The Afterlife of Enclosure
British Realism, Character, and the Commons
Carolyn Lesjak



Realism and the Commons

THE HISTORICAL RECORD leaves no doubt that the Victorian period, despite claims to the contrary, was an age neither of equipoise nor of innocence. Violence and inequality, ceaseless war and famines, colonial dispossession, the development and consolidation of a capitalist world order and its attendant forms of alienation and dispossession—all make good on Walter Benjamin’s dictum that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (256).1 But there is also another history folded within this one that has received scant critical attention within literary studies: the history of enclosure and what Peter Linebaugh refers to as its antonym, the commons (“Enclosures” 11). This is the history that informs this book. It is a story not of the victors, but of those over whom history ran roughshod: the anonymous, the commoner, those whom “civilization” seemingly left behind, the necessary detritus in the progressive narrative of modernity. Linebaugh calls this form of historiography a “bottom-up history,” which “requires that we pay attention to the cranny in the wall, as Bottom the Weaver expressed it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As he interprets Bottom’s approach, “we must attend not to the completeness of the wall but to its chinks” (“Enclosures” 25).

For Linebaugh, as a social historian, the chinks in the wall are to be found by documenting those voices previously left out of history, work begun by the History Workshop in the late 1960s when its founder, new left historian Raphael Samuel, walked the countryside around Oxford talking to elderly residents about their experiences of class struggle in nineteenth-century Oxfordshire. What approach then might a bottom-up literary history take, given the absence of such voices? In The Afterlife of Enclosure: British Realism, Character, and the Commons, I argue that these openings are to be found in classic British realist texts, hiding, as it were, in plain sight, given the considerable critical scholarship on realism. Attending to them, I wager, is revelatory on two fronts: it not only unsettles existing accounts of realism, and of the British realist novel, in particular, that too seamlessly align the novel with the victors, but also brings to the fore the significant contribution realist novels make to the history of the commons and, more pointedly, to a dialectical reading of that history.

The fate of realism seems to be perennially in the balance, its death repeatedly foretold. Reflecting on realism’s sad state, Rachel Bowlby wittily writes in the foreword to Adventures in Realism, “Poor old realism. Out of date and second-rate. Squashed in between the freshness of romanticism and the newness of modernism, it is truly the tasteless spam in the sandwich of literary and cultural history” (xi). Bowlby’s opening sally sums up the broad challenge at the heart of this book—namely, to show how realism has been misperceived in the ways that it has, and how we might reconceive it more productively given the ongoing relevance of its concerns. After all, as Bowlby and others in Adventures in Realism stress in their respective attempts to save realism from the dustbin of history and give it new life, realism is far less naive in its representational practices than critics from Virginia Woolf on would have it.2 Zombie-like, it refuses to die, as our obsession with documenting our every moment and meal on endlessly proliferating internet platforms testifies.3 Whereas many of these current resuscitations focus on the complexities of realist representation, I propose a rereading of realism with a more overtly political aim in mind: to consider how realist novels help us think about our own present and future with the tools realism offers to hand. In this regard, my analysis shares a thrust common to recent accounts of realism that emphasize its generative possibilities and transformative or even radical politics, such as Lauren Goodlad’s The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience (2015), Isobel Armstrong’s Novel Politics: Democratic Imaginations in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (2016), and Anna Kornbluh’s The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, and Social Space (2019).4 Specifically, The Afterlife of Enclosure reconfigures our understanding of British realism by placing at the center of its project two fundamental thematics that have been neglected or undervalued in literary criticism in recent decades. On the one hand, the book brings into view anew the connection between depictions of the common—the ordinary, common characters; the commonplace events; and the seemingly unremarkable mise-en-scène of everyday life that are the lifeblood of realism—and the historical existence of the literal commons—those shared lands that were once a defining feature of the British landscape and political imaginary. On the other hand, it argues for the enduring presence within nineteenth-century realism of utopian energies, which both hark back to the commons and point forward to a transformed society, and which thereby give the lie to those critical assessments of realism that see in it the mere reproduction and affirmation of the given world and the status quo, a view, as Goodlad, Kornbluh, and others note, that continues to hold sway as a “still influential set of assumptions” (The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic 5) or “deeply held critical truisms” (Order of Forms 16).5 The three realist writers who are the focus of this study—Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy—each trace out a series of figurations of the common in the wake of the destruction of the physical or literal commons, endowing both the historical trauma that was enclosure and the utopian spirit that the commons embodied with an afterlife, an afterlife that reveals a radical politics at the heart of the work of the British nineteenth century’s most canonical writers.

Histories Past, Present, and Future

In her book on the Paris Commune, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross, following Benjamin, notes that “there are moments when a particular event or struggle enters vividly into the figurability of the present, and this seems to me to be the case with the Commune today” (2). The same, I believe, can be said today about the enclosure of the historical commons in Britain and the responses and resistance to it. Multiple movements and conversations, including Occupy in North America, Indigenous campaigns around the globe centered on decolonization and the return of land, ecological movements grounded in a call to renew a “global commons,” and discussions of the newly emergent forms of common life (and the ever-looming threat of their privatization) in the digital realm, have brought to the fore a contemporary politics of the commons as well as critiques of the new forms of enclosure that have accompanied neoliberalism. All of these movements quite powerfully suggest that the commons and its enclosure have an afterlife that extends far beyond the reach of the nineteenth century. They further suggest that now is an opportune time to devote serious scholarly attention to enclosure’s prior figurations.

