be for ever complaining of … uniformity, as if there were an endless
power of originality in the human mind’, she wrote decidedly:
Great and precious origination must always be comparatively rare, and can only
exist on condition of a wide massive uniformity. When a multitude of men have
learned to use the same language in speech and writing, then and then only can
the greatest masters of language arise. For in what does their mastery consist?
They use words which are already a familiar medium of understanding and
sympathy in such a way as greatly to enlarge the understanding and sympathy.
Originality of this order changes the wild grasses into world-feeding grain.
Idiosyncrasies are pepper and spices of a questionable aroma.³⁶
Here we have Eliot’s third way: her alternative to deep originality
and to originality as utmost difference. It is a third way founded on
yet another originality paradox: that originality can only arise out of
similarity. This contradiction has been noted recently, both by Edward
Said in his Beginnings —‘beginning is making or producing difference,
but—and here is the great fascination in the subject—difference which
is the result of combining the already familiar with the fertile novelty
of human work in language’³⁷—and by Thomas McFarland, whose
Originality and Imagination explores and names the ‘originality paradox’:
that, at least in literature, originality can only originate from what is
pre-existing.³⁸ Improvisation is only possible when there is something
to improvise with, or against; ‘creative dissidence’ is viable only with
a thorough understanding of the status quo. Like T. S. Eliot, and
in direct opposition to the conception of originality which conceived
of the author as ideally prior to and above society, Eliot advocated
an intellectual tradition assimilated through reading: originality was
constituted by an addition to the extant textual body. The metaphor
she chose to illustrate her point was again an alimentary one. ‘Great
and precious origination’, which ‘changes the wild grasses into world-
feeding grain’, must not be mistaken for idiosyncrasy, which is mere
seasoning. Idiosyncrasy is, according to this image, a cosmetic effect

³⁵ Charles Lee Lewes, who edited Leaves from a Note-book and published them in
1884: ‘The exact date of their writing cannot be fixed with any certainty, but it must
have been some time between the appearance of Middlemarch and that of Theophrastus
Such.’ Essays, ed. Pinney, 437.
³⁶ Ibid. 447–8.
³⁷ Edward Said, Beginnings: Intentions and Method (Baltimore and London: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1975), p. xiii.
³⁸ McFarland, Originality, 1–31.
108 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

deployed to disguise a rotten taste, while true literary origination is

an event of profound communal benefit. The benefit consists in the
enlargement of ‘the understanding and sympathy’. This act of increase
was, for Eliot, the intent and the morality of literature: writing was made
possible by the shared medium of language, and had to be entered upon
by the individual with the aim of enlarging that communal demesne.
‘[T]he effective bond of human action is feeling’, she would write in
the closing sentences of Impressions (165), and feeling—the capacity to
enter imaginatively into the lives of others—was for Eliot a cognitive
power stimulated and enhanced by ‘language, and all the intricate web
of what we call its effects’.


When ‘T.T.’ dedicated Shakespeare’s most famous poems to ‘the onlie

begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr W.H.’, he begat for the language
a phrase which has become a totem for those enthralled by the vision
of creatio, and a target for those to whom, Eliot among them, singular
authorship is a myth which hides the plurality of debts incurred by all
‘begetters’. Whereas the tradition of creatio described originality as an
analogue of heroism and as the copula of individuality (I am only an
individual insofar as I am different), for Eliot there was no ineffable
connection between individuality and originality. ‘It is in the nature of
things that one must have an individuality,’ she wrote, ‘though it may
be of an oft-repeated type’ (55). Indeed, there is a powerful sense in her
work that the most important lesson the individual can learn is of their
involvement with the commonweal. Independence must be understood
as a function of interdependence. Eliot and Lewes were both, it is
known, influenced in this respect by Comte, for whom all linguistic
expressions were necessarily expressions of community: ‘The man who
dares to think himself independent of others, either in feelings, thoughts,
or actions, cannot even put the blasphemous conception into words
without immediate contradiction, since the very language he uses is not
his own.’³⁹ Repeatedly in her fiction, Eliot shows herself antagonistic to
overweening individualism, or to an over-powerful conviction in the self
as a unified directing force. The moral epiphany which habitually occurs

³⁹ Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, trans. J. H. Bridges et al. (London:

Longmans, 1875–7), i. 177.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 109

to her central characters is the realization they comprise only a strand, or

a part of a strand, of the web of relevancies. Thus Dorothea’s moment
of awakening occurs as she looks out of a window after the death of
Causabon to see people moving in the fields and on the road, and feels
‘the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour
and endurance’.⁴⁰ Theophrastus, too, is a typically Eliotic character:
‘one who would above all things avoid the insanity of fancying himself
a more momentous or touching subject than he really is’. He is so
self-effacing that he frequently removes himself from his prose with the
use of the third person (10–11).
Just as the wholly autonomous individual was anathema to Eliot, so
too was the autonomous work of literature. Books, like people, existed
first and foremost relationally, as part of a network, a web. The original
work of writing arose out of the tradition, and contributed to it.⁴¹ Eliot,
like Emerson and Morris, was especially interested in types of literature
that were acknowledged to be the products of confederate thought.
Instead of cherishing what Gillian Beer calls ‘the desolate privacy of
the Romantic ego’, Eliot sought communal insights: democratic literary
forms which were formally fashioned by the ‘consensus of many minds’,
being brought over a period of time to ever greater refinement.⁴²
Emerson, whose Essays, Lectures and Orations (1851) Eliot owned and
had read, described this winnowing process as a vast ‘social labour’, which
had ‘brought … to perfection … Our English Bible’.⁴³ ‘Mythology is no
man’s work,’ Emerson continued, ‘truth is the property of no individual,
but is the treasure of all men … We admire that poetry which no man
wrote,—no poet less than the genius of humanity itself.’ For Eliot,
too, fable, myth, and parable were species of cumulative literature
which were valuable for their collectivity, the chronic nature of their
making, and for their anonymity of origin. The fables of La Fontaine,

⁴⁰ Eliot, Middlemarch, 846.

⁴¹ Compare Arnold in ‘On the Modern Element in Literature’ (1857), where he
observed that ‘everywhere there is connexion, everywhere there is illustration: no single
event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other
events, to other literatures’. Matthew Arnold, Complete Prose Works, ed. R. H. Super
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960–77), i. 20–1.
⁴² Beer, Darwin’s Plots, 175.
⁴³ RWE, iv. 114–15. The first essay in Eliot’s annotated edition of Emerson, Essays,
Lectures and Orations (London: William S. Orr & Co., 1851), is ‘History’, and in its
opening paragraph that essay proposes that ‘There is one mind common to all individual
men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. … Who hath access to this
universal mind is a party to all that is, or can be, done; for this is the only and sovereign
110 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

which she was reading extensively in the years immediately prior to the
writing of Impressions, impressed her doubly, both for the collaborative
nature of their creation, and for La Fontaine’s skill as amanuensis to
the general mind. Myth, she wrote in a late essay, was a function of
communal perceptions—it did not ‘proceed from one nest of speech
& practice’, but from ‘the like working of the human mind under like
conditions’.⁴⁴ These concerns filter through into her fiction. In Adam
Bede, for example, Eliot reflects, and asks her readers to reflect, on the
genealogy of a drinking song, struck up among the ‘bright drinking
cans’ of a tavern:
As to the origin of this song—whether it came in its actual state from the brain
of a single rhapsodist, or was gradually perfected by a school or succession of
rhapsodists, I am ignorant. There is a stamp of unity, of individual genius,
upon it, which inclines me to the former hypothesis, though I am not blind to
the consideration that this unity may rather have arisen from the consensus of
many minds which was a condition of primitive thought, foreign to our modern
consciousness. Some will perhaps think that they detect in the first quatrain an
indication of a lost line, which later rhapsodists, failing in imaginative vigour,
have supplied by the feeble device of iteration: others, however, may rather
maintain that this very iteration is an original felicity, to which none but the
most prosaic minds can be insensible.⁴⁵
Gradual perfection—an ameliorative mechanism not entirely dissimilar
to evolution—can produce ‘the stamp of unity, of individual genius’,
though this possibility, Eliot notes, is ‘foreign to our modern con-
sciousness’. There is, unmistakably, a hint of ironic distaste to Eliot’s
use of the word ‘modern’ here, and a mocking bite to that inclusive
pronoun ‘our’. The implication is subtly tonal but distinct, and is in
keeping with Eliot’s wider dislike of modernity as a concept: that the
modern consciousness, as it is evolving, is choosing to eschew ‘unity’ and
‘consensus’, in favour of an acquisitive individualism, which greedily
accrues credit to itself.
It is important, even as the evidence builds for Eliot’s communized
sense of authorship, to recall that she never fully abandoned all affection
for the heroic account of originality, however compellingly logical such
an abandonment might at times have appeared to her. This becomes
visible when one compares Eliot’s thinking on originality with that of

⁴⁴ Unpublished late essay. Quoted in K. K. Collins, ‘Questions of Method: Some

Unpublished Late Essays’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 35:3 (December 1980), 389.
⁴⁵ Eliot, Adam Bede, 563–4.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 111

Emerson. Emerson’s repeated explorations of the idea of originality,

as Stanley Cavell has described, can be seen as emerging out of a
democratically inflected epistemology, which prioritizes an intersub-
jective yet self-trusting process of knowledge formation.⁴⁶ Repeatedly,
Emerson argued for the socialization and the partial pragmatization
of the structure of intellectual invention. His writing on originality
thus carried with it, in Christopher Newfield’s phrase, a ‘radical demo-
cracy’, in that it ‘transform[ed] private ownership of truth into common
knowledge and collaborative creation’.⁴⁷ Eliot, however, was never able
to endorse an idea of such radical democracy. Even the trickle-down
model of thought—the diffusive vision of the General Mind, which
Lewes outlined and she enthusiastically endorsed—required a hier-
archical structure, with an intellectual clerisy at its summit. Gordon
S. Haight, in his biography of Eliot, discusses how she had, by the
late 1860s, become ‘thoroughly conservative’,⁴⁸ raising, as evidence
for this, Felix Holt’s now-famous ‘Address to Working Men’, which
Eliot added to the novel after the passage of the Second Reform Bill
in 1867. In the Address, Holt—‘that most conservative radical’, in
Haight’s phrase—appeals to ‘artisans, and factory hands, and miners,
and labourers of all sorts’ to use their power of the ballot with restraint,
so that the ‘common estate of society … that treasure of knowledge,
science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling and manners’ shall not be
lost, as it had been in the French and Spanish Revolutions.⁴⁹ ‘Common’
here, one notes, is a word which cuts two ways; the implication is that
the common man cannot be trusted with the ‘common estate’.
That said, Eliot was undeniably attracted by the idea of the ‘common’
in its many forms, and particularly in the idea of the commonplace. Like
plagiarism, imitation, and other terms which inferred a dependency or
a lack of individualized creativity, ‘commonplace’ had developed, over
the turn of the eighteenth century, increasingly pejorative connotations.
The word derives from the Latin locus communis which, according
to Cicero, meant a general theme or argument applicable to many

⁴⁶ See the opening chapter of Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America
(Albuquerque, N. Mex.: Living Batch Press, 1989), and the introduction to Conditions
Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
⁴⁷ Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 161.
⁴⁸ Gordon S. Haight, George Eliot: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968),
⁴⁹ George Eliot, ‘Address to Working Men’, appended to Felix Holt, ed. Peter Coveney
(Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1972).
112 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

particular cases (collections or anthologies of such general topics were

called loci communes). The commonplace was fondly deployed by
ancient rhetoricians as the recognizable basis of an argument; it offered
a point of epistemological departure authenticated by multiple use.
However, the commonplace had come more recently to be stigmatized
as unoriginal, a stigmatism which can be seen at work in a criticism
levelled by Arnold at Addison, in his Essays in Criticism. ‘Where … is
the note of provinciality in Addison?’, asked Arnold rhetorically and
snobbishly. ‘I answer, in the commonplace of his ideas.’⁵⁰ That Eliot
so conspicuously approved of commonplaces is another symptom of
her weariness with originality as difference. Commonplaces were for
Eliot what made communication possible: meeting grounds whence the
conversation could depart into less well-trodden intellectual territory.
‘It is right and meet that there should be an abundant utterance of
good sound commonplaces’, observes Theophrastus, ‘well-worn themes
naturally recur as a further development of salutations and preliminary
media of understanding … Giving a pleasant voice to what we are all well
assured of makes a sort of wholesome air for more special and dubious
remarks to move in’ (50). In 1897 Walter Raleigh, then Professor of
English Literature at Glasgow, and in 1904 to become the first Professor
of English Literature at Oxford, would deliver a lecture on literary
style which recalled Eliot’s sentiments concerning commonplace. ‘From
quotation, at least, there is no escape,’ observed Raleigh, ‘inasmuch as we
learn language from others. All common phrases that do the dirty work
of the world are quotations—poor things, and not our own. … There
is no need to condemn these phrases, for language has a vast deal of
inferior work to do … These things are part of our public civilisation, a
decorous and accessible uniform, not to be lightly set aside.’⁵¹ (Raleigh,
like Theophrastus, slyly doubles the force of his argument by enacting
it: note his infiltration—unattributed, not set apart with quotation
marks—of an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s well-known lines;
Touchstone’s acknowledgement, in As You Like It, of Audrey as ‘A poor
thing, but mine own’.)
A parallel to Eliot’s attitude concerning commonplaces is to be found
in the work of Lewes, who wrote briefly on the subject in The Study
of Psychology, the third book of his Problems of Life and Mind, and
the volume that Eliot edited and revised in the months following

⁵⁰ Arnold, Works, iii. 247.

⁵¹ Walter Raleigh, Style, 5th edn. (London: Edward Arnold, 1904), 116–19.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 113

his death. There, he reflected upon the passage of originalities into

commonplaces: ‘Conceptions once assimilated by the General Mind
become ‘‘necessities of thought’’ for the individual, just as Railways,
once established, become necessities of transport … the speculations
of the few [pass] into the commonplaces of the many.’⁵² Over time,
proposed Lewes, and due to an ongoing process of ‘assimilation’ (a verb
with resonances to which we will return) which he elsewhere called
‘mental evolution’, originalities become commonplaces. To reinvoke
Eliot’s metaphor, the originations of the masters become ‘world-feeding
grain’ for the many. That this plurality of echoes and parallels exists
between Eliot and Lewes itself begs the question of how far literary
practice in fact replicates the commonplaces of critical assumption: how
far ‘plagiarism’ ought to be considered as an affectionate meeting of
minds, and not a predator–prey relationship.


To Eliot, or at least to the Eliot of the 1870s, literature furnished a sense

of nationally federate identity. Embodied and passed down principally
in the form of quotations—or what Theophrastus calls ‘tremendous
historical commonplaces’—in Impressions literature is celebrated as ‘the
divine gift of a memory which inspires the moments with a past, a
present, and a future, and gives the sense of a corporate existence’ (144).
It is social glue, secular scripture. ‘The supremacy given in European
cultures to the literatures of Greece and Rome has had an effect almost
equal to that of a common religion in binding the Western nations
together’, wrote Eliot in a late diary entry.⁵³ ‘The Modern Hep! Hep!
Hep!’, the essay in Impressions which has received the most attention,
powerfully expounds a sense of national identity held together by shared
memories, especially those codified in literature. Britain is envisaged
as an imagined community whose inhabitants, Eliot observed in the
essay, should:
cherish [a] sense of a common descent as a bond of obligation. The eminence, the
nobleness of a people, depends on its capability of being stirred by memories,
and of striving for what we call spiritual ends—ends which consist not in

⁵² SOP, 169. ⁵³ Essays, ed. Pinney, 447.

114 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism
immediate material possession, but in the satisfaction of a great feeling that
animates the collective body as with one soul. It is this living force of sentiment
in common which makes a national consciousness. Nations so moved will resist
conquests with the very breasts of their women, will pay their millions and their
blood to abolish slavery, will share privation in famine and all calamity, will
produce poets to sing ‘some great story of a man’ (138).⁵⁴

This belief in the dialectic between nationalism and literature—a

great civilization brings forth literature, and literature is the greatest
articulation of that civilization; compare Newman’s firm declaration
that ‘by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national
character is fixed, a people speaks’⁵⁵—led to the canonization of those
‘volumes paramount’ that represented the nation in its ideal and eternal
aspect. In the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton could be found
‘among the most potent agencies in the cultivation of the national heart
and mind, the strongest bond of union in a homogenous people, the
surest holding ground against the shifting currents, the ebb and flow, of
opinion and taste’.⁵⁶ It was an attitude which of course discovered its
strongest expression in Arnold’s proposal, in ‘The Study of Poetry’, that
key literary ‘touchstones’—hewn from Shakespeare, Goethe, Homer,
the Bible, and other sites—would provide the basis for inclusive and
including societal wisdom.⁵⁷
Eliot was complicatedly caught up in this dialectic. In the epigraphs
to her novels, in her exhaustive notebook-keeping, in her commonplace
books, she availed herself of the commonwealth—the national trust
fund—of tradition.⁵⁸ In turn, she herself contributed to that fund.
As she incurred intellectual debts, so she repaid them in kind.⁵⁹ Her

⁵⁴ Theophrastus/Eliot here misquotes Byron’s ‘a name great in story’ as ‘some great

story of a man’: the sentiments that descend and that animate the nation do not always
do so without mutation.
⁵⁵ J. H. Newman, ‘Literature: A Lecture’, in Select Discourses from The Idea of a
University, ed. Mary Yardley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931), 156.
⁵⁶ G. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (London: Sampson, Low and Son,
1865), 17. I have drawn here on Linda Dowling’s discussion of the relationship between
nationalism and literature in LD, 30–43.
⁵⁷ Arnold, Works, ix. 161–88.
⁵⁸ Eliot’s notebooks for Daniel Deronda, for instance, marshal quotations under
headings: ‘Power of Simple Words’, ‘Fine Pauses’, ‘Bad Endings’, ‘Powerful Simpli-
city’, ‘Browneisms’, ‘From Walt Whitman’, or ‘Rabinical Sayings’. See George Eliot’s
Daniel Deronda Notebooks, ed. Jane Irwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
⁵⁹ Eliot did not of course offer her works up freely to the world, and seems to have
held conventional beliefs regarding copyright law. She was, however, happy to have
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 115

writing passed into common currency in the form of the antholo-

gies and birthday books which Alexander Main compiled. Her words
would also, as Leah Price has discussed, provide chapter mottoes for
later lady novelists, ‘appear in an anthology, on a calendar, in four
schoolbooks, on an army officers’ examination, in a sermon, and
as epigraphs to a socialist treatise and an abridgement of Boswell’s
Life of Johnson’.⁶⁰ The epigraphist would be widely epigraphed. Eli-
ot therefore possessed a powerful sense of the communal purpose
of literature, matched by a sense of its plural origins; inclinations
which would always make her suspicious of overvaluing originality.
When, in a notebook entry, she pondered briefly how to define ‘a
remarkable writer’, she concluded that it was necessary ‘to consider
[first] what was his individual contribution to the spiritual wealth of
From where did Eliot derive her unconventional ideas on originality
and plagiarism? Certainly, Lewes’s work on psychology was important
in bringing her attention to bear on the idea of the General Mind,
and entrenching in her a scepticism towards the credo of the ‘onlie
begetter’. Lewes shared Comte’s belief that eighteenth-century the-
ories of individualism ignored a fundamental of sociology; that the
individual could only be comprehended fully as part of the social
organism. His innovation was to apply Comte’s sociological theories
of organicism to physiology, and specifically to the mind. Lewes was
convinced that social determinism also acted upon human emotions
and perceptions, and that when extended to include the mind, Comtean
organic theory unbalanced the concept of individual autonomy. Con-
sciousness became far less an agent than a symptom, and ‘mental
evolution’ was therefore as influential a form of heredity as phys-
ical evolution. ‘Just as what is organized in the individual becomes
transmitted to offspring, and determines the mode in which the off-
spring will react on stimulus,’ he wrote, ‘so what is registered in
the Social Organism determines the mode in which succeeding gen-
erations will feel and think.’ Lewes theorized this determining and
inherited force as ‘The Social Medium’: ‘the collective accumulations of

sections of her work abstracted for inclusion in school textbooks. Her publisher, William
Blackwood, was not so content, grumbling that ‘these compilations are regular robbery’.
Letters, vii. 236.
⁶⁰ Leah Price, ‘George Eliot and the Production of Consumers’, Novel, 50 (Winter
1997), 145.
⁶¹ Essays, ed. Pinney, 442.
116 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

centuries, condensed in knowledge, beliefs, prejudices, institutions, and

Lewes’s conjectures had considerable implications for concepts of
intellectual property. ‘Ideas’, which included literary works, were not
discrete entities, and could not be understood discretely. ‘History’, he
wrote, ‘unrolls the palimpsest of mental evolution. … History shows
how individual experiences become general possessions, and individual
labours become wealth.’ The model is the same as that describing
the passage of originalities to commonplaces; given sufficient time,
private intellectual property becomes common intellectual capital—the
‘spiritual wealth’ of humankind. He continued:
Language belongs essentially to the community by whom and for whom it is
called into existence. In like manner Thought belongs essentially to Humanity.
[A man’s] thoughts are only partly his own; they are also the thoughts of others.
… Individual experiences being limited and individual spontaneity feeble, we
are strengthened and enriched by assimilating the experiences of others.⁶³
Lewes’s choice of the word ‘assimilating’ is worth contemplating. The
principal sense of the verb ‘to assimilate’ in the first half of the century
was as a physiological term meaning ‘to become of the same substance,
to become absorbed or incorporated into the system’ (OED). Thus
Eliot in Middlemarch, stimulated by the work of the German scientist
Rudolph Virchow on the ‘assimilation’ of elements into compounds,
imagines the society of Middlemarch as a single entity which absorbs
and re-forms individuals who join it: ‘Middlemarch, in fact, counted on
swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably.’⁶⁴ From the
mid-1850s onwards, however, ‘assimilation’ began to acquire a new set
of specific psychological connotations above and beyond its biological
ones. In 1855, in his Principles of Psychology, Herbert Spencer used it
to refer to the mental mechanism of ‘knowing a feeling’ by comparing
it to ‘past kindred exactly like it’, and the term was subsequently and
swiftly pressed into the lexical service of the newly emerging discipline

⁶² George Henry Lewes, The Foundation of a Creed (London: Trubner & Co.,
1874–5), i. 124. I have found Sally Shuttleworth’s discussion of Lewes’s adaptation of
Comte useful here. See Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science:
The Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984),
⁶³ SOP, 161, 165, 160.
⁶⁴ Eliot, Middlemarch, 175. See Kirstie Blair, ‘A Change in the Units: Middlemarch,
G. H. Lewes, and Rudolf Virchow’, George Eliot–George Henry Lewes Studies, 39–40
(September 2001), 9–24.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 117

of psychology to designate the process whereby the individual acquires

new ideas by interpreting presented ideas and experiences in relation
to the existing contents of his or her mind.⁶⁵ Butler devoted a chapter
in Life and Habit to ‘The Assimilation of Outside Matter’ (as well as
noting in The Way of All Flesh that ‘assimilation is a mode of re-creation
and reproduction’), and Dallas used the notion, and the psychological
authority, of ‘assimilation’ to buttress his arguments in The Gay Science
for the importance of memory and tradition in artistic creation.⁶⁶ The
concept was passing into usage as a cognate for the mechanisms of
literary creativity. Emerson, in his influential 1859 essay ‘Quotation
and Originality’, had chosen it to designate the insignificance of the
individual talent in the face of tradition:
We expect a great man to be a good reader; or in proportion to the spontaneous
power should be the assimilating power. … Our debt to tradition through
reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare
and insignificant … that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure
originality. All minds quote.⁶⁷
Assimilation is, in Emerson’s description, the precursor to possession;
the correlative is that, having ‘received’ elements into oneself, one must
then be prepared to release one’s assimilated—and therefore original—
material into the social realm, and see it there disassembled into its
elements, and drawn into other individuals, in a perpetual process
of reception, assimilation, release, and circulation; an epistemologic-
al equivalent of the moisture cycle. Thus, in ‘Shakespeare; or, The
Poet’, he describes the dual role of the great canonical poets; they are
historiographers as well as poets, dispensers as well as receivers:
Such is the happy position of Homer, perhaps; of Chaucer, of Saadi. They felt
that all wit was their wit. And they are librarians and historiographers, as well
as poets. Each romancer was heir and dispenser of all the hundred tales of the
From having been an almost purely biological term signifying a specific
elementary or alimentary process, therefore, ‘assimilation’ became over
the second half of the nineteenth century abstracted first to designate a

⁶⁵ Herbert Spencer, Principles of Psychology (London: Longmans, 1855), i. 267.

⁶⁶ Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 368.
⁶⁷ Emerson, ‘Quotation and Originality’, 427. He recurred to the idea later in
the essay, emphasizing that ‘original power is usually accompanied with assimilating
power’, 433.
⁶⁸ RWE, 188.
118 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

process of mind, and then abstracted further as a synonym for literary

creation.⁶⁹ When we find, as we often do in the later nineteenth century,
the word used to describe the literary process of putting other sources
to one’s own ends (assimilation is the implicit but unnamed process in
Theophrastus’ anecdote of the hog, and in Goethe’s), the implication is
almost always that plagiarism has been successfully avoided: that influ-
ence—literally that which flows in—has been converted, incorporated,
made part of the new textual body. Thus, for instance, Leslie Stephen’s
famous observation concerning Eliot’s hydroptic desire for learning:
‘Her powers of assimilating knowledge were, in fact, extraordinary, and
it may safely be said that no novelist of mark ever possessed a wider
intellectual culture.’ And thus, also, E. F. Benson’s proposition that:⁷⁰
There exist in this world great masses of admirable literary food, the inherited
treasury of the race. On these we feed … and without them we starve. But it
is necessary that we should assimilate what we take, the food must be digested.
That done, it becomes part of us, it enters into our muscles, our bones, our
brains, it has caused and is causing to make us grow in our own small manner
and the words we use, and the things we write, and the songs we sing, are the
inevitable outcome of the nourishment we have received.⁷¹
The extensions of the analogy between food and words here are
multiple: the successful writer is not marked out by a generative power,
but by an assimilative power, by the ability to digest what is read. A
prerequisite of a successful author is therefore his or her ability to know
what to read—that is, what to eat; to have good literary taste—for
the ‘things we write’ are ‘the inevitable outcome of the nourishment
we have received’. The poet does not find the poem within him-
or herself, for what is written is directly a product of what is read.
Reading furnishes food for thought. Undigested reading matter passes
through the system and emerges as excrement: crudely put, writers
without the assimilative power come out with shit. Constant quality-
controlled influence—reading—is therefore required to create what
Edward Wright, discussing plagiarism, called ‘exfluence’: writing.⁷² As

⁶⁹ For various other uses of assimilation as a cognate for literary creativity, see Brown,
‘Tannhauser’, 110; Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 340–1; and W. H. Mallock’s
privately printed pamphlet Every Man his Own Poet: Or, the Inspired Singer’s Recipe
Book (London: 1872), reprinted in Joseph Bristow (ed.), The Victorian Poet: Poetics and
Persona (London: Croom Helm, 1987), 126–33.
⁷⁰ Leslie Stephen, George Eliot (London: Macmillan, 1902), 197.
⁷¹ Benson, ‘Plagiarism’, 890.
⁷² Wright, ‘Art of Plagiarism’, 516.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 119

James Russell Lowell put it: ‘The question at last comes down to
this—whether an author have original force enough to assimilate all he
has acquired, or that be so overmastering as to assimilate him.’⁷³
It is clear that Eliot, especially in the years leading up to the writing
of Impressions, assimilated Lewes’s concept of the ‘Social Medium’ and
the ‘General Mind’, and its implications for notions of intellectual
property and originality. The ‘Social Factor in Psychology’, she declared
unequivocally in a letter to Frederic Harrison, ‘[is] the supremely inter-
esting element in the thinking of our time’.⁷⁴ After Lewes’s death, Eliot
was angered by one of his obituarists, the French scientist Delbœuf,
because she thought he had not seen ‘the distinctive point in the Psy-
chological Principles … the influence of the social medium, & supremely
through the instrument, Language’.⁷⁵ Her interest also comes into view
in Daniel Deronda, where she depicts the Jewish race as animated by
an inherited fund of feeling and memory. That Lewes’s work fed into
Eliot’s—that she assimilated his ideas—has long been acknowledged,
though his specific impression on Impressions has been passed over.
When, for example, Theophrastus argues in favour of greater tolerance
and valuation of the rest of the world, we can hear Lewes’s ideas speaking
through Theophrastus’ misanthropic fustian:
I see no rational footing for scorning the whole present population of the globe,
unless I scorn every previous generation from whom they have inherited their
diseases of mind and body, and by consequence scorn my own scorn, which
is equally an inheritance of mixed ideas and feelings concocted for me in the
boiling caldron of this universally contemptible life. (17)
One passage from The Study of Psychology stands out as especially
applicable to the palimpsestic texture of Eliot’s book. ‘Our impressions’,
wrote Lewes there, ‘are made up of shadowy associations, imperfect
memories, echoes of other men’s voices, mingling with the reactions
of our own sensibility.’⁷⁶ Lewes would himself mingle with Impressions
(phrases from his work find their way into it), a text which is an echo-
chamber of other voices, and which is also full of imperfect memories
(Theophrastus being a persistent misquoter). The Study of Psychology
was itself a many-voiced work, dense with quotation, and made the

⁷³ Quoted by Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 344.

⁷⁴ Letter to Frederic Harrison, 10 June 1879. Letters, vii. 161.
⁷⁵ Original emphasis. Quoted K. K. Collins in ‘Reading George Eliot Reading Lewes’
Obituaries’, Modern Philology, 85 (November 1987), 162.
⁷⁶ SOP, 167.
120 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

denser and more multiply voiced by Eliot’s involvement in its revision

and preparation for publication in the months following Lewes’s death.
K. K. Collins has shown how, though she professed absolute editorial
autonomy—a note to the volume stated that it was being printed
‘with scrupulous adherence to the author’s manuscripts’—she subtly
reformulated certain of his ideas.⁷⁷ Such reformulation, advertent or
inadvertent, was something Eliot practised throughout much of her
intellectual life.


Eliot was an inveterate misquoter of other writers’ words; she knew

as much herself. ‘How imperfectly one’s mind acts in proof reading!’,
she exclaimed in a letter of 1876.⁷⁸ Her husband John Cross, recalling
her prodigious memory for facts, also noted her poor verbal memory:
‘She never could trust herself to write a quotation without verifying
it.’⁷⁹ Eliot did not always verify her quotations before she wrote them
down, however, and her oeuvre is sprinkled with tiny but revealing
emendations of the words of others. Eliot’s laxness in this respect is
surprising, given the strictures she issued against verbal carelessness. ‘I
feel that it is treason to Literature to encourage incompetence’, she wrote
fiercely in a letter to her publisher John Blackwood in March 1879.
‘[F]or my part I should not care if my books were never turned into
other words than those in which I wrote them.’⁸⁰ Strong terms, those:
‘treason’, ‘incompetence’. But then Eliot was a stickler for accuracy
in ‘Literature’. She considered ethics and aesthetics to be mutually
interpenetrating categories, and throughout her critical career made
considerable ad hominem pronouncements on the strength of verbal
texture. To give one example from many, in her long and censorious
1857 essay on Edward Young, published in the Westminster Review,
Eliot damned Young as an emotional fraud because he lapsed from ‘the
truth of the matter’ in favour of false poetic effect. ‘This disruption

⁷⁷ K. K. Collins, ‘George Henry Lewes Revised: George Eliot and the Moral Sense’,
Victorian Studies, 21 (Summer 1978), 463–92.
⁷⁸ Letter to John Blackwood, 18 April 1876. Letters, vi. 241.
⁷⁹ J. W. Cross, George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals (London:
William Blackwood & Sons, 1885), iii. 422.
⁸⁰ Letter to John Blackwood, 22 March 1879. Letters, vii. 119–20.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 121

of language from genuine thought and feeling’, she wrote of his poem
Night Thoughts, ‘is what we are constantly detecting’.⁸¹ It is all the
more noteworthy and potentially suggestive, therefore, to discover that
Eliot herself often misquoted the language of others when she sought to
reproduce it, thereby turning other people’s books ‘into other words than
those in which [they] wrote them’. Eliot’s misquotations are everywhere
apparent, although they have never previously been remarked upon.
They are to be found incorporated into the bodies of her fictions,
studding her journalistic and critical writing, concealed in the epigraphs
which she used to head up each chapter in her final three novels,
and scattered throughout her notebooks and journals. Some of these
misquotations are significant only for the unexpected edge of carelessness
and hypocrisy they reveal in her scholarship: Eliot’s failure to practise
what she preached with regard to verbal scrupulosity. Not all of her
misquotations are merely errors, however. Christopher Ricks, in his essay
on ‘Walter Pater, Matthew Arnold and Misquotation’, and Matthew
Hodgart in his ‘Misquotation as Recreation’, have both illustrated
how the manipulation of the words of others can minutely index a
state of mind.⁸² The misquotation can in certain cases bring otherwise
unvoiced assumptions or preoccupations to light. Eliot committed many
misquotations of this sort—notably the cluster which is to be found in
the journal she kept in the months following G. H. Lewes’s death—and
they are fascinating for the unexpected embrasures they provide onto
her mind.
Lewes died of cancer on 30 November 1878, and Eliot was plunged
into what would be a protracted and enervating grief. It was not until
New Year’s Day that she felt able to resume her diary, an activity which
previously she had found sustaining for the reflective rhythm it lent
her days. At the same time as starting the diary, Eliot began also to
re-read the manuscript version of Lewes’s The Study of Psychology, the
third volume in his Problems of Life and Mind opus, with a view to
preparing it for publication. It is clear that this activity represented for
Eliot an invaluable form of communion with the dead. ‘I could not have
lived without this work to do’, she wrote to her friend of her work on
Lewes’s manuscript. Coping came for her in some way through copying:

⁸¹ Eliot, Essays, ed. Byatt and Warren, 194.

