Fowler, Elizabeth.  Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early English Writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2003. 263pp. ISBN 0 8014 4116 1.

Jane Grogan
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:>.

  1. ‘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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 lies.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).