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Henry Fielding. (1707–1754). The History of Tom Jones.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

. The Novel in England

. Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction

THE HISTORICAL origins and development of the English novel, its relations to continental fiction, the vexed question of the definition of the form itself—all these are matters too complex to be handled here. The present brief discussion can only treat, and by dangerously wide generalization, three or four of the outstanding characteristics of British prose fiction of the last two hundred years, and can suggest rather than formulate those intellectual and moral traits of the national character which are thus indicated.

From this point of view, however, one matter of history is significant,—namely, that the novel first emerged as a definite literary type in the eighteenth century, which laid the foundations also for the social sciences and which was, more than any previous century, an age of criticism and reflection. The impetus of the earlier renaissance, with its soaring imagination, its dazzling poetry, its passion for the fullness of sensuous experience, had long since expended itself, leaving to the mid-seventeenth century a dangerous heritage of libertinism on the one side and sectarian zeal on the other. The disastrous conflict between these two extremes of character produced, by way of reaction, a temper of moderation and reasonableness, equally averse to sensualism and to mystic exaltation, more concerned, on the whole, with life as it has been and as it is than with life as it might be; a frame of mind distrustful of fine-spun theories, but profoundly humanistic, in that it held with Pope that “the proper study of mankind is man.” Such was, at its best, the temper of the eighteenth century, and it was in this intellectual atmosphere that the English novel had its beginnings.

Further, in the eighteenth century, England was undergoing an economic and industrial transformation which awakened new aspirations in, and opened new opportunities to, the great “upper middle” class. (The merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, in the Spectator club, is a figure much more representative of the prosperous man of the mid-century than Tory Sir Roger.) The early novel was written for the public augmented by this large and mixed class. Its character, then, was determined, first by the lively sense of fact and the singularly sane and clear standards of judgment characteristic of the intellectuals of the eighteenth century; and secondly, by the predominant interests of the new reading public, with their democratic sympathies, their zest for actual experiences, and their abundant practicality.

All this, however, explains Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett much more than Richardson and Sterne. In the latter writers different qualities predominated; their temperaments were emotional rather than practical; their styles had not the fine unconcern, “the perfect manner of the eighteenth century.” In these respects the sentimentalism of Richardson and Sterne was symptomatic of an impending change; for the aristocratic tradition of reason and good sense was, in this same century, to be rudely challenged, and the explosive forces were already at work in the prim little stationer and the philandering parson. Observing, however, this striking difference, we may point out that even Richardson was constrained by his sense of fact—he was exploring, more minutely than any one had done before, the inmost feelings of women’s hearts; and that Sterne’s chief interest lay in observing, recording, and, it is fair to add, inducing, delicate fluctuations of emotion about life’s trivial affairs. In such ways even the sentimentalists of the group are affected by the prevailing realism.

This tendency toward realism has remained characteristic of the English novel. There have been, of course, conspicuous exceptions; the Brontes, with their haunting strangeness; R. L. Stevenson, and lesser gentlemen of the “Gadzooks!” tribe; above all, Sir Walter Scott, perhaps the greatest figure of British fiction and certainly the prince of romancers. But Sir Walter’s romanticism is very different from that of Victor Hugo or that of Goethe in his early period, being neither a passionate assertion of individualism nor a mood of lyrical melancholy. It is spirit at once robust and social, youthful but of an ancient line, drawing its rich stores from fireside legend and from proud national tradition. Moreover, conjoined with the vigorous imaginativeness of the Waverley novels is a considerable element of realism; Scottish types of character are as faithfully depicted in David Deans, Dominie Sampson, and Bailie Nicol Jarvie as are English types in Squire Western and Parson Adams. And on the whole it is a realistic tradition which has dominated English fiction. It appears in Dickens’s lovingly minute descriptions of London streets and in Thackeray’s truthful pictures of the Inns of Courts. But it may perhaps be best studied in George Eliot, whose Tullivers, Dodsons, and Poysers are like masterpieces of genre painting.