⁸² Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 392–416;
and Matthew Hodgart, ‘Misquotation as Recreation’, Essays in Criticism, 3 (1953),
122 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

the second entry in the diary, for ‘Wednesday 1’, read: ‘Copied stray
pencilled notes’.⁸³ But it also came through intervention in Lewes’s
original text for, as has already been observed, Eliot was not content
merely to transcribe Lewes’s manuscript. She also played an active role in
rewriting his work, patching in her own arguments, and quotations from
other writers, in particular Wordsworth, which she thought pertinent
(these were not the only revisions of Lewes in which Eliot was involved.
The entry from her journal for 28 May 1879—six months after his
death—reads, in startled italics, ‘His presence came again.’).⁸⁴ This seems
to have been a way to assimilate herself into his work, to achieve an
intellectual commingling with him after his death. Eliot had reflected
before in her own fiction on how apposite quotation could give a form
to loss: she ends the death scene of Mordecai in Daniel Deronda, for
example, with a consolatory quatrain taken from Samson Agonistes. Four
years after writing that scene, faced with the unique privacy of her own
grief and unable herself to create original verbal form for the expression
of her pain, Eliot sought comfort in the words of others. Her diary for
1879 is filled with passages on death excerpted from Tennyson, Heine,
Young, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Emily Brontë, and others. It comprises a
remarkable annal of mourning. The first entry for her diary, under the
heading of ‘January 1879’, consists of four quotations.⁸⁵ The next, for
Wednesday 1, has six lines of jotted prose notes, and then six quotations.
After this, Eliot copied one or two quotations into the diary every week
for six weeks. There is then a long break, until in October, nearly a year
after Lewes’s death, Eliot transcribed, untitled and for once unchanged,
Emily Brontë’s elegy ‘Remembrance’ (it begins ‘Cold in the earth—and
the deep snow piled above thee’).⁸⁶
More intriguing than Eliot’s choice of quotations are the ways in
which she altered, deliberately or otherwise, the words of some of
the writers in whom she found solace. Several of her emendations are
obvious, and obviously wilful. Transcribing the last line of Shelley’s
‘Alastor’, for instance, Eliot morbidly changed Shelley’s ‘Birth and the
Grave, that are not as they were’ to ‘Death and the Grave, that are
not as they were’.⁸⁷ To a brace of lines from one of William Browne’s
Britannia Pastorals (1613), she added in a slanted hand a concluding
line of her own:

⁸³ The Journals of George Eliot, ed. Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 155.
⁸⁴ Ibid. 175. ⁸⁵ Ibid. 154–5. ⁸⁶ Ibid. 188. ⁸⁷ Ibid. 155
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 123
Some little happiness have thou and I
(Since we shall die ere we have wished to die.)
For thou hast died ere thou didst wish to die.⁸⁸

Here Eliot, under what she elsewhere called ‘the immediate pressure
of great sorrow’,⁸⁹ is forced to borrow Browne’s language. Unable to
voice her grief in prose (the diary entries themselves are almost devoid of
emotional content, save for a handful of terse and devastating comments:
e.g. ‘Saturday 11 January: Head miserable and heart bruised’, or ‘Friday
3 October: Tears, tears’),⁹⁰ she can only come at expression indirectly,
through or after the words of others. Misquotation here provides a form
of emotional ventriloquism which necessarily attenuates the expression
of grief—to state the fact of Lewes’s death explicitly and unmediatedly
seems to have been intolerable to Eliot—but which does not wholly
submerge Eliot’s own voice, or the particularity of her grief. Similarly,
to a passage accurately transcribed from Shakespeare’s King John, Eliot
adds her own poetic coda (marked here, though not in the diary, by
Kneeling before this ruin of sweet life,
And breathing to his breathless excellence
The incense of a vow, a holy vow,
Never to taste the pleasures of the world,
Never to be infected with delight,
Nor conversant with ease and idleness,
Till—⁹¹ Death
Shall give thy will divineness, make it strong
With the beseechings of a mighty soul
That left its work unfinished.⁹²

As with the Browne quotation, Eliot is able to enunciate her own grief
only by making it prosthetic, by fitting it onto the pre-existing words
of another writer. To meditate upon her grief, she finds it necessary
to mediate it. The ‘mighty soul | That left its work unfinished’ is,
in one sense, Lewes, and both this quotation and the addendum to
the couplet from Browne (‘thou hast died ere thou didst wish to die’)

⁸⁸ Ibid. ⁸⁹ Eliot, Essays, ed. Byatt and Warren, 190.

⁹⁰ Eliot, Journals, 157, 183.
⁹¹ King John, iv. iii. 65–71. Shakespeare goes on to extol the virtues of vengeance
(‘Till I have set a glory to this hand | By giving it the worship of revenge’); not the note
Eliot would have wanted to strike.
⁹² Eliot, Journals, 155–6.
124 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

suggest how powerfully Eliot felt that Lewes’s genius had been thwarted
by his premature death. Mixed in with her anguish is an almost
apotheosizing conviction—‘Death | Shall give thy will divineness’—of
Lewes’s brilliance. It was a conviction which would surface again, later in
1879, during Eliot’s dealings with Lewes’s obituarists, who she felt had
failed sufficiently to understand or communicate the nature of Lewes’s
genius in their tributes.⁹³
Like Queen Victoria after the death of Albert, Eliot found great
consolation in Tennyson’s elegy In Memoriam, and that poem is the
most frequently quoted source in her journal. Tennyson is quoted
and misquoted for the first time on Wednesday, 1 January, when
Eliot adapts six lines from In Memoriam I. Here is Tennyson’s ver-
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground,
Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
‘Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn’.⁹⁴
And here is Eliot’s:
Ah, better to be drunk with loss
To dance with death to beat the ground
Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love and boast
‘Behold the man that lov’d and lost
But all he was is overworn.’
Tennyson’s original has ‘sweeter’, rather than ‘better’, a word which
gives a more distinct flavour to the draught of grief. But this alteration
is less striking than Eliot’s omission of all Tennyson’s commas, which
transforms the measured beat of the original into an unpunctuated
outpouring of grief. Eliot also elides Tennyson’s stanza break. Stanza
breaks in In Memoriam, like almost every other convention in that
economical poem, are put to use by Tennyson as bearers of meaning.
Frequently, Tennyson’s stanza breaks enact a separation from the
beloved, or stage the vacancies that grief must confront and threatens

⁹³ Collins, ‘Obituaries’, 153–69.

⁹⁴ Alfred Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam’, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks
(London: Longmans, 1987), ii. 319.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 125

to collapse into, yet even as they do so they are eloquent of control and
self-conscious artistry. Eliot’s elision of the stanza break only heightens
the sense of uncontrolled misery which emanates from her version of
Tennyson’s original.
The last and most suggestive misquotation from Eliot’s journal
is a version of a couplet by Edward Young. Although Eliot found
much of Young’s Night Thoughts to be shot through with insincer-
ity—‘artificiality even in his grief, and feeling [which] often slides into
rhetoric’—she had too been ‘thrilled’ by the occasional ‘unmistak-
able cry of pain, which makes us tolerant of egoism and hyperbole’.⁹⁵
One of the couplets in Night Thoughts which had impressed her, and
which she quoted correctly in her 1857 article on Young, read ‘In
every varied posture, place and hour | How widow’d every thought
of every joy’. Twenty-three years later, Eliot quoted those two mel-
ancholic lines back to herself in her diary, but with one striking
change: she had altered ‘widow’d’ to ‘withered’. What is to be made
of this change? Is it that Eliot could not bear the finality of that
word: widowhood is, after all, a quantum state—one either is or one
is not ‘widow’d’—whereas ‘withered’ is an action that is measurable
in degrees and that is, conceivably, reversible? Or might it be an
accurate inaccuracy; a nod, unconscious or otherwise, that Eliot was
not, in the eyes of the law, Lewes’s widow? In the manuscript of The
Study of Psychology which Eliot was revising while keeping her diary,
Lewes included a paragraph which is inadvertently relevant to Eliot’s
Like its great instrument, Language, [Mind] is at once individual and social.
Each man speaks in virtue of the functions of vocal expression, but also in virtue
of the social need of communication. The words spoken are not his creation,
yet he, too, must appropriate them by what may be called a creative process
before he can understand them. What his tribe speaks he repeats; but he does
not simply echo their words, he rethinks them. In the same way he adopts their
experiences when he assimilates them to his own, [thus] getting his range of
fellowship enlarged.⁹⁶

Lewes was referring here to a fundamental mechanism of human

understanding, but his words are applicable to Eliot’s own practices
of misquotation. At least in her diary entries, Eliot was not simply
echoing the words of others, she was ‘rethinking’ them—thinking

⁹⁵ Eliot, Essays, ed. Byatt and Warren, 193. ⁹⁶ SOP, 160–1.

126 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

them through as much as thinking through them—under the pressure

of great sorrow. In so doing, she was assimilating the experiences
of Young, and Tennyson, and Shakespeare, and Browne ‘to her
own’, and thereby enlarging her ‘range of fellowship’. She was also,
through these almost imperceptible re-creations of hers, filling the gap
left in her life by Lewes. George Steiner suggests in Language and
Silence how our acts of creativity and creation are ways analogically
of countering and acknowledging the absences, or the disappearances,
with which we have to live.⁹⁷ Something similar to this simple but
profound dialectic (that we create to deny absence, that absence
compels us to create) is at work in many of Eliot’s creative mis-
quotations—her acts of ‘creative dissidence’—in the months following
Lewes’s death.


The Leavises were Dickens’s debt-collectors. In Dickens the Novelist, F.

R. and Q. D. dispensed invoices on Dickens’s behalf to a number of Vic-
torian authors, not least George Eliot. Thus Eliot’s 1856 tale ‘Mr Gilfil’s
Love Story’, according to the Leavises, ‘betrays an unconscious bor-
rowing’ from David Copperfield in the death of the heroine from
pregnancy.⁹⁸ For ‘the new tone and attitude to her heroine of Middle-
march’, Eliot was ‘indebted’ to Mrs Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks.⁹⁹
And she was ‘not particularly original’ with the character of Lydgate,
‘owing much to earlier novels, including Bleak House’.¹⁰⁰ This manner
of literary accountancy would have vexed Eliot, not least because it is
predicated upon an impossible state of debtlessness. ‘Owing’, ‘borrow-
ing’, ‘indebted’: these are the metaphors of finance translated into the
domain of literature, and for Eliot fiscal capital and intellectual capital
followed different rules of circulation. We have seen how in Impressions
and elsewhere, Eliot showed what a fruitless task it is to attempt to fix a
stable origin for ideas expressed by any one author—‘one cannot give a
genealogical introduction to every long-stored item or fact of conjecture’
(90)—and how she endorsed a concept of literary tradition as a resource

⁹⁷ George Steiner, Language and Silence (London: Faber, 1967), passim.

⁹⁸ F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (London: Penguin, 1972), 91. I am
grateful to Dan Neill for drawing my attention to this point.
⁹⁹ Ibid. 226. ¹⁰⁰ Ibid. 245–6.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 127

which could be drawn upon, indeed which had to be drawn upon in

order to write, without necessarily incurring debts.
Nevertheless, at no point in her career does Eliot entirely debunk
the concept of intellectual property. ‘The Wasp Credited with the
Honeycomb’, the eleventh essay in Impressions and the one most openly
concerned with the ethics of plagiarism, exemplifies the difficulties
Eliot had in reconciling her anti-Romanticism—her impatience with
‘entire originality’, ‘deep originality’, and a state of pure intellectual
unindebtedness—and her belief in individual agency and the ethics of
authorship. Theophrastus’ silent antagonist in the essay is Euphorion,
whom he accuses of using the ‘majestic concept’ of the common
mind to legitimize his plagiarisms. The historical Euphorion was a
Greek poet and writer of the Alexandrian age, born about 276 bc.
He became the librarian at the court of Antiochus the Great, and
after his death, his poetry would be highly valued by the Latin poets
of the first century bc. The few remaining fragments of Euphorion’s
work, however, show that he borrowed extensively from poets such as
Callimachus. It is with ‘a Gallic largeness’, writes Theophrastus, that
expatiates on the diffusive nature of intellectual products, free and all-embracing
as the liberal air; on the infinitesimal smallness of individual origination
compared with the massive inheritance of thought on which every new
generation enters. … Above all, he insists on the proper subordination of
the irritable self, the mere vehicle of an idea of combination which, being
produced by the sum total of the human race, must belong to that multiple
entity. (88)

Here, again, we can see the ideas of Lewes filtering through: ‘the
infinitesimal smallness of individual origination’ recalls Lewes’s assertion
that ‘individual experience [is] limited and individual spontaneity [is]
feeble’. The ‘massive inheritance of thought’ is a rephrasing of Lewes’s
‘General Mind’. And, most strikingly of all, the idea that the self is
just ‘the mere vehicle of an idea of combination … produced by the
sum total of the human race’ and belonging ‘to that multiple entity’ is
paralleled by Lewes’s Comtean vision of the diffusion of the individual
into the group. These ideas at first appear to be under attack from
Theophrastus. But it soon becomes apparent that the ideas themselves
are not at fault. Far from it: ‘such considerations carry a profound truth
to be even religiously contemplated’. What Theophrastus is protesting
against ‘is the use of these majestic conceptions to do the dirty work
128 George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism

of unscrupulosity and justify the non-payment of conscious debts

which cannot be defined or enforced by the law’ (89). Premeditated
plagiarism—‘the conscious theft of ideas and deliberate reproduction
of them as original’—such as that practised by Euphorion, argues
Theophrastus, is a despicable crime, but it is also a rare crime. It is
‘more difficult to prove, and more liable to be false’ than almost any
other accusation: ‘No premises require closer scrutiny than those which
lead to the constantly echoed conclusion, ‘‘He must have known’’, or
‘‘He must have read’’ ’ (92). Much more common is unconscious—and
therefore blameless—plagiarism, by which Theophrastus means the
unavoidable circulation and percolation of thought in the General Mind:
‘the inevitable coincidences of contemporary thinking’. Unconscious
plagiarism is a function of our shared unconscious.
Trying to pick out Eliot’s voice from Theophrastus’ is not an easy
one, and anyone trying to do so would do well to remember her
comment about one of her anthologizers: ‘You observe that he is so
unreflecting as to take the words put dramatically into the mouths of
my characters as the expression of my own sentiments.’¹⁰¹ Nevertheless,
her voice and her opinions are extricable, especially with the help of
contextual material such as has been marshalled above. Throughout
‘The Wasp Credited with the Honeycomb’ two sets of ideas dear to
Eliot are in tension. Pulling in one direction is her opinion that (to
use Lewes’s words): ‘Language belongs essentially to the community
by whom and for whom it is called into existence … Thought belongs
essentially to Humanity [ … A man’s] thoughts are only partly his own;
they are also the thoughts of others.’¹⁰² Pulling in the other is Eliot’s
fundamental belief in the power of the individual creator to create—to
originate—and her belief that the principles of meum and tuum pertain
to literary material. For, despite her sceptical, proto-modernist attitude
to originality, Eliot remains, as Nancy Henry puts it, ‘Victorian in her
assertion that … an author is responsible for acknowledging her debts
in the recording and transmitting of inherited ideas’ (p. xxix). Trying to
press a period template of Victorian/modernist onto Eliot’s thought, of
course, countermands both the argument of this book and the argument
of Eliot in Impressions; which is that ideas are altered by processes of
seepage and slow transmogrification, rather than any kind of tectonic,
paradigmatic, or periodic change. Better, then, to conclude that it is

¹⁰¹ Letter to Alexander Main, 26 January 1872. Letters, v. 239.

¹⁰² SOP, 161, 165.
George Eliot, Originality, and Plagiarism 129

Eliot’s efforts to reconcile her instinctive belief in individual agency and

difference, with her acquired belief in the ‘communistic’ tradition, in
originality as another name for ‘creative dissidence’, that we see being
worked out with increasing care and attention in Middlemarch and
Daniel Deronda—and most explicitly in Impressions of Theophrastus
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist


In 1869, Richard Holt Hutton predicted that people would soon stop
reading novels. The ‘particular reason’ he gave for forecasting this change
was ‘the growing taste for realism’, an appetite which, Hutton argued,
would ultimately lead to the novel being usurped by the newspaper.
The public’s enthusiasm for stories of the ‘hourly history of the world,
its doings and its people’, which the realist novel at present catered for,
would soon be diverted towards ‘the journal, and especially the journal of
news’, in which such stories were to be found in greater abundance and
in a more palatable—that is, a shorter—form. Significantly, Hutton
also noted that novelists had recently begun to make increasing use
of newspapers and other ‘non-literary’ publications for source material.
In its drive to present unmediated reality, the novel was so heavily
mortgaging itself to the newspaper that it faced bankruptcy.¹
Hutton’s prophecy would not prove entirely correct, but he had put
his finger on an important consequence of the rise of so-called ‘doc-
umentary realism’—and especially of realism’s less reputable progeny
of the 1860s and 1870s, sensation fiction and naturalism—namely
the increasingly open interpolation of other textual sources into the
novel. In their ambition to authenticate their narratives as ‘real’, writers
began to draw more and more overtly on information provided by
newspapers and other such sources. To some commentators, this reuse
constituted an infringement of the rules of originality: a laziness on
the part of novelists, who were substituting appropriation for creativ-
ity. The most common response of the novelists was to distinguish
between ‘literary’ and ‘non-literary’ sources. To prey upon the former,
it was argued, would of course be unacceptable: the latter, however, was
fair game. In France, for instance, Émile Zola’s naturalist novel about

¹ Richard Holt Hutton, ‘The Empire of Novels’, Spectator, 9 January 1869, 43–4.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 131

dipsomania, L’Assommoir, was accused of being heavily plagiarized, most

notably from Le Sublime (1870), a non-fiction work by Denis Poulot
on alcoholism among the working classes. ‘It is true that I took some
information from Le Sublime’, acknowledged Zola in a letter to the
editor of Le Télégraphe. ‘But you have forgotten to say that Le Sublime
is not a work of imagination, a novel; it is a book of documents from
which the author cites overheard words and true facts. Borrowing some-
thing from it is borrowing from reality.’ Zola went on to enumerate
several of his other documentary sources—which included a dictionary
of jargon—as well as to describe, with vindicating candour, his system
of writing: ‘All my novels are written in this way; I surround myself
with a library, and a mountain of notes, before taking up the pen. Look
for plagiarisms in my preceding works, Monsieur, and you will make
some wonderful discoveries.’²
Similar plagiarism scandals were reported on in England. The most
prominent involved H. Rider Haggard, who was alleged to have plagiar-
ized passages for his King Solomon’s Mines from a book of travel writing.³
Travel writing, argued Haggard and his defenders, drew upon an a priori
reality common to all. Therefore, if Haggard chose to appropriate an
episode from a travelogue and incorporate it, with suitably novelistic
adjustments, into his fiction, this was not plagiarism, for he was appro-
priating indirectly from life and not from literature. It was, in fact, a
form of skilfully mediated realism. Andrew Lang sprang to Haggard’s
defence in the Contemporary Review. ‘There appears to be an idea’, noted
Lang indignantly, ‘that a novelist must acknowledge, in a preface or in
footnotes, every suggestion of fact which comes to him from any quarter’:
For example, I write a novel in which a man is poisoned by curari. Am I to add
a note saying, ‘These details as to the Macusi tribe are extracted from Wallace,
from Bates, and from Brett’s ‘‘Indians of Guiana’’ (London: Bell and Daldy.
1878) etc …’? This kind of thing is customary and appropriate in books of learn-
ing, but it seems incredible pedantry to demand such explanations from authors
of works of fancy. When the scene of a story and the manners of the peoples
described are not known to a novelist by personal experience, he must get his
information out of books. Is he bound to acknowledge every scrap of information
in a preface or a note? The idea is absurd. The novel would become a treatise.⁴

² Letter to Auguste Dumont, 16 March 1877, in Émile Zola: Correspondence, ed. B.

H. Bakker (Montreal: Montreal University Press, 1980), ii. 548–9.
³ See, for a less tolerant take on the Haggard scandal, James Runciman, ‘King
Plagiarism and his Court’, Fortnightly Review, 53:47 (March 1890), 421–39.
⁴ Lang, ‘Literary Plagiarism’, 835.
132 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

Brander Matthews also took Haggard’s side, mocking the ‘malicious

folk [who] have been accusing Mr H. Rider Haggard with filching the
false teeth and lifting the white calves of other African explorers who
were not in search of King Solomon’s Mines … It was the original
owner of King Solomon’s Mines who asserted that there was nothing
new under the sun.’ Matthews mobilized the same arguments as Lang
(and Zola) to exonerate Haggard from the guilt of copying:
A man may draw from the common stock without compunction, and there
are many circumstances under which he may borrow unhesitatingly from other
authors. … Facts are the foundation of fiction, and the novelist, and the
romancer, the dramatist and the poet, may make free with the labours of
the traveller, the historian, the botanist, and the astronomer. Within reason
the imaginative author may help himself to all that the scientific author has
stored up. One might even go so far as to say that science—in which I
include history—exists to supply facts for fiction, and that it has not wholly
accomplished its purpose until it has been transmuted in the imagination of
the poet. If Mr Haggard had made use of a dozen books of African travel in
the composition of that thrilling and delightful romance of adventure, ‘King
Solomon’s Mines’, there would have been no more taint of plagiary about
it than there was in Shakespeare’s reworking of the old chronicles into his
historical plays.⁵

The documentary realism which appeared in Britain and France from

the 1860s onwards, and the debates surrounding its legitimacy as a
literary form, worked simultaneously to stabilize and to unbalance ideas
of genius. It unbalanced them because it emphasized that transformation
and not origination is the keynote of the creative process, and because
it stressed the textual origins of literary texts; it stabilized them because,
by provoking discrimination between non-fiction writers—journalists,
travel-writers, historians, scientists—and ‘poets’ (i.e. creative writers),
it reinforced the notion that ‘imaginative’ authorship was a mode of
authorship categorically distinct from other types. Non-fiction writers
were presented as mere annotators of reality, jotting down what existed,
while creative writers used their imagination to ‘transmute’ or ‘rework’
the world into new fictional forms.
Documentary realism was new, perversely, because it confessed more
openly than any other novelistic form to its origin as news. It was also, as
David Trotter has noted, ‘modern in its frank recognition that literature

⁵ Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 626–7.

Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 133

had become a commodity’.⁶ It acknowledged both the effort, and the

raw materials, involved in its manufacture, and it expected appropriate
remuneration. Some reviewers turned their noses up at this, appalled at
the vulgar greed for detail to which such literature catered, or feeling that
it vitiated inherited ideas that literature should create its own taste, that
it should be created in an intellectual vacuum, and that spontaneity, not
sweat, should characterize its production. ‘A commercial atmosphere
hangs around works of this class,’ noted Henry Mansel sniffily of
sensation fiction in 1863, ‘redolent of the manufactory of the shop.’⁷
Nevertheless, commerciality did not prevent works of ‘this class’, to
use Mansel’s ambiguously pejorative phrase, from being popular. By
legitimizing the idea that texts fed into other texts, documentary realism
also prepared the way for those writers who would delve and rummage
in the works of other creative writers: who would extend the pale of what
Matthews called the ‘common stock’ to include the literary tradition.
A suggestive commingling of the factual and the fictional was not,
of course, a new novelistic strategy. As Ian Watt and Lennard Davis
have both argued, the novel originally emerged out of a narrative matrix
which did not differentiate between fiction and fact.⁸ In Factual Fictions,
Davis suggests that it was only the politicization of story during the
English Civil War which required narratives to assert a truthfulness or
a factuality. The distribution of ‘factual’ narratives, classed as ‘news’,
could then be controlled or restricted, as opposed to explicitly fictional
narratives, which were not ‘specifically dangerous, at least not obviously
so, and might be allowed to circulate’.⁹ It was this which began the
bisection of the news/novel matrix into ‘novels on the one hand, and
journalism and history on the other’, a schism reinforced by the Stamp
Act of 1724, which stipulated that pamphlets and newspapers containing
‘news’ were liable to the imposition of a duty. Thenceforth a previously
intact discourse of narrative was split into the taxable (news) and the
untaxable (fiction, history), and over the remainder of the eighteenth
century the novel came slowly to be estranged from its relationship
with ‘fact’.

⁶ Trotter, Cooking with Mud, 97.

⁷ Henry Mansel, ‘Sensation Novels’, Quarterly Review, 113 (April 1863), 483. Quoted
in Trotter, Cooking with Mud, 97–8.
⁸ See Lennard J. Davis, Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1983); and Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe,
Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957).
⁹ Davis, Factual Fictions, 71.
134 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

In its drive for realism, however, the Victorian novel re-joined what
the eighteenth century had put asunder. Writing in the Westminster
Review in 1852, G. H. Lewes complimented the French novelist
George Sand for producing what he called ‘original … transcripts
of experience’.¹⁰ Distilled into Lewes’s discreet paradox—how can a
‘transcript’ be ‘original’?—was a fundamental presumption of Victorian
literary realism: that new and meaningful literature might be created
by the careful replication of reality. This ambition to imitate life,
in some sense to be life, led many realist novelists to make use in
their writing of the most allegedly lifelike of all narratives, newspapers.
It was from newspapers that novelists gleaned what Richard Altick
has usefully christened ‘topicalities’: ‘minute and characteristic indicia
of the times’.¹¹ As Alfred Austin pointed out in a perceptive article
on the so-called ‘Sensational School’ of novelists in the 1860s, the
‘daily newspaper’ was the ‘invaluable modern ally’ of writers who
were seeking to authenticate their plots to a potentially incredulous
It is the argument of this chapter that rearrangements in the Victorian
hierarchy of genre had profound effects upon the terms by which origin-
ality was imagined and perceived. Clearly detectable, if not prominent,
amid the debates over the utility or futility of documentary realism as a
literary mode, were issues of ‘originality’, regarding how much authentic
invention was required to devise a novel, and how far writers should
be permitted to draw on other textual sources in order to derive facts,
incidents, anecdotes, and details. The requirements and aspirations of
documentary realism, in particular, obliged Victorian writers and readers
to ask awkward questions about how far reality was textually mediated,
and how far it was possible to create a literary work which was not a
rehash of previously existing texts. Because they candidly acknowledged
their textual origins, so-called documentary novels in particular refused
to square with inherited ideas of literary creativity as spontaneous,
organic, and unified, and suggested instead that novels were consciously
confected—the result of careful observation, bookish research, and the
organization of disparate parts.

¹⁰ G. H. Lewes, ‘The Lady Novelists’, Westminster Review, 58 (July 1852), 129–41.

¹¹ Altick, Presence of the Present, 21.
¹² Alfred Austin, ‘Our Novels: The Sensational School’, Temple Bar, 29 (1870), 1417.
For an account of the relationship between the emergent modernist literary sensibility and
journalism, see Thomas Strychacz, Modernism, Mass Culture, Professionalism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 135

Of all Victorian novelists, no one had a more fruitful creative

relationship with the daily newspaper than Charles Reade, nor was
anyone less discomfited at drawing on supposedly factual texts for
plot details. In 1871 Reade—who did not enjoy a reputation for
humility—sent an unsolicited testimonial to the editor of The Times,
thanking that journal for supplying so much of the raw material for his
For eighteen years the journal you conduct so ably has been my preceptor and
the main source of my works; at all events of the most approved. A noble
passage in the ‘Times’ of September 7 or 8, 1853, touched my heart, inflamed
my imagination, and was the germ of my first important work, ‘It Is Never Too
Late to Mend.’ Some years later you put forth an able and eloquent leader on
private asylums, and detailed the sufferings there inflicted on persons known to
you. This took root in me, and brought forth its fruit in the second volume of
‘Hard Cash.’¹³

Reade’s lack of embarrassment at having used The Times as a ‘main

source’ for his works is startling. For Reade, it is clear, the dependency
of a novelist upon other textual sources did not indicate an unacceptable
lack of invention or imagination. Despite his use of organicist metaphors
of creativity (‘root’, ‘fruit’), the assumption underlying his letter was
that the novelist’s chief task was not to generate or germinate the idea
for a novel, but instead lay in adopting, adapting, and fashioning the
precepts of other sources. This was the distinction upon which his
career as a novelist was founded. Reade did not disbelieve the possibility
of originality—he felt his own finished works to be ‘rich in … novel
combination’¹⁴—it was just that for him, originality was to be achieved
first by gathering details from outside sources and then by organizing,
rewriting, and connecting them. A ‘Master of Fiction’, Reade declared
of himself and others like him, needed to possess ‘the judgment and the
skill to weave the recorded facts, and published characters, of this great
age, into the forms of Art’.¹⁵ The weaving, rather than the creation of
the threads, was where the ‘skill’ of the novelist resided. It was Reade,
more than any other prose writer of the second half of the century
except perhaps Wilde, who would energize discussions of plagiarism

¹³ Quoted in Edward Elton Smith, Charles Reade (London: George Prior and Twayne,
1976), 129.
¹⁴ Charles Reade, Readiana: Comments on Current Events (London: Chatto & Windus,
1883), 303.
¹⁵ Ibid. 326.
136 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

and originality. In his noisy dogmatism, Reade was vital in publicizing

arguments for a freer, more appropriative or intertextual, mode of
literary creation, the requisite skills for which were those of selection,
excerption, and collation.


insecurity of property is a curse no class can endure nor is bound

to endure. It is a relic of barbarism … insecurity of property saps
public and private morality … it eggs on the thief, and justifies
the pillaged proprietor in stealing all round.
(Charles Reade, 1883)¹⁶
[Dumas’s] Conscience a drama … is in 6 acts, 3 admirable. 3 Bosh.
Cut away the 3 bosh, and invent or steal 3 quite different.
(Charles Reade, c.1876)¹⁷

Reade’s stance on originality and literary property appears to be categor-

ically inconsistent. A tub-thumping campaigner for the tightening and
alignment of international copyright laws with a view to maximizing
protection and profit for authors, Reade also translated and adapted for
the English stage, almost always without permission, numerous French
dramas and prose works, as well as some English works.¹⁸ Reade was
a literary egotist of the highest order, who publicly and repeatedly
proclaimed his ‘genius’ and his innate talent for the ‘Swift and Fiery Art
of Fiction’, and who in a notebook entry admired the idea of a ‘purely
original literature’,¹⁹ but who at other times acknowledged his utter lack
of artistic ‘fertility’, and described literature as a form of manufacture,
in which results could be achieved by the application of a system rather
than by unaccountable imaginative leaps. In 1872, in the privacy of
one of his gigantic notebooks, Reade remarked that ‘To God alone my
thanks are due who gave me my good gifts and the sense to see that
literature is a trade.’²⁰ Yet in Trade Malice, his 1873 jeremiad against
the culture of plagiarism accusation which he felt was crippling British
letters, he bombastically dramatized himself as ‘an artist, and not a mere

¹⁶ Reade, Readiana, 128–9. ¹⁷ LL29, 22b.

