Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sarah Tindal Kareem reviews Novel Relations

Alicia Mireles Christoff. Novel Relations: Victorian Fiction and British Psychoanalysis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020. 288 pp.

Review by Sarah Tindal Kareem

26 May 2021

“What is most striking” about considering George Eliot in relation to Donald W. Winnicott, Amanda Anderson writes in Psyche and Ethos, “is their shared attention to the importance of ordinary good homes.”[1] Alicia Mireles Christoff’s Novel Relations also relates Victorian fiction to British psychoanalysis but with a different orientation from Anderson’s. Christoff is less concerned with shared norms—with “who has a good-enough mother and who does not”—and more interested in how British psychoanalysis’s vision of interpersonal relations can be used to “reimagine the structure of literary relations” (p. 10). The resulting study illustrates how fruitfully the British psychoanalytic tradition can be brought to bear on literature—whether for scholars like Anderson who are dissatisfied by criticism inflected by drive-oriented psychoanalysis and cognitive science or for anyone looking for new ways to think about relationships within and with fiction.

Novel Relations puts Victorian fiction in conversation with British “object relations theory”—the name given to the work of a cluster of post-Freudian British thinkers who view the psyche as made up of internalized representations of other people (p. 201). While literary criticism has long drawn on psychoanalysis, it has tended to rely upon Freudian and Lacanian models of the psyche that Christoff argues have foreclosed “the profound relationality of novel reading” (p. 2). British object relations theory’s intersubjective picture of the psyche, by contrast, illuminates novel reading as, likewise, an experience in which multiple subjectivities—“reader, character, author, and narrator,” interrelate (pp. 5–6). Christoff’s “'relational readings’” pair novels by Thomas Hardy and Eliot with different object relations thinkers: Tess of the d’Urbervilles with Winnicott, The Mill on the Floss with Wilfred Bion, The Return of the Native with Michael Balint, and Middlemarch with Betty Joseph and Paula Heimann (p. 5). What these pairings throw into relief is that British psychoanalysis and Victorian fiction are entwined not only by what they render thinkable or feelable but also by what they do not—most saliently, their shared imbrication in Britain’s empire (see p. 12).

Each chapter of Novel Relations takes up a different “'feeling of reading,’” in Rachel Ablow’s phrase—loneliness, wishfulness, restlessness, aliveness—and pairs it with a novelistic feature—character, plot, setting, and voice (p. 17). Chapter 1, “Loneliness,” reads Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles with Winnicott’s “The Capacity to Be Alone” in order to suggest that “novel reading may not be about the alleviation of loneliness, as we have long supposed, but rather about its creation” (p. 14). For Winnicott, being alone paradoxically means being in the presence of someone else, because “we can only feel truly alone” once we have internalized the “holding environment” provided by the mother (p. 29). But Christoff’s goal throughout the book is not only to read Victorian fiction via object relations theory but also to argue that novels shape our experiences of our own psyches in ways that also characterize being alone as being in the presence of others, “narrating and experiencing our lives alongside us” (p. 34). Chapter 2, “Wishfulness,” puts Eliot’s The Mill on The Floss in conversation with Bion, whose work, as Christoff observes, “remains largely an untapped resource in the world of literary and critical theory” (p. 48). Bion’s most enduring idea—that we use other people’s psyches as containers for thoughts and feelings that we cannot assimilate—is a model of the psyche that, as Christoff puts it, “is founded on overflowing” and resonates with a novel in which “rivers overflow their banks” and sexual desire “flows out of significant looks and the ends of brushed fingertips” (p. 47). For Christoff, Eliot’s novel and Bion’s psychoanalysis offer alternatives to the deterministic imperatives that characterize both drive-oriented psychoanalysis and the Bildungsroman (see p. 53).

Chapter 3, “Restlessness,” turns to Balint “to illuminate the ‘colonial object relations’” of The Return of the Native (p. 110). Balint’s work makes two spatial dimensions of the novel visible: its climatological conception of relationships and its geological conception of history. Like Balint, Hardy imagines relationships atmospherically, as when he characterizes Clem and Eustacia’s happiest moments together in terms of the “luminous mist” that encloses them (p. 111). This language, Christoff suggests, likewise helps characterize readers’ relationships with novels—the way a novel’s atmosphere can pull us in. The Return of the Native’s own atmosphere is restless, its ostensibly hyperlocal setting embedded with traces of a global imperial past from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century Bengal. Balint’s guiding concept of “the basic fault”—early disturbances that permanently shape personality—informs Christoff’s reading of the novel as papering over colonial violence in a way that makes us feel the presence of the fault it attempts to smooth over (p. 148). Christoff’s final chapter draws on work by Joseph, Heimann, and others to show how Eliot’s Middlemarch can help us define and feel a sense of aliveness (see p. 155). Aliveness, for these psychoanalytic thinkers, is apparent in self-expression’s shifting nature—in the way, when we express ourselves, we speak from and to numerous subject positions, giving voice to the internalized object relations within us. For Christoff, Middlemarch’s narrator is not a magisterial voice dispensing aphoristic wisdom but essentially mobile in a way that performs and cultivates aliveness, warding off the weariness embodied by the Casaubons of the world by shifting subject positions and metaphors (see p. 172). This supple mode of narration, Christoff suggests, makes Middlemarch’s readers feel it might be possible to give voice to all the parts of the self and thereby not only render ourselves knowable by another but also, by borrowing Eliot’s structure of omniscience, ourselves (see p. 178). 

Towards the end of Novel Relations, Christoff recalls being moved to tears by an essay by Edna O’Shaughnessy that made newly vivid to her a crucial insight of object relations theory: that absence is a condition of possibility for our enduring relationships with objects that are not there. One of Christoff’s most compelling insights is that not least among these long-term relationships with absent objects are those we maintain with the “nobodies” (in Catherine Gallagher’s phrase) that populate fiction.[2] Absence, likewise, as Christoff observes, characterizes literary criticism in its redescription and remaking of the text to which it attends (see p. 195). And here too absence is a condition of possibility for new relations between new objects and new interlocutors, a thought that struck me when I found myself crying over Christoff’s redescription of O’Shaughnessy: “we can trust that we continue to be in relationship to our objects even when they are not there” (p. 193). Weeping over words—an enduring marker of literary impact from Pamela to #BookTok—exemplifies Christoff’s relational view of literature: that just as, in Winnicott’s phrase, “there is no such thing as a baby,” so too “there is no such thing as a book”—because books, like babies, can’t thrive by themselves (p. 8). Reading alongside Christoff is a moving experience because her redescriptions fine-tune our sense of the kind of relationships Victorian novels invite. And part of what this fine-tuning allows us to see is that Victorian fiction asks “to be experienced and felt rather than just understood.” Or, as Eliot’s Dorothea puts it, “'You would have to feel it with me. Else you would never know’” (p. 167).


[1] Amanda Anderson, Psyche and Ethos: Moral Life After Psychology (New York, 2018), p. 79.

[2] See Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkeley, 1995).