Letty Garth's little red book: "Rumpelstiltskin", realism, and Middlemarch

Lee O'Brien*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Letty Garth's favourite red volume makes its appearance in Middlemarch at the beginning of Book 7, at the Vincy's New Year's Day party that draws most of the Middlemarch town characters together. It is a small passage that can easily go unnoticed - or, if registered at all, glossed as simply part of the fabric of dense, inconsequential details that realist texts deploy to produce verisimilitude. Roland Barthes describes such details as potentially scandalous from the point of view of structure in that they seem to amount to a kind of narrative luxury, likely to threaten structural coherence, recoverable at best as filling or as giving some index of character or atmosphere. Such details might be said to reinforce the vices of nineteenth-century realism, including closing the gap between words and things: we are the real, these details say, producing the referential illusion. They amount to bad narrative housekeeping, increasing the cost of narrative information. Since the detail of Letty's book involves a young child it is doubly likely, in a novel so clearly dedicated to the adult world of compromise and doubtful success, to be set aside as mere local colour. The potentially trivializing function of the paradox of small instances of excess is reflected in Barthes' descriptive phrases for them: useless details, insignificant notation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)549-568
Number of pages20
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


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