¹⁸ Reade, as Malcolm Elwin puts it, ‘laid violent hands upon Tennyson’s The Promise
of May and wrote a dramatic version under the title of Dora’. Quoted in Smith, Charles
Reade, 20.
¹⁹ LL13, 28. ²⁰ LL46, 12.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 137

trader’.²¹ He believed in an ‘immortal element’ in all true literature, but

was also convinced that literature could be written according to what he
called a ‘Method’: that is, through the reworking of pre-existing textual
sources.²² Discussing his art, Reade demonstrated his reverence for the
notion of the singular author-god, and advocated a Midan theory of the
novelistic imagination, on the grounds that ‘fiction improves everything
it touches’.²³ He also, however, hired ‘drudges’ and ‘devils’ to aid him in
his research. He stressed the ‘Swift’ and ‘spontaneous’ nature of artistic
creation, but spent much of his working life maintaining an elaborate
system of scrapbooks and ‘digests’ into which he cut and pasted newspa-
per articles, illustrations, and other fragments of printed texts, as well as
plot lines, images, and ideas which he had gleaned from various ‘literary
works’ (Reade referred to these gleanings in his scrapbooks as ‘Bon. Fab.
Mat. Fict.’: good story material).²⁴ This vast archive of textual material
formed the basis of his so-called ‘Great System’, a system which he
spoke of as a ‘Machinery’, a fiction factory able to churn out literature.
Reade’s was an industrial mode of production for an industrial age.
There was, in other words, a thoroughly bad fit between Reade’s
idealist sympathies and his marketeering pragmatism. It is difficult to
discern whether he camouflaged the inconsistency of his beliefs from
himself, or if he was genuinely capable of holding two opposing intel-
lectual positions, if not simultaneously, at least one very shortly after the
other. What is under investigation here is first how far Reade sought to
solve and to justify this bad fit, and secondly the implications of Reade’s
much publicized ‘Great System’ for wider Victorian understandings of
originality, plagiarism, and literary property.
Reade is significant to this discussion for two reasons. The first is
that he devised an intellectual rationale for his use of textual sources:
that is to say, like all of the major writers discussed in this study, he
self-consciously theorized literary appropriation, literary resemblance,
and literary reuse. Reade did not conceive of his appropriations in
psychological terms, as did George Eliot, with reference to concepts
of the General Mind, or the palimpsestic nature of human memory;
or in socio-cultural terms, as did Dickens, with reference to scientific
and sanitary ideas of recycling. Reade’s rationale was, instead, far
more practical, and specifically far more structural, in its approach to
appropriation, based as it was upon a theory of literary integrity or, more

²¹ Reade, Trade Malice, 14. ²² LL15, 1. ²³ Reade, Readiana, 326.

²⁴ See, for example, LL13, 1.
138 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

precisely, disintegrity. For underpinning Reade’s vision of creativity was

the presumption that most literary works could be first taken to bits, and
that those bits could then be reused to create new literary works.²⁵ There
is a telling entry made by Reade in a scrapbook from 1858–9—very
early in his writing career—where he recorded having encountered a
‘critique … taking Gray’s elegy to pieces. and giving every sentence
to other Poets’.²⁶ This was to become the operation at the centre of
his ‘Great Method’: Reade put the texts he encountered—whether
‘factual’ (newspapers, works of non-fiction, Blue Books) or ‘fictional’
(novels, poems, plays)—through a disassembly line. Numerous other
scrapbook entries show that Reade prided himself on his ability to see
clearly the intellectual infrastructure of any piece of writing, to strip
it down to its constituent parts, and then to see which parts might
work in other housings. His system was undeniably mechanical in its
operations: what is curious is how little this perturbed Reade, despite his
affection for transcendental conceptions of authorship. In public, Reade
never described himself as a plagiarist, preferring to gloss his method
as ‘rewriting’, ‘complicating’, or ‘combining’ elements which he had
procured from texts which he classified as ‘heterogeneous’; a key term
in Reade’s lexicon, and one to which the discussion will return.
The second factor which makes Reade relevant to the argument
is how open he was about his methods of working. His aesthetic of
fusion and fragments was heavily advertised during his professional
lifetime: his working methods were discussed in numerous journalistic
articles,²⁷ and he described them in detail in his 1871 novel A Terrible
Temptation.²⁸ Like Dickens, Reade emphasized the ‘labour’ which went
into his literary productions. He made no secret of his ‘method’ because

²⁵ On the Victorian vogue for the ‘cento’ poem, see SA, passim; also John Beer on the
theory of ‘literary annexation’ proposed by Frederick Myers: Beer, Providence and Love,
120–30. Myers, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, won the Newdigate Prize with
his poem ‘India Pacificata’. He was denounced in the Union and in the Athenaeum for
having ‘borrowed’ many of the lines and phrases in his poem. Myers’s argument was that
he had devised a ‘theory of literary annexation’; his defence rested on the grounds that
the lines which were borrowed were offered in a way quite ingeniously different from
their original purpose.
²⁶ LL15, 66.
²⁷ See, for instance, W. Lynd, ‘An Author at Home’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 252
(1882), 361–3; or Edward Marston, After Work (London: Heinemann, 1904), 93–8.
²⁸ The novel describes the activities of a character called Rolfe (a thinly disguised
version of Reade himself), in particular his method of collecting and indexing his material,
a task at which he spent ‘up to five hours a day’. Charles Reade, A Terrible Temptation
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1871), passim.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 139

he saw no besmirchment of his novelist’s abilities by publicizing it.²⁹ ‘I

not only invite’, he wrote in 1873:
but even presume to advise, young writers to look closely into my work, and
into that method to which I owe so much. It is a method, by adopting which,
and labouring hard in it, as I do, many a young novelist might double his
value. … ‘The Wandering Heir’ owes nothing to any preceding figment, and
so there is no plagiarism in it. But it is written upon the method I have never
disowned, and never shall; have always proclaimed, and always shall. … viz., the
interweaving of imaginary circumstances with facts gathered impartially from
experience, hearsay, and printed records.³⁰

A measure of Reade’s confidence in the consistency and defensibility

of his methodology can also be taken from the fact that in his will he
stipulated that his collection of scrapbooks should be put on public
display. It was in these scrapbooks that Reade had developed and
recorded the details of his ‘Methods of labour’, and had collated the
‘Bon. Fab. Mat. Fict.’ which were the constituents of his finished
novels and plays. As well as offering authorized accounts of his working
method in various articles and sketches throughout his lifetime, Reade
was prepared after his death for the most private and unmodified
expressions of his ‘method’ to be available for scrutiny.
Today, Reade has all but dropped out of the canon. The scholarly
attention which has been paid to his novels over the past three decades
has usually been part of an attempt to excavate Victorian notions of
literature’s real-world agency: Reade is read as a social polemicist, and
his novels as political protests. During his lifetime, however, Reade
was, at least financially, hugely successful. In terms of sales, subject
matter, and mode, he was perceived as the obvious counterpart to
Dickens.³¹ While his contemporary critical reception was by no means
unmixed, Reade enjoyed a substantial readership, as well as numerous
high-profile admirers. Swinburne, for instance, considered Reade to
be ‘by far the greatest master of narrative whom our country has

²⁹ For accounts of Dickens’s painstaking industry, see J. C. Hotten, Charles Dickens:

The Story of his Life (London: J. C. Hotten, 1870), 351–3; and Sir Arthur Helps, ‘In
Memoriam Charles Dickens’, Macmillan’s Magazine, 22 (July 1870), 236–40.
³⁰ Reade, Trade Malice, 31.
³¹ See for a comparison of Dickens’s and Reade’s popularities, J. Cuming Walters,
‘Some Notes on Plagiarism: Charles Reade and Charles Dickens’, The Dickensian, 7:7
(July 1911), 173–7, especially 173–4. Details of sales for individual novels by Reade
are hard to come by, although at the beginning of Trade Malice, he claims that The
Wandering Heir sold over half a million copies worldwide. Reade, Trade Malice, 1–2.
140 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

produced since the death of Scott’.³² Henry James, reviewing It is

Never too Late to Mend, was appreciative of Reade’s ability to achieve
verisimilitude through research, remarking that Reade ‘only went to
Australia in his imagination yet described that country more vividly
than had Henry Kingsley, who wrote of his years in Australia in The
Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlyn’.³³ A letter from ‘a Queen’s Collegian,
Cork’, to the editor of Once a Week, identified Reade as ‘one of the
greatest—if not, indeed, the greatest—of living English novelists’,³⁴
and Reade’s obituarist in the Academy, Richard F. Littledale, wrote
that ‘genius is to be seen unmistakably in all his best work, marking it
with verve, originality and vigorous action, and in particular exhibiting
so much ingenuity in the construction of plots and the invention of
telling situations’.³⁵ George Orwell, in a moment of uncharacteristic
imprescience, was prepared to claim that Reade’s novel Foul Play would
‘outlive the entire works of Meredith and George Eliot’.³⁶
Of the several treatments of Reade published in the twentieth century,
most were surprisingly appreciative. In the course of his extended essay
on the collection of Reade’s notebooks held in the London Library,
for instance, Emerson Grant Sutcliffe noted in passing Reade’s ‘royal
disregard for originality’, but preferred to dwell upon the capaciousness
of Reade’s intellect, his diligence, his compositional strategies, and
his success in ‘weaving’—one of Reade’s favourite metaphors for his
writing—facts together with imagination.³⁷ More interesting, primarily
for what it reveals about the survival of Reade’s own ideology concerning
authorship, is The Making of The Cloister and the Hearth, Albert
Turner’s 1938 audit of the sources Reade used in the research and
composition of his most successful novel. With the help of Reade’s
scrapbooks, Turner documents thirty-five of the books from which
Reade quarried sections of The Cloister and the Hearth. Most are
non-fiction; ‘books on social history’ and ‘Renaissance books of travel’

³² Algernon Charles Swinburne, ‘Appreciation’, preface to Charles Reade, The Cloister

and the Hearth (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1906), p. v.
³³ Henry James, Notes and Reviews, ed. Pierre de Chaignon la Rose (Cambridge,
Mass.: Dunster House, 1921), 63. Never having been to Australia himself, James was
perhaps not the reviewer best qualified to make this comparison.
³⁴ Reprinted in Reade, Trade Malice, 59–60.
³⁵ Richard F. Littledale, Academy, 19 April 1884, 52.
³⁶ George Orwell, Collected Essays, Journals and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia
Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), ii. 34.
³⁷ Emerson Grant Sutcliffe, ‘Charles Reade’s Notebooks’, Studies in Philology, 27
(1930), 64–109.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 141

from which Reade lifted ‘specific facts, and ideas for scenes’. Although
the nature of his project meant that Turner could not praise Reade’s
originality, he did write admiringly of Reade’s alternative skills: those
of ‘condensation’, of ‘increasing the bulk of an incident’, of ‘mingling
the elements taken’, of ‘sharpening’, of ‘combining’, and of ‘changing
the wording’.³⁸ The presumption underlying Turner’s book is that in
dissecting Reade’s sources he had not murdered Reade’s genius, but
rather had illustrated its workings. Turner ended the book with a special
I hope no one has come to have a less high opinion of Charles Reade’s abilities
by perusing this book. Of the two types of borrowing which I have just discussed
the first is essential to a historical novelist. The manner of life in a distant epoch
is different from that today. The novelist cannot invent; he must have recourse
to books.³⁹
Turner’s summary was a recycling of Reade’s own gospel of authorship:
that literary creativity is a transformative rather than a generative power,
and that all knowledge is textually based—‘the novelist cannot invent;
he must have recourse to books’. Accused of plagiarizing material for
The Wandering Heir, Reade declared that ‘My only crime was this:
I have written too well … labour, research, and, above all, a close
condensation, to be found in few other living English novelists, all these
qualities combined have produced a strong, yet finite, story.’⁴⁰ ‘Labour’,
‘research’, and a ‘close condensation’: these were the mechanisms of
Reade’s ‘Great System’ at work—these were what made him a ‘Master
of Fiction’.

T H E ‘ G R E AT S Y S T E M ’

The use of notebooks for collecting aphorisms, idioms, proverbs, mem-

orable and difficult passages, and terms applicable to various subjects or
aspects of daily life from the ancient languages, notes Thomas Green,
‘appears to have been introduced into Italy by the Byzantine scholar
Manuel Chrysoloras at the turn of the fifteenth century’, and scholarly
work has been done to establish the impact of this import upon textual

³⁸ Albert Morton Turner, The Making of The Cloister and the Hearth (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1938), 218–19.
³⁹ Ibid. 217.
⁴⁰ Reade, Trade Malice, 18.
142 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

production in the Renaissance in particular.⁴¹ Yet the role of textu-

al fragments gathered and assembled by individuals in scrapbooks or
notebooks has never been fully inserted into histories of the production
of published texts during the nineteenth century. This is primarily for
reasons to do with the perishability of these fragments, their haphazard
survival in scrapbooks and albums (most of which are not in public
depositories), and the difficulties of attribution. Nevertheless, scrap-
books—or commonplace books as they became generally known—and
their relationships to published texts, are of considerable importance to
nineteenth-century literature, not least in the implications they have for
ideas of control of meaning, literary ownership, and original authorship.
The blank pages of the scrapbook provided Victorian readers with a
medium in which could mingle autograph entries made by the individual
scrapbook-keeper (memoranda, diary entries, observations, ‘verses and
charades’), and the textual trouvailles (newspaper clippings, pictures,
tickets, other printed memorabilia) which the scrapbook-keeper leaved
or pasted into the scrapbooks. Once ‘clipped’ and placed within the
‘scrapbook’ or ‘digest book’—‘digest’ from the Latin digesta, mean-
ing ‘matters digested’—the printed text taken from an outside source
could become of the same proprietary status as manuscript. The ‘scrap-
book’—the OED records that the word was first coined in 1825—thus
provided a liminal zone in which non-radical forms of appropriation
could be practised: a textual region in which ideas of the proprietorial
distinctions between texts were confounded, and subordinated to ideas
of arrangement, juxtaposition, and connection. In the medium of the
scrapbook, source was of less importance than context, and selection
was valued beneath generation.
Jane Austen engaged in her novels on several occasions with the effect
of what Leah Price terms the ‘culture of the commonplace’ upon ethics
of appropriation.⁴² The most relevant example occurs early in Emma,
when Mr Elton leaves on a table a slip of paper for Harriet Smith.
Written on the paper is a verse charade concerning courtship, which
Harriet and Emma immediately begin to decrypt for its meanings as
to Mr Elton’s feelings towards Harriet. Emma is so delighted with
the charade that she suggests transcribing it into the commonplace

⁴¹ LIT, 147. A discussion of this method, stressing its culmination in Erasmus’

De Copia, can be found in R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), 265–75.
⁴² Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000), 67–104.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 143

book which Harriet is keeping. Harriet, however, is concerned that

such copying might be inappropriate, or might inadvertently publicize
Mr Elton’s intentions towards her. As a compromise, Emma copies the
charade into Harriet’s book on her behalf, omitting the final two lines.
‘Leave out the two last lines’, reasons Emma:
and there is no reason why you should not write it into your book. … They
are not at all the less written you know, because you divide them. The couplet
does not cease to be, nor does its meaning change. But take it away, and
all appropriation ceases, and a very pretty gallant charade remains, fit for any
Emma’s logic of ownership here revolves around the issue of integrity.
The couplet survives on its own (though would a pair of blank verse
lines, or a single line?) but by subtracting the couplet, the charade is
transformed into a discrete textual entity. It is this act of intervention
which, if not ascribing full authorship to Emma and Harriet, at least
nullifies Mr Elton’s authorship, and allows the girls to ‘collect’ the
charade into their ‘book’ without fear of unacceptable appropriation.
This scene from Emma is representative of how scrapbooks offered
nineteenth-century readers a way to become first editors, and then
writers; or at least simultaneously editors and writers. By inserting,
arranging, and connecting fragments taken from various sources, readers
were able to construct their own texts and narratives. The scrapbook
culture of the nineteenth century encouraged the deliberate creation of
fresh literary forms ‘out of other texts, borrowing, adapting, sharing
the common, originally oral, formulas and themes’.⁴⁴ It fostered a
sense of literary fragmentation, and endorsed collage as a legitimate,
if amateur, mode of literary production. As such, scrapbook culture
contributed to what Paul Saint-Amour discerns as the promotion in
importance of ‘literary consumption’ over ‘literary production’ which
occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century in Britain.⁴⁵
Saint-Amour notes that ‘in the years following 1860, the organized
scrapbook or ‘‘digest’’ of literary oddities became increasingly familiar,
as nineteenth-century England and America reorganized themselves
around the work and pleasure of consumption’.⁴⁶ A measure of the

⁴³ Original emphasis. Jane Austen, Emma [1815], ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1991), 70.
⁴⁴ Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London:
Methuen, 1982), 133.
⁴⁵ SA, 17–58. ⁴⁶ Ibid. 47.
144 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

influence which scrapbook culture, and the materially new narratives

that emerged from the use of scissors and paste, had upon nineteenth-
century understandings of authorship and creativity can be taken from
the number of major nineteenth-century works which are presented as,
or which conceive of themselves in terms of, scrapbooks, or which self-
consciously acknowledge the ‘found’ textual bases of their production.
The locus classicus here is Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a work whose self-
consciousness about its textuality has continued to exert an ironizing
influence over the self-presentation of subsequent works.⁴⁷ George
Eliot’s Impressions of Theophrastus Such has already been discussed in
detail: to this can be added Eliot’s Poetry and Prose from the Notebook
of an Eccentric, which poses as a miscellany organized by a fictional
narrator or poet; Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers; Washington Irving’s
The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon; Max Müller’s Chips from a German
Workshop; and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which purports to be a confection
of journal, logbook, and diary entries, as well as telegrams, letters, and
quotations. Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818)—a work to
which Charles Reade referred in one of his many defences of plagiarism,
admiring Scott’s talent at ‘transforming’ the texts of others—pretends
to be a tale left in manuscript by a young schoolmaster, Peter Pattieson,
and edited by his superior, a pedant called Jedediah Cleishbotham (itself
a trope which recurs in several Gothic novels). Numerous works can be
held to have otherwise complicated ideas of singular authorship, such as
Collins’s The Moonstone, which poses as an assembly of affidavits, and
Clough’s Amours de voyage. One of the most interesting and certainly
most overlooked examples of these is the work of the novelist John
Edward Jenkins. In his best-selling novel Ginx’s Baby (1870), Jenkins
built up his pages with a variety of interpolated texts and gestures:
laying out the text as if it were a play script, or incorporating official
documents, advertisements, and other textual bric-a-brac, and using the
covers, typography, and mise-en-page to startle and amuse. The result
reads at once as a whimsical deference to eighteenth-century precedent,
a postmodern blurring of boundaries between the fictive and the actual,
and a bookman’s set of games with the material substance of text. More
than any other novel of the later nineteenth century, Jenkins’s appears
like an apprenticeship in collage. In its open incorporation of found
text, it is distinctively modern.

⁴⁷ Alasdair Gray for instance explicitly links his self-consciousness concerning origin,
source, and mise-en-page to Carlyle. See particularly Lanark, 486–7.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 145

What all of these works have in common is that by drawing attention

to the contingency of their constituent parts, and to their artificially com-
posed rather than organically generated structure, they posed questions
concerning the nature and status of literary creation. Specifically, they
foregrounded an intertextual account of authorship, which implicitly
stressed the importance of effort and labour over that of momentary,
spontaneous inspiration. As such, they exist on a continuum both with
Charles Reade’s scrapbooks and with his novels.
Reade first began systematically to collect, arrange, and archive clip-
pings cut from newspapers, primarily The Times, in 1848. Scrapbook-
keeping was evidently a Reade family trait: the digest into which Reade
pasted his first Times excerpts had been a family archive since the early
nineteenth century, and contained a clipping from the News dated 23
November 1817 which describes the funeral of Princess Charlotte, as
well as the printed programme of William IV’s coronation, and tickets
for the coronation of Queen Victoria.⁴⁸ The earliest extant scrapbook
kept by Reade alone is a ‘Digest’ which was compiled 1858–9. As
well as abundant newspaper clippings, this Digest contains extensive
manuscript entries by Reade. In 1858, Reade had only recently decided
to abandon his career as an academic lawyer in order to become a
professional writer, and many of the entries in the Digest reveal a
man anxious about his late turn to literature, and highly aware of the
competitive and potentially unremunerative nature of the endeavour.
They also, fascinatingly, show Reade in the early stages of devising his
great system, and starting to negotiate the questions of literary property
and originality which were thrown up by such a methodology. So for
instance, on the first page of the digest, we find Reade thinking aloud:
Having wasted too many years to be learned, I must use cunning. Think
of some way to make young active fellows run and collect materials. Think
of a Machinery. … Thus start the conception. Learn the sources by Watt’s
Bibliotheca, Mr. Donne, Bandinel etc. Then put my hacks on, leaving gaps; so
that they may not see the whole design, and steal the capital idea. German hacks
good for this. University hacks ditto. Pay them well and keep them dark.⁴⁹
Facing this page, Reade made, under the large-letter heading ‘Memor-
anda Agenda’, a list of steps which he considered he must take in order
to turn himself into a successful writer. The first of these was, tellingly:
‘Plagiarize from Ephemerals ‘‘Times’’ in particular.’⁵⁰ Other entries

⁴⁸ Sutcliffe, ‘Reade’s Notebooks’, 76. ⁴⁹ LL15, 1b. ⁵⁰ Ibid. 1.

146 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

show Reade musing on the benefits to be derived from other sources or

methods. The eleventh entry, for instance, re-conceives literary creativity
as amenable to the same laws of induction as science:
11. Apply the modes of Physical investigation to letters. Learn. What are
the modes—‘statistics too are gathered’ How carry out the great Baconian/
Solomonian) principle. [In a later pen] Microscope. Telescope.⁵¹
The same idea is returned to on the second page of the Digest, across
the top of which Reade wrote in large letters ‘found fiction on
When not meditating on how best to run his fiction factory, Reade
was also beginning to explore the various types of sources which he
might be able to draw on, the various elements of a finished novel
or creative work which they would be able to provide, and the most
auspicious terminology to describe his method. Thus a large ink cross,
for instance, marks out the memorandum ‘hunt Topographical works
for good stories’, while the nineteenth point on Reade’s ‘agenda’ reads:
‘Dramatize Haliburton’s Apothegms vide Sam Slick & his other works.
A fund of wisdom under his pen. English can’t see this.’ Reade also
shows himself prepared to draw not only on textual sources, but also
on pictorial ones. Point ‘3.’ reminds him to ‘Make pictures disgorge
for the benefit of tales and plays. Capital idea.’⁵³ Other pages organize
the fruits of Reade’s reading under different source headings. On 6b he
arranges literary data under numbered subtitles: ‘1. Collections of stories
and sources of narratives. 3. Spirit of the public journals. 4. English
adventures. 7. Contes de monde.’⁵⁴ Later on, five pages of the book are
filled with what he titled ‘Citabilia’⁵⁵—quotations and epigrams from
the classics and elsewhere—while others enumerate ‘links for plot’, ‘plot
links’, and ‘parts of plot’, which Reade had cannibalized from the works
of other writers.⁵⁶
This first ‘Digest’ therefore provides a window through which we
can view Reade, at the beginning of his writing career, devising the
rudiments of his system, and starting to test out his theories of unoriginal
originality. It also, importantly, connects Reade’s professional working

⁵¹ LL15, 1. ⁵² Ibid. 1b.

⁵³ Ibid., 1–1b. Reade returned to the subject of pictures, photographs, engravings,
and how they might be ‘translated’ into prose, elsewhere in his scrapbooks. See LL39,
34; also LL46, passim. Sutcliffe notes that Reade had a plan for an ‘Art union’ where ‘the
drawing takes the place of text’. Sutcliffe, ‘Reade’s Notebooks’, 79.
⁵⁴ LL15, 6b. ⁵⁵ Ibid. 24–9. ⁵⁶ See also LL29, 11, 26b.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 147

methods with the domestic scrapbook culture with which he was

brought up. Its principal value to this discussion lies in the insight it
gives into Reade’s first attempts to work out a method of constructive
‘plagiarism’. On page 3b of the scrapbook, for instance, there is a long
entry on the subject which shows Reade to have been casting around,
with some success, for compendia of literary plagiarisms:
Found. Querard. Supercheries Literaires a book of amazing research pub. 1847.
vide the introduction 146 admirable pages.
Old books on plag. Enumerated by Parr in Prefatione Billenderi?
Plagiarisms. Writers on. a long list in a book by Charles Nodier. ‘Questions
de la literature legal.’ Quoted by Querard in his book of vast research called
Supercheries Literaires. D’Israeli Curious. Lit.⁵⁷
It is hard to see how D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature would have
appealed to Reade. Under the heading ‘Plagiarism’ in that book, Reade
would have found an attack on those ‘imitators’ who ‘imagine they
can supply by the labours of industry the deficiencies of nature’.⁵⁸
Nevertheless, he was evidently taken with the book, and returned to
it in entries in later scrapbooks. Quérard’s Les Supercheries littéraires
is similarly difficult to lock in to Reade’s subsequent position-taking,
although again he was clearly impressed by the work. Quérard’s self-
appointed role in Supercheries, a three-volume work compiled between
1845 and 1853, was ‘to judge and arrange the literary field according to
what he [saw] as its essential and worthy elements’. A literary historian
and bibliographer, Quérard was obsessed with purging literature of its
impostors and ‘pygmies’, and above all of its ‘literary industrialists’:
those writers who were ‘concerned solely with financial profit and
uninterested in and incapable of the pursuit of literary genius’. His
ire stemmed from his belief that authorship had become no longer a
vocation, but instead a business: a way for upstarts to succeed (parvenir),
in acquiring money. He also execrated plagiarism as ‘one of the most
shameful transgressions’ (l’un des plus honteux délits) it was possible for
a man of letters to commit.⁵⁹ Characteristically, however, Reade seems
to have regarded Quérard’s work as descriptive rather than prescriptive:
a record of a history of experiments in plagiarism, rather than a polemic
against it as a practice. Further into the Digest, on a page headed

⁵⁷ LL15, 3b.
⁵⁸ Isaac D’Israeli, Curiosities of Literature, 3rd edn. (London: John Murray, 1793),
⁵⁹ PP, 111.
148 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

‘plagiarism’, Reade returned to Quérard: ‘Supercheries literaires …

is valuable. explains the first motive of those who stole in the way of
letters. even some modern attempts of the kind have met with success’.⁶⁰
Reade here managed to overlook the unmistakably outraged tone of
Supercheries —its excoriation of ‘those who stole’—and instead to read
it as a display of the ‘success’, and an anatomy of the motives, of these
‘Plagiarism’, or the use of the work of others, was a topic to which
Reade returned in his scrapbooks, and by reading chronologically
through them it is possible to discern how Reade solved, at least to his
own satisfaction, the peculiar issues of literary property and originality
which were thrown up by his method. In an alphabetized scrapbook kept
between 1867 and 1870, for instance, Reade contemplated the question
of plagiarism at some length. He noted to himself that ‘D’Israeli gives
many examples in Curio. Lit.’ before creating his own compendium
of ‘plagiarism’ from canonical writers including Tennyson, Byron,
Virgil, Gray, Milton (‘In Paradise Lost Milton often imitates Homer.
In Sampson Agonistes Euripides is his mode’), and Shakespeare.⁶¹
Throughout these entries, Reade fudged the distinction which he had
earlier established between plagiarism and imitation: his conclusion,
having listed the numerous ‘plagiarisms’ effected by past great writers,
is that one can have ‘noble plagiarism if one improves what one takes’.
In scrapbook 40 he returned to the same idea. Under the page-heading
‘Plagiarism, methods of’ comes the following entry: ‘Stern [sic] did
well by transforming skilfully. good things have often been written, in
unskilful order … See Ferriar’s expose of Sterne’s method.’ John Ferriar
was the scholar and literary journalist who between 1791 and 1798
had accused Sterne of being a plagiarist.⁶² Ferriar’s ethical position on
plagiarism was as uncompromising (if less boldly stated) as Quérard’s
in Supercheries: typically, however, Reade tuned out Ferriar’s articulate
disapproval of plagiarism, and concentrated instead on his revelation of
Sterne’s reorganizational and transformative skills as an author. Indeed,
Reade’s reading of Ferriar prompted him to consider how he might,
like Sterne, draw in disparate elements to create a novel. In a note on
the following page, Reade reminded himself to ‘See Ferriar for Sterne’s

⁶⁰ LL15, 66.
⁶¹ LL25, entry under ‘P’ (there are no page numbers in this scrapbook).
⁶² See especially John Ferriar, ‘Advertisement’ to Illustrations of Sterne (New York:
Garland, 1974).
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 149

method Of Plagiarism by improved construction of the original’, before

proceeding to sketch out his own stratagem for making literature:
A Method
1. Search French Plays for a good plot.
2. Census of trades for English characters
3. Select some trades contrive particulars all in Blue books.
4. Index to blue-books for English facts and dialogue
With this hotch potch make a story. a drama. or both⁶³
This is one of several examples within Reade’s scrapbooks of how the
discourse of plagiarism (Ferriar on Sterne) fed back into the practice
of literary appropriation (Reade’s novelizing). Elsewhere, Reade further
refined his system. In scrapbook 40, for example, he noted in passing
that the method of ‘Double barrelled plagiarism’ was ‘practised with
no little success by English playwrights in the last century’.⁶⁴ He
addressed this idea in more detail in scrapbook 29 (c.1876). There, he
explained that ‘the double-barrel system’—for which he also coined the
neologism ‘bilogy’—involved plaiting together elements of two plays,
or two novels, in order to create a ‘new’ hybrid product. The idea
evidently appealed to Reade: he referred to it as a ‘genius falsehood’, and
noted down examples of how such an approach might operate.⁶⁵ Here,
as throughout his scrapbooks, Reade can be seen testing out different
theories of reuse, and different ways of describing or envisioning these
‘Plagiarism’, noted Reade candidly in scrapbook 25, ‘may be defined
servile copying of ideas found in some homogeneous work.’⁶⁶ ‘All fiction,
worth a button, is founded on facts’, he declared brassily in the preface to
his 1873 novel A Simpleton, ‘[and] I rarely write a novel without milking
about two hundred heterogeneous cows into my pail.’⁶⁷ As has already
been noted, the distinction between ‘heterogeneous’ and ‘homogeneous’
literature recurred in Reade’s engagement with the questions of source,
originality, and plagiarism, and it is worth trying to understand what
he meant by it. He discriminated between the two terms at greatest
length, and most publicly, in a response to the most high profile of the
many plagiarism scandals which blew up around him. Following the
publication of his novel The Wandering Heir in 1872, two short letters

⁶³ LL40, 60–1. ⁶⁴ Ibid. 59. ⁶⁵ See, for instance, LL29, 1, 21a, 22, 23.
⁶⁶ LL25, entry under ‘P’.
⁶⁷ Charles Reade, introduction to A Simpleton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1873), 2.
150 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

were published in separate periodicals, accusing Reade of taking ‘twenty

or thirty lines’ from Swift’s poem ‘Journal of a Modern Lady’, and
patching them without attribution into his novel. Both letters made use
of so-called ‘parallel columns’ to substantiate their accusation, printing
side by side passages from the ‘original’ text and the ‘plagiaristic’ text
so that the larceny could be more easily seen by the reader.⁶⁸ It was
a technique which drew increasing censure towards the close of the
century. Critics asserted that it was too effective in convicting authors,
and that it misconceived the nature of literary works as unique and
entirely unreactive to other literary works. Brander Matthews, writing
in 1884, observed that:
The great feat of the amateur literary detective is to run up parallel columns,
and he can accomplish this with the agility of an acrobat … But these parallel
passages … are employed now only too often, they are quite inconclusive; and
it has been neatly remarked that they are perhaps like parallel lines, in that they
would never meet, however far produced.⁶⁹
So irritated was Matthews by the over-use of parallel passages that he
called for plagiarism accusations to be made legally accountable—as
slander—and for accusers to be liable for damages if the accusation was
unsustainable. ‘[A] ready acceptance of the charge of plagiarism is a sign
of low culture,’ he declared, ‘a frequent bringing of the accusation is a
sign of defective education and deficient intelligence.’⁷⁰
In his response to his parallel-passage accusation, Reade did not seek to
deny his use of the excerpt from Swift. He published a thirty-page essay
entitled ‘The Sham-Sample Swindle’, in which he first denounced both
the parallel column ‘trick’ and the originality fetish of his accusers, and
then outlined his own account of literary creativity, stressing the necessity
of such appropriation, transformation, and re-contextualization in the
creation of literature.⁷¹ In 1875, when a new edition of The Wandering
Heir appeared, Reade prefaced it with a revised and enlarged version of
‘The Sham-Sample Swindle’ essay, retitled simply as ‘Trade Malice’. In
both versions of the essay, Reade inveighed, like Matthews, against plagiar-
ism accusation as an ‘unhappy system, which is the curse and degradation

⁶⁸ It was ‘the parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare collocated by Mr

Cruickshank to make manifest Massinger’s indebtedness’ that provoked Eliot to deliver
his famous and much misquoted dictum on appropriation: ‘Immature poets imitate,
mature poets steal.’ SETSE, 206.
⁶⁹ Matthews, ‘Ethics of Plagiarism’, 622. ⁷⁰ Ibid. 623.
⁷¹ The essay was first published in Once a Week in January 1872; Reade reprinted it
in Trade Malice in 1875.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 151

of letters in England, and yet is thoroughly un-English’.⁷² He proclaimed

that most plagiarism accusations were motivated by a desire on the part
of the accuser to destabilize the category of ‘genius’ in literature. ‘Certain
criticasters, or unscientific critics, have [a] theory’, Reade wrote:
that no rare gift, nor unwonted labour is required [for fiction]; any insular
dunce can fire the globe, provided he is dishonest on a large scale. Now this is
a comfortable theory; because, you see, dishonesty is within the reach of all.⁷³
He then proceeded, with characteristic modesty, to enumerate the ‘rare
union of different qualities’ required by a true literary ‘Genius’. They
included, according to Reade, ‘a good method … judgment, observation,
research, excited brain, self-control, imitation, invention, love of the
production, and yet the stern self-denial to prune it, ay lop it, though it
is the author’s child’: a list from which ‘originality’ was conspicuously
absent.⁷⁴ He also supplied a roll-call of eminent writers who had also
interpolated the work of other writers into their own, as proof that his
method of composition in this case had the legitimacy of precedent.
Among Reade’s witnesses for the defence were Defoe, Milton, Scott,
Molière, Virgil, the authors of the Old Testament, and Corneille. Reade
was unafraid even to compare himself with Shakespeare. ‘ ‘‘Macbeth,’’
taken from a heterogeneous work, a chronicle, is no plagiarism’, he
wrote indignantly, ‘though [Shakespeare] uses a much larger slice of
Hollingshed’s dialogue than I have taken from Swift, and follows his
original more closely.’⁷⁵
The hinge of Reade’s self-defence, though, was his discrimination
between heterogeneous and homogeneous works of literature. ‘There is
a vital distinction’, he wrote, ‘between taking ideas from a homogeneous
source, and from a heterogeneous source; and only the first mentioned
of these two acts is plagiarism: the latter is more like jewel-setting.’⁷⁶
A homogeneous source, Reade asserted, was a work of unified tone,
texture, style, and concern. Heterogeneous sources, by contrast, were
multi-textured works which, because of their compound nature, were
fit for disassembly and subsequent reuse. He continued indignantly:
Swift’s verses are not fictitious narrative, but a photograph, painting the inner
life of many Dublin ladies at an epoch long gone by; and I—did well to set that
jewel in my heterogeneous work, and therein was not a plagiarist, but followed
the highest and noblest masters of fiction in a distinct branch of their art.⁷⁷

⁷² Reade, Trade Malice, 3–4. ⁷³ Ibid. 2–3. ⁷⁴ Ibid. 2.

