The Modern & The Victorian Novel - A Comparison

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      The Modem English novel differs in many ways from the Victorian novel. It discarded the dramatic technique patronized by the early Victorian novelists and has progressed towards the brooding, introspective technique which culminates in the work of James Joyce and ‘the stream of consciousness’ school. It has further developed the psychological trend in the novel, first tentatively explored by George Eliot and Meredith and later enriched by Henry James. The modem novel is also more compact in its body, it is better integrated, more of a piece in its shape. It has rejected the irrelevancies of the Victorians, their ‘dear reader’ and moralizings. It has few frills, few redundancies. It is more like a well-cut garden than an opulent, tropical jungle which the novel undoubtedly was in the hands of a Dickens or Thackeray. The modem novel is purposeful too and unabashedly fills itself with deep mutterings and grumblings, demands for changes in society and complaints of various kinds. Though there are numerous currents and cross-currents in the modern English novel, in its mainstream it may still be described as the novel of social purpose. Its spirit is disturbed by deep social urges, troubled by numerous urgent questionings. This we can see in the work of many of the outstanding novelists of this century, notably in the work of H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley. In the sphere of drama we witness the same deep stirrings in the work of Bernard Shaw, and in poetry in the work of John Masefield, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Owen, Auden, and even T.S. Eliot.

      The leading English novelists of this century write under the stress of deep social urges. H G Wells in his novels studies the impact of the social environment on various young people who are Wells himself in different guises. It may be a young school-master eager for more and higher education or a shop-assistant anxious to improve his lot in society. The heroes of Wells in Love and Mr. Lewisham, Kipps, Tono Bungay and The History of Mr. Poily come from the lower levels of society and wage heroic battles against poverty and the sordid circumstances of their lives. The novels of Wells reflect the urges of English society in this period towards the betterment of the lot of the lower orders a social layer from which Wells himself had emerged.

      In his novels of the five towns Arnold Bennett similarly describes the struggles and aspirations of people working in this region. He paints with moving realism and absolute fidelity of detail the grim conditions of sweated labor to which even children were condemned at this time. In the work of Bennett, we find an increased emphasis on realism in the portrayal of society, a realism that disdains to conceal the slightest detail, however distressing it may be. Bennett almost leans over towards the naturalism of the French school in his insistence on a photographic fidelity of depiction.

      John Galsworthy writes on an epic scale. He describes the property-owning upper-middle class of England, the Forsytes and their Herculean labors at moneymaking. The English novel has now discarded the verbosity of the Victorians. It is trim and compact, and yet despite its utmost economy of means, it has piled up detail on a massive scale, so that one of the features of the modem novel is its dedication to the trilogy, the three-tier novel concerned with a single theme and the same group of characters. The best thing of this kind in the modern novel is the three trilogies of Galsworthy devoted to the activities of the Forsyte clan. When critics speak of the break-up of form in modem fiction, they tend to overlook this monumental devotion to form, the erection of this majestic edifice, The Forsyte Chronicles, the like of which was never known before in the history of the English novel. It represents the triumph of the human spirit over the limitations of form, over the material at the artist’s disposal.

      It seems strange that Virginia Woolf should say of the work of this trio, Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy that they are “concerned not with the spirit, but with the body,” that they “write of unimportant thing, spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.” The truth is that these novelists never loosen their grip on reality, never pursue vague and illusory will-o’-the-wisps of the subconscious mind.

      The modem English novel has completely shaken off the inhibitions and taboos which the Victorians had imposed on it. This newly-won freedom, complete defiance; of old-world conventions and restraints, can be seen in the work of D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and finally, in the ravings and confused outpourings which we find in the Ulysses of James Joyce. The Victorians have written much about love, but they had fought shy of sex. In some ways, the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Some of the modems write only of sex, never permitting love to have any look-in anywhere.

      There is a great sense of bitterness and disillusionment in many well-known modern novels. The Victorians had believed in certain things, stood for certain well-defined values. Writers like Aldous Huxley—Huxley as he was, when he wrote novels—seem to have no set of values left. Such writers mock at everything, filling the air with the sound of hollow, unholy laughter. Conventions, beliefs, morals, social values seem to have suffered complete shipwreck.

      One of the causes of this deep disillusionment and loss of values was the First Great World War. Even more so the cause of this discontent were those economic and political factors of which wars are but a symptom and outward expression. The social system built up laboriously through the ages and the scale of values which gave expression to it, were alike crumbling to pieces. One did not know how to cure this deep-seated social malaise. The system which had once brought peace and prosperity to England now seemed to promise only devastation and destruction.

      There were other influences too destroying the old complacency, but promising nonetheless a safe haven stormy waters. These were the influences of science, new trends in philosophy, increasing nationalism and the ideas of socialism which offered the hope of healing the wounds caused by the evils of an acquisitive society. Carruthers, in his study of the modem English novel, Scheherazade, speaks of this spirit of disillusionment pervading in the modern novel. He writes: “Our age is riddled with disbelief. Though few of us are disillusioned and agnostic about everything, all of us are disillusioned about some things, and most, about a good many. The process began long before the war; it was already noteworthy enough in the later nineteenth century to be given a label, fin de Siecle. But the war, and even more the peace, rapidly accelerated it.” The result has been that art forms have suffered a loss in spiritual quality: “The disillusionment of our age has resulted in a marked decline of spiritual quality in our fiction.” Carruthers insists on the necessity of some belief in something for the creation of significant art: “If a novelist’s work is to be significant and not merely entertaining, it is necessary that he should be a man of strong and comprehensive beliefs...A novelist without a philosophy of life may safely be ignored.”