What form, then, do such figurations take in the nineteenth-century novel? This book will explore this matter at length; for now a well-known passage from Eliot’s Middlemarch begins to elucidate what I call the worldly ethics at the heart of the language of the common, an ethics that is given shape less in direct representations of enclosure, in more traditional appeals to specific political goals, or in explicit political programs than in figures for the common.6 In this passage, the narrator writes of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke,

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling—an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects—that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference. (211)

Eliot paradoxically links the most immaterial of perceptions or sensations—feeling—to the concreteness of things, to the “the solidity of objects.” Such an equation gives to feeling a materiality that feeling itself would seem to belie, and connects this “thingness” or solidity to nothing less than psychological interiority, on the face of it one of the least solid attributes of selfhood. Additionally, this meeting of subject and object implies an ethics: through a reorientation of her self to the world, Dorothea emerges from her “moral stupidity,” an ignorance that follows from assuming the self as supreme rather than on the level with or of the world. In other words, selves here gain their worldliness. Likewise, the world, no longer an udder, now takes on its own materiality as a solid force capable of resistance, refusing to “feed our supreme selves” or be subsumed by us.

By granting even the thoroughly unlikeable Edward Casaubon an “equivalent centre of self,” this passage is a bold provocation on Eliot’s part to move her readers toward a vision of a world peopled by “equivalent selves”: selves that are materially and ethically indebted to one another, bound by the shared common conditions that she examines throughout her oeuvre. This image of equivalent selves is but one figure among others for the common in Eliot’s work (I explore further examples in Chapter 3) and represents one way in which her writing works through the demise of the literal, material basis of common culture in the nineteenth century—a history that Eliot witnessed firsthand growing up in the Midlands as the pastures on the Arbury estate where her father worked as a land agent were enclosed. Over the course of this passage, a complex set of materialist relations emerges that looks both back to the eighteenth century in its echoing of John Locke and forward to a new Dorothea, and by extension a new “we,” able to navigate a world filled with equivalent selves.

This expansive vision of “extending relationships” is not limited to Eliot but rather spans the nineteenth century and foregrounds a disregarded aspect of nineteenth-century realism by illuminating the collective nature of its project and its political aspirations.7 In their respective reinventions of the common, each writer in this study eschews mere nostalgia and experiments instead with new forms of communal relations that undercut the association between realism and liberalism and its attendant individualist ideology. Against claims such as Terry Eagleton’s that “liberalism and the realist novel are spiritual twins” (The English Novel 164), or Alex Woloch’s formulation of realism as an opposition between “the one” (the unique individual) and “the many” (homogenized society), Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy attempt to reconfigure the relationship between individuals and their social world as mutually constitutive rather than oppositional: social unity appears as an ensemble of rich individuality, and individuality finds its richness in its social being. Dialectical rather than dualistic, this relationship involves reimagining the one as the many. Again, as in the passage from Middlemarch, social unity of this sort is neither a given nor recoverable from the past, but instead something to be achieved—with difficulty, no less, as the need to include Casaubon enforces—in a future that has yet to come, then and now.8

With the benefit of hindsight, the resonances of this “we” with the Occupy movement of the early twenty-first century seem nothing short of prescient: like the realization that Eliot hopes Dorothea can come to, Occupy’s claim “We are the 99 Percent” involves humility and a willingness to associate oneself with a collective in the making.9 Marco Roth characterizes this identification, as enacted in online testimonials, as “not just a gesture, but a speech act”: “By writing ‘I am the 99%’ or in some cases ‘We are the 99%’ . . . the individuals who have chosen to post their post-industrial miseries on the web are doing something that Americans of recent generations have been averse to doing. They are actually creating class consciousness, for themselves and those around them” (26–27). These resonances also give concrete expression to the “uninterrupted narrative,” the “single vast unfinished plot” (The Political Unconscious 20) that Fredric Jameson, drawing on Marx, identifies as the fundamental history the political unconscious of texts makes available to us: “the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity” (19).