⁷⁵ Ibid. 15–16. ⁷⁶ Ibid. 15. ⁷⁷ Ibid. 18.
152 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

To refine his definition, Reade instanced the work of Shakespeare

again, pointing out that ‘the art with which the great master uses and
versifies Volumnia’s speech [in Coriolanus], as he got it from North’s
translation of Plutarch, is jewel-setting, not plagiarism’.⁷⁸ Concluding
his essay, Reade pointed out how he had changed the ‘form’, ‘com-
position’, and ‘order’ of Swift’s work and that this ‘entire change of
form, and improved sequence of facts are not the method of the servile
plagiarist, but of the inventive scholar who has the skill to select, and
interweave another writer’s valuable facts into his own figment’.⁷⁹
What is significant here is how enmeshed Reade’s ideas are with wider
issues of literary form, and literary integrity—in the structural sense of
wholeness, rather than the ethical sense of honour. In Victorian Poets,
E. C. Stedman remarked perceptively on ‘the progress’ in literature over
the course of the Victorian period from ‘the simple to the complex, from
the homogeneous to the heterogeneous’.⁸⁰ This is a progress which left
its traces throughout Victorian literature. Walter Pater, for instance, as
Linda Dowling has noted, was ‘keenly aware that biological science ha[d]
newly revealed the world as being almost unimaginably heterogeneous’,
and he mapped this understanding onto his understanding of cultural
and literary relationships. For Pater, types of art ‘evanesce[d] into each
other by inexpressible refinements of change’, just as ‘types of life’ did
in nature.⁸¹ In his 1876 essay on ‘Romanticism’, Pater discussed the
hybridity of modern literature. ‘An intellectually rich age such as ours
being necessarily an eclectic one,’ he wrote, ‘we may well cultivate
some of the excellences of literary types so different as those: that
in literature, as in other matters it is well to unite as many diverse
elements as may be: that the individual writer or artist, certainly, is to
be estimated by the number of graces he combines.’⁸² The poet and
Hellenophile John Addington Symonds concurred with Pater. In a long
and authoritative essay from 1890, entitled ‘Evolutionary Principles in
Literature’, Symonds proposed a model of evolution as the chronological
movement from simple to complex (or ‘hybrid’) life-forms, and then
brought this model to bear on the history of Western literature. He
argued that the history of literature was also a history of steadily
increasing hybridity. ‘Originality’, according to Symonds, was in fact
a misnomer for ‘hybridity’: what in modern literature seemed original

⁷⁸ Reade, Trade Malice, 16. ⁷⁹ Ibid. 54–5.

⁸⁰ Stedman, Victorian Poets, 27. ⁸¹ LD, 125. ⁸² WP, Appr., 261.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 153

was in fact merely a novel combination of old material.⁸³ This question

of integrity versus hybridity, as Leah Price and Sally Shuttleworth have
both shown, concerned George Eliot greatly.⁸⁴ In a letter to John
Blackwood concerning Alexander Main, she expressed her considerable
concern at the idea that her novels could be broken down into parts.
‘Unless my readers are more moved towards the ends I seek by my works
as wholes than by an assemblage of extracts,’ Eliot wrote anxiously, ‘my
writings are a mistake. … if I have ever allowed myself in dissertation
or in dialogue [anything] which is not part of the structure of my
books, I have there sinned against my own laws.’⁸⁵ By the end of her
career, however, she had produced Impressions of Theophrastus Such, a
work which was persistently preoccupied with—and not a little fond
of—its own bittiness. As such it recapitulated Lewes’s observation in
The Principles of Success in Literature (1856) that it is the ‘fine selective
instinct of the artist [which] makes him fasten upon the details which
will most powerfully affect us’.⁸⁶
Aspects of this progress from unity to atomization—from the sense
that literary effect might exist most importantly in details, and not
in the long haul of a work—have recently been investigated by Leah
Price and David Trotter. Paying particular attention to Turner’s art,
Dickens’s fiction, and fin-de-siècle prose naturalism, Trotter’s Cooking
with Mud makes a persuasive case for the increasing importance both of
randomness and of detail, rather than design and unity, in nineteenth-
century fiction and art. Leah Price, in The Anthology and the Rise of the
Novel, argues that, under pressure of the rise of the anthology, which
militated against the ‘organicist theory of text’, nineteenth-century
literature rearranged itself so as to prize isolation and discordance
over position and connection. Early in her book, Price quotes the
1816 foreword to Vicesimus Knox’s multiple-edition anthology, Elegant
Extracts, in which Knox remarks that ‘the art of printing has multiplied
books to such a degree … that it becomes necessary to read in the
classical sense of the word, legere, that is, to pick out … the best parts
of books’. It is Price’s thesis that the anthology taught not only a new
style of reading, but also one of writing. It enabled, or sanctioned by

⁸³ J. A. Symonds, Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall,

1890), ii. 29.
⁸⁴ See Price, Anthology, 105–56, and Shuttleworth, Make-Believe, passim.
⁸⁵ Letter to John Blackwood, 12 November 1873. Letters, v. 458–9.
⁸⁶ Lewes, Principles of Success, 38.
154 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

analogy, new styles of writing and new genres such as ‘the gothic novel
(which punctuated prose narrative with verse epigraphs)’.⁸⁷
To Price’s list of newly enabled genres could be added that of
documentary realism. Reade was one of the many nineteenth-century
authors who extended Knox’s methodology of reading (‘to pick out
… the best parts of books’) such that it became a methodology of
writing. His scrapbooks reveal him to have skimmed texts with the
same appetitious enthusiasm for parts rather than wholes that an
anthologizer might display. His ‘Great System’ can therefore be seen as
a strategy which was responding to a literary landscape which was, as
Price puts it, ‘increasingly defined by extract’, and in which traditional
assumptions about the relation between literary effect and long haul were
being reconsidered. Reade prised out ‘the best parts’ from numerous
‘heterogeneous’ works, and then recombined them. As such, he endorsed
a gestalt aesthetic of literary creativity: a belief that the arrangement of
the parts exceeded the sum of their individual values. He supplied a
motto for his modular method in the epigraph to his Autobiography of
a Thief : ‘A thief is a man; and a man’s life is like those geographical
fragments children learn ‘‘the contiguous countries’’ by. The pieces are
a puzzle; but put them together carefully, and lo! they are a map.’⁸⁸


The ‘Great System’ which Reade used to create his fiction, and the virtues
of which he extolled so publicly, was founded upon two intellectual
premisses: first, that true authorship lay not in the ability to originate,
but in the ability to organize; and second, that the novelist’s job was
judiciously to select and to ingest as much textual material as possible.
Reade thrived, one might say, on a diet of good copy. His ‘Great
System’ presumed a recyclical economy of letters in which one writer’s
product was another writer’s raw material. Put differently, it presumed
that the novel was a rehash of journalism and other types of non-fiction
writing, which were themselves rehashes of life. It was not only ‘recorded
facts’ which Reade wove into the forms of ‘Art’, however, but also the
work of other ‘creative’ writers. Over the course of his career, Reade
extended the mandate he had granted himself to appropriate from

⁸⁷ Price, Anthology, 4.
⁸⁸ Charles Reade, introduction to The Autobiography of a Thief and Other Histories,
and The Wandering Heir (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 2.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 155

newspapers to other, more explicitly literary sources. Edward Elton

Smith has speculated that it was because so many of Reade’s own
plots were lifted in the first place from newspaper reports or records of
sensational court cases that ‘the manuscripts of other authors seemed
like so much more raw material for him to masticate in the voracious
maw of his eclectic taste’.⁸⁹ According to Smith’s version, Reade became
increasingly confused about the accepted limits of literary property.
It may have been, though, that Reade became increasingly dissatisfied
with these limits. Certainly, what makes Reade so significant to the
history of originality and plagiarism in the nineteenth century is his
persistent and public transgressions of the established boundaries of
literary property, and his equally persistent and public denials that
he had done anything wrong. By being so open about his ‘Great
System’, Reade stressed the essentially textual nature of literary creativity.
However, Reade is vital to any consideration of changing models of
originality not just because of his high-volume rhetoric of self-defence,
but also because of the stress which he laid upon the diversity of textual
elements and sources which go to make up a work of literature. Reade’s
work raised questions about how far ‘plagiarism’ disturbed notions of
singularity and integrity, as well as about how far it disturbs notions of
genre—including whether it could ever itself be described as a genre.
Reade also, it should be pointed out, openly proclaimed himself to
be a ‘genius’. He was the first nineteenth-century writer, though not
the last—Wilde would claim that title—explicitly to yoke the idea of
literary genius to that of literary appropriation.
The literary history of the nineteenth century is in one sense a history
of increasing self-consciousness about the impossibility of originality.
In his modes of composition, and in his foregrounding of the textual
origins of his plays and novels, Reade can be seen as an important
Victorian precursor or analogue of certain aesthetic trends within
literary modernism. Reade acknowledged the multiple origins of his
novels, and in doing so he anticipated those many artistic works of
the twentieth century which deliberately revealed their own textual
infrastructures, and advertised their own provenances. The appendix
of footnotes with which Eliot suffixed The Waste Land, for instance,
and which annotated that poem’s multi-sourced nature, is analogous to
Reade’s readiness to flag up the journalistic, and sometimes the literary,
sources of his novels. One of the reasons Eliot gave for providing that

⁸⁹ Smith, Charles Reade, 23–4.

156 Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist

appendix, indeed, was that it was designed to ‘spik[e] the guns of critics
of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’.⁹⁰ The confused
frontier-land between the public and the private domains was a region
which Reade exploited for literary-aesthetic effect: it would be exploited
more openly by literary modernism, and more openly still by certain
branches of postmodernism.
Between Reade and the wilful appropriations of modernism, however,
was to come the fin-de-siècle, a period during which certain prominent
writers, as the final chapter describes, made borrowing and appropriation
a primary and explicit feature of their artistic productions. The literary
texture of the fin-de-siècle was determined to an important degree by its
reaction against the realist mode which had so dominated the preceding
decades, and it was a period which saw the emphatic demise of the
documentary novel. Writing in 1894, in the first issue of the Yellow
Book, the flagship publication of the Decadent movement, Arthur
Waugh castigated what he saw as a ‘brutal’ realism still at large in
Victorian literature, whose practitioners:
with absolutely no art at all … merely reproduce, with the fidelity of the kodak,
scenes & situations the existence of which we all acknowledge. [They] blunder
on resolutely with an indomitable and damning sincerity, till all is said that can
be said, and art is lost in photography.⁹¹
Mere reproduction—in this case the act of copying from an ‘acknow-
ledged’ reality—was for Waugh ‘no art at all’, and his exemplum for this
slavish devotion to an external world was ‘the fidelity of the kodak’. Art,
his metaphor implied, is born of unfaithfulness, of not being steadfastly
wedded to the visible. Wilde felt much the same as Waugh, only more
strongly. For Wilde, copying reality—or ‘plagiaris[ing] from real life’, as
Martin Amis, with a Wildean flourish, would later put it—was close to
a felony.⁹² Five years before Waugh’s polemic, in ‘The Decay of Lying’,
Wilde had attacked the prevailing mode and mechanism of realism:
The modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.
The blue-book is rapidly becoming his ideal both for method and manner. He
has his tedious ‘document humain,’ his miserable little ‘coin de la création,’ into
which he peers with his microscope. He is to be found at the Librairie Nationale,
or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject. He has not even

⁹⁰ T. S. Eliot, ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’, in On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber,

1957), 109.
⁹¹ Arthur Waugh, ‘Reticence in Literature’, Yellow Book, 1 (April 1894), 217, 204.
⁹² Martin Amis, London Fields (London: Penguin, 1990), 467.
Charles Reade: The Realist as Plagiarist 157
the courage of other people’s ideas, but insists on going directly to life for
everything, and ultimately, between encyclopædias and personal experience, he
comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle or from the
weekly washer-woman, and having acquired an amount of useful information
from which never, even in his most meditative moments, can he thoroughly
free himself.⁹³
Wilde’s discontent with realism, it is important to understand, was on
the grounds of its unimaginativeness, not its unoriginality. For Wilde the
true crime against art was not copying other art, but copying life. As we
will see in the next chapter, Wilde’s literary aesthetic was founded upon
his inventive reuse of the words of others: upon his belief that originality
was achieved through jinks and swerves of thought and language, rather
than through quantum leaps. Throughout his career, Wilde crimped,
spun, stretched, finessed, and pummelled clichés, quotations, sayings,
formulae of speech, conventional ideas, and other orthodoxies. He
perfected a kind of formal judo: he would use the weight of a reader’s
expectation concerning an idea or a turn of phrase to throw them
further than would otherwise have been possible. He was a writer
who subordinated the idea of originality as uniqueness to the idea of
originality as repetition with variation.
A pertinent example of this is Wilde’s gripe, quoted above, that the
‘modern novelist … has not even the courage of other people’s ideas,
but insists on going directly to life for everything’. As a phrase, not
having ‘the courage of other people’s ideas’ shies ironically away from
the not having ‘the courage of one’s own convictions’. It also, however,
plays with sardonic neatness off an accusation which James McNeill
Whistler had levelled at Wilde in a letter published in The World on
17 November 1886. Disgruntled at what he saw as Wilde’s excessively
laissez-faire attitude towards the witticisms and insights of others,
Whistler had observed that Wilde ‘has the courage of the opinions—of
others!’⁹⁴ Typically, Wilde had streamlined Whistler’s bon mot; had
nipped and tucked it until it was a slimmer, smarter quip. Wilde’s
improvement of Whistler’s witticism is usefully representative of the
new inflection which some writers of the fin-de-siècle —above all Wilde,
Pater, and Lionel Johnson—would put on the ideas of originality and

⁹³ CWOW, 1073.
⁹⁴ Whistler included a portion of this acrimonious correspondence in his The Gentle
Art of Making Enemies (London: Heinemann, 1890), 236–8.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle:
Originality and Plagiarism in Pater,
Wilde, and Johnson


[T]here is nothing absolutely new: or rather, as in many other very

original products of human genius, the seemingly new is old also.
(Walter Pater, 1893)¹

In Degeneration (1892), the book which at once diagnosed and stimu-

lated the European fin-de-siècle preoccupation with decay, Max Nordau
sought to extend into literature and art the pathology of degeneration
which Cesare Lombroso had defined in psychological and anthropo-
logical terms. One of the pre-eminent symptoms of artistic decay,
according to Nordau, was the atrophy of originality. Seeking early in
his book to establish a working definition of his subject, he quoted
the French psychologist Bénédict Morel’s classification of degeneracy
as ‘a morbid deviation from an original type’, and this association of
‘degeneracy’ and ‘unoriginality’ recurred in the remainder of Degen-
eration.² Nordau returned repeatedly to the idea that the ascent of
unoriginality—traceable via its literary expressions (‘imitation’, ‘plagi-
arism’, ‘allusion’)—provided an index for the moral decline of Europe.
He contrasted ‘the bog of barren imitation’ in which fin-de-siècle writ-
ing was mired with the ability of earlier writers to ‘creat[e] truly new

¹ WP, Pl.Pl., 8.
² Bénédict A. Morel, Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de
l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives (Paris: Baillière, 1857),
5. Quoted by Max Nordau, Degeneration (London: Heinemann, 1895), 6.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 159

form[s]’.³ He castigated the Decadent movement in literature as nothing

more than a dynasty of imitators sired by Baudelaire: Wilde’s poems
he singled out for particular criticism as ‘feeble imitations of Rossetti
and Swinburne’.⁴ Finally, in a chapter devoted to ‘The Young German
Plagiarists’, the generation of imitative ‘realist’ writers which he felt to
have vitiated the fine tradition of German originality,⁵ Nordau went
so far as to define plagiarism as an expression of ‘acute hysteria’ and
‘hysterical mental derangement’: the dysfunctions which, as Lombroso
had suggested in his works on criminology and delinquency, were
afflicting Europe to an unprecedented degree. For Nordau, originality
was a diminishing power in a waning gibbous civilization.⁶
Degeneration was, like so much of the fin-de-siècle discourse of
degeneration, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, Nordau’s sense of
the dwindling possibility of literary originality was authentically shared
by numerous late Victorian writers, not least because it married with
the widespread anxiety that language itself was in a steady process of
dereliction.⁷ In the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Britain,
as Linda Dowling observes, elegies for an exhausted English became
commonplace—as did grievances at the impossibility of originality.
‘Our language is too worn,’ lamented the poet and playwright John
Davidson in 1886, ‘too much abused, | Jaded and overspurred, wind-
broken, lame—The hackneyed roadster every bagman mounts.’⁸ So
‘jaded’ was language felt to be in the fin-de-siècle, indeed, that a new
word was coined to describe a ‘worn-out’ word. ‘Cliché’, as W. J.
McCormack points out, derives from the specialized vocabulary of the

³ Nordau, Degeneration, 526. ⁴ Ibid. 297, 319.

⁵ Ibid. 519, 523. ‘German literature has ever taken the lead in civilized humanity.
We were the inventors, foreigners were the imitators. We provisioned the world with
poetic forms and ideas. Romanticism originated among us … every novel method of
thought … has been furnished by the Germans … And now we suffer the humiliation of
seeing a heap of contemptible plagiarists hawking about the dullest and coarsest coun-
terfeit of French imitations … as the ‘‘most modern’’ production offered by Germany.’
Ibid. 507–8.
⁶ For an excellent overview of European ideas of degeneration, see Daniel Pick, Faces
of Disintegration: A European Disorder 1848–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989).
⁷ See Dowling’s discussion of this topic in LD; also Robert Pynsent, ‘Decadence,
Decay and Innovation’, in R. B. Pynsent (ed.), Decadence and Innovation: Austro-
Hungarian Life and Art at the Turn of the Century (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
1989), 111–248.
⁸ John Davidson, ‘Smith: A Tragic Farce’, in Plays (London: Elkin Matthews and
John Lane, 1894), 229.
160 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

printing trade.⁹ It comes from the early nineteenth-century French term

for a stereotype block, presumably due to the noise the blocks made
whilst printing (clicher is a variant of the verb cliquer, to click). It existed
in this literal meaning until the 1890s: the OED offers Andrew Lang,
writing in Longwood’s Magazine in 1892, as providing the first usage of
cliché as a metaphor meaning ‘A stereotyped expression, a commonplace
phrase’. The coinage stuck, and the word cliché itself became a cliché,
reproduced many times over to designate something reproduced many
times over.¹⁰
In 1883, in his essay on Rossetti, Walter Pater tried to historicize
the demise of originality, remarking that ‘1870’ was ‘a time when
poetic originality in England might seem to have had its utmost play’.
Although he proceeded to admire Rossetti’s originality, the thrust
of Pater’s argument was that Rossetti’s innovations were unique and
isolated, only a temporary respite from the entropic seep of ‘poetic
originality’ which was under way.¹¹ John Addington Symonds wrote
in 1889 that ‘[i]t is impossible for people of the present to be as fresh
as the Elizabethans were. Such a mighty stream, novies Styx interfusa,
in the shape of accumulated erudition … divides the men of this time
from the men of that.’¹² This image of cultural accumulation—of
the steady, remorseless gather of words and thoughts nullifying the
possibility of ‘freshness’—recurred in discussions of originality in the
final twenty years of the century. In 1891, a long article on ‘The Decay
of Originality’ appeared in the National Review. In this ‘lagging world’,
wrote the author, ‘it would seem as if … originality stand[s] in … great
danger of being dwarfed and crushed’ by the powers of ‘uniformity’ and
‘imitation’.¹³ Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s well-received 1883 novel about
plagiarism, The Giant’s Robe, described the fate of a young man, Mark
Ashburn, who no longer felt capable of authentic experience in what he

⁹ W. J. McCormack, ‘James Joyce, Cliché and the Irish Language’, in Bernard

Benstock (ed.), James Joyce: The Augmented Ninth (New York: Syracuse University Press,
1988), 325.
¹⁰ ‘Stereotype’ followed a similar semantic career. It began as an eighteenth-century
noun meaning ‘A method of replicating a relief printing surface’, but by 1850 had been
abstracted to signify ‘A thing continued or constantly repeated without change, esp. a
phrase or formula, etc.; stereotyped diction or usage’ (OED).
¹¹ WP, Appr., 205–6. The essay was first published in 1883, and then collected in
Appreciations (1889).
¹² J. A. Symonds, ‘A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry’, Fortnightly
Review, 51 (January 1889), 58.
¹³ C. B. Roylance-Kent, ‘The Decay of Originality’, National Review, 18 (1891), 520,
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 161

called ‘this over-plagiarized world’.¹⁴ Ashburn’s quest for the authentic

is only consummated when he passes off a plagiarized manuscript as his
own work, and revels in the fame it brings him (as such, Guthrie’s novel
anticipates the paradox, important to the aesthetic logic of modernism
and essential to the aesthetic logic of postmodernism, that the authentic
might only arise as a function of inauthenticity). Yeats, looking back
on what he would call the ‘Tragic generation’ of writers, described
them—Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, et al.—as
‘men who spoke … timidly as though they knew that all subjects had
long since been explored, all questions long since decided in books
whereon the dust settles’.¹⁵ E. C. Stedman, introducing his 1876 critical
history, Victorian Poets, observed that ‘ ‘‘the light that gilds’’ our recent
English poetry [is] ‘‘the light of sunset’’ ’.¹⁶ Chiliastic gloom-mongering
about the end of literature was sufficiently ubiquitous by 1891 to
become the butt of an elegant half-lampoon by Wilde in ‘The Critic
as Artist’. ‘The subject-matter at the disposal of creation becomes every
day more limited in extent and variety’, Wilde’s Gilbert pronounces:
The old roads and dusty highways have been traversed too often. Their charm
has been worn away by plodding feet, and they have lost that element of novelty
or surprise which is so essential for romance. … I myself am inclined to think
that creation is doomed … it is certain that the subject-matter at the disposal of
creation is always diminishing.¹⁷
In this closing chapter it is argued that this widespread sense of
enervation—of existing in what Walter Pater referred to as ‘this late
age’¹⁸—gathered in force and oppressiveness towards the end of the
century. Many writers were disturbed by the belief that they found
themselves in one of the last and least eras of literature, and this
disquiet reverberated in their writings. In particular by the late 1880s
and 1890s in Britain, cultural anxieties at the depleted range of human
experience which remained unwritten had focused into a sense that
it might in fact be unfeasible to produce what John Churton Collins
called the ‘purely original’ in literature.¹⁹ The literary imagination of
the fin-de-siècle, it might be said, was caught between the prodigious
intellectual output of preceding generations, which had all but abolished
the possibility of originality, and a future which held no prospect of

¹⁴ T. A. Guthrie, The Giant’s Robe (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1884), 109.
¹⁵ W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1961), 303–4.
¹⁶ Stedman, Victorian Poets, 27. ¹⁷ CWOW, 1151.
¹⁸ WP, Appr., 80. ¹⁹ Collins, Illustrations, p. vii.
162 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

an amelioration, but only of further decline and decay. An intensifying

awareness of the superabundance of past literary production—the
‘prolific … progeny of the muse’, as Washington Irving had referred
to it²⁰—was matched and sharpened by a sense that the future held
little prospect of literary recuperation, and by a sense of the heightened
perishability of language. It was for these reasons that, in the fin-de-siècle,
the idea of literary originality ex nihilo came under greater pressure than
ever before. No longer was it possible to understand originality as the
creation, in John Héraud’s words, of something ‘underived … absolute
and independent’.²¹
Faced with this diminishing repertoire of the new, what were writers
to do? Either they could agonize over their belatedness: an option which
at the very least gave them something to write about. Or they could
seek to redefine the very idea of originality. They could devise ways to
minister first-aid to decrepit language, to resuscitate exhausted words.
They could reconceptualize originality, such that the term denoted not
the creation of the utterly new, but instead the judicious reuse of older
material. It was this dilemma, and its resolution, which Walter Pater
staged throughout his writing, ‘studiously invok[ing] the historical past
as his immediate context, and so self-consciously situat[ing] himself at a
‘‘belated’’ moment in literary and cultural history’.²² This confession of
belatedness operates both at a conceptual-discursive level—‘all Pater is
‘‘late’’ Pater’, as Carolyn Williams neatly puts it²³—and at the level of
the sentence: Dowling has brilliantly shown how Pater’s sentences, with
their archaic inversions and curious word orders, perform the aesthetic
of delay which they expound.²⁴
The staging of delay is most obvious in Marius the Epicurean (1885).
Pater chose the period setting for his novel carefully, selecting an era
which was distant in time from his own, but which was clearly affiliated
to it spiritually and culturally. Among the many shared circumstances
which would have been recognized by Pater’s readers was that of
language’s fatigue. Early in Marius, Pater described the dissatisfaction

²⁰ Quoted in McFarland, Originality and Imagination, 7.

²¹ Héraud, ‘On Poetical Genius’, 57.
²² Megan Becker-Leckrone, ‘Pater’s Critical Spirit’, in Laurel Brake, Lesley Higgins,
and Carolyn Williams (eds.), Walter Pater: Transparencies of Desire (Greensboro, NC:
ELT Press, 2002), 175.
²³ Carolyn Williams, ‘On Pater’s Late Style’, Nineteenth-Century Prose, 24 (1997),
²⁴ LD, passim.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 163

of his writer-protagonist, Flavian, at the fact that he was working within

a ‘literature’ and a ‘tongue’ (late Latin) that are ‘dying of routine and
languor’.²⁵ Flavian casts vainly around for ways in which he might be
able to revivify such a weakened medium, until finally, inspired by
a reading of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, he formulates what he calls a
‘literary programme’ which will permit him to become ‘a gallant and
effective leader … in the rehabilitation of the mother-tongue, then fallen
so tarnished and languid’.²⁶ The keynote of Flavian’s rescue programme
is retroactivity. He decides not to forge a new and wholly original poetic
language, but instead—as Heidegger would later advocate—to delve
backwards in language and literature in an attempt to rejuvenate the
latent meaning of dying words:
He would make of it a serious study, weighing the precise power of every
phrase and word, as though it were precious metal, disentangling the later
associations and going back to the original and native sense of each,—restoring
to full significance all its wealth of latent figurative expression, reviving or
replacing its outworn or tarnished images … re-establish[ing] the natural and
direct relationship between thought and expression, between the sensation and
the term, and restor[ing] to words their primitive power.²⁷
It was precisely this understanding of writing as retreat—as Pater puts
it, a ‘revival’, ‘replacement’, ‘re-establishment’, or ‘restoration’—which
lies at the heart of certain important fin-de-siècle attitudes to originality
and plagiarism. Haunted by the spectre of literary and linguistic exhaus-
tion, and dissatisfied with inherited ideas of originality as autonomous
creation, writers such as Pater, Wilde, and Lionel Johnson maintained in
both their creative and their critical writing that getting to ‘the original’
meant not surging forwards, but ‘going back’. Original literature, for
these authors, was achieved through restoration, not through genera-
tion. Like Flavian, they endorsed a refined ‘literary programme’, which
advocated the assaying of each individual word for its precise and vari-
able values, and which displayed a commitment to the revelatory power
of etymology and an extreme care for style (the ‘fastidious sense of a
correctness in external form’, as Flavian puts it).²⁸ They formulated, one
might say, an aesthetic of salvage, which placed great emphasis upon the
concept of stylish reuse, and which demonstrated a refined and erudite
attention to the values of old words. Originality came specifically to be
conceived of as the subtle re-expression of what had often been thought.

²⁵ WP, Marius I, 96. ²⁶ Ibid. 94–5. ²⁷ Ibid. 96. ²⁸ Ibid. 97.

164 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

As Stedman noted, ‘the natural forms were long since discovered, but
[our] lyrists have learned that combinations are endless, so that new
styles, if not new orders, are constantly brought out’.²⁹ Inevitably, this
complicated orthodox assumptions concerning literary reuse and literary
property, and unsettled definitions of plagiarism.


[T]hat the doom was nigh was allegedly evident in the state of
language, which had become bureaucratised and clichéd, and so
the Decadents had to provide luxuriant decoration for doom-
struck language. The cultivation of ‘style’ constituted much of
that decoration.³⁰

In an 1852 lecture on ‘Literature’, subsequently collected in The Idea of

a University, J. H. Newman proposed his conception of style. Style, he
proposed, is ‘the faithful expression of [a writer’s] intense personality’:
attending on his own inward world of thought as its very shadow: so that we
might as well say that one man’s shadow is another’s as that the style of a really
gifted mind can belong to any but himself. It follows him about as a shadow.
His thought and feeling are personal, and so his language is personal.³¹
Newman’s was a highly possessive theory of style, which supposed an
extreme intimacy between verbal style and mind. As such, it was an
extension of Newman’s conviction that ‘pure’, individual origination
was possible. Elsewhere in the essay he remarked that ‘language itself
in its very origination would seem to be traceable to individuals’,
and that the individual writer’s mind in action is capable of ‘imag[ing]
forth … innumerable and incessant creations’.³² He also described ‘great
literature’ in terms of the internal externalized: as ‘the poetry of his inner
soul’, ‘the fire within the author’s breast which overflows in the torrent
of his burning, irresistible eloquence’. For Newman, authentic literature
was ‘born, not framed’.³³

²⁹ Stedman, Victorian Poets, 25.

³⁰ Pynsent, ‘Decadence, Decay and Innovation’, 112.
³¹ Newman, ‘Literature: A Lecture’, 139–40.
³² Ibid. 139. ³³ Ibid. 142.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 165

Nearly forty years after Newman’s essay, Pater turned his attention to
the same topic. In his 1889 essay ‘Style’, however, Pater showed himself
to be considerably more cautious than Newman in his claims for the
originary capacity of the author, and more respectful of the irresolvable
paradox of style: how it is possible for a writer’s style to be genuinely
idiosyncratic when it is crafted from the communally created medium of
language. Two major differences stand out between the two essays. The
first is that, unlike Newman, Pater was unable to dissolve or ignore the
problem of language’s public nature. He confronted this question early
in his essay. ‘[T]he material in which he [the literary artist] works’, Pater
admitted, ‘is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble.
Product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues, compact
of obscure and minute association, language has its own abundant and
often recondite laws.’³⁴ Pater acknowledged that ‘style’ is an amalgamate
of individual words or blocks of meaning, and that ‘these blocks, or
words’, as Robert Louis Stevenson would put it in his essay on style,
‘are the acknowledged daily currency of our daily affairs’.³⁵ Thus, where
Newman conceived of style as possessing a flexible organic unity—that
is, of existing as a tone or mode—Pater implied style to be mosaic
in its composition. ‘Style’ was, so to speak, the collective noun for a
number of judiciously chosen and combined units of language. The
second difference concerns the topography of creativity outlined by the
two men. Where Newman had characterized style as the ‘expression’ of
a writer’s ‘inward world’, Pater chose to define it as the consequence
of a writer’s ‘avoidances … preferences … rejections [and] omissions’.³⁶
For Pater, style was the function of a series of rational choices made by
the author: the literary artist worked upon language from the outside as
best he could, rather than forging it in his ‘inner soul’, as Newman had
suggested to be the case.
Various factors can account for the discrepancies between the
two essays. Pater’s sense of language’s autonomy—of it as a sys-
tem which possesses what he calls its ‘own … laws’, aloof from those
which writers sought to impose upon it—can be attributed directly
to contemporary developments in philology. Dowling has shown
how this awareness of language’s independence had developed in

³⁴ WP, Appr., 12.

