Fowler, Elizabeth. Literary Character:
The Human Figure in Early English Writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP,
2003. 263pp. ISBN 0 8014 4116 1.
Pennsylvania State University
Grogan, Jane. "Review of Fowler, Elizabeth.
Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing."
Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005) 8.1-8 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-2/revfowle.htm>.
- ‘As we are moved by poetry to imagine the human figure, we create ourselves
and are created as persons.’ Or, ‘character appeals to affect and cognition,
and thus it brings into being our interior experience as we read.’ These deceptively
bland statements are the founding principles of Elizabeth Fowler’s innovative
study of what she terms ‘social persons’ in texts by Langland, Chaucer, Skelton
and Spenser. Fowler’s recovery of something akin to, but more complex than
‘character’ from the clutches of New Criticism stimulates new and vital readings
of an impressive range of genres - satire, epic and complaint, for example.
She uses the lens of the social person to show the centrality of legal and
economic concepts such as consent, dominion, intention, agency, measure, civil
death and usury, to the business of social formation, literary expression
and the fashioning of individual subjects and, with them, the polity.
- The book comprises a lengthy introduction, clarifying “social personhood”
and its pertinence, followed by four chapters amplifying the notion of social
person as a vehicle of interrogative thought in texts by medieval and Renaissance
authors, and concludes with a helpful afterword. There is no bibliography,
but like Fowler’s occasional suggestive forays into unexpected territory (the
ethical orientation of confessional poetic modes; raptus-narratives
as a critique of imperialism), this hints at the book’s expansiveness.
- Social persons, which can also describe corporate bodies such as the guild,
are conventional interpretive cues, ‘the implied referents by which characters
are understood’, and, more importantly, that by which all humans are socialised,
moralised, politicised. The concept of social persons, she argues, dialectically
links subjective interiority to the social world by habituation. She borrows
a dynamic model of reading from reader-response theory that sees meanings
activated in tension with each other without exhausting or effacing each other.
Meaning is therefore created in time by the individual reader in his or her
negotiation between the ghosts of the range of social persons evoked by an
author’s characterisation, and the formation of social personhood, at the
intersection of habitus and interiority, is where literature’s political contribution
- In Chaucer, Fowler finds an author whose mastery of the ‘technology of the
interior’ allows him to produce, in the Pardoner’s Tale, a penitential poetic
exercise as well as a sharp critique of the church’s commercial opportunism
in making the Pardoner the fall guy for its philosophical prevarication about
intention and action in the provision of sacraments and indulgences. Chaucer’s
composition of the social persons of the Pardoner, she argues, renders him
as a victim of his own financial scams and of the wider corruption of ‘the
commerce of salvation’ within his church. Although her vocabulary draws on
the hermeneutics of Ricoeur and Gadamer (most usefully in the notion of literature
as thought-experiment), Fowler is careful to plant the conditions of any social
person firmly in the prevailing intellectual climate of her authors, even
as she makes the theoretical point about literature’s durability.
- That social persons shape political entities and legal and economic concepts
is, broadly, the argument of the chapter on Piers Plowman. By focussing
on Langland’s engagement with the sexual politics of his day, Fowler shows
how contemporary marriage law (and the extension of the marriage conceit into
wider legal, political and economic conceptions of human bonds), divides intentionality
from agency, a very real social and economic problem worsened by the conceptualisation
of an uncontrollable feminine principle of sexual and financial promiscuity.
- But social persons are, in turn, shaped by political entities and legal
and economic concepts. Character is one of the most important instructive
and suasive devices in literature, Fowler points out. We are all composites
of social persons, wittingly or not. In her striking choice of Skelton’s ‘The
Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge’, Fowler traces the temporal dimension of social
persons as historicised, conventionalised figures, and what implications are
lost to later readers. So, she shows Elynour Rummynge to be built by ‘animating
the arguments of Church Fathers … in order to evoke the paradigmatic social
person created by clerical antifeminism’, a social person designed to habituate
men to misogyny and women to subordination.
- Finally, Fowler tackles Spenser, drawing together the river-marriage episode
and the trial of Mutabilitie in Books IV and VII of The Faerie Queene
to showcase Spenser’s elucidation of character as a way of reimagining person,
place and polity, and the various fits between them forged in his own time
in both early modern Ireland and England. Rooted in the Aristotelian tradition
of poetry as practical inquiry favoured by his contemporaries, Sidney and
Harington, Spenser’s technique of characterization puts Book IV’s epic catalogue
of rivers firmly in the field of deliberative ethics. At issue is the legal
concept of dominion when it is applied to contested geographical spaces and
competing societies, and Spenser’s treatment of it through the personification
of English and Irish rivers stops short of providing answers. Another compelling
route through Spenserian jurisprudence yields an astute reading of the trial
of Mutabilitie as a surprisingly balanced case-study in some of the methods
and concepts being used to assert English sovereignty in Tudor Ireland. As
Fowler points out, in this respect The Faerie Queene’s active documentation
of changes in social forms and political bonds is at least as noteworthy as
its literary accomplishment, but the special force of her study is to show
how the historical evidence is richer precisely for its appearance through
literary character and social persons – itself a suitably Spenserian point,
and one that stands watch over her entire study.
- In her prefacing remarks, Fowler hopes that her study might prepare the
ground for further study of character-figuration under the sign of the “social
person”. One must hope that those who take up the gauntlet might do so as
compellingly, knowledgeably and elegantly as she has done.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers'
Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).