That history has largely been examined in nineteenth-century literary analyses through the lens of industrialization and modernization.10 What has gone missing from such accounts is the persistence of enclosure and its effects in the attention that nineteenth-century realism affords to the notion of the common and its elevation as a subject worthy of literature and culture. This history is one that nineteenth-century realists are uniquely positioned to narrate precisely because they witnessed the destruction of the commons and the profound transformations of a whole social world and set of values that this destruction entailed, summed up by Georg Lukács as the “rationalization” of modern life (History and Class Consciousness 68), or, by Max Weber, as simply “the spirit of capitalism.”11 As a result, they were cognizant—in ways we can no longer be—of the historical existence of a relationship to land and property alternative to that which came to prevail over the course of the nineteenth century, and of an alternative set of social and historical relations inhering in common rights and the commons more generally.12 Indeed, for theorists of the commons, part of the difficulty in imagining a contemporary commons, as David Bollier notes, rests in the fact that enclosures “eclipse the history and memory of the commons, rendering them invisible,” such that the “impersonal, individualistic, transactional-based ethic of the market economy becomes the new normal” (Think Like a Commoner 79). With a foot in both of these worlds, and with the recognition that there can be no going backward, Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy instead work to reinvent a new culture of the commons in their novels that works within the constraints of the present in which they lived. Following Bollier, my gambit in rereading realism in this way is that “by naming the commons, we can learn how to reclaim it” (3).


1. See, for example, Hensley, Forms of Empire; Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts; Bigelow; and Bhandar. As Hensley forcefully writes, “[T]he Victorian state’s structurally unfinishable war against uprising natives, antagonistic regimes, and other enemies of universal principles is best understood not as one topic within the broader field of Victorian studies, but as the general fact subtending the entirety of domestic life and therefore cultural production in the period” (6).

2. In a representative critique of classic realism from a poststructuralist position, Catherine Belsey distinguishes “between those forms [of representation] which tend to efface their own textuality, their existence as discourse, and those which explicitly draw attention to it. Realism offers itself as transparent” (51).

3. As Bowlby concludes, “as speaking, conversing animals . . . we are already ‘in’ realism, living a life that includes ongoing attempts to represent it ‘like’ it is to others and to ourselves; thinking about ‘real’ realism can help us to reflect on this predicament” (xviii).

4. Goodlad’s book argues for a Victorian geopolitical aesthetic that “[creates] memorable formal experiments that do not simply reproduce or reify material realities but, rather, capture their dynamism across time and space” (66); Armstrong’s book “reads for a democratic imagination in the nineteenth-century novel,” in which “‘democratic’ . . . collocates a number of meanings that on their own would be insufficient—egalitarian, radical, a life in common, comprehending an inclusive human species being” (6, 7); and Kornbluh advances a “political formalism” that emphasizes the “world-making” nature of realist form and its capacity to model “futures possible,” because “we can build with it” (33, 32).

5. Christopher Prendergast’s The Order of Mimesis is representative of such critiques of realism in its declaration that “the authoritarian gesture of mimesis is to imprison us in a world which, by virtue of its familiarity, is closed to analysis and criticism” (6). See also Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, and Colin McCabe, whose influential 1974 essay “Realism and the Cinema” asserts that “the classic realist text cannot deal with the real as contradictory” and that “the real is not articulated—it is” in realism (39). As Harry E. Shaw quips about such approaches, “[I]t is difficult to cast realism as either a stupid or manipulative genre without making its readers seem chumps” (33). See also Amanda Anderson, who argues in Bleak Liberalism that reductive analyses of realism have also produced reductive analyses of liberalism, and Goodlad, The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic, esp. 1–38.

6. In her analysis of the “democratic imagination” of the nineteenth-century novel, Isobel Armstrong employs a similar strategy, stating that a “democratic imagination emerges through praxis in novels, through the capacity to image states and conditions, not through discursive definition” (18). Moreover, a writer’s stated political affiliations and his or her “novel politics” should be kept separate, since “the fiction often belies what is said outside it” (19).

7. The notion of “extending relationships” comes from Raymond Williams, who, in the context of defining a new realism for the contemporary novel, insists that the “truly creative effort of our time is the struggle for relationships, of a whole kind, and it is possible to see this as both personal and social: the practical learning of extending relationships” (The Long Revolution 314). Kristin Ross argues that the Paris Commune, for Marx, involved this very kind of “practical learning,” extending as it did “from the city to the French countryside, and to the countryside and the world outside Europe” (89).

8. Writing about the relationship between enclosures and their effects on communities, Williams cautions that “community must not always been seen in retrospect.” Historically, “a new kind of community,” which he calls “active community,” came into being as a result of local struggles against enclosure and laborers’ demands for economic and political rights (The Country and the City 104).

9. For a history of the Occupy movement that teases out the particular resonances of the tent (and its associations with camping and national parks) as “both medium and message” for the right to occupy, see Young. As she argues, “These forms of public nature became vehicles to assert voice, access, and a sense of commonwealth and shared future” (291).

10. For recent work on modern technologies, new forms of transport and new media, and the development of an urban industrial culture in the Victorian period, see, for example, Daly; Menke; Grossman; Michie and Thomas; Colligan and Linley.

11. Weber clarifies that this is hardly a peaceful process: “[T]he spirit of capitalism . . . had to fight its way to supremacy against a whole world of hostile forces” (56). Lukács is less concerned with the “spirit” of capitalism, per se, and more focused on how commodity relations “yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them” (History and Class Consciousness 83).

12. Brett Christophers points out that in Britain the commons themselves were not communally owned: “What were ‘common’ were instead the rights to land, specifically to access and to take or use part of a piece of land or its produce. And those that enjoyed and exercised these rights were ‘commoners’” (80).