³⁵ Robert Louis Stevenson, Essays in the Art of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus,
1905), 5–6.
³⁶ WP, Appr., 13, 18.
166 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

the years which separated Newman’s and Pater’s essays: how ‘the
new linguistic science, the investigations of [Franz] Bopp and [Jacob]
Grimm and the Neogrammarians … raised a spectre of autonomous lan-
guage—language as a system blindly obeying impersonal phonological
rules in isolation from any world of human values and experience’.³⁷
Similarly, Pater’s tacit scepticism over the ability of the individual to
originate can in part be explained by the differences in religious belief
between the two men. While for Newman, the ability of the human
author to originate was guaranteed by God (the human partaking of
the divine Logos), Pater had no such reassurance. His shiftiness about
characterizing style as the supple, subtle index of an individual’s thought
is also in keeping with the anti-individualist strain of his thought at the
time he wrote the essay.
Pater today is strongly associated with the heroic theory of cre-
ativity—the cloistered intellect, lonely in the tower of thought; the
influential advocate, in the conclusion to The Renaissance, of the need
for the individual to burn with a hard and gemlike flame. In Pater,
undeniably—as in all the major writers discussed here—a provocative
tension existed between the heroic and the communal accounts of
creativity. But Pater’s thought, as it develops, separates very clearly into
contrasting eras. By the 1880s, the decade of Marius and the essay
on ‘Style’, as both Christopher Newfield and John Pick have detailed,
Pater’s thinking had trended away from the solipsism with which he is
popularly associated, and towards a more communal understanding of
thought as a compound.³⁸
A final, and very specific, reason exists to explain the divergences of
opinion between Pater’s essay and Newman’s. While writing his essay,
Pater would have been aware that the style of ‘Style’ was not entirely
his own: aware, in particular, that he had discreetly tessellated his own
essay with fragments of Newman’s.³⁹ Given the use he had made of the
style of another, Pater was not in a position to proclaim a bespoke fit
between a man’s style and his mind. Appropriately enough, Pater’s essay
would itself be pillaged for images and bons mots by Pater’s disciples:
fragments from it appeared in more or less modified forms in the

³⁷ LD, p. xii.
³⁸ See John Pick, ‘Divergent Disciples of Walter Pater’, Thought, 23:88 (March
1948), 114–28; Newfield, The Emerson Effect, 160.
³⁹ See, for a good account of Pater’s indebtedness to Newman, chapter 24 of David J.
Delaura’s Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold and Pater (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1969).
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 167

writings of Wilde, Arthur Symons, and Lionel Johnson, among others.

Both the composition and the fate of Pater’s essay, therefore, contradict
Newman’s mid-century account of style as the ‘faithful expression’ of
a writer’s individual personality. Pater’s much-celebrated style was a
compound. It comprised units, and it provided the units with which
subsequent writers would compose their style.
In these respects, particularly in its acknowledgement that style was
composed of ‘blocks’, rather than being of a single unified texture,
Pater’s essay dramatized the privileging of the part over the whole which
Paul Bourget famously diagnosed as distinctive of Decadent writing in
1881. The ‘Decadent style’, wrote Bourget, is:
one in which the unity of the book breaks down to make place for the
independence of the page, in which the page breaks down to make place for the
independence of the sentence, and in which the sentence breaks down to make
place for the independence of the word.⁴⁰

It was under the pressure of this emphasis upon detail that, in the
fin-de-siècle, the idea of the literary work came, as Matei Calinescu
disparagingly puts it, to ‘disintegrate into a multitude of overwrought
fragments’.⁴¹ Ideas of duration and unification were forsaken for those
of brevity and intensity. Writers who were concerned with representing
singular ‘pulsations’ of experience found that their interests were not
best served by the long haul of a novel, but could instead best be
represented formally in fits and starts. For this reason the aphorism,
the paradox, the renovated cliché, the short lyric, and the rare word
all became characteristic of much fin-de-siècle prose, poetry, and even
It has already been discussed how hybridity was another distinctive
and associated trait of writing from this period. A literary culture which
encourages hybridity, brevity, and which privileges the ‘word’ over the
‘whole’, will always be more tolerant of strategies of reuse in the name
of effect, and less concerned with questions of source and property.
That these ideas were connected in late nineteenth-century thought is
widely evidenced in contemporary writing. An example can be found in
Théophile Gautier’s description of the Decadent style as:

⁴⁰ Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Paris: Lemerre, 1883), 24.

Quoted and trans. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, rev. edn. (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 1987), 170.
⁴¹ Calinescu, Five Faces, 158.
168 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle
ingenious, complicated … full of shades and of research, constantly pushing
back the boundaries of speech, borrowing from all … vocabularies, taking color
from all palettes and notes from all keyboards, struggling to render what is
most inexpressible in thought, what is vague and most elusive in the outlines of
What is significant here is Gautier’s emphasis upon a readiness to
‘take’ and to ‘borrow’ from multiple sources. The magpie-like quality of
writing from this period was what gave it its charisma. Words, taken from
‘all vocabularies’, were made to jostle against one another, and it was this
competitive mélange of registers which generated the distinctive energy
of this writing. Arthur Symons wrote admiringly of how Laforgue’s
verse was a ‘kind of travesty’ which made ‘subtle use of colloquialism,
slang, neologism, technical terms’; and Wilde indirectly characterized
fin-de-siècle writing as ‘full of argot and of archaisms’.⁴³ Originality, as
far as it was possible (‘pushing back the boundaries of speech’), was
to be attained by the use, and more specifically the combination, of
borrowed words, ‘colours’, and ‘notes’. Writers of the period—Wilde
and Pater chief among them—evinced, for different reasons, a guilt-free
textual eclecticism. They displayed an attitude towards sources which
was unintimidated by the demand that the work of literature should be
‘perfectly unborrowed’, and which instead consciously reset the ‘jewels’
of other, earlier writers.

J EW E L - S E T T I N G

In ‘The Decay of Lying’, Oscar Wilde proposed a solution to the

problem of language death (the title of that dialogue, indeed—with its
impertinent modification of the form ‘The Decay of x’, where x = a
good thing—stands in symbolic relation to Wilde’s wit as a whole: it is
an example of one of his favourite tricks for extracting at least a glimmer
of originality out of a pro forma phrase). Instead of trying to make use

⁴² Théophile Gautier, Portraits et souvenirs littéraires (Paris: Charpentier, 1881), 171.

This description first appeared as part of an 1865 preface which Gautier contributed to an
edition of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. The translation is from G. L. Van Roosbroeck, The
Legend of the Decadents (New York: Institut des Études Françaises, Columbia University,
1927), 8–9.
⁴³ Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London: Heinemann,
1899), 106; Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Isobel Murray (London:
Oxford University Press, 1974), 125.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 169

of exhausted contemporary language, he suggested that writers should


a language different from that of actual use, a language full of resonant music
and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate by fanciful
rhyme, jewelled with wonderful words, and enriched with lofty diction.⁴⁴

‘Jewelled with wonderful words’ is a nice shorthand for Wilde’s own

unmistakably flashy style, not least because it is a resetting of an
image from Pater’s Marius: ‘What words he had found for conveying,
with a single touch, the sense of textures, colours, incidents! ‘‘Like
wonderful jewellers’ work! … ’’—admirers said of his writing.’⁴⁵ Wilde’s
writing glittered with jewels—aperçus, paradoxes, bons mots, images,
sententiae —which were not his own. Pater’s prose in particular, itself
mined from so many sources, was a resource to which Wilde returned
time and again, bedizening his own work with Paterian gems.⁴⁶ His
lecture ‘The English Renaissance’, for example, which he delivered
in America in 1882, contained multiple appropriations from Pater’s
The Renaissance, as well as passages taken verbatim from Ruskin and
Morris among others. Wilde was also fond of borrowing from himself,
of indulging in what Craig Raine has disapprovingly called ‘trope
rotation’.⁴⁷ Raine notes craftily that Picasso is reported on at least six
occasions to have denounced self-plagiarism as abject. Wilde would have
appreciated the irony of this, but would have disagreed with Picasso’s
(and Raine’s) underlying sentiment, for throughout his oeuvre he is
to be found shamelessly polishing, repeating, and elaborating his own
epigrams: rotating and repositioning them in order to ascertain in which
position they gleam most brightly.⁴⁸
For Wilde, reuse was intrinsic, not inimical, to creativity. What
Gilles Deleuze has called ‘clothed’ repetition (that is, repetition with
variation; or as Wilde’s Dorian puts it, ‘refrains … elaborately repeated’)

⁴⁴ CWOW, 1073. ⁴⁵ WP, Marius I, 56–7.

⁴⁶ Pater had also written of the ‘chance-tost gems of … expression’ which were to be
found in ‘colloquial’ language. WP, Marius I, 95.
⁴⁷ Craig Raine, ‘Trope Rotation’, Areté, 2 (Spring–Summer 2000), 135.
⁴⁸ In The British Avant-Garde, Josephine Guy persuasively argues that Wilde’s auto-
plagiarisms can be understood as a canonaclastic form of self-quotation, ‘whereby Wilde
sets up his own work—his own, self-made tradition, as it were—as the only arbiter of
taste’. See Josephine Guy, The British Avant-Garde: The Theory and Politics of Tradition
(Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 139–53.
170 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

was extolled by Wilde as a vital mechanism of writing.⁴⁹ Prompted

in part by the sense that contemporary language was exhausted to the
point of redundancy, Wilde made great play in his writing with past
uses of words. He replaced familiar words in unfamiliar surroundings.
He repackaged the insights or turns of phrase of other writers. He made
unoriginality a conspicuous feature of his writing. He entered into a
game of brinkmanship with plagiarism. As Lawrence Danson observes,
Wildean originality was ‘founded on the already made, a newness that
flaunts belatedness’.⁵⁰
It is worth noting that Wilde’s policy of renewal through recontextu-
alization was itself an updating of a classical technique of composition.
In his account of the affinities which exist between aspects of fin-de-siècle
poetics and ‘the classical tradition’, Ian Fletcher draws attention to:
the habit—so frequent in Latin verse, particularly after Pontanus—of silently
assuming the phrases, sometimes the sentences even, of earlier writers; natural
enough where … ‘the pleasures of memory’ are an essential element in [the]
aesthetic, the pleasing strangeness of the old jewel skilfully adapted to its new
Nowhere was Wilde’s technique of jewel-setting more apparent than in
The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel which is self-consciously unoriginal
in various ways. In its course, Wilde echoes, alludes to, or quotes
without acknowledgement from Pater’s Marius and The Renaissance,
from Ronsard’s Odes, and from Huysmans’s À rebours, as well as
from works by Disraeli, Poe, Bulwer-Lytton, Balzac, and various lesser-
known authors. More than fifteen books have now been put forward as
significant sources for Wilde’s slim novel.⁵² Wilde also recycled several
of his own tropes: the novel contains versions of epigrams which he had
previously used in A Woman of No Importance, Salome, and Vera, and
which he would use again in Lady Windermere’s Fan.

⁴⁹ Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Athlone
Press, 1994), 12. Wilde, Dorian, 126.
⁵⁰ Lawrence Danson, Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in his Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1997), 26.
⁵¹ Ian Fletcher, introduction to LJP, p. lx.
⁵² Isobel Murray, introduction to Dorian, p. xxv. See also Isobel Murray, ‘Some
Elements in the Composition of The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Durham University Journal,
64 (1972), 220–3; and Isobel Murray, ‘Oscar Wilde in his Literary Element: Yet
Another Source for Dorian Gray?’, in C. George Sandelescu (ed.), Rediscovering Oscar
Wilde (Gerrard’s Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994), 283–96. Wilde’s novel has in turn
encouraged or at least licensed others to follow this model of creativity. See, for a recent
example, Will Self, Dorian: An Imitation (London: Penguin, 2002).
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 171

Structurally speaking, therefore, Dorian Gray is resplendent with

reset jewels. It is also, of course, a novel which is much concerned with
describing jewels and with describing descriptions of jewels. In chapter
11, for instance, in a typical act of playful self-awareness, Wilde collided
both the primary and the metatextual implications of the jewel image.
Here is the long description which he provided of Dorian’s modish
fascination with gemstones:
[Dorian] would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases
the various stones that he had collected, such as the olive-green chrysoberyl
that turns red by lamplight … the pistachio-coloured peridot, rose-pink and
wine-yellow topazes … He discovered wonderful stories, also, about jewels. In
Alphonso’s ‘Clericalis Disciplina’ a serpent was mentioned with eyes of real
jacinth, and in the romantic history of Alexander, the Conqueror of Emathia
was said to have found in the vale of Jordan snakes ‘with collars of real emeralds
growing on their backs’.⁵³
So the passage continues: it is over two pages long. What is significant
is that each of the many gemstones which Wilde mentions he had
tweezered, along with their adjectives, from the seventh chapter of
A. H. Church’s Precious Stones, a South Kensington Museum Art Hand-
book (1882). Similarly, each detail which features in the list of ‘wonderful
stories … about jewels’ which Dorian discovers in the fatal book, Wilde
had taken, again almost word for word, from William Jones’s History
and Mystery of Precious Stones (1880).⁵⁴ He had turned a figure from
the discourse of originality and plagiarism—the figuring of words as
‘jewels’, and literary reuse as ‘jewel-setting’⁵⁵—into a plot detail.
Writers other than Wilde were attracted by the image of jewel-setting
as a metaphor for productive intertextuality. Charles Reade, as we
have seen, referred to his method of rehousing the words of others as
‘jewel-setting’: the metaphor was intended as a rebuttal of the charge of
plagiarism. E. F. Benson, who made use of the same image to illustrate
his recommendation that writers should be permitted to make use
of previously used images, concluded that what was required of the
poet was not the ability to originate, but nothing more rarefied than
connoisseurship (the good taste by which the poet knew ‘the sparkle of

⁵³ Wilde, Dorian, 135–6. ⁵⁴ Ibid. 136–7.

⁵⁵ Peter Nicholls notes that contemporary accounts often stressed the likeness of the
Decadent style ‘to jewelled ornamentation, brilliantly hard yet reified and atomistic’.
Nicholls, ‘A Dying Fall? Nineteenth-Century Decadence and its Legacies’, in Tracey
Hill (ed.), Decadence and Danger: Writing, History and the Fin de Siècle (Bath: Sulis Press,
1997), 17.
172 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

the true stone’) and organization (the ability to reset these ‘true stone[s]’
in his or her own work). Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, writing
on the subject of Wilde’s plagiarisms, activated precisely the same
arguments as Benson in defence of his grandfather’s writerly strategies:
He was a literary magpie with a love of glittering language … mundane
considerations of ‘respect’ for the origins of a phrase or a plot yielded before
the potential which they offered. … His reading was prodigious and he used it
to supplement his own creative imagination. … Style, as he loved to maintain,
was the thing, and the content merely a vehicle for it.⁵⁶
Surface is preferred to depth, style to content, and effect to origin-
ality. Susan Sontag, in her 1964 essay ‘Notes on ‘‘Camp’’ ’, which is
both inspired by and self-consciously—campily—derivative of Wilde,
observes that ‘Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture,
sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.’⁵⁷ Wilde’s art, like
that of much of the fin-de-siècle, was camp—and the presumptions of
camp necessarily entail a disregard for concerns of literary property. For
Wilde and his peers, where ‘glittering language’, ‘wonderful words’, and
‘true stones’ came from was unimportant. What mattered was that they
were found, and reset. And that, as Pater and others made clear, was
only to be achieved through wide reading and careful research.


[A]ny writer worth translating at all has winnowed and searched

through his vocabulary, is conscious of the words he would select in
systematic reading of a dictionary, [thereby] he begets a vocabulary
faithful to the colouring of his own spirit, and in the strictest sense
(Walter Pater, 1888)⁵⁸

In Marius the Epicurean, Pater advanced the paradox that only by moving
back through language could a writer approach a condition of linguistic

⁵⁶ Merlin Holland, ‘Plagiarist, or Pioneer?’, in Sandelescu (ed.), Rediscovering Oscar

Wilde, 201.
⁵⁷ Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on Camp’, in Against Interpretation (London: Eyre &
Spottiswoode, 1967), 278.
⁵⁸ My emphasis. WP, Appr., 15. This extract first appeared as part of an essay
published in the Fortnightly Review in 1888, and was reprinted the following year in
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 173

and intellectual freshness. ‘Novitas’ was the name which Pater gave to
this freshness in Marius, and novitas is a useful term for the conception
of ‘originality’—originality as retreat and renewal—which, it is being
argued, developed in the closing decades of the century. In Marius,
Flavian realizes that novitas is to be attained by the assiduous study
and discreet simulation of the writing of earlier authors.⁵⁹ Knowing
the company which words have kept in the past, Flavian believes, will
reveal ‘the significant tones of ancient idiom’. It will give him access
to the ‘latent figurative expression’ that sleeps in words which appear,
on the surface, to have become dead through overuse.⁶⁰ Pater recurred
to this idea throughout his career. Writing on Coleridge, for instance,
he suggested that stylistic greatness was to be achieved by ‘not[ing] the
recondite associations of words, old or new … recover[ing] the interest
of older writers who had had a phraseology of their own’.⁶¹ In ‘Style’,
he admired archaisms for their ‘etymological weight’—the semantic
gravitas which they possess by virtue of their age—and he proposed
that the full range and possibility of individual words could only be
realized by the literary artist ‘through his scholarly living in the full
sense of them’.⁶² By grafting backwards through what Geoffrey Hill has
called ‘the variably-resistant soil’ of the linguistic past, Pater believed,
one could release pent-up energies of meaning.⁶³ The emphasis which
Pater placed upon etymology was at the heart of his conception of
originality. It was ‘in systematic reading of a dictionary’, he wrote, that
an author could ‘bege[t] a vocabulary … in the strictest sense original’.⁶⁴
Originality was not to be attained by an uncontrolled lusting after
the utterly new. Rather, the ‘original’ writer of the fin-de-siècle sought
to restore what Pater called ‘the finer edge’ to blunted, rubbed-down
words.⁶⁵ This was the influential aesthetic that Pater bequeathed to
the generation of writers which succeeded him: a preoccupation not
with the ‘absolutely new’, but with what Dowling terms the ‘rebirth
of linguistic elements that have already lived and died many times
before’.⁶⁶ Pater showed how ostensibly dead or dying items of language
could be revivified by recontextualization, and by careful attention to
their etymology, a technique which the Paterite Symonds would later
refer to, in an essay on ‘Style’, as ‘the resuscitation of old words’.⁶⁷

⁵⁹ WP, Marius I, 93–7. ⁶⁰ Ibid. 96–7.

⁶¹ WP, Appr., 82. ⁶² Ibid. 20.
⁶³ Geoffrey Hill, ‘Mercian Hymns’, in Collected Poems (London: Penguin, 1985),
⁶⁴ WP, Appr., 15. ⁶⁵ Ibid. 16. ⁶⁶ LD, 121.
174 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

In 1928, the critic Haldane Macfall denounced Aubrey Beardsley for

being ‘a hopeless decadent in art’ on the grounds that Beardsley ‘uses
his native tongue as if it were obsolete, a dead language—he is more
concerned with dead words than with live’.⁶⁸ Just so, one imagines
Beardsley would have retorted to such a criticism. Instead of vying for
entirely new modes of expression, he was concerned in his writing with
restoring dying language to life: with rejuvenating clichés, revitalizing
tired phrasings, and healing saws.
Hugh Kenner’s insights in The Pound Era are of relevance here. In the
fourth chapter, entitled ‘Words Set Free’, Kenner compares and contrasts
the static eighteenth-century understanding of language, according to
which linguistic ‘change is decay’, with what he calls the ‘ecology’ of the
later nineteenth-century understanding of language, which perceives lan-
guage as a kinetic system of interchanging ‘dynamisms’.⁶⁹ He proposes
that this nineteenth-century realization that language lives in ‘usage’
profoundly affected conceptions of ‘poetic’ language and, although he
does not specifically address this issue, conceptions of originality. He
suggests that it ensconced the vitalist metaphor of language in the minds
of writers, and thereby stimulated the realization that the ‘usages’ of
certain words were ‘usages to which memorable specializations … may
impart a second youth’: precisely the aesthetic which this chapter pro-
poses was operating in the fin-de-siècle. Tired words, words exhausted
by being worked too hard and too often in a certain context, could
be translated and gain a new lease of life. Above all, however, writes
Kenner, the investigations of philology and etymology accentuated the
fact that ‘the words we join have been joined before, and continue to be
joined daily. So writing is largely quotation, quotation newly energized,
as a cyclotron augments the energies of common particles circulating.’⁷⁰
For Kenner, the delvings of nineteenth-century philology and etymo-
logy were at the root of the twentieth-century ‘linguistic turn’. They
brought to light the ineluctable second-handedness of language. For
Pater and his epigones, it could be added, philology and etymology also
provided a route to renovation: a best-fit solution to the problem of
how to innovate within a system which was based upon repetition with

⁶⁷ Symonds, Essays, ii. 13. ⁶⁸ Ibid. 80.

⁶⁹ Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1971), 126.
⁷⁰ Ibid.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 175

A relevant example of how Pater used ‘memorable’ specializations

to ‘impart a second youth’ to words is to be found in his essay on
‘Style’. Kenner figures writing as a ‘cyclotron augmenting the energies
of common particles’, and ‘particle’ was one of the several common
words which Pater sought to re-energize in ‘Style’. Early in the essay,
for instance, he advocated the ‘realisation’ of ‘the elementary particles of
language’ through a writer’s ‘scholarly living in the full sense of them’.⁷¹
A ‘scholarly’—that is, a literary and philological—immersion in the
previous usages and derivations of a word is what allows a writer to
restore velocity to language. ‘[O]ne’s first care’, Pater stated in the essay,
‘should be with [language’s] elementary particles.’⁷² He concluded that
all art consists not in generation but ‘in the removal of surplusage’, and to
illustrate this he likened the writer to a ‘gem-engraver blowing away the
last particle of invisible dust’ from his work in order to achieve ‘the last
finish’.⁷³ One of the effects of Pater’s repeated use of the word ‘particle’
was to re-energize a commoner variant of the word: ‘particular’, a word
which appears only once in the essay, in its closing paragraph. There,
Pater, quoting a ‘sympathetic commentator’ on Flaubert, likened literary
‘styles’ to ‘so many peculiar moulds, each of which bears the mark of
a particular writer’.⁷⁴ Particular writers here means specific writers, but
it also—Pater’s reuse having taught us to hear it differently—means
writers who pay attention to language’s particles.
The essay on ‘Style’ contains several other examples of Pater’s efforts
to impart second youths to geriatric words, and the same strategy can be
seen at work throughout his writings. Pater was fascinated by the ways in
which the subtle alteration, repetition, or re-placing of a word might jolt
it from the groove into which it had settled through repeated usage. He
was sensitive to what Woolf would call ‘the little language’: the words
within a poem, novel, or play which, by repetition, acquired a particular
significance distinct from their everyday use. Pater exemplified what
Kenner finds to be a characteristic of the late nineteenth century: a new-
found readiness ‘to lift words out of ‘‘usage,’’ free their affinities, permit
them new combinations’.⁷⁵ George Moore alluded to this understanding
in his 1887 description of the ‘Euphuistic’ style, a description which
was designed to stand as a commentary on the contemporary style. The
Euphuistic style, wrote Moore, was ‘pre-occupied above all things by
form; obsolete words set in a new setting, modern words introduced

⁷¹ WP, Appr., 20. ⁷² Ibid. 14. ⁷³ Ibid. 19. ⁷⁴ Ibid. 36–7.

⁷⁵ Kenner, Pound Era, 142.
176 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

into old cadences to freshen with a bright delightful varnish, in a word,

a language under visible sign of decay’.⁷⁶ Here, again, are all of the
traits which we have seen to characterise the aesthetic which is under
discussion: the preoccupation with form, the idea that ‘old cadences’
can be freshened by verbal ‘varnish’, and the sense that newness is a
function of ‘setting’ rather than of priority. Especially significant to this
discussion is the connection that Moore makes between these strategies
and the state of language as existing ‘under a visible sign of decay’.
In the fin-de-siècle —as in the final years of the Roman empire, when
Euphuism flourished thanks to Apuleius—writers were, as Pater put it
in Marius, ‘awakened to forgotten duties towards language’ by the sense
that language was both putrefying and petrifying.⁷⁷
It was in Plato and Platonism, the book which he completed shortly
before he died, that Pater went the furthest towards repudiating the
possibility of originality outright:
The thoughts of Plato, like the language he has to use … are covered with the
traces of previous labour and have had their earlier proprietors. If at times we
become aware in reading him of certain anticipations of modern knowledge, we
are also quite obviously among the relics of an older, a poetic or half-visionary
world. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in Plato, in spite of his wonderful
savour of literary freshness, there is nothing absolutely new: or rather, as in
many other very original products of human genius, the seemingly new is old
also, a palimpsest, a tapestry of which the actual threads have served before, or
like the animal frame itself, every particle of which has already lived and died
many times over.⁷⁸

Pater’s implication is that we are all just tenants of language rather than
its landlords or, indeed, its builders. Even Plato’s thoughts have had
their ‘earlier proprietors’: earlier, not earliest, note—Pater’s comparative
suggests a continuum of proprietorship extending indefinitely backwards
in time. In trying to do justice to both Plato’s originality and his
derivativeness, Pater ran up against a lacuna in language: the lack of

⁷⁶ George Moore, A Mere Accident (London: Vizetelly, 1887), 38.

⁷⁷ Euphuism fitted snugly with these attitudes, for in its happy eclecticism it was
inherently a style of give-and-take. John Lyly made this plain at the start of his Euphues.
In the second dedication, ‘To The Gentlemen Readers’, Lyly pointed out that his
multi-sourced text was not itself a closed one. ‘[T]his is my mind,’ he declared, ‘let him
that findeth fault amend it, and him that liketh it use it.’ Lyly’s style was itself such a
gallimaufry that he wanted others to feel free to take from it. John Lyly, Euphues, ed.
Morris William Croll and Harry Clemans (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), 9.
⁷⁸ WP, Pl.Pl., 7–8.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 177

a terminology to describe writing which is simultaneously new and

old. His solution was to deploy the term ‘freshness’, a word which for
Pater coped well with this oxymoronic concept of the new-though-old.
Another was to use the image of the ‘tapestry of which the actual threads
have served before’, an image which might remind us of Pater’s account
in the ‘Conclusion’ to The Renaissance of selfhood as ‘the strange,
perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves’.⁷⁹ Pater’s memorable
phrase caught both at the asymptotic tendency of existence (its ‘continual
vanishing away’) and its lack of unified source (it implies selfhood to be
a ceaseless process of making and unmaking out of disparate sources). As
such, it suggested that Pater’s concept of originality as remaking was in
many ways a corollary of his conception of selfhood as an ‘anticipated’
state. For Pater, originality, like selfhood, was merely a function of
reorganization, not of creation.
The literary aesthetic of salvage outlined by Pater emphasized the
need for the writer to possess the skill of research and the quality of
erudition, instead of an intuitive feel for language. The writer, Pater
noted, ‘is nothing without the historic sense’.⁸⁰ Knowledge of ‘the
recondite associations’ of words was invaluable: it enhanced a writer’s
ability to manipulate what Auden would later call the ‘common abstract
wor[d]’ so that it provided new yields of old meaning.⁸¹ It was only
through dictionary-fossicking, or voracious reading, that what Pater
repeatedly called a ‘refined’ understanding might be gained of the past
careers of a word.


[T]he qualities that mark the end of great periods, [are] the qualities
that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an intense self-
consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing
refinement upon refinement.
(Arthur Symons, 1893)⁸²

⁷⁹ WP, Ren., 236. ⁸⁰ WP, Appr., 16.

⁸¹ W. H. Auden, The English Auden, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1986),
⁸² My emphasis. Arthur Symons, ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, partially
reprinted in Eric Warner and Graham Hough (eds.), Strangeness and Beauty: An
Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840–1910 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1983), ii. 236. The concept of refinement had been associated with Decadence from its
178 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

In the opening paragraph of his essay on Pater, Arthur Symons

nominated the ‘fineness’ of Pater’s language as one of the traits which
made his writing so ‘absolutely novel’.⁸³ It was not an idle choice of
adjective, for ‘fineness’ or ‘refinement’ had come to be a hallmark for
many fin-de-siècle writers: a quality which marked out what Symons
called ‘great periods’ in prose, as well as in time. The idea of ‘refine-
ment’ operated in several different ways. It denominated an aspect of
contemporary spirituality: namely the fascination with corporeal insub-
stantiality which is conspicuous in much literature of the period, and
especially in that now conventionally referred to as Decadent. This
longing for bodily evanescence—as well as its inverse, the persistent
figuring of the phenomenal world as cumbersome, coarse, and imper-
fectly fleshly—and its relevance for ideas of originality, are subjects
which will be discussed more fully in the context of Lionel Johnson’s
work. ‘Refinement’, understood as the finessed variation on a theme,
and its cognates also provided a vocabulary for describing the delicate
shadings or calibrations of psychic experience which certain writers were
concerned with representing. These shadings could best be made visible
by a very careful deviation from literary norms (‘refinement’) rather than
a crude and wholesale renunciation of them in the name of originality.⁸⁴
Above all, though, ‘refinement’ connoted the sharpening effect achieved
when words were applied to the whetstone of the esoteric intellect, such
that their ‘finer edge’ was revealed. ‘Refinement’ became a preferable
term to ‘originality’, for it suggested a form of novelty which was to
be achieved through adaptation, ‘subtilization’, and deviation, rather
than through startling difference. Thus, for instance, an anonymous
article from 1889 entitled ‘On Plagiarism’, having quarrelled with the
orthodox veneration of originality as creation out of nothing, concluded
that while ‘originality is popularly supposed to be a good thing … surely
refinement is better’.⁸⁵

inception. Eugene Delacroix, Baudelaire’s acknowledged master—and thus in a sense

the grandfather of British literary decadence—had perceived this connection as early
as 1856, long before the fin-de-siècle atmosphere had begun properly to gather. See
Calinescu, Five Faces, 165–7.
⁸³ Symons, ‘Walter Pater’, in Warner and Hough (eds.), Strangeness and Beauty,
ii. 215.
⁸⁴ In ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, Symons remarked on the ‘deliberate
abnormality’ of decadent language. It is an insightful description, suggesting as it does
the way in which certain strains of fin-de-siècle writing delivered a calculated affront to
standards of normalcy, while keeping that normalcy in view.
⁸⁵ Anon., ‘On Plagiarism’, 218.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 179

Pater was the most insistent, persuasive, and influential advocate

of refinement—what in Marius he called ‘the labour of the file’—as
a principle of composition, and for Pater, refinement was achievable
only through a combination of patience and learning.⁸⁶ In this respect,
Pater’s ideas were in commerce with those of Flaubert, another accepted
instigator of the modern, and the writer whose style Pater held up
as exemplary in his essay on the subject. After ten months’ effortful
work on Madame Bovary, Flaubert looked back and saw only ‘a never-
ending series of corrections and of recorrections of corrections’.⁸⁷ What
dissatisfied Flaubert—a failure of closure, an endless process of micro-
adjustments—delighted Pater, who saw in this method of working a
way to overthrow or circumvent the orthodoxy that literary creativity
had to happen upon the instant.
One important reason for Pater’s insistence upon creativity as an
act of refinement rather than one of spontaneous generation was the
desire which he felt to be classified as a creative artist of the first
order, despite not slotting into the conventional Victorian categories
of creative artist. Christopher Ricks has shown, in a subtle article on
Pater and Arnold, how Pater’s commitment to a definition of creativity
as scholarly refinement led him in his critical writings repeatedly
to misquote the words of earlier ‘creative’ authors.⁸⁸ For Ricks, these
misquotations were ways for Pater’s mind ‘to practise its high chemistry’,
for the ‘altitudinous critic’ to aggrandize himself into a creator of
the first order. Pater’s misquotations, suggests Ricks sardonically, are
‘act[s] of creation … even more miraculous than the original one[s]’.⁸⁹
Undoubtedly, Pater did work to dissolve the critical and creative acts
into one another. How far this can be attributed to his own feelings of
inferiority, and how far to a more general late Victorian narrowing of
the gap which had opened in the early nineteenth century between the
primary ‘creative artist’ and the secondary ‘critic’, it is hard to say. For

⁸⁶ WP, Marius I, 97. See also ‘Style’, where Pater proposes that a writer’s attention
to the nuances of language—his ‘punctilious observance of the properties of his
medium’—will ‘diffuse through all he writes a general air … of refined usage’. WP,
Appr., 13.
⁸⁷ Gustave Flaubert, Letters, ed. and trans. Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge, Mass.:
Belknap Press, 1980–2), i. 191. I have drawn here on David Trotter’s discussion of
Flaubert in Cooking with Mud, 106–7.
⁸⁸ See also William E. Shuter, Rereading Walter Pater (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), 109–24, and ‘Pater’s Reshuffled Text’, Nineteenth-Century
Literature, 43 (1989), 500–25.
⁸⁹ Ricks, ‘Misquotation’, 395.
180 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

Pater, unmistakably, creation was never a primary act but only a response
to or renovation of pre-existing matter. It is notable that almost all of
the synonyms which Pater uses for creativity are ‘re-’ compounds—‘to
regenerate’, ‘to restore’, ‘to renew’, to ‘refine’. ‘Like some strange second
flowering after date,’ he wrote typically in 1868, ‘[this new poetry]
renews on a more delicate type the poetry of a past age, but must not
be confounded with it.’⁹⁰ Here, as so often in Pater’s work, the action
of his prose expounds its sentiment. Notice for example the unexpected
preposition—‘it renews on a more delicate type’—which itself acts as
a delicate renewal of the verb it directs, or the curious collocation of
‘after date’, which refreshes the word ‘date’ by relieving it of any article.
Pater, it should be made clear, was not an advocate of what Deleuze calls
‘naked’ repetition: he did not want modern writing to be ‘confounded’
with past literature.⁹¹ Nor, however, did he advocate the conception of
the modern as the ‘absolutely new’. This, as he clarified in his essay on
Plato, was a false rupture. The eradication of the historical sense was for
Pater neither desirable nor viable. Originality was a modification of the
heritage: the refashioning of a literary past rather than the creation of a
literary future.
Pater’s desire to redefine the nature of creativity also expressed itself
in his persistent explicit efforts to reconcile the idea of ‘the literary
artist’ and that of ‘the scholar’.⁹² Throughout the essay on ‘Style’,
for instance, Pater fudges the distinction he claims to be preserving
between the ‘scholar’ and the ‘literary artist’. Grammatically, he seems
always to be trying to nullify any difference between the two terms:
to turn the former into the latter by force of syntax. He begins the
essay speaking in different respects about the ‘scholar’ and ‘literary
artist’. By its end, he has spatchcocked the two ideas to form the
‘erudite artist’.⁹³ The same impulse can be seen at work in his essay on
Coleridge, where Pater expresses his dissatisfaction with the organicist
model of creativity as occurring ‘spontaneously’ from the root of
genius, unindebted to external influence. He castigates Coleridge for

⁹⁰ Walter Pater, Essays on Literature and Art, ed. Jenny Uglow (London: J. M. Dent
& Sons, 1990), 108. The essay, which first appeared as a review of three volumes of
William Morris’s poetry in the Westminster Review of October 1868, is not included in
the 1910 Library Edition of Pater’s works.
⁹¹ Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 12.
⁹² ‘The literary artist is of necessity a scholar’, he wrote unequivocally in ‘Style’. WP,
Appr., 12.
⁹³ See ibid. 12–13, 16–17.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 181

having given too much credit for ‘the act of creation’ to instinct. For
Pater, Coleridge’s account of creativity ‘hardly figures the process by
which such work was produced’. It is ‘one-sided’, and damaging to
the reputation of ‘the artist’, in that it reduces the artist to ‘almost a
mechanical agent: instead of the most luminous and self-possessed phase
of consciousness, the associative act in art or poetry is made to look
like some blindly organic process of assimilation’. Art, for Pater, is the
product of acute self-consciousness. It is only, he ringingly concludes,
‘by exquisite analysis [that] the artist attains clearness of idea; then,
through many stages of refining, clearness of expression’. These stages
of refining required what Pater called ‘supreme intellectual dexterity’,
and this ‘dexterity’ was in turn the function of enormous erudition—an
erudition which allowed the writer to gauge precisely the penumbra of
meaning cast by a single word, and to assess how this would interact
or interfere with that cast by those words around it. Pater’s artist,
in other words, required the erudition of the scholar.⁹⁴ For Pater,
the ‘individuality’ of an author’s style and thought was primarily to
be achieved not by a natural endowment of idiosyncrasy, but instead
by graft in libraries, which resulted in a close acquaintance with the
tradition. Poeta fit non nasquitur: this was the moral of Pater’s criticism.
Pater was, in effect, calling for ‘a new kind of writer’:⁹⁵ the ‘erudite
artist’, who would not possess the abilities which the Victorians had
come to associate with Romantic writers—inspiration, spontaneity, the
ability to create out of nothing, an inimitable personality and style—but
instead a portfolio of far more mundane-sounding qualities: good taste,
selectivity, assiduity, judicious combination. Qualities, indeed, which
sounded remarkably like those possessed by a critic.
In 1846, Ernest Renan, one of the intellectual founders of European
Decadence, remarked that periods of decadence were inferior to classical
periods insofar as the sheer power of imaginative creation is concerned,
but that they were clearly superior in critical ability. ‘In a sense’, Renan
concluded, ‘criticism is superior to composition. Till now criticism has
adopted a humble role as a servant et pedis sequa; perhaps the time has
come for criticism to take stock of itself and to elevate itself above those
whom it judges.’⁹⁶ It was Pater who sought most insistently to ‘elevate’
criticism in the hierarchy of letters, but his method of doing so differed

⁹⁴ Ibid. 80–1. ⁹⁵ LD, 135.