      The influence of recent trends in psychology, particularly of psycho-analysis, has played havoc both with form and content in modem English fiction. Freud and the psycho-analysts revealed vast sub-conscious layers of the mind, where there is any amount of flotsam and jetsam in the way of disconnected, jumbled, chaotic thought. The conscious thought of man has some coherence and logic; the unconscious and the sub-conscious regions are just a medley, thoughts leaping and crisscrossing in mad chaos. The theme which obsesses the thought of man most is sex. There is a censorship of the brain which prevents the worst from coming to the surface of this dark sub-oceanic region. The psycho-analysts removed the sensor so that there may be no inhibitions and the emphasis has shifted to the purely animal side of human life.

      A number of novelists devoted themselves to this stream of consciousness technique. In France, Marcel Proust gave to the novel a new orientation under the impact of these new trends in psychology. His novels disdain action of any kind, concentrating on the brooding, meditative aspect of life. The novels of Proust indulge in an endless, rambling survey of petty, inconsequential thought. Somebody’s aunt made a cake; the taste of the cake was like this, the smell reminded the hero of a scent somebody else’s aunt used to wear. The novels of Proust are the reveries of a soul in sickness, brooding interminably over dead aunts, perfumes, cakes and so forth. His patience was monumental and he built up the picture of a decaying society, as it was preserved wistfully in the memory of a later and younger generation.

      In England the impact of this school was all-pervasive. Writers like D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and even Galsworthy were deeply influenced by the new technique. The novel now concentrates on a picture of the inner world, ever so much more revealing than the world of action, ever so much truer and more real. But these novelists of the elder school preserved the structure of the novel intact. A few things happened in the novel; the development of the plot had some well-defined curve, so also the development of character. A new school of fiction now emerged of which the leading lights were James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Their novels are drab and unreadable, though written with deliberate craft and care. It certainly was art which concealed art well. Ulysses by James Joyce was the most notable work of this school. Joyce tries to describe the chaos of the mind and in this process poured forth much of the gutter and the drains into the novel. He even tried to reshape the English language in his last novel, Work in Progress, which is just meaningless gibberish. It is said that this book should be heard in the form of gramophone records made by Joyce, and in this form, the book not only makes sense, but sounds beautiful too. Perhaps such books should be issued in the form of gramophone records only.

      These novelists employ a good deal of talk about time and spirit. Ulysses describes twenty-four hours in the lives of a few people. These few hours of brooding are supposed to be as significant, as epical in their importance as the whole lifetime of Ulysses full of war, adventure and action. Virginia Woolf calls this work, with all its emphasis on muck and garbage, Spiritual. She writes: “Mr. Joyce is spiritual... concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its message through him.” And she emphasizes the value of experimentation in art, though where it all leads, she does not say: “If we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honor and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.”

      The modem English novel seems to have lost all sense of form and is steeped in the spirit of bitter cynicism and disillusionment. The things that had once mattered greatly have lost all meaning in a world tumbling to pieces. The Industrial civilization built up in the last century seems to be crashing in ruins. Wars, selfish competition, worship of Mammon have been its bane and have eaten into its vitals. The writers of an earlier generation had seen light in socialism. Shaw, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and later Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Spender had in their different ways upheld the cause of the underdog, of suffering humanity. But the later writers were seeking refuge in primitivism or cynicism, or later even in Vedanta. In this latter category, we may place Lawrence and Huxley. Then came the stream of consciousness deluging and drowning art and beauty in the much and dirt of the subconscious. Still, later we have novels like Tarr by Windham Lewis, Apes and Men by Huxley, the Catholic quest of Graham Greene and the gods of Koestler that failed. Here we have a blind groping towards some light somewhere, and many novelists seem to be turning their back on the progress made by humanity during the centuries. Another generation of novelists tries to keep alive the tradition of Dickens in the English novel, endeavoring to win its way back to the high road lost in the course of wandering among the swamps and the marshes of the sub-conscious. In this last category, we place the work of Hugh Walpole, J.B. Priestley, Ernest Raymond, A.J. Cronin and Somerset Maugham.

      The English novel has to regain its form and this can only happen, when the novelist recovers his faith in life, when he sees life in its beauty, deep meaning and truth. This has been emphasized by Carruthers in his essay on the modem English novel, Scheherazade, wherein he writes: “Whichever way we turn, to this we come back in the end: the imperative need for organic pattern. The lack of it in our postwar culture, and accordingly in our post-war fiction, makes all our technical skill in matters of detail a mere whistling of jigs to a milestone. It will be manifest in the English and American fiction of tomorrow.” The necessity, of a coherent, organic and synthesized view of life too is considered imperative by Carruthers. He says: “If a novelist’s work is to be significant and not merely entertaining, it is necessary that he should be a man of strong and comprehensive beliefs. It is not enough that his mind be capacious, with windows open to all the floating ideas of his day and generation; he must? like every other writer who aims at more than ephemeral popularity, organize these discrete ideas into a stable attitude towards the world, an attitude that readers can at least feel behind his work, even though neither he nor they can define it in terms of logic. This is his philosophy of life, and a novelist without a philosophy of life may safely be ignored.”

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