The line between realism and satire is often difficult to draw. In English fiction the two are closely related; indeed, the generalization that realism is pervasive will hold only if the latter term is so defined as to include work animated by the spirit of satire or of comedy. Now the elements of the satiric spirit are disapprobation and humor, and its method of characterization is analogous to caricature. Satire produces figures which lack the rounded completeness of real men and women; it gives us, wittingly, a distorted view of society—a Vanity Fair, for instance. And the spirit of comedy too, may impose upon one’s selection and one’s treatment of material, limitations incompatible with the strictest realism. Certainly in the English novel humor, conceived broadly, has been a constituent of the very first importance, ranging from the boisterous mirth of Fielding to the amused penetration of Jane Austen and the elaborate irony of George Meredith. If other evidence were lacking, the novels alone would furnish evidence of the rich fund of humor possessed by the British race. In Dickens this humor is united with an inordinate susceptibility to pathos, in Thackeray with a gentle disillusionment, in George Eliot with an extraordinary sensitiveness of conscience; in none is it at once more wholesome and more sympathetic than in Sir Walter. Very significantly, of the greater British novelists, only Richardson seems to have been deficient in the capacity of laughter.

Yet the English Novel has been a serious form of literature, concerned very largely with standards of conduct and informed often with profoundly moral purposes. Both Fielding and Richardson had pronounced ethical convictions, and were at pains to justify their writings upon moral grounds. In the case of Tom Jones, the modern reader may feel that the unselective realism of the book to some extent obscures the author’s avowed purpose—“to recomment goodness and innocence”—but it must be remembered that Fielding’s work is a kind of protest against what seemed to him the mawkish unreality of Richardson’s. And ever since their day, whether rightly or wrongly, popular discussion of fiction in England and Scotland has proved likely to take a didactic rather than an esthetic turn. Of the comic writers represented in this series, Jane Austen alone is free from didactic motive. This is not because she was indifferent to moral values, but because her chosen game was harmless absurdity rather than moral obliquity. Hers is the “slim feasting smile” of the spirit of comedy,—an expression, be it noted, seldom caught on the sturdy features of John Bull. Much more typically British is Dickens’s burning indignation at cruelty, hypocrisy, and meanness, or Thackeray’s little homilies on the virtues of kindness and simplicity. And the history of the novel has reflected the broader social movements of the time,—the spread of democracy, the growth of humanitarianism, the struggle of the toilers to obtain industrial freedom. Dickens was perhaps of most importance to his own generation because of the indictment which he brought against their acquiescence in such institutions as the debtors’ prison and Squeers’s school. This preoccupation with the moral side of life shows itself in other ways in a philosophical mind like George Eliot’s. To her the inward and spiritual aspects of the problem of evil were of more interest than the mere organization of social and religious forces. In her novels as well as in her life, George Eliot reveals the change which many thoughtful minds underwent in the disturbed Victorian period. It is not fanciful to see a relation between the moral struggle of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and J. S. Mill’s speculations upon the philosophy of liberalism; both turn upon the nature of the individual’s rights to happiness and the obligations which he owes to society.

On the side of form and structure, the tendency of the English novel may be indicated by a quotation from Fielding, whose example has been influential: “My reader then is not to be surprised, if in the course of this work he shall find some chapters very short and others altogether as long: some that contain only the time of a single day and others that comprise years; in a word, if my history sometimes seems to stand still, and sometimes to fly; for all which I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever; for as I am in reality the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein; and these laws my readers, whom I consider as my subjects, are bound to believe in and to obey…” The tendency has been, as it was in the Elizabethan drama, toward fullness of incident, amplitude of background, numerousness and variety of characters, rather than toward concentration of interest and singleness of artistic purpose. The greater men have commonly been prolific writers, working often under pressure, and little given to revision. The result is frequently a lack of proportion in the design or an appearance of negligence in the details of a plot, and a style marked rather by vigor and natural grace than by subtlety or dexterity. Scott, for instance, a rapid writer, was often careless in minor matters; Richardson, though he had much of the artist’s feeling, interminably prolix; and Sterne wayward and purposely baffling. The desultory narrative of Pickwick Papers, (which does finally achieve some semblance of plot) is an extreme example of looseness of structure, which, however, may be best illustrated by the popular biographical type of novel such as David Copperfield. It is significant that several well known English novels underwent an entire change of design during the process of composition. In all these respects Miss Austen, with her deft handling of plot and her admirable compactness of phrase, is exceptional. Of course examples are not lacking, in other writers, of structural skill; George Eliot’s Romola might be cited, or almost any of the novels of Thomas Hardy. But comparatively few English novels have been notable for architectural perfection. It is difficult to think of British novels which show such artistic compression as Hawthorne achieved in The Scarlet Letter.

These four characteristics, then, may be taken as broadly typical of the English novel: realism, humor, didacticism, and elasticity of form. Among the literary types, for the last hundred years the novel has undoubtedly enjoyed the widest popularity. Its vitality, as regards both production and consumption, shows no signs of diminution.

S. P. C.