⁹⁶ Ernest Renan, Cahiers de jeunesse (1845–1846) (Paris: Calman-Lévy, 1906), 105.
Quoted and trans. Calinescu, Five Faces, 163.
182 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

from Renan on one key count: Pater did not want to invert the hierarchy
between critic and creator, but to abolish it—to melt criticism into com-
position. What Pater regarded as the two essential abilities of the literary
artist—selection and combination—approximated to the discernment
and good taste required of the critic. Emerson had made a similar
proposition: ‘What is that abridgement and selection we observe in all
spiritual activity,’ he wrote in ‘Art’, ‘but itself the creative impulse?’⁹⁷
Of the many literary documents from the fin-de-siècle which testify
to this growing sense of the identity of critic and artist, none does so
more openly than Wilde’s dialogue ‘The Critic as Artist’. ‘The antithesis
between [the critic and the artist]’, Wilde’s Gilbert declaims, ‘is entirely
Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all worthy of the
name. You spoke a little while ago of that fine spirit of choice and delicate
instinct of selection by which the artist realises life for us, and gives to it a
momentary perfection. Well, that spirit of choice, that subtle tact of omission,
is really the critical faculty in one of its most characteristic moods, and no one
who does not possess this critical faculty can create anything at all in art.⁹⁸
It is the talent and the duty of the artist, Cyril argues, to recognize what
is brilliant, both in literature and in life: to abstract it and to make
use of it. That ability to select judiciously, he suggests, is the activity
which is fundamental both to criticism and to art. As was suggested in
Chapter 2, the interpenetration, or rather the indivisibility, of the critical
and creative instincts also provided a standard argumentative tactic for
nineteenth-century plagiarism apologists. Benson, for instance, asserted
that ‘critical perception … is the same thing as Originality … In a word,
and without paradox, the truth seems to be that unintelligent theft is
plagiarism, critical theft is not inconsistent with the truest originality.’⁹⁹
The poet and journalist Edward Wright, in a densely argued and
well-documented essay published in 1894, proposed that plagiarism:
is an art in which the finest critical power is exhibited by means of creation.
To understand fully another man’s work is to create it anew under the form
of an idea, and to embody this idea in another artistic mould is to criticise the
original work in the best and most profound manner.¹⁰⁰

⁹⁷ RWE, ii. 209. ⁹⁸ CWOW, 1118.

⁹⁹ Benson, ‘Plagiarism’, 974–6.
¹⁰⁰ Wright, ‘Art of Plagiarism’, 515. Compare Brander Matthews, ‘Invention and
Imagination’, in Inquiries and Opinions (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907),
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 183

Wright here rewrites plagiarism not simply as the sincerest form of

flattery, but also as the highest act of critical creativity. Those who refine
the words of others are not footpads on the highways of literature: they
are at once critics and creators, both modifying and perpetuating the

TA L E N T A N D T R A D I T I O N : T H E R E T U R N

True originality is to be found rather in the use made of a model

than in the rejection of all models and masters.
(Oscar Wilde, 1888)¹⁰¹

It has been argued that much fin-de-siècle writing was more open about
its borrowings, appropriations, and renewals than any preceding literary
period of the century because it formalized appropriation, and renewal
through appropriation, into a doctrine of creativity. It was not only the
single word which these writers concentrated on as a unit of meaning
which could be salvaged and resuscitated. They also bestowed this act of
erudite recuperation upon the images, phrases, or forms of earlier writers.
Entering into dialogue with literary antecedents came to be perceived as
a valuable route to originality. ‘To adopt old material’, wrote Cuthbert
Hadden in 1894, ‘and use your own workmanship on it may produce a
far more original work than if you have not laid your predecessors under
contribution.’¹⁰² ‘Nothing but the life-giving principle of cohesion is
new’, wrote Pater in Plato and Platonism, ‘the new perspective, the
resultant complexion, the expressiveness which familiar thoughts attain
by novel juxtaposition. In other words, the form is new. But then,
in the creation of philosophical literature, as in all other products of
art, form, in the full signification of that word, is everything, and the
mere matter is nothing.’¹⁰³ In his 1892 essay ‘Apologie pour le plagiat’,
Anatole France summed up the position when he commented on the
idiocy of plagiarism accusations: ‘He [the great author] knows, finally,
that an idea is only as good as its form, and that to give new form
to an old idea is the whole of art, and the only creation possible to

¹⁰¹ Oscar Wilde, The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde, ed. Robert
Ross (London: Dawsons, 1969), xiii. 259.
¹⁰² Hadden, ‘Plagiarism and Coincidence’, 341. ¹⁰³ WP, Pl.Pl., 8.
184 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

humanity.’¹⁰⁴ Where Reade had redescribed originality as a function of

structure (to be achieved through inventive reassembly), the fin-de-siècle
repackaged it as a function of appearance (to be achieved through
inventive repackaging). The verse parodist and editor of Punch, Sir
Owen Seaman, was later moved to turn this idea into a jingle, neatly
mocking the notion of being in hock to one’s literary forebears:
There’s nothing new this time of day
No bard should blush to be a debtor
To those who had the earlier say,
So long as he can do it better;
The form’s the thing; to poets dead
And crowned in heaven we give the credit
Not half so much for what they said
As for the jolly way they said it.¹⁰⁵
Certain fin-de-siècle writers were brought, therefore, by dint of their
historical predicament, into a state of self-consciousness about the
tradition which was more acute than any previous literary generation had
experienced. According to Foucault, it is exactly this self-consciousness
about sources—this awareness that one is writing from within the
archive, that one is not originating but putting a new spin on old
material—which defines the modern author. It was on the strength
of this definition that Foucault nominated Flaubert as the first truly
modern writer: ‘the literary equivalent to Manet; the one paints with
constant reference to the museum, the other writes with constant
reference to the library’.¹⁰⁶
Constant reference to the library is a characteristic of fin-de-siècle
literature, both in the sense of writing with past writers in mind,
and in the sense of writing about libraries themselves. Frequently in
literature of the period, the library is figured as a semi-sacralized site,
an environment which is given the trappings either of shrine and
altar, or of refuge. As John Reed has noted, it was in the library
that for many writers the ‘incorporation of the cultural past into the

¹⁰⁴ Original emphasis. ‘Il sait enfin qu’une idée ne vaut que par la forme et que
donner une forme nouvelle à une vieille idée, c’est tout l’art, et la seule création possible
à l’humanité.’ Anatole France, ‘Apologie pour le plagiat’, in Œuvres complètes (Paris:
Calmann-Lévy, 1925), vii. 539.
¹⁰⁵ Quoted in H. M. Paull, Literary Ethics (London: Thornton Butterworth,
1928), 126.
¹⁰⁶ Michel Foucault, ‘La Bibliothèque fantastique’, trans. David Macey, in Tzvetan
Todorov et al. (eds.), Travails de Flaubert (Paris: Seuil, 1983), 107.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 185

private memories of the individual’ could best be facilitated.¹⁰⁷ In

the charged space of the library, the singular mind could enter into
discourse with the tradition; here the past was available for aestheticized
and formalized recollection.¹⁰⁸ The library was seen to provide a secular
penitentiary—an intellectualized, schematized, thought-out zone which
resisted the unanalysed hurly-burly of the outside world.
The library in Huysmans’s À rebours, in which Des Esseintes reads his
way around the world, provides a good instance of this: Des Esseintes’s
books furnish him not with surrogate but with primary experience.
For Pater, all of literature was a library. Literature, he pronounced
from his muezzin’s tower in Brasenose College, is a ‘sort of cloistral
refuge, from a certain vulgarity in the actual world. A perfect poem
like Lycidas … has … something of the uses of a religious ‘‘retreat.’’ ’¹⁰⁹
The conceit of literature as ‘retreat’ works particularly well for Pater,
given the double-edgedness of the word: it suggests literature to be
both a place of greater safety to which one can retire for meditation
and restoration, and also a process of going back. Lionel Johnson, in
his poem ‘Oxford Nights’, describes an evening spent in his library
‘conversing’ with long-dead literary figures. Much is made in the poem
of the contrast between the ‘turmoil’ of the outside world, and the
tranquillity of the interior of the library; much, too, of that between
the ‘tumultuary gales’ raging beyond the walls of the library, and the
monumental intellectual order of its interior:
Without, a world of winds at play:
Within, I hear what dead friends say.
Blow, winds! and round that perfect Dome,
Wail as you will, and sweep, and roam:
… You hurt not these! On me and mine,
Clear candlelights in quiet shine:
My fire lives yet! nor have I done
… Sleep wins me not: but from his shelf
Brings me each wit his very self:
Beside my chair the great ghosts throng
Each tells his story, sings his song

¹⁰⁷ John Reed, Victorian Conventions (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975), 422.
¹⁰⁸ Harold Bloom is flatly wrong to suggest that Pater bequeathed ‘to the poetic
generation of Johnson, Dowson, Symons and Yeats … a stance against belief and against
recollective spiritual nostalgia’. Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1970), 35.
¹⁰⁹ WP, Appr., 18.
186 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle
… Dear, human books,
With kindly voices, winning looks!¹¹⁰

The authors begin in the poem as ‘dead friends’. Then they become
‘great ghosts’, and finally ‘Dear, human books, | With kindly voices,
winning looks!’ A three-stage process of resurrection occurs over the
poem’s course, with the authors moving from death through ghostliness
and finally back to full humanity.¹¹¹ As Johnson’s poem also suggests,
fin-de-siècle accounts of the library also ran against the grain of positivist
accounts of death: the library was a site where it was possible for active
communion with the literary dead to occur. In Gissing’s New Grub
Street (1891), the Reading Room of the British Library becomes a
phantasmagoric place where living and dead researchers and writers
mingle. The Reading Room also features in Max Beerbohm’s ‘Enoch
Soames’: in that story, it is a portal in time which allows Enoch to
disappear from the nineteenth century and rematerialize on 3 June
1997. Or take the description in Henry James’s 1900 story ‘The Great
Good Place’ of the protagonist, George Dane, entering the ‘charmed’
space of his private library:
The library was a benediction—high and clear and plain like everything else,
but with something, in all its arched amplitude, unconfused and brave and
gay. He should never forget, he knew, the throb of immediate perception with
which he first stood there, a single glance round sufficing so to show him that
it would give him what for years he had desired. He had not had detachment,
but there was detachment here—the sense of a great silver bowl from which
he could ladle up the melted hours. He strolled about from wall to wall, too
pleasantly in tune on that occasion to sit down punctually or to choose; only
recognising from shelf to shelf every dear old book that he had had to put off or
never returned to; every deep distinct voice of another time that in the hubbub
of the world, he had had to take for lost and unheard. He came back of course
soon, came back every day; enjoyed there, of all the rare strange moments,
those that were at once most quickened and most caught—moments in which
every apprehension counted double and every act of the mind was a lover’s

¹¹⁰ LJP, 68. Future references to Johnson’s poems will be incorporated into the text.
¹¹¹ Throughout this section I have drawn on Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s discussion
of ‘literary allusion as a model of immortality’. Douglas-Fairhurst, Victorian Afterlives,
¹¹² Henry James, ‘The Great Good Place’, in Selected Works of Henry James: New
York Edition (New York: Scribner’s, 1907–17), xvi. 252–3. I am grateful to Michèle
Mendelssohn for drawing my attention to this example.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 187

All of the ideas mentioned above are at play in this passage: the
‘detachment’ of the library from the remainder of the world; the ‘hubbub’
of the exterior versus the ‘unconfused’ atmosphere of the interior; the
‘rare strange’ experience which is to be gleaned within the library;
and, most distinctively of all, the relationship of intimacy which exists
between the reader and the volumes with which he comes into contact.
In Johnson’s poem the books are figured both as ‘friends’ and as ‘lovers’;
likewise in James’s prose they are treated first as friends (‘dear old book’)
and then as more than friends, enticing Dane’s mind into an intimacy
with them (the ‘lover’s embrace’). It is also worth drawing attention to
James’s description of the ‘deep distinct voice[s] of another time’ which
sound within Dane’s library (Johnson also referred to the ‘kindly voices’
of the books). This imagining of books as voices speaks volumes about
the widespread fin-de-siècle tendency to assert the primacy of the spoken
over the written word, a tendency which had important implications
for contemporary understandings of literary property.¹¹³
In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong considers the way in which
print culture encourages a sense of the limits and boundaries of a
text, and promotes the sense of a text as a completed artefact. Print
reifies literature, turns it into an item (the book) which has a stable
identity (the printed text), visible limits (its covers), and appears to
issue from a single individual (the name on the spine and the title
page). Print encourages, writes Ong, ‘a sense of closure, a sense that
what is found in a text has been finalized, has reached a state of
completion’.¹¹⁴ Oral culture, by contrast, invites what Ong usefully
calls ‘give and take’, a sense of verbal creativity as a corporate endeavour.
The oral culture ‘deliberately created texts out of other texts, borrowing,
adapting, sharing the common, originally oral, formulas and themes,
even though it worked them up into fresh literary forms impossible
without writing’.¹¹⁵ These strategies of oral composition are, of course,
precisely those which, it has been suggested, were distinctive traits
of literature of the fin-de-siècle. That literature might be described as
resembling an oral culture refined by an excess of self-consciousness.
Ong continues:
Print culture gave birth to the romantic notions of ‘originality’ and ‘creativity’,
which set apart an individual work from other works even more, seeing its
origins and meaning as independent of outside influence, at least ideally. When

¹¹³ See LD, 175–243. ¹¹⁴ Ong, Orality and Literacy, 132. ¹¹⁵ Ibid. 133.
188 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle
in the past few decades doctrines of intertextuality arose to counteract the
isolationist aesthetics of a romantic print culture, they came as a kind of
shock. They were all the more disquieting because modern writers, agonizingly
aware of literary history and of the de facto intertextuality of their own works,
are concerned that they may be producing nothing really new or fresh at
all … Manuscript cultures had few if any anxieties about influence to plague
them, and oral cultures had virtually none.¹¹⁶
Writing in 1982, Ong dates the arrival of ‘doctrines of intertextuality’
to ‘the past few decades’. Certainly, that was when these theories were
given a local habitation and a name. However, an aim of this book
has been to demonstrate that intertextuality existed both as an abstract
discourse and as a creative practice long before it was christened and
variously codified over ‘the past few decades’.¹¹⁷
Ong’s insights concerning the interplay of orality and originality
usefully illuminate the work of Wilde. When Wilde’s first book of
poems came out in 1881, the criticism levelled at it by most reviewers
was of its unacceptable indebtedness to earlier writers. ‘Imitation of
previous writers goes far enough seriously to damage [the poems’]
originality’, wrote the Athenaeum’s critic,¹¹⁸ while the Punch reviewer
remarked disapprovingly that ‘Mr Wilde may be aesthetic, but he is
not original. This is a volume of echoes—it is Swinburne and water,
while here and there we note that the author has been reminiscent of
Mr Rossetti and Mrs Browning.’¹¹⁹ The ambivalence of that phrase
‘volume of echoes’ might have pleased Wilde, suggesting as it did not
only a volume full of the half-heard voices of other writers, but also that
those echoes were themselves possessed of volume. For what none of

¹¹⁶ Ong, Orality and Literacy, 133–4.

¹¹⁷ Julia Kristeva coined the word with reference to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin:
see Julia Kristeva, ‘Word, Dialogue, and Novel’, in Desire in Language, ed. Leon S.
Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 64–89. For Kristeva,
‘intertextuality’ transcended authorial intentionality, and designated all that set the
text in relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts. She used the
concept to problematize the status of authorship, treating the writer of a text as a
conduit of the already-written, rather than as its originator. Gérard Genette, in his
Palimpsests (1982), tried to restore some rigour to the sloppy category of intertextuality
by rechristening the concept transtextuality, and breaking it down into five subtypes:
intertextuality, paratextuality, architextuality, metatextuality, and hypotextuality. For
Genette, ‘intertextuality’ denotes a relationship of co-presence between the texts which
is pragmatic and wilful on the part of the author. It is in Genette’s sense of the word that
it has been used here. Gérard Genette, Palimpsests, trans. Channa Newman and Claude
Doubinsky (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).
¹¹⁸ Anon., Athenaeum, 23 July 1881, 103–4.
¹¹⁹ Anon., Punch, 23 July 1881, 26.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 189

the reviewers considered was that Wilde might have deliberately turned
up the volume of his echoes, or at the very least might not have tried
to silence them. That is to say, the reviewers did not appear to accept
that Wilde might have been making use of echo, reminiscence and
‘imitation’ as creative strategies. The implication of the reviews was that
Wilde lacked imaginative fecundity. An alternative interpretation was
that these echoes were unconventional expressions of precisely such a
fecundity—they were originally unoriginal. Seven years after his Poems
appeared, in an article entitled ‘English Poetesses’, Wilde engaged openly
with what he saw as the hypo-valuation of echo in English poetry:
In England we have always been prone to underrate the value of tradition in
literature. In our eagerness to find a new voice and a fresh mode of music we
have forgotten how beautiful Echo may be. We look first for individuality and
personality, and these are, indeed, the chief characteristics of the masterpieces
of our literature, either in prose or verse; but deliberate culture and a study of
the best models, if united to an artistic temperament and a nature susceptible
of exquisite impressions, may produce much that is admirable, much that is
worthy of praise.¹²⁰
This is not, to be sure, a full-throated defence of the ‘tradition’. There is a
conciliatoriness in Wilde’s admission of ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’
as vital characteristics of ‘masterpieces’, and in the cautious tone of
his observation that imitation ‘may produce much that is admirable’.
Nevertheless, this is a passage which goes straight to the heart of Wilde’s
attitude to originality, first in its explicit antagonism towards those who
would ‘underrate the value of tradition in literature’, and secondly in its
suggestion that an excessive preoccupation with the ‘new’ had blinded
artists to the creative possibilities of apparently unoriginal techniques of
composition such as ‘Echo’ and ‘a study of the best models’.
Josephine Guy has argued that one cannot explain Wilde’s heterodox
attitudes to originality—his readiness to reuse without much modi-
fication his own work and the work of others—either simply as a
function of his laziness, and the hackish conditions under which much
of his writing was done, or according ‘to a myth of ‘‘sprezzatura’’—by
the genius of a writer whose intellectual games were played in wilful
contempt of ‘‘public opinion’’ ’, and her caution at the tendency to
critical myth-making in Wildean studies is salutary.¹²¹ One reason to

¹²⁰ COW, 105.

¹²¹ Guy, ‘Self-Plagiarism, Creativity and Craftsmanship in Oscar Wilde’, 19.
190 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

take Wilde seriously as a reconceptualist of originality, however, and not

simply as a thief motivated by idleness and imaginative impoverishment,
is the number of times he recurred to the question of originality and
plagiarism over the course of his career, and the consistency with which
he argued for a less territorial understanding of literary property, and
advocated a greater readiness in writers to draw upon the wealth of
the tradition. ‘True originality is to be found rather in the use of a
model than in the rejection of all models and masters’, he remarked
uncompromisingly in a review-essay of 1888.¹²² In 1885 he observed
that ‘The originality … which we ask from the artist, is originality of
treatment, not of subject. It is only the unimaginative who ever invents.
The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and
he annexes everything.’¹²³ The OED records that the principal meaning
of the verb to ‘annex’ is to ‘join’, rather than to tear away from or stake
out, and this understanding of art as juncture or connection is crucial to
Wilde’s aesthetics—and antithetical to those notions of literary creation
which regard the true work of literature as unique and isolated.
Throughout his creative and critical writings, Wilde advanced the
idea that literary economies and fiscal ones should not be audited
according to the same regulations. For Wilde, a profusion of debts to
other sources did not need to bankrupt a text, in terms of either meaning
or worth. It could, in fact, definitively enrich it. The 1886 lecture that
Wilde delivered on Chatterton provides a strikingly involuted example
of this conceit. The lecture was never published, but Wilde’s notes
have survived. What they reveal is that this lecture, on the subject of
authenticity and forgery, was itself far from authentic. Long passages of
the lecture, indeed, had been literally cut and pasted out of two recent
biographies of Chatterton: Daniel Wilson’s Chatterton: A Biography
(1869) and David Masson’s Chatterton: The Story of the Year 1770
(1874). In contriving his lecture, Wilde had scissored out sections from
these books, and had stuck them onto a series of blank pages. In the gaps
between the pasted sections, he had then inscribed joining phrases and
links. He had also undertaken minor editing of Masson and Wilson,
scratching out unsatisfactory words and phrases. Wilde had, in other
words, fashioned an apparently smooth narrative almost entirely out
of purloined texts.¹²⁴ The lecture was delivered under his name; no
credit seems to have been given to Masson or Wilson. The thrust of

¹²² Wilde, Reviews, 259. ¹²³ Ibid. 29.

¹²⁴ See SA, 90–120 for a brilliant extended discussion of Wilde and plagiarism.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 191

the lecture was a defence of Chatterton’s artistic genius, together with a

roundabout defence of his unconventional modes of poetic production.
It took the form of a D’Israelian attempt to suggest how Chatterton’s
genius had been fostered during his boyhood in Bristol. Interspersed
with this retrospective were references to Chatterton’s ‘curious’ working
methods. These were coyly referred to by Wilde as ‘the contortions
that precede artistic production’ and as ‘the secret of [Chatterton’s]
literature’. Other commentators before Wilde had more baldly referred
to them as ‘forgery’—the selective patching together of bits of older
texts, to create something which was then passed off as the original
work of an individual. Wilde’s Chatterton lecture in a way defended
the methods which had been used to produce it. In Saint-Amour’s
neat phrase, ‘while he addressed [one literary crime], Wilde was both
committing and theorising another’.¹²⁵ As such, it was typical in its
self-consciousness of Wilde’s frequent engagements with the questions
of literary property and originality. We have seen how Pater was moved
to challenge accepted definitions of originality partly in order that his
own literary mode (non-fiction prose) might be permitted entry to the
creative canon. The motivations behind Wilde’s career-long scepticism
towards hyper-proprietorial understandings of originality and plagiarism
seem to be more compound and complex. As Guy puts it:
Pater and Morris invoked a tradition in order to disguise or deny the innovative
aspects of their thinking; in this sense traditions lent authority to Pater’s and
Morris’s idiosyncratic (and subversive) views about the nature and function
of art and literature by appearing to invoke historical precedents for those
views. Wilde, on the other hand, uses exactly the same strategy, but he does
so in order to exhibit his originality: what Pater and Morris had disguised, he
holds up for general inspection. Wilde claimed that in the hands of the ‘true’
artist all traditions were transformed into something new, and that they had
authority only in so far as they ‘bore the signature’ of the artist who interpreted
them … Far from possessing a normative function, for Wilde, traditions were
merely the ‘suggestion’ for an entirely new creation … traditions were nothing
more than the artist’s ‘raw materials’; and it was the artist’s unique handling of
them—the extent to which he transformed them through the exercise of his
personality and therefore his style—which was of primary interest.¹²⁶
Wilde’s scepticism concerning received, heroic accounts of originality
was in part founded on aesthetic grounds; he sympathized with the
widespread strategy of renovation through recontextualization, and he

¹²⁵ Ibid. 100. ¹²⁶ Guy, British Avant-Garde, 142–3, 145.

192 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

wished to create a theoretical context within which his own plundering

raids on the tradition could be understood as radically creative. It is also
possible to read it, however, as a politically inclined gesture. That is to
say, Wilde’s repeated breaches of etiquette concerning literary property
can be interpreted as deliberate repudiations of the conventions of
literary property which existed within a specifically English print culture.
In a fine essay on Wilde which concentrates on this idea, Deirdre
Toomey contends that Wilde’s ‘plagiarisms’ can best be interpreted as
a form of Irish socialism waged against the possessive individualism of
English literary property. She proposes that Wilde’s collective notions
of literary property—his sense of writing as a policy of exchange and
interconnection, rather than one of wilful isolationism—sprang from
the patterns of ownership and exchange which existed in primarily
oral cultures—notably the Irish peasant culture which his parents both
studied and, to an extent, practised, and in which the young Wilde was
imaginatively saturated.¹²⁷ For Toomey, this explains Wilde’s attraction
to fairy tales, and the other mythical elements which abound in his
work (for the content of myths and fairy tales undergoes a process
of exchange, modification, and moderation each time they are told).
It also suggests a reason for Wilde’s attraction to clichés, sound-bites,
bulls, ‘runs of speech’ and other verbal formulae, for these are linguistic
units which serve both to stabilize and familiarize a spoken narrative
to each new audience, and which also offer the potential for what
Bakhtin approvingly calls ‘spontaneously creative stylising variants’.¹²⁸
‘Another area’, notes Toomey, ‘in which oral culture differs absolutely
from literate culture is in its attitude to cliché, stereotype and plagiary.
These cardinal sins of literacy are the cardinal virtues of orality’:
Originality in an oral culture consists not in inventing an absolutely new story
but in stitching together the familiar in a manner suitable to a particular
audience, or by introducing new elements into an old story. The persistent
charge against Wilde of plagiary would seem oxymoronic in an oral culture.
Wilde’s tendency to start from the very familiar or traditional in his oral
tales—something already given and known, the Bible, Fairy Tales, is again
fully characteristic of orality.¹²⁹

¹²⁷ See SA, 91–7, for more details of how the young Wilde was ‘bathed in a broth of
a talk’.
¹²⁸ Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. and trans. Michael Holquist
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 343.
¹²⁹ Deirdre Toomey, ‘The Story-Teller at Fault’, in Sandelescu (ed.), Rediscovering
Oscar Wilde, 411.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 193

Toomey’s insightful comments return us to the principal theme of

this chapter: that to certain important writers of the fin-de-siècle, for
an assortment of reasons, originality was emphatically understood to
consist not in the invention of the ‘absolutely new’, but in the adaptation
of old elements. By the fin-de-siècle, the hostility towards the ‘familiar’,
the ‘commonplace’, and the ‘traditional’ which, as has been suggested
in Chapters 1 and 2, had accompanied the hypervaluation of originality
earlier in the century, modulated into a sense that the tradition provided
a creative resource on which writers could draw.
Charles Ricketts was present on several occasions when Wilde narrated
apparently extempore stories to groups of listeners. At such times,
recalled Ricketts, ‘Wilde possessed and used all vocabularies’:
[and] one also heard the beloved voices of the men he admired in his
youth … Ruskin … Tennyson … Rossetti … Swinburne … I would not describe
this gift as mimicry, it was hardly more than a variation in intonation or a
movement of the eyes.¹³⁰
Wilde might have disputed the notion that he ‘possessed’ vocabular-
ies—‘used’ would better suggest the temporary exploitation to which
he subjected different types of languages—but Ricketts’s memoir is sug-
gestive of how techniques of imitation and echo were for Wilde intimate
with creativity. More than this: according to Ricketts’s account, when
Wilde enunciated his stories he allowed himself to be ventriloquized
by ‘the men he admired in his youth’—‘dead voices’, as T. S. Eliot
would put it in 1919, ‘speak through the living voice’.¹³¹ For Wilde,
writing represented an act of dialogue with other writers—an under-
taking which was never solo, and often profoundly choral. This was a
conviction shared by Lionel Johnson.

‘A N C E S T R A L VO I C E S ’ : T H E G H O S TS O F L I O N E L

Contemporary accounts of Johnson often referred to him as a man

living under sentence of death. ‘He knew he must come to London,’
observed Patric Dickinson of Johnson, ‘and I think he knew it must

¹³⁰ Charles Ricketts and J. Raymond, Oscar Wilde: Recollections (London: Nonessuch,
1932), 13–14.
¹³¹ T. S. Eliot, ‘Reflections on Contemporary Poetry (IV)’, The Egoist, 6:3 (July
1919), 39.
194 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

destroy him.’¹³² Of Johnson’s alcoholism, Arthur Symons remarked

that ‘the habit was stronger than his will, and he seemed condemned to
that form of suicide without desire or choice in the matter’.¹³³ Johnson
cultivated this sense of an inevitable ending. ‘The end is set’, he wrote
in one of his best poems, ‘Mystic and Cavalier’, ‘though the end be not
yet’ (24). When Yeats urged him to ‘put himself … into an Institute’
to dry out, Johnson refused, saying, ‘I do not want to be cured.’¹³⁴ He
prophesied his future self to be wreathed ‘in clouds of doom’, and he
worked to fulfil that prophecy. A longing for self-annihilation, or at
least for the abolition of his bodily self, permeates Johnson’s writings,
both public and private. In the poem ‘Cornish Nights’: ‘From weariness
toward weariness I tread; | And hunger for the end: the end of all.’ In
a letter to a new acquaintance: ‘The relief of finding another besides
myself, to regard life as an inevitable exercise in egoistic resignation, is
His poem ‘Mystic and Cavalier’ begins as follows:
Go from me: I am one of those, who fall.
What! hath no cold wind swept your heart at all,
In my sad company? Before the end,
Go from me, dear friend! (24)
Falling works well as a metaphor for the fate of a Decadent poet,
for Decadents, by OED definition, ‘fall away … decline … decay … fall
down’. They practise a version of what Pope called the art of sinking
in poetry. Johnson, perhaps more than any other member of what
Yeats, one of the few survivors, would retrospectively name ‘The Tragic
Generation’, fulfilled this definition of a Decadent. Falling, indeed, is
in many ways the idea by which Johnson and his work can be best
understood. It precipitates out into the rhythms of his poetry (the
characteristic trochaics and dactyls); into his poetic vocabulary (the
repeated references to height and to gravity); and, fatally, into his life.¹³⁶
Johnson began drinking while an undergraduate at New College,
Oxford. After graduation, he moved to London and took up residence
at 20 Fitzroy Street, a house which was to become the pied-à-terre of

¹³² Quoted by Ian Fletcher, introduction, LJP, p. xi.

¹³³ Arthur Symons, in London: A Book of Aspects (London: privately printed, 1909), 50.
¹³⁴ Yeats, Autobiographies, 309–10.
¹³⁵ Lionel Johnson, A Letter to Edgar Jepson, ed. Ian Fletcher (London: Eric and Joan
Stevens, 1979), 7.
¹³⁶ I have drawn here on Frank Kermode’s discussion of Johnson in Romantic Image
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), 23–4.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 195

numerous London literary figures of the 1890s: Wilde, Sickert, Symons,

Yeats, and Dowson, among others. Johnson took a room on the top
floor of the three-storey house: good as far as privacy was concerned,
but bad as far as gravity was concerned. At Fitzroy Street, his alcoholism
became more serious, and while drunk he repeatedly fell down the stairs
in the house, sometimes with a lighted candle in his hand. Eventually,
his landlord was forced to ask Johnson to leave the house. Johnson wrote
an imploring letter to ‘My dear Mackmurdo’, promising abstinence:
I am exceedingly distressed by your letter, though I fully recognize your just
cause of complaint. But may I ask for a further trial, upon the condition that
I take the pledge at once … As long as it depends upon my own will, I am
quite hopeless: but the pledge is different. I once took it, temporarily, for a
month, and kept it rigidly: and should have taken it for good and all, but for
falling ill.¹³⁷
Mackmurdo was not moved to allay his sentence of eviction. In
September 1895, Johnson relocated to 7 Gray’s Inn Square, where he
entered onto what Ian Fletcher calls ‘that strange eremitical mode of life
so characteristic of his last years’.¹³⁸ As Johnson’s drinking increased, his
socializing lessened. He spent more and more time with his books and
bottles. Symons, who knew him during this period, described him as ‘a
man abstract in body and mind, who muttered in Greek when he was
least conscious of himself, and sat with imperturbable gravity, drinking
like an ascetic, until his head fell without warning on the table’.¹³⁹ By
1902 Johnson was consuming up to two pints of whisky a day. He
collapsed in the street outside his residence on at least one occasion.
When his death finally came, it stood in symbolic relation to his life.
On 29 September he entered the Green Dragon public house on Fleet
Street. The barman, who contributed evidence to the coroner’s inquest,
remembered that Johnson ‘came in looking very ill. He went to sit in
a chair, and in trying to do so he fell slightly on his head.’¹⁴⁰ Johnson
survived in a coma for five days, dying in the early hours of 4 October,
1902. The post-mortem suggested that Johnson had fallen as a result of
a stroke, almost definitely brought on by his alcohol abuse.
‘Go from me:’ Johnson had written thirteen years earlier, ‘I am one of
those, who fall.’ Knowing what we know about his life, the poem reads
in retrospect as eerily prescient. Either that, or a clear-eyed diagnosis of

¹³⁷ Letter in MS, William Morris Museum, Walthamstow. Quoted by Ian Fletcher,
introduction, LJP, p. liii.
¹³⁸ LJP, p. liv. ¹³⁹ Symons, Book of Aspects, 50. ¹⁴⁰ LJP, p. lviii.
196 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

Johnson’s inclination to self-harm, an inclination which was apparent

to him from an early age. The poem is also, of course, an imperative to
someone close to the poet to leave him to his own fate, in order that they
not be dragged down with him. It declares a contaminated radius to exist
around the poet—a fall-out zone, as it were—and bids its addressee
to steer well clear. Even as Johnson proclaims a desire for segregation,
however, the language which he uses to do so works to gainsay that
proclamation. For two voices, not one, sound in the opening line of
Johnson’s poem. That imperative ‘Go from me’ contains within it its
own contradiction, echoing as it does the opening lines of Elizabeth
Barrett Browning’s sixth sonnet from the Portuguese (‘Go from me. Yet
I feel that I shall stand | Henceforth in thy shadow’). Browning’s poem,
which casts such a strong shadow forwards onto Johnson’s, is an elegy
for a dead lover:
Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore—
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine,
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.¹⁴¹
This is a poem which is dedicated to disproving its opening contention,
just as, by haunting the opening of ‘Mystic and Cavalier’, it disproves the
isolationism proclaimed by that poem. It is a poem about ‘possession’,
a word which—like ‘cleave’ and ‘ravel’—means both itself and its
opposite. For while ‘possession’ denotes individual ownership, it can
also signify the surrender of the individual to another. Browning’s poem
dissolves these two connotations into one another: it begins with an
assertion of the singular self (‘me’), but closes with an expression of

¹⁴¹ Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Selected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed.
Margaret Forster (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988), 218.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 197

doubleness and reconciliation (‘within my eyes the tears of two’), having

liquefied ideas of division in the superbly involuted image of the wine
tasting of its own grapes. And at the poem’s centre is the arresting
cardiac image of two hearts beating in one chest, one nested inside the
other, such that their ‘pulses beat double’.
Given its concerns with intimacy, afterlife, division, and with the
difficulties of being alone, Browning’s sonnet is an entirely appropriate
poem to have supplied the first line of Johnson’s poem. As a source,
it disrupts the confidence of the opening line of ‘Mystic and Cavalier’,
as the confidence of the beginning of Browning’s poem is disrupted by
its remainder. Johnson’s poem, which claims to be a declaration of a
desire for absolute solitude, therefore carries on a discreet conversation
across time and space with a writer who was also concerned with the
emotional politics of isolation and loneliness. It is in this respect—in
its subtle and contradictory intertextuality—that ‘Mystic and Cavalier’
is exemplary of Johnson’s poetics.
For while loneliness was undoubtedly a central imaginative theme in
Johnson’s life and work, it was a strange kind of loneliness: that of the
individual who prefers the company of books to people. Throughout
Johnson’s life he was remembered as a votary of libraries. A Winchester
College classmate described him as ‘an omnivorous reader … he was
reported … to have read all the books in the school library’.¹⁴² When
Yeats asked him if he ever felt lonely, Johnson replied, presumably with
a suitably allusive nod to Huysmans’s Des Esseintes, that ‘ ‘‘in my library
I have all the knowledge of the world I need’’ ’, and went on to prescribe
Yeats a dose of learning. ‘ ‘‘I have need of ten years in the wilderness’’ ’,
he told Yeats, ‘ ‘‘you need ten years in a library.’’ ’¹⁴³ Yeats would later
recall Johnson as a library anchorite, shut away in two idealized pasts.
‘He has renounced the world’, wrote Yeats, ‘and built up a twilight
world instead … As Axel chose to die, [Johnson] has chosen to live
among his books and between two memories—the religious tradition
of the Church of Rome and the political tradition of Ireland.’¹⁴⁴ This
contemporary reputation of Johnson as a bookworm has also been the
keynote of his posthumous critical reception. Among twentieth-century
critics, Derek Stanford voices the orthodoxy when he notes with a tinge

¹⁴² H. A. L. Fisher, An Unfinished Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press,

1940), 37.
¹⁴³ Yeats, Autobiographies, 304, 307.
¹⁴⁴ G. A. Brooke and T. W. Rolleston (eds.), A Treasury of Irish Poetry in the English
Tongue (London: Smith Elder, 1900), 466–7.
198 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

of disapproval that Johnson’s poetry was ‘formal’ and ‘more a matter of

libraries than of life’.¹⁴⁵ Ian Fletcher, in his introduction to Johnson’s
collected poems, concurs, remarking that Johnson’s ‘poetry no less
than his life was constructed from literature’.¹⁴⁶ Barbara Charlesworth
observes neatly in passing that ‘Wilde’s prophecy that certain elect spirits
would in time seek their impressions not from actual life but from art
had its fulfilment in Johnson almost as soon as it was made.’¹⁴⁷
It can be argued, however, that this bookishness was not a failing in
Johnson, but rather an interestingly deliberate strategy of composition,
devised and refined by him as a method through which he could engage
in intellectual and emotional conversation with the great figures of the
literary past, whom he revered. While, by and large, Johnson intention-
ally neglected human companionship, he hungered for converse with
what he called ‘the strong voices of the ancients in fame’.¹⁴⁸ His poems
frequently, if discreetly, stage these meetings and exchanges by means
of intertextuality: through allusion, echo, or even verbatim quotation.
Despite their patina of solipsism (a recurrent emphasis upon the desirab-
ility of loneliness and isolation), Johnson’s poems are therefore best read
not as dialogues of the mind with itself, but as dialogues of Johnson’s
voice with the voices of other, earlier writers.
Originality as it was conventionally understood did not interest
Johnson (‘New poems, new essays, new stories, new lives, are not
my company … but the never-ageing old’).¹⁴⁹ The idea that authentic
literature originated from some influence-proofed site deep within the
individual he saw not only as misguided, but also as actively harmful
to literature. He deplored the ‘deliberate indifference to the great riches
of literature’ which he saw demonstrated by his originality-obsessed
contemporaries. Those writers who deliberately did not read anything
in an attempt to preserve the originality of their voice he described
disparagingly as:
Voluntary paupers! starving their souls, impoverishing their brains, and trying
to live upon the vital heat of their personal genius … The … modern man of
letters, like the typical philosopher of Germany, ‘shuts his eyes, and looks into
his stomach, and calls it introspection’.¹⁵⁰

¹⁴⁵ Derek Stanford, ‘Johnson, Lionel Pigot’, in New Catholic Encyclopaedia (New
York: The Catholic University of America, 1967–89), vii. 1089–90.
¹⁴⁶ LJP, p. xvi.
¹⁴⁷ Barbara Charlesworth, Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian
Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965), 92.
¹⁴⁸ PL, 209. ¹⁴⁹ Ibid. ¹⁵⁰ Ibid. 214–15.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 199

Johnson openly applauded those writers and forms of writing which

admitted, recalled, or interacted with other writers and forms of writing.
‘The style of Mr. Stevenson, like all good styles,’ he wrote, ‘owes much
to other good styles: he constantly reminds us of Thoreau, Hazlitt,
Browne.’¹⁵¹ As Eliot and Pound would come to do, Johnson saw his
unoriginality as a positive trait of his poetry, and saw himself as what
Eliot would call the ‘bearer of a tradition’.¹⁵² ‘In our time’, wrote Yeats
in 1897, ‘we are agreed that we ‘‘make our souls’’ out of some of the great
poets of ancient times, or out of Shelley, or Wordsworth, or Goethe,
or Balzac, or Count Tolstoy.’¹⁵³ In none of the poets with whom Yeats
fraternized did this sense that an artist’s ‘soul’ might be manufactured,
and not given, manifest itself more conspicuously than in Johnson.
It was remarked in the introduction to this book that originality and
plagiarism were ideas which Victorian writers not only thought about,
but also thought with. Thomas Green has noted how ‘if we are to stay
sane, we have to pattern images of our origins that simplify and distort
them’: faced with innumerable possible pasts, we select and recombine
images and events from our own histories in order to give a finite rhythm
and structure to past experience.¹⁵⁴ Certainly, Johnson found solace and,
for a time at least, sanity in the intellectual genealogies which he construc-
ted for himself. Walter Benjamin, himself a hoarder of quotations and of
books, remarked that all collections are structured by a ‘peculiar category
of completeness’. The collector tries to overcome the irrational disorder
of the world by gathering objects in ‘a new, expressly devised historical
system: the collection’; the collector’s attitude is thus in ‘the highest
sense’, wrote Benjamin, ‘the attitude of heir’, and the collector estab-
lishes himself in the past, so as to achieve, undisturbed by the present, ‘a
renewal of the old world’.¹⁵⁵ Johnson, appalled by the havoc of the con-
temporary, sought completeness, and connectedness, in the ideal order of
the literary past. The different forms of intertextuality which he practised
offered him ways to examine and at times to amend what Ian Fletcher
calls ‘the ruling concerns’ of his life: how order was to be brought to the
narrative of the self; the boundaries of the individual mind; and the resol-
ution—both in the sense of ‘texture of’, and ‘answer to’—of loneliness.
For a notorious anti-socialite, Johnson enjoyed a surprising reputation
as a conversationalist. Here is Yeats on Johnson:

¹⁵¹ Ibid. 110. ¹⁵² Eliot, ‘Reflections IV’, 40.

¹⁵³ W. B. Yeats, ‘William Blake and the Imagination’, in Essays and Introductions
(New York: Macmillan, 1961), 111.
¹⁵⁴ LIT, 19. ¹⁵⁵ Benjamin, Illuminations, 61.
200 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle
I was often puzzled as to when and where he could have met the famous men
or beautiful women whose conversation, often wise and always appropriate, he
quoted so often, and it was not till a little before his death that I discovered that
these conversations were imaginary. He never altered a detail of speech, and
would quote what he had invented for Gladstone or Newman for years without
amplification or amendment … these quotations became so well known that,
at Newman’s death, the editor of the Nineteenth Century asked for them for
publication. … Perhaps this dreaming was made a necessity by his artificial
life. … he made his knowledge of the world out of his fantasy, his knowledge
of tongues and books was certainly very great.¹⁵⁶
Conversation with absent speakers also characterized Johnson’s crit-
ical writing, for which he became well regarded during his lifetime.
In 1892, following a walking tour through Hardy Country, he pub-
lished a critical study of Hardy. The Art of Thomas Hardy took the
form of six essays, each studded with quotations from other writers,
as well as from Hardy’s works. It was this aspect of the book—its
multi-vocality—which attracted most comment from reviewers. E. K.
Chambers, writing in The Academy, found an ‘inconceivable magic’ in
the use Johnson had made of ‘quotations and allusions’.¹⁵⁷ Johnson’s
friend Campbell Dodgson, writing in the second supplement to the
Dictionary of National Biography, drew attention to Johnson’s ‘addic-
tion’ to frequent quotation,¹⁵⁸ while Charles Wager, writing in the
Dial in 1912, was more precise in his analysis, tracking down the
echoes and suggestions of Pater which characterized many of Johnson’s
A readiness to admit, and to engage with, the voices of others is also
one of the most unusual characteristics of Johnson’s poetry. Reading is
frequently figured by Johnson in his poems as a process of dialogue,
and writing by extension as a process of collaboration. In ‘Plato’, for
instance, he describes leaning over a volume of Plato, and reading only
by the light of one candle, in order that ‘No harsher light disturb at all |
This converse with a treasured sage’ (6). Again, we see how allusion and
quotation provided Johnson with a way not just to figure, but also to
carry on these conversations. Johnson rarely acknowledged his liftings
from or nods to other poets: as Ian Fletcher puts it, he ‘appropriate[d]

¹⁵⁶ Yeats, Autobiographies, 305–6. Compare Walter Savage Landor, Imaginary Con-
versations of Literary Men and Statesmen, 2nd edn. (London: Henry Colburn, 1826).
¹⁵⁷ E. K. Chambers, Academy, 20 October 1892, 297.
¹⁵⁸ Campbell Dodgson, ‘Lionel Pigot Johnson’, DNB, 374–6.
¹⁵⁹ Charles Wager, ‘A Disciple of Pater’, Dial, 1 December 1912, 442–4.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 201

and incorporate[d] silently and invisibly’.¹⁶⁰ This procedure can be seen

at work in two stanzas from his paean to Lucretius:
Or was he right, thy past compare,
Thy one true voice of Greece?
Then, whirled about the unconscious air,
Thou hast a vehement peace.
No calms of light, no purple lands,
No sanctuaries sublime:
Like storms of snow, like quaking sands,
Thine atoms drift through time. (57–8)

In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius proposed that humankind is posthum-

ously atomized back into the environment. ‘Death does not put an end to
things by annihilating the component particles’, he wrote, ‘but by break-
ing up their conjunction. … The bodies that are shed by one thing lessen
it by their departure but enlarge another by their coming … mortals
live by mutual interchange.’¹⁶¹ In Johnson’s elegy, Lucretius enjoys
an appropriately molecular afterlife, for Johnson works fragments of
Lucretius’ imagery into his poem: his image in the seventeenth line of
the poem, for instance, of the ‘flaming walls afar’, is an allusion to Lucre-
tius’ ‘flammantia moenia mundi’. The poem is thus reflexive; at once
a meditation on how a ‘true’ poetic ‘voice’ might survive the loss of its
body, and an enactment of how those mechanisms function in practice.
Over the course of his short career, Johnson developed a vocabulary
to classify and describe his relationship with the ‘ethereal’ voices of dead
intellects: what in 1883 he called ‘spirit communing with spirit’.¹⁶² In
part, this vocabulary was necrophiliac: he wrote repeatedly of his ‘love’
for the dead, or of his ‘loving intimacy with the old immortals’.¹⁶³ In
‘Oxford Nights’, he referred to the writings of ‘Lamb, Whose lover
I, long lover, am’ (67). His poem ‘Hawthorne’ is an address to the
American writer whom he ‘loved’:
Ten years ago I heard; ten, have I loved;
Thine haunting voice borne over the waste sea. …
Stir in the branches, as none other may:
All pensive loneliness is full of thee. (34–5)

¹⁶⁰ LJP, p. lx.

¹⁶¹ Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, ed. and trans. R. E. Latham (London:
Penguin, 1951), 89, 62.
¹⁶² The Wykehamist, December 1883, 187, c. 1. ¹⁶³ PL, 209.
202 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

The paradox which occurs in the final line of this stanza—‘loneliness’ as

‘full of thee’—is suggestive of how, for Johnson, loneliness meant not
lack of company per se, but rather a lack of living company. In his passion
for the dead, Johnson perfectly bore out Hazlitt’s description of writers as
‘never less alone than when alone’.¹⁶⁴ Johnson also developed a spectral
vocabulary to describe his relationship with the literary past. ‘Haunting’,
the adjective which he uses to describe Hawthorne’s voice—and which
curiously anticipates T. S. Eliot’s description of ‘Hawthorne’s ghost-
sense’ in his discussion of Hawthorne’s influence on Henry James—is
another of the terms which Johnson frequently deployed to signify the
enduring influence of the past.¹⁶⁵ It occurs twice in his description
of James Clarence Mangan’s acute literary nostalgia—‘the haunted,
enchanted life of one drifting through his days in a dream of other days
and other worlds, golden and immortal … he lived in a penumbra of
haunting memories and apprehensions’—a passage which Ian Fletcher
has proposed as one of the most candid passages of self-analysis Johnson
ever wrote.¹⁶⁶ Johnson wrote of Arnold’s poems that they ‘possess the
secret of great verse, its power of haunting the memory’.¹⁶⁷ Arnold’s
verses haunted Johnson’s: in the earliest of his several poems on Arnold,
for instance, Johnson embedded fragments from Callicles’ last song in
Arnold’s ‘Empedocles on Etna’. These allusions were not always part of
the poem: Arnold died shortly after Johnson completed a first draft, and
he immediately revised the poem to contain—as he put it in a letter
to a friend describing the rewrite—‘touching allusions to Arnold’.¹⁶⁸
These allusions were ‘touching’ in two ways: they were sentimentally
moving for the reader, but they also provided points of contact between
Johnson and the older poet’s voice.
What will survive of us, Johnson’s poems and essays indicate time and
again, is ‘voice’. Thomas Browne is a ‘voice of majestic vastness’.¹⁶⁹ Gray
is blessed with a ‘pure and perfect voice’. Of Arnold, again: ‘there is no
one left to take his place in the struggle against vulgarity and imposture:
no voice like his to sing as he sang of calm and peace among the turbulent
sounds of modern life.’¹⁷⁰ Of Pascal: ‘France has no writer, certainly no
lay writer who resembles him in his superb austerity … He is one of the

¹⁶⁴ Hazlitt, Works, xii. 278.

¹⁶⁵ T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hawthorne Aspect of Henry James’, Little Review, 5 (August
1918), 53.
¹⁶⁶ Quoted and glossed by Fletcher, LJP, p. lix. ¹⁶⁷ PL, 297.
¹⁶⁸ Quoted by Fletcher, LJP, 269. ¹⁶⁹ PL, 210. ¹⁷⁰ Ibid. 297–8.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 203

voices which at rare intervals come from the heart of a man.’¹⁷¹ One
reason why Johnson might have been attracted to imagining dead writers
as voices is that voices are bodiless. It has already been noted that an
obsession with the evaporation of the bodily or corporeal—what Peter
Nicholls calls ‘the idea of a ‘‘pure’’ intelligence freed from the bondage of
bodily desire’¹⁷²—recurs in Johnson’s writing, and in Decadent writing
in general. It is, for example, the concept which obsesses Giorgio, the
hero of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Triumph of Death (1894). Giorgio
longs to ‘detach the individual will which confined him within the
narrow prison of his personality, and kept him in perpetual subjection
to the base elements of his fleshly substance’.¹⁷³ Johnson’s preoccupation
with freedom from ‘the bondage of bodily desire’ is everywhere apparent
in his poetry. By far the most common rhyme-pairings in his poetry
are ‘birth’ and ‘earth’, and ‘breath’ and ‘death’. Life is repeatedly bound
with solidity, the chthonic, and the palpable, while death is seen as
a dissolution of the horizons of the self into ‘breath’—into voice.
The phenomenology of Johnson’s imagery also indicates his fascination
with the bodiless and the gaseous. His poems rarely touch on solid
objects: instead, they show a rococo fascination for the evanescent, the
fugitive, the immaterial, and the phantasmagoric: for ‘mists’, ‘weeping
clouds’, and ‘airy shrouds’ (25). This is in part a generic poetic adoption,
common to much poetry of the fin-de-siècle, of the Burkian Sublime,
with its interest in the nebulous and the indistinct, but it is also an
instance of the profound attraction to the idea of sublimation—the
swift issue of solid into gas, or of body into voice—which accents so
many of Johnson’s poems. ‘O rich and sounding voices of the air!’,
wrote Johnson in 1889, ‘Interpreters and prophets of despair: |Priests
of a fearful sacrament! I come, | To make with you mine home’ (25).
‘Take me with you in spirit, Ancients of Art,’ he implored at the end
of an impassioned essay on the virtue of admitting the literary tradition
into one’s writing, ‘the crowned, the sceptred, whose voices this night
chaunt a Gloria in excelsis, flooding the soul with a passion of joy and
awe.’¹⁷⁴ In his poem ‘A Cornish Night’, Johnson describes himself
walking along the coast at night, ‘alone’ but also in dialogue with the
voices which he can hear in the air: ‘Whether you be great spirits of

¹⁷¹ Ibid. 160. ¹⁷² Nicholls, ‘A Dying Fall?’, 17.

¹⁷³ Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Triumph of Death, trans. Georgina Harding (Sawtry:
Dedalus, 1990), 253–4.
¹⁷⁴ PL, 217–18.
204 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

the dead, | Or spirits you, that never were in thrall | To perishing

bodies, dust-born, dustward led’ (24). His poetry records a yearning to
become insubstantial, a spirit no longer in thrall ‘To perishing bodies’.
The authentic pathos of Johnson’s poetry, it might be said, derives from
the pathos of the incomplete embrace: his poetry draws attention to the
devastating gulf which separates him from those he admires as much as
it draws attention to the words which connect him with them.
An instructive comparison can be made between the poetry of Johnson
and that of his contemporary Michael Field, the name under which
Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper published their co-written lyrics.
What immediately links Field and Johnson is the manner in which
these poets showcased their sense of poetry as collaboration within what
is conventionally the most singularly voiced of modes, the lyric poem.
In 1889, writing as ‘Michael Field’, Bradley and Cooper published a
volume of lyrics entitled Long Ago. Each poem began with a fragment of
Sappho’s poetry, and the main body of each poem was a reaction to or
expansion of the epigraph. Yopie Prins usefully sums up the implications
for originality of this authorial troika—two poets (Bradley and Cooper)
collaborating to write in response to a third (Sappho):
What emerges from this performative space between Sappho’s Greek and
Michael Field’s English is a poetic practice that does not assume identity with
the original Sappho, nor assume her voice; instead, it emphasizes a belated and
secondary relationship to Sappho in order to perform the intertextuality of its
own writing. The lyrics in Long Ago are self-consciously non-original, the textual
copy of a voice not their own, the doubling of Sappho’s signature rather than the
reclamation of her song.¹⁷⁵
The self-conscious acceptance of ‘belatedness’—an imaginative pressure
which, it has been argued, was vital in moulding the aesthetic strategies
of the fin-de-siècle —and a consequentially deliberate ‘non-originality’
provides Michael Field’s poems both with their form and with their
content. For, where Johnson used images of ghostliness and necrophilia
to trope his idea of writing in collaboration with the literary past,
in Field’s poetry the activity of collaboration tends to be figured in
iterated figures of doubleness and repetition (mirrors, cuckoos), and
intercalation (braids, wreathes, weaving). Collaboration, in other words,
becomes the significant subject of the lyrics, as well as the aesthetic
strategy which leads to their creation. It is at once the product and

¹⁷⁵ My emphasis. Prins, Sappho, 85.

Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 205

the record of, as Prins put it, ‘writing and reading and rewriting’, of
‘taking possession of each other’s words yet also losing track of who
owns what’.¹⁷⁶
A central difference between Field and Johnson’s attitudes to original-
ity, of course, is that where for Field textual collaboration is thematized
and theorized as a means of exploring and enacting the domestic,
emotional and sexual interlacings which occurred between Katherine
Bradley and Edith Cooper, for Johnson textual collaboration provided
a mode of wish-fulfilment—an extension of his desire to converse with
the dead, and to join ‘the rich and sounding voices of the air’. What
was for Field a form of eroticized textual exchange—a celebration of
contemporary coexistence—was for Johnson the expression of a refined
longing not to belong to his time. By disparaging the literary present,
and cherishing the literary past, Johnson turned himself into an exile
within his own time and place. Petrarch’s fascination with antiquity,
and his dislike of contemporaneity’s subtle alienations, had likewise
made him feel a living anachronism. ‘I write for myself ’, he observed in
a 1342 letter to a friend on the subject of quotation:
and while I am writing I eagerly converse with our predecessors in the only way
I can; and I gladly dismiss from mind the men with whom I am forced by an
unkind fate to live. I exert all my mental powers to flee contemporaries and seek
out the men of the past … I am happier with the dead than with the living.¹⁷⁷

Johnson felt the same; his solution was to commune with the literary
dead through his reading and his writing. Johnson the loner believed in
what the German historian and historiographer Wilhelm Dilthey called
‘the intimate kinship of all human psychic life’, a kinship which made
it possible to communicate across the centuries.¹⁷⁸ In 1891, Johnson
quoted Tennyson’s impassioned proclamation from his late poem,
‘Vastness’, that ‘The dead are not dead, but alive.’¹⁷⁹ Intertextuality
offered Johnson a way of proving Tennyson’s claim. It gave him not
only a way to memorialize the dead, but also a way to make them talk

¹⁷⁶ Ibid.
¹⁷⁷ Letters from Petrarch, ed. and trans. Morris Bishop (Bloomington: Indiana Uni-
versity Press, 1966), 68.
¹⁷⁸ Wilhelm Dilthey, Descriptive Psychology and Historical Understanding, trans.
Richard M. Zaner and Kenneth L. Heiges (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977), 80.
¹⁷⁹ PL, 211. ‘What is true of loved humanity’, Johnson added, ‘is true also of loved
206 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

In both respects, Johnson’s thought was cognate with what Fredric

Jameson has called ‘existential historicism’.¹⁸⁰ This was a trend in
historiography which came, during the latter decades of the nineteenth
century, to challenge the dominant idea of nineteenth-century positivist
historiography: that ‘history’ was a subject which could be scrutinized
from without by the impartial historian. For the existential historian, the
past did not remain unmodified by the process of enquiry. The historian
could not seal themselves off intellectually from the processes which
they were describing: by an inevitable process of feedback, the observer
as an historical being was implicated in the act of historical observation.
For the existential historian, therefore, as James Longenbach phrases
it, ‘history does not exist as a sequence of events that occurred in the
past; rather, it is a function of the historian’s effort to understand the
past in the present’.¹⁸¹ Existential historicism was most fully developed
in the nineteenth century by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911). Dilthey’s
response to the interactivity of the present and the past was not to seek
to neutralize or ignore it, but rather to embrace interactivity as a mode
of enquiry: to enter into a sympathetic compact with one’s subject via
language. Dilthey proposed that the historian must breathe his own life
into the past, resurrecting the ‘lived experience’ (Erlebnis) of a particular
moment in the past ‘through his powers of empathy and intuition’.¹⁸²
Historiography at its most intense, for Dilthey, involved the quickening
of the dead through language. As Jameson puts it, ‘the historicist act
revives the dead and re-enacts the essential mystery of the cultural past
which … is momentarily returned to life and warmth and allowed once
more to speak its mortal speech and to deliver its long forgotten message
in surroundings unfamiliar to it’.¹⁸³
The idea of the possibility of resurrection through a combination of
language and empathy was, of course, far from indigenous to Dilthey or
the nineteenth century. Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule have pointed
out how translation theory has long deployed metaphors of resurrection
to gloss the idea of literary transport or translocation.¹⁸⁴ Similarly, the

¹⁸⁰ Fredric Jameson, ‘Marxism and Historicism’, NLH 11 (Autumn 1979), 50–1.
¹⁸¹ James Longenbach, Modernist Poetics of History (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1987), 14.
¹⁸² Ibid. 16.
¹⁸³ Jameson, ‘Marxism and Historicism’, 51–2. Longenbach also connects it with the
‘rising interest in spiritualism’. Longenbach, Modernist Poetics, 25.
¹⁸⁴ Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule, Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. xxxv–xxxvi.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 207

notion of biography as resurrection is as old as the biographical form

itself. Nevertheless, Dilthey’s work is significant first for the way in
which it systematically theorized historiography as a commingling of
present and past, and secondly for the influence which it had upon Pater
and Yeats, and through them upon Johnson, Wilde, and subsequently
Pound and Eliot.¹⁸⁵ Pater’s adherence to Dilthey’s doctrines is most
clearly visible in the so-called ‘imaginary portraits’ which he included in
The Renaissance and as stand-alone essays later reprinted in Imaginary
Portraits (1887). By means of intense concentration on his subject,
by writing in a prose style which hovered provocatively between the
historical and the dramatic, and by including in his portraits quotations
from, allusions to, and imitations of the writings of his subjects, Pater
tried to fulfil the definition of criticism which Walter Raleigh would
later advance: that of resurrecting ‘the living man’. It was exactly this
skill which Pater had admired in Shakespeare: the way in which he
‘refashioned … materials already at hand, so that the relics of other
men’s poetry are incorporated’.¹⁸⁶
Johnson, who was one of the finest contemporary critics of Pater,
described him shortly after his death in distinctly Diltheyan terms as a
thaumaturge, able by virtue of his sympathy and his ‘energy’ to raise the
[W]hile he was eminently a scholar, an academic, incapable of neglecting
erudition and research, patient of long and tedious labour, yet he could never
rest there: he must always clothe the dry bones with flesh. So he chose, or he
created, men in whom the age, the art, the life of his theme should live and
move, quickening it with humanity … With a kind of unconscious audacity,
the living energy of his scholarship took him to the side of the long dead, and
he understood them and lived their lives … Mr Pater disengaged from the past
what moved him most, fortified himself with positive knowledge, and let his
imagination brood upon it, breathe life into it.¹⁸⁷

Writers writing on other writers are often attracted to shared features

of thought, and this account is indicative of how Johnson, as well
as Pater, thought about literature.¹⁸⁸ In this passage we can hear an
absolute conviction in the quickening power of language; a belief that

¹⁸⁵ Longenbach, Modernist Poetics, 3–44. ¹⁸⁶ WP, Appr., 182.

¹⁸⁷ PL, 23–4.
¹⁸⁸ John Pick gives an account of this U-turn, and notes that Lionel Johnson was ‘one
of the very few disciples who grew with Pater … and … passed on to the higher doctrines
in Marius and Plato and Platonism’. Pick, ‘Divergent Disciples’, 127.
208 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

knowledge of the past was inextricable from experience of the present;

and a sense that the mode and the benefit of literature was not to exalt
the unchangeable self, but rather to dissolve or abandon it. Literature
provided a way of living lives one might not otherwise have lived, and
of dying deaths one might not otherwise have died. The intense literary
imagination was able to ‘clothe … dry bones with flesh’.
Comparable strategies to those of Johnson and Pater would be
proposed by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the opening decades of
the twentieth century as justifications of their own literary strategies of
appropriation and recontextualization, so conspicuous in works such as
the Cantos and The Waste Land. In a 1913 poem, for instance, Pound
described the literary tradition as an ‘Apostolic Succession’,¹⁸⁹ a dynasty
of anointed inheritors. Likewise, in his early poem ‘Histrion’ (1908),
he described the contemplation of the past as, at its most intense, a
Neoplatonic process of continual occupation and deliquescence: ‘the
souls of all men great | At times pass through us. | And we are melted into
them.’¹⁹⁰ Eliot went further, and linked the idea of originality specifically
with that of intertextuality as resurrection. In a 1919 essay, he castigated
contemporary poetry because ‘No dead voices speak through the living
voice; [there is] no reincarnation, no re-creation. Not even the saturation
which sometimes combusts spontaneously into originality.’¹⁹¹
In The Pound Era, Kenner nominated philology, in particular com-
parative philology, as one of the most important intellectual discoveries
of the late nineteenth century for its advocacy of the idea that ‘we are
joined … as much to one another as to the dead by continuities of speech
as of flesh’.¹⁹² The argument of this closing chapter has been that the
desire to use language in order to explore connections between humans
and their literary products, rather than to assert an inviolable, individual
originality, is a vital characteristic of fin-de-siècle literature. The writers
with whom this chapter—and indeed this book—have been concerned
have all shared a conviction, born of very different motivations, that
language in action might be, as Peter Allen Dale expresses it in his
discussion of Pater’s historiography, ‘a common bond among men, a
bond with which to overcome the skeptic’s isolation’.¹⁹³

¹⁸⁹ Ezra Pound, ‘How I Began’, T.’s Weekly, 6 June 1913, 707.
¹⁹⁰ The Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, ed. Michael King (New York: New
Directions, 1976), 71.
¹⁹¹ Eliot, ‘Reflections IV’, 39–40. ¹⁹² Kenner, Pound Era, 96.
¹⁹³ Dale, Victorian Critic, 187.
Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 209


In his 1894 diatribe against plagiarism hunters, Edward Wright set out
his transfigured vision of plagiarism as a trans-national, trans-epochal
communion between writers:
Plagiarism is best seen in the relations between poets each with exceeding
gifts, between Virgil and Homer, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Wordsworth and
Milton, and many others. Of all acts of love towards the dead that man can
perform, this is the sweetest and most noble, and none but the true poet can so
honour the friend of his soul. It is a sign of communion, a sign of the spiritual
bond uniting the singers in different tongues, of distant times, into the highest
of earthly fellowships.¹⁹⁴
The account which Wright gives here is of ‘plagiarism’ as an act of
‘love’, not of slavish subservience. Far from being something which
should be stigmatized for its contravention of an ideal of originality,
plagiarism resides on the highest artistic plane. Wright’s is an account of
literature which privileges not the isolated inventor and the uninfluenced
utterance, but instead the concepts of fellowship and collaboration: of
Eliot’s ‘dead voices speak[ing] through the living voice’. ‘The usefulness
of such a passion is various’, Eliot would write in 1919 of the ‘peculiar
personal intimacy’ that it was possible for one poet to feel for a dead
We may not be great lovers; but if we had a genuine affair with a real poet of
any degree we have acquired a monitor to avert us when we are not in love. …
We do not imitate, we are changed; and our work is the work of the changed
man; we have not borrowed, we have been quickened, and we become bearers
of a tradition.¹⁹⁵
Johnson, Wilde, and Pater, like Eliot after them, shared this convic-
tion that literature at its best would find profit in the circumstance,
underscored by Wright, that the words we receive from our linguistic
community are ‘filled’ or ‘inhabited’ by the voices of others.¹⁹⁶ Nick

¹⁹⁴ Wright, ‘Art of Plagiarism’, 514.

¹⁹⁵ T. S. Eliot, ‘Reflections IV’, 39. Ronald Bush, in an article on Eliot’s relationship
with Wilde and the 1890s, remarks that it ‘seems difficult to read Eliot’s … remarks about
art, love, and even ‘‘tradition’’ without noticing their Wildean erotics and their equally
Wildean delight in paradox’. Ronald Bush, ‘In Pursuit of Wilde Possum: Reflections on
Eliot, Modernism, and the Nineties’, Modernism/Modernity, 11:3 (September 2004), 474.
¹⁹⁶ LIT, 143–4.
210 Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle

Groom, in The Forger’s Shadow, details how literary forgery came to

be ‘accommodated within Romanticism as inspiration’, according to a
theory of inspiration as:
a form of composition that guarantees the authenticity of the poetic self precisely
because it lies outside that self, in some other region. In journeying to such a
place, a writer loses him or herself, or writes as if ‘possessed’ by another, and it
is the transit between these two states of self and other that then authenticates
the poet.¹⁹⁷
Plagiarism, at its most intense and virtuous, came to be accommodated
within later Victorian thought as a form of composition which also
required this evacuation of self; this poetics of something approaching
impersonality. Plagiarism was thought of, indeed, as an extreme form
of empathy; an identification so acute that it required the near-total
abolition of the writer’s being.
A measure of the acceptance which these ideas of the impossibility
of newness, and the virtues of replication, had achieved by the end of
the nineteenth century can usefully be taken from the treatment which
‘originality’ received in the lecture on ‘Style’ which Walter Raleigh
delivered in 1897. Two aspects of this lecture make it especially signi-
ficant. The first is the energy with which Raleigh denied the possibility
of originality in literature, and defended the roles of ‘influence’, ‘quo-
tation’, ‘appropriation’, ‘commonplace’, cliché, and even ‘plagiarism’ in
literary creativity. The second is the fact that his lecture was issued from
within the British academic-literary establishment. Raleigh, then one
among the most highly regarded critics in the country, gave these ideas
the imprimatur of the academy. The lecture stands as testimony that,
by the end of the nineteenth century, what Walter Jackson Bate called
the ceaseless ‘prating about originality’ which characterized the later
eighteenth century and early nineteenth century was well under way
into its metamorphosis into the ceaseless prating about unoriginality
which would characterize the twentieth. ‘Real novelty of vocabulary is
impossible’, declared Raleigh:
in the matter of language we lead a parasitical existence, and are always quoting.
Quotations, conscious or unconscious, vary in kind according as the mind is
active to work upon them and make them its own … the borrowings of good
writers are never thus superfluous, their quotations are appropriations. Whether
it be by some witty turn given to a well-known line, by an original setting for

¹⁹⁷ Groom, Forger’s Shadow, 106.

Aesthetics of Salvage in the Fin-de-Siècle 211
an old saw, or by a new and unlooked-for analogy, the stamp of the borrower
is put upon the goods he borrows, and he becomes part owner. Plagiarism is a
crime only where writing is a trade; expression need never be bound by the law
of copyright while it follows thought, for thought, as some great thinker has
observed, is free. The words were once Shakespeare’s; if only you can feel them
as he did, they are yours now no less than his. The best quotations, the best
translations, the best thefts, are equally new and original works.¹⁹⁸
‘In the matter of language we lead a parasitical existence and are
always quoting.’ How far Raleigh’s declaration is from John Héraud’s
1830 assertion that ‘What are called original thoughts are underived,
indeed original, existent in the individual soul … the imagination creates
its ideas … from nothing!’¹⁹⁹ In the stress which he laid upon the
impossibility of novelty, in his approval of ‘witty turn’ and the ‘original
setting’, indeed, and in his sense of the inescapable quotedness of all
language, Raleigh’s lecture represents a point of convergence for the
various threads of thought which this book has been tracing through the
second half of the nineteenth century. The enormous consequence of this
forty-year overhaul of ideas of originality and plagiarism would be—as
Edward Said puts it, himself rewriting an insight of Voltaire’s—that
‘the twentieth-century writer thought less of writing originally, and
more of rewriting’.²⁰⁰

¹⁹⁸ Raleigh, Style, 116–19. ¹⁹⁹ Héraud, ‘On Poetical Genius’, 59, 63.
²⁰⁰ Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic, 135. Compare Milan Kundera’s rewrite
of this sentiment in The Art of the Novel, where he notes of the twentieth-century that
‘rewriting is the spirit of the times’. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda
Asher (London: Faber, 1988), 150.

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Note: Footnote numbers in brackets are used to indicate the whereabouts

on the page of authors who are quoted, but not named, in the text.
Abrams, M. H. 26, 39 Benson, E. F. 72, 182
absolute originality 98–103 and assimilation 118
Academy, The 200 and plagiarism, defence of 43, 63–4,
Acker, Kathy 6 67, 171
Act of Creation, The (Koestler) 81 Berne Convention 16
Adam Bede (George Eliot) 85, 99, 110 Besant, Walter 74
allusion 29 bilogy 149
Altick, Richard 10, 134 Birrell, Augustine 12–13
Amato, Joe 53–4 Blackwood, William 114 n. 59
Amis, Martin 156 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 37,
Ancient Greek literature 65–6 47, 73
anthropology 90 Blake, William 15
Arac, Jonathan 54–5 Bleak House (Dickens) 58, 59
Armstrong, Isobel 11 Bloom, Harold 185 n. 108
Armstrong, Nancy 26 n. 30 Borges, Jorge Luis 5
Arnold, Matthew 71, 109 n. 41, 112, Bourget, Paul 167
114, 202 Bradford, John 101
artistic creativity, location of 79–80 Bradley, Katherine 204–5
assimilation 45, 116–19, 125–6 Brinton, Daniel 74 n. 92
Aston, Justice 26 Brontë, Emily 122
Athenaeum 188 Brown, A. J. 75–6, 79 (n. 111), 81
Auden, W. H . 4, 177 Browne, Thomas 202
Austen, Jane 142–3 Browne, William 122–3
Austin, Alfred 134 Browning, Elizabeth Barrett 196–7
Austin, Henry 54 Browning, Robert 40–1
authorship 27–8, 98, 106, 154 Brydges, Egerton 37–8
collaborative 70, 95–6 Bulwer-Lytton, Edward 37, 94–5
intertextual account of 144–5 Bunsen, Christian 83
multiple 74–5 Burroughs, William 6
single 74–5, 108, 144 Burwick, Frederick 26 n. 31
autonomy 26, 109 Bush, Ronald 209 n. 195
artistic 28–9 Butcher, S. H. 65–6
of language 165–6 Butler, Samuel 80 n. 115, 94–5, 100
and assimilation 73, 117
Bakhtin, Mikhail 192 on heredity 71, 72
Bate, Jonathan 14–15, 22 n. 10, 33 imagination, attack on 88
Bate, Walter Jackson 14, 23–4, 210 on identity 68–9
Beardsley, Aubrey 174 Byron, George Gordon 21, 35, 77
Beer, Gillian 97, 104, 109
Beer, John 24 Calinescu, Matei 167
Beerbohm, Max 186 Cambridge Review 47–8
Benjamin, Walter 24, 199 camp art 172
238 Index
Capper, John 57–8 D’Annunzio, Gabriele 203
Carlyle, Thomas 39–40, 46, 56, 144 Danson, Lawrence 170
Caruth, Cathy 60 n. 33 Darwin, Charles 71; see also Origin of
causality 14 Species, The
Cavell, Stanley 111 Davenport-Adams, W. 44–5, 66
Chadwick, Edwin 53, 54 Davenport-Hines, Adam 105 n. 33
Chambers, E. K. 200 Davidson, John 159
Charlesworth, Barbara 198 Davis, Lennard 133
choral literature 74 de Man, Paul 12
Church, A. H. 171 De Quincey, Thomas 41–2, 79
circulation 54–6 decadence 177–8, 181
Classical Greek literature 65–6 Decadent movement 156, 159, 194
clichés 159–60 decadent style 167–8
Clough, Arthur Hugh 144 deep originality 103–8
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 2, 180–1 Defence of Poetry, A (Shelley) 30, 31
collaboration 70, 74–6, 95–6, 204–5 degeneracy 158–9
collective consciousness 85 Delacroix, Eugene 177 n. 82
Collins, John Churton 65, 77 n. 105, Delbœuf, Joseph 119
161 Deleuze, Gilles 169, 180
Collins, K. K. 120 Derrida, Jacques 5
Collins, Wilkie 62, 144 Descent of Man, The (Darwin) 71
commonplace 36, 111–13, 114 Dial 200
commonplace books, see scrapbooks Dickens, Charles 12–13, 53, 57, 126,
commonwealth 113–20 144
Comte, Auguste 108, 115 blockage in 55, 59
Conjectures on Original Composition circulation in 16, 59, 60
(Young) 18, 22, 81 and copyright 16
Connor, Steven 8–9 and imitation 59–60
conscious mind 78–80 metaphors in 54–5, 58, 61
consciousness 115 and recycling 10–11, 16, 60–2
constructive plagiarism 147 and sanitary reform 51–2, 54,
Cooper, Edith 204–5 55
copyright 3, 16, 26, 114 n. 59, 136 see also Our Mutual Friend
Coventry Herald and Observer 96, 102 Dickinson, Patric 193–4
Cowper, William 24 dictionaries 173
creatio 1–3, 6, 27, 33 digest books, see scrapbooks
and originality 39, 40, 108 Dilthey, Wilhelm 205, 206, 207
reaction to 7–8 Discourses on Art (Reynolds) 22
creative dissidence 101, 107, 128–9 D’Israeli, Isaac 20–1, 37, 147
creativity 79–80, 137–8, 179–81 Dixon, Edmund Saul 55–6
Crellin, John 84 Dobson, Austin 105
‘Critic as Artist, The’ (Wilde) 45, 161 documentary novels 134, 156
criticism 181–3 documentary realism 130, 132–3,
Cross, John 120 134, 154
Curiosities of Literature (D’Israeli) 147 Dodd, George 56
Currie, James 21 Dodgson, Campbell 200
Dowling, Linda 152, 159, 162,
Dale, Peter Allen 208 165–6, 173
Dallas, E. S. 79–81, 103, 117 Dublin Review 77
Daniel Deronda (George Eliot) 100 n. Dublin University Magazine 75–6
18, 119 Duff, William 19–20
and originality 96, 104, 128–9 Dumas, Alexandre, père 74–5
quotation in 114 n. 58, 122 Duncan, Isabella 71
Index 239
Eagleton, Terry 25 and style 164–8
editorship 98 and tradition 183–93
George Eliot and 112–13, 119–20, see also Lionel Johnson; Pater; Wilde
121–2 Flaubert, Gustave 179, 184
Eliot, George 46, 78, 144, 153 Fletcher, Ian 170
and assimilation 125–6 on Johnson (Lionel) 195, 198, 199,
and commonplace 111–12 200–1, 202
and commonwealth 113–20 Flint, Kate 57
and copyright 114 n. 59 Forster, John 37
and editing of SOP 112–13, Foucault, Michel 184
119–20, 121–2 France, Anatole 183–4
and General Mind 16, 94, 109–10, Fraser’s Magazine 2, 37–8
111, 115, 119
on individuality 108–9
Gaines, Jane M. 25
and intellectual property 12–13,
Gallwey, Thomas 77
92–4, 126–7
Gautier, Théophile 167–8
and Lewes 121–4, 127
and misquotation 93–4, 120–6, Gay Science, The (Dallas) 79–80, 117
127 General (universal) Mind 109–10,
‘onlie begetter’ 108–13 111, 113–20
and originality 95–6, 98–108, George Eliot and 16, 94, 109–10,
110–11, 127 111, 115, 119
see also Daniel Deronda; Impressions and unconscious plagiarism 128
of Theophrastus Such; Genette, Gérard 188 n. 117
Middlemarch genius 19–23, 36–9, 41, 81, 155
Eliot, T. S. 150 n. 68, 193, 202, 208, Gerard, Alexander 20 n.
209; see also Waste Land, The germ theory 86–7
Elwin, Malcolm 136 n. 18 German literature 22–3, 37, 159
Emerson, Ralph Waldo 45, 46, 74, Giant’s Robe, The (Guthrie) 160–1
102, 109, 182 Gissing, George 10, 186
and assimilation 117 God, poets ans 1–2, 40
on language 4, 70 Godwin, William 35
and originality/unoriginality 11, 111 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 92–3
Emma (Austen) 142–3 Gosse, Edmund 65
Empson, William 24 Gray, Alasdair 6, 144 n.
Enright, D. J. 97 Great Expectations (Dickens) 60
entire originality 98–103 Greek literature 65–6
Erewhon (Butler) 94–5 Green, Thomas 141, 199
Essay on the Principle of Population Gregory, Elizabeth 27
(Malthus) 52 Groom, Nick 24, 43, 48, 86, 209–10
etymology 173, 174 Guthrie, Thomas Anstey 160–1
Euphorion 127 Guy, Josephine 169 n. 48, 189, 191
Euphuism 175–6
Evans, Marian, see Eliot, George Hadden, J. Cuthbert 44, 45 (n. 88),
existential historicism 206 63, 65, 183
Felix Holt (George Eliot) 111 Haggard, H. Rider 131–2
Haight, Gordon S. 111
Ferriar, John 148 Hamlin, Christopher 54
Field, Michael 204–5 Harper’s Monthly 72
fin-de-siècle writing 12, 153, 156 Hart, Ernest Abraham 56
jewel-setting metaphor 168–72 Hawthorne, Nathaniel 201–2
and language, renewal of 172–7 Hazlitt, William 15, 34–6, 202
and refinement 177–83 Henry, Nancy 97, 128
240 Index
Héraud, John Abraham 2, 38–9, 162, Irish Monthly 77
211 Irving, Washington 144, 162
heredity 71, 72
Hill, Geoffrey 173 James, Henry 140, 186–7
historiography 206–8 Jameson, Fredric 206
Hitchens, Christopher 1 Janowitz, Anne 28
Hodgart, Matthew 121 Jenkins, John Edward 144
Holland, Merlin 172 Johnson, Fanny K. 88–9
Holmes, Oliver Wendell 82–3, 85 Johnson, Lionel 12, 166–7, 193–208,
Homer 20 209
Horne, R. H. 37, 60 alcoholism of 194–6
Household Words 55–8, 60, 62 and books 195
Hunt, Leigh 37 and conversation 199–200
Hutton, Richard Holt 130 and intertextuality 197, 198, 199,
Huysmans, Joris-Karl 185, 197 205
hybridity of writing 152–3, 167–8 and libraries 185–6, 187, 197–8
hypnotism 72–3 on loneliness 201–2
on originality/unoriginality 198–9
idiosyncrasy 107–8 and reading 200
imagination 67, 88 and voices 202–4
imitation 18–19, 22, 24, 31, 59–60 Johnson, Samuel 4, 22
Impressions of Theophrastus Such Jones, William 171
(George Eliot) 44 n. 85, journalism 42–3
92–129 Joyce, James 4; see also Ulysses
and authorship 97–8
and commonplace 112 Kant, Immanuel 23
and editorship 98 Kaplan, Benjamin 18, 23
intellectual property 92–4 Keats, John 34, 39
literary property, concept of 98 Kenner, Hugh 174, 175, 208
objections to 96–7 Kingsmill, Hugh 15
and originality 95–6, 100–2, 103, Knowles, James Sheridan 61
104–7, 108 Knox, Vicesimus 153
improvisation 107 Koestler, Arthur 81
independence 108 Kristeva, Julia 188 n. 117
individualism 115 Kundera, Milan 211 n. 200
individuality 90, 108–9
Butler on 68–9, 71–2, 73 La Bruyère, Jean de 93
Pater on 70–1, 181 La Fontaine, Jean de 109–10
infection theories 52, 86–7 Lake School 15, 35–6
intellectual property 116 Lang, Andrew 43–4, 45, 47, 131, 160
George Eliot and 12–13, 92–4, language 5, 67, 70, 128
126–7 autonomy 165–6
see also copyright clichés 159–60
interdependence 108 decadent 178 n. 84
intertextuality 7, 12, 188, 204 degeneration of 159–60, 162–3
jewel-setting metaphor and 171 Pater on 162–3, 176–7, 178
Johnson (Lionel) and 197, 198, as public domain 2–3, 4, 83–4, 165
199, 205 renewal 163, 172–6
plagiarism apologists and 45, 48 Wilde on 168–9
as resurrection 208 Latané, David 41
inventio 1, 3–5, 6, 9, 16, 35 Leader, Zachary 32
and imitation 22, 31 Leavis, F. R. and Q. D. 126
see also creatio LeFevre, Karen Burke 8
Index 241
Leisure Hour 63 Maule, Jeremy 206
Lewes, Charles Lee 107 n. 35 Mayhew, Henry 63
Lewes, George Henry 71, 134, 153 memory 77–81, 103, 117
George Eliot and 121–4, 127 Meredith, George 11, 66
on individualism 115 mesmerism 72–3
and intellectual property 116 metaphors 26, 73, 126
on originality 101 comprachico 105
and Social Medium 115–16 in Dickens 51, 54–5, 58, 61
see also Study of Psychology in George Eliot 107–8
libraries 184–7, 197–8 jewel-setting 63–4, 151–2,
Liebig, Justus von 52–3 168–72, 175
Life and Habit (Butler) 71, 73, 80 n. in translation theory 206
115, 117 Metz, Nancy Aycock 11, 51, 59
identity 68–9 miasma theory 52, 86, 87
imagination, attack on 88 Middlemarch (George Eliot) 96, 104
Literary Character, The (n. 27), 109 (n. 40), 126, 129
(D’Israeli) 20–1 assimilation in 116
literary forgery 209–10 and originality 103, 104
literary propriety 2 Mill, J. S. 26, 39
literary somnambulism 73 Miller, J. Hillis 40
Little Dorrit (Dickens) 60 mind 79–80
Littledale, Richard F. 140 misquotation 93–4, 120–6, 127, 179
Locke, John 25 n. 29 Mitchell, A. 93 n.
loneliness 201–2 Mitchell, W. T. J. 12
Longenbach, James 206 modernism 11–12, 15, 155, 156
Longwood’s Magazine 160 Moore, George 175–6
Lowell, James Russell 118–19 Moore, Marianne 6
Lubbock, John 71 Morel, Bénédict 158
Lucretius 201 Morris, William 74, 191
Lyell, Charles 71 Mortier, Roland 23
Lyly, John 176 n. 77 Müller, Max 144
multiple authorship 74–5
McCormack, W. J. 159–60 Myers, Frederick 138 n. 25
Macfall, Haldane 174 Myrtle, William 64–5
McFarland, Thomas 107 ‘Mystic and Cavalier’ (Lionel Johnson)
McGann, Jerome 28–9, 32 194, 195–6, 197
Madame Bovary (Flaubert) 179 mythology 109–10
Madden, R. R. 50
Main, Alexander 95, 115 National Review 160
Mallon, Thomas 27 nationalism 113–14
Malthus, Thomas 52 naturalism 130–1
Mangan, James Clarence 202 Nayder, Lillian 62
Mansel, Henry 133 Nemoianu, Virgil 36
Maquet, Auguste 74 New Grub Street (Gissing) 10, 186
Marius the Epicurean (Pater) 162–3, New Monthly Magazine 37
169, 172–3, 176, 179 New Review 74
Martineau, Harriet 37 Newfield, Christopher 111, 166
Masson, David 190 Newman, J. H. 114, 164, 165
Matthews, Brander 85–6 newspapers 130, 134
and assimilation 48, 105 n. 33 Nicholls, Peter 171 n. 55, 203
on language 64 Night Thoughts (Young) 120–1, 125
and plagiarism, legitimacy of 8, 43 Noel, Roden 68, 79
on plagiarism accusations 132, 150 Nordau, Max 158–9
242 Index
North, Christopher, see Wilson, John on style 165, 166, 173, 175, 176,
notebooks 141, 142 179, 180
Novalis 23 style of 167, 169
and unoriginality 12–13
Oliver Twist (Dickens)] 51 perpetual common law copyright 26 n.
‘On Plagiarism’ (Anon) 47–8, 178 34
‘On Poetical Genius’ (Héraud) 38–9 Petrarch 205
Ong, Walter J. 187–8 philology 83–4, 90, 165, 174, 208
Pick, Daniel 72–3
‘onlie begetter’ concept 108–13, 115,
Pick, John 166, 207 n. 188
Picture of Dorian Gray, The (Wilde)
oral culture 187, 192 169–71
Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The plagiarism
(Meredith) 11, 66 etymology of 44
Origin of Species, The (Darwin) 11 Nordau’s definition of 159
originality 101, 166, 173 self-plagiarism 169–70
absolute 98–103 unconscious 77–82, 88–9, 128
creatio and 39, 40, 108 plagiarism apologists 43–9, 63
deep 103–8 plagiarism hunters 41–5
Eliot (George) and 95–6, 98–108, plagiarism scandals
110–11, 127 Haggard 131–2
entire 98–103 Reade 149–50
Lionel Johnson on 198–9 Zola 130–1
paradoxes of 102–3, 107 Plagiarist, The (Myrtle) 64–5
Pater on 160, 176–7 Plato and Platonism (Pater) 70, 176,
recombinative theories 3–5 183
and Romanticism 1–3, 32–3 Poetry and Prose from the Notebook of an
Wilde on 183, 189–92 Eccentric (George Eliot) 144
Young’s doctrine of 87 poets
Orrock, James 47 autonomy of 28–9
Orwell, George 140 and God 1–2, 40
Ossian 20, 48 Poole, Adrian 61, 206
Our Mutual Friend (Dickens) 10–11, Pope, Alexander 19
50–2, 54, 56, 58–61 postmodernism 7, 8–9, 156
Owen, Richard 56 Poulot, Denis 131
‘Oxford Nights’ (Lionel Johnson) Pound, Ezra 6, 208
185–6, 201 Price, Leah 115, 142, 153–4
Prins, Yopie 74, 204–5
Pascal, Blaise 202–3 print culture 187–8, 192
Pasteur, Louis 87 Prometheus Unbound, (Shelley) 31
Pater, Walter 161, 183, 207, 209 psychology 67–8, 90, 115
on creativity 166, 179–81 assimilation and 116–17
see also Study of Psychology (Lewes)
and criticism 181–2
public health policies 51–3
on hybridity of literature 152
Punch 188
on individuality 70–1, 181 Puttenham, George 1–2
and language 162–3, 176–7, 178 Pynsent, Robert 164 (n. 30)
on literature 152, 185
misquotations 179
novitas 172–3 Quérard, Joseph-Marie 147–8
and originality 16–17, 158, 160, quotation 122; see also misquotation
176–7, 191
on refinement 179 Raine, Craig 169
solipsism and 166 Raleigh, Walter 112, 207, 210–11
Index 243
Randall, Marilyn 13–14, 42 self-plagiarism 169–70
Reade, Charles 13, 171 selfhood 67–77, 177
bilogy 149 sensation fiction 130, 133
copyright, attitudes to 136–41 Sette of Odd Volumes 47
creativity, theory of 137–8 sewage recycling 51–4, 55
jewel-setting metaphor 63 Shakespeare, William 19, 20, 46, 105
methodology (Great System) 137, (n. 32), 123, 207
138–9, 140–54, 155 Shelley, Percy Bysshe 29–31, 34, 40,
scrapbooks 137, 138, 139, 140, 122
145–9, 154 Sheridan, Richard Brinsley 105 n. 33
and sources 135–8 Shuttleworth, Sally 67, 68, 71, 97
reading 118, 200 Simpleton, A (Reade) 149
realism 134, 156–7 simplification 36
recycling 51–4, 56–7, 58 single authorship (onlie begetter) 2, 3,
Dickens and 10–11, 16, 60–2 74–5, 108–13, 115, 144
literary 60–1, 63 Smith, Edward Elton 155
scientific 51–2, 54, 55, 63 Social Medium 115–16, 119
Redfield, Marc 96 n. 10 somnambulism 72–3
Reed, John 184–5 Sontag, Susan 172
refinement 177–83 Sordello (Robert Browning) 40–1
Renan, Ernest 181 Spectator 81–2
resurrection 206–7, 208 Spencer, Herbert 116
Revolt of Islam, The (Shelley) 30, 31 spontaneous generation theory 52, 86,
Reynolds, Joshua 22 87
Ricketts, Charles 193 Stamp Act (1724) 133
Ricks, Christopher 18 n. 1, 121, Stanford, Derek 197–8
179 Stedman, E. C. 15, 152, 161, 164
Ring and the Book, The (Robert Steiner, George 1, 4 (n. 12), 126
Browning) 40 Stephen, Leslie 83, 96, 118
Robbe-Grillet, Alain 9 stereotypes 160 & n. 10
Romanticism 14, 15, 26, 29, 36 Sterne, Laurence 5
and originality 1–3, 27–33 Stevenson, Robert Louis 165
‘Romanticism’ (Pater) 33–4 Stewart, Dugald 21
Romola (George Eliot) 99, 104 Stoker, Bram 144
Rowe, Nicholas 19 Study of Psychology (Lewes) 69, 125
Roylance-Kent, C. B. 160 (n. 13) George Eliot’s editing of 112–13,
Ruskin, John 8 119–20, 121–2
style 164–7, 172, 210–11
Said, Edward 1, 107, 211 Decadent 167–8
Saint-Amour, Paul 43, 143, 191 Euphuistic 175–6
Sand, George 134 Pater on 165, 166, 173, 175, 176,
Sappho 204 179, 180
Sartor Resartus (Carlyle) 144 Sully, James 81
Savage, Eliza 94 Supercheries littéraires (Quérard)
Scala, George A. 60 147–8
Scenes from Clerical Life (George Sutcliffe, Emerson Grant 140, 146 n.
Eliot) 99 53
Scott, Walter 35, 63, 80–1, 144 Swinburne, Algernon Charles 65,
Scottish Review 63 139–40
scrapbooks 114, 142–4, 154 Symonds, John Addington 152–3,
Reade and 137, 138, 139, 140, 160, 173
145–9, 154 Symons, Arthur 166–7, 168, 177–8,
Seaman, Sir Owen 184 194, 195
244 Index
Table Talk (Hazlitt) 34–5 Wandering Heir, The (Reade) 63 (n.
Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 37 47), 139, 141, 149–50
Tale of Two Cities, A (Dickens) 57, 60 Waste Land, The (T. S. Eliot) 61–2,
Taylor, Jenny Bourne 67, 68, 71 155–6
telepathy 72–3 Watt, Ian 133
Tennenhouse, Leonard 26 n. 30 Waugh, Arthur 156
Tennyson, Alfred Lord 42, 64, 93, Way of All Flesh, The (Butler) 72, 100,
124, 205 117
Terrible Temptation, A (Reade) 138 Westminster Review 77 (n. 104), 120,
Thackeray, William Makepeace 75 134
Theophrastus 93, 94 Whalley, George 34
thought 128, 166 Whistler, James McNeill 157
thought-transference 72–3 Wibley, Charles 47, 73 (n. 89 & 90),
Times, The 135 86
Toomey, Deirdre 192 Wilde, Oscar 161, 166–7, 209
Trade Malice (Reade) 63, 136–7, 139 Chatterton lecture 190–1
(n. 30 n. 31), 141 (n. 40), 150–2 on criticism 45, 182
(n. 71–9) criticisms of 159, 188–9
tradition 32, 33, 81, 181 on language 168–9
assimilation and 73, 117 on originality 183, 189–92
Lake school and 36 on realism 156–7
as resource 43, 47, 86, 109, 114, and self-plagiarism 169–70
126–7, 170 on style 172
talent and 97, 100, 183–93 style of 169
translation theory 206 on tradition in literature
translations 2, 46, 93, 152, 211 189–92
Trench, Richard Chenevix 83–4 and unoriginality 12–13
Trodd, Anthea 62, 74 n. 95 see also Picture of Dorian Gray, The
Trotter, David 54, 59 n. 29, 60, Williams, Carolyn 162
132–3, 153 Wills, W. H. 56–7
Turner, Albert 140–1 Wilson, Daniel 190
Tyndall, John 84, 85 n. 134, 87–8 Wilson, John 37
Wittgenstein, Ludwig 51
Wolf, F. A. 106 n.
Ulysses (Joyce) 61–2
Woodmansee, Martha 27–8, 29–30
unconscious mind 78–80, 90
Woolf, Virginia 175
unconscious plagiarism 77–82, 88–9,
Wordsworth, William 10, 22, 26, 34,
Underhill, George 36
Wright, Edward 105 n. 33, 118
unoriginality 11, 38
and plagiarism, defence of 43, 48,
Eliot (George) and 120–6
182–3, 209
Johnson (Lionel) and 198–9
Pater and 12–13
Shelley and 30–1 Yeats, W. B. 161, 194, 197, 199–200
Yellow Book 156
Young, Edward 18, 22–3
Valéry, Paul 4–5
Eliot (George) on 120–1
Viereck, George 73 n. 89
on genius 19, 81
Virchow, Rudolph 116 on imitation 22, 24
on originality 18, 87
Wager, Charles 200
Wallace, Alfred Russell 71
Walsh, William 44, 46, 74 n. 92, 83 n. Zola, Émile 130–1
124, 105 n. 33

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