Major Novelist's of 20th Century

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The Novel of Ideas
      Introduction - The characteristic Edwardian novel was concerned with the discussion of ideas: scientific, social, political, industrial, and so forth, and was designed for the large middle-class public which had grown up during the nineteenth century, and was now well established. The smug complacency of the Victorian age was being disturbed here and there by anxious questionings as to the validity of the institutions and conventions which had upheld the old order. The emancipation of women was proceeding apace; the hold of the Church on the allegiance of the people was waning; the motor car and the airplane brought increased social mobility, and this was intensified by a war fought by citizen armies. There was a vast accession of state-educated readers lo the ranks of the fiction lovers, and the spread of public libraries and the publication of cheap editions gave them easier access to books. These readers, enjoying the thrill of living in an expanding age, needed the support of general notions for their intellectual life, but were not sufficiently trained to seek their sustenance in specialized books. It was the novel of ideas which provided them with the tonic they needed, in the right doses and in the right strength.

      (i) H.G. Wells — H.G. Wells was outstanding in this work of popular enlightenment. He was a missionary among the novelists, teaching and healing, and propagating a gospel of life and conduct for the New Age. He had no respect for accepted conventions and he subjected them to a withering scrutiny. Values that were not susceptible to scientific proof he rated as fictitious.

      Wells’ novels fall broadly into three divisions—scientific romances, domestic novels with its emphasis on character and humor, and sociological novels. As an author of scientific romances he has no equal; they are masterpieces of imaginative power. Projecting himself to a distant standpoint, to the moon, the future, the air, or another planet, he views our life from the outside. This cosmic viewpoint enabled Wells to criticize present conditions and at the same time picture all kinds of exciting and terrifying possibilities. He began with ‘The Time Machine’ and followed this up with other romances founded on an imaginative treatment of science, such as ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The First Men in the Moon’ and ‘The Food of the Gods’, mostly written before 1908.

      Wells turned from the writing of fantastic romances to domestic fiction. He knew life in the London suburbs at first hand and he described it with enthusiasm in ‘Kipps’ (1905), a comedy of class instincts. ‘Tono Bungay’ (1909) is one of Wells’ most remarkable pictures of English society in dissolution in the later nineteenth century, and of the advent of the newly rich. Although ‘Tono Bungay’ is in some ways bitterly satirical, the racy pungent humor and the amusing characterization of George Pondcvcro’s aunt and uncle make the book one of the most entertaining Wells ever wrote. ‘Ann Vcronic’ is the first English novel to treat the sex relationship openly and frankly. In ‘Love and Mr. Lewisham’ (1900) and ‘The History of Mr. Polly’ (1910) the author gives us realistic studies of the lower middle-class he knew so well and could describe with such tenderness and humor.

      The sociological novels began after ‘Tono Bungay ’. Each successive volume marked a phase in his long inquiry as to the aims and ideals of civilized man engaged in the Human adventure. ‘The Work Wealth and Happiness of Mankind’ (1932) and ‘The Shape of Things to Come (1933) again showed his interest in perspectives.

      Wells contributed nothing fresh to fiction in the matter of form. What he did was to follow where Meredith had led in the use of the novel as “the vehicle of philosophy.” Wells merely decreased the proportion of stories to ideas. in characterization too Wells was no innovator in method. His characterization has little fineness, it is not deliberately psychological. If there is an innovation, it is in his love of simple souls like Kipps and Polly and Mr. Preemby as his central figures. Wells has tried to do many things at the same time and it does not do well for one man to take the burden of Atlas on his shoulders. He did not make full use of his own great gifts as he was always busy trying to extricate all the men of the world from the muddle in which they were. His achievement is great but it could have been greater had he been whole-heartedly devoted to his own chosen work, that of writing fiction.

      (ii) Arnold Bennett—Arnold Bennett did not possess the creative energy or the genius of Wells but he was the better artist. He is one of those novelists who view this world as dispassionate spectators. Like Wells he was not fired by a passion to change the world but accepted it as it was. He came under the influence of the naturalistic school of writers in France whom he admired. These novelists made much of “technique”. Theirs was a detached point of view, a suppression of the narrator, a deliberate simplicity.

      Bennett was an abundant and generous creature who held out both hands to life. There was a good deal of philistine in him. Life never lost its glamour for him. He painted his native district, the Five Towns, in all his novels. His Five Towns are an important addition to the atlas of topographical fiction. The place is one of the grimmest and ugliest of all industrial districts. His lighter novels, such as “The Card’’ and ‘The Regent’, show him exploiting the provincial humor of his district.

      He casts aside the trappings of romance and then evolves against all odds romance itself. This is best illustrated in ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, a really massive work of art. The long chronicle follows the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines—one staid and sensible, and the other passionate and imaginative, daughters of a lined raper of Bursley—from their girlhood, thorough disillusionment and old age, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, the trivial incidents of everyday existence, the unimportant people, are made interesting by Bennett’s grasp of characterization and his skill in selecting detail. Its firm lines, its huge social background, its spirit of grave pity make it one of the great achievements of modem fiction. In his later novels Bennett turned away from his familiar ground and lost his sureness of touch. In ‘Riceyman Steps’, however, where the scene is a London slum area, he was again successful in his portrayal of sordidness.

      Bennett succeeds in making the society, the streets, the houses of his Five Towns so realistic by means of heaping minute details to produce a cumulative effect. His novels are crammed with excellent observation and a “sort of poetry of streets, hotels, emporiums”. As Priestley sums up, “Arnold Bennett was at once the historian, the philosopher, and the troubadour of our ordinary human life.”

      (iii) John Galsworthy—John Galsworthy, whose best work is to be found in that series of novels called ‘The Forsyte Saga’ has sometimes been compared to Bennett with a country gentleman background. He has not the serene detachment of Bennett. He takes sides. He is hurt and angry and he sympathizes and attacks. He has no patience with the calculating, unimaginative Forsytes and loves the rebels, the Bohemians. It is impossible for any reader to feel for Soames Forsyte, because his creator so palpably abhors this “man of property”. The best part of his character is his affection for his daughter and in the later series he is a fully articulated being. When Galsworthy is merely content to narrate, his picture of the Forsyte family becomes one of the notable things of modem fiction.

      Primarily The Forsyte Saga is a satire; in the opinion of D.H. Lawrence... “the ultimate satire on modem humanity and done from the inside, With really consummate skill and sincere creative passion, something quite new.” It gained in mordancy having been written by a man who, by birth and education, belonged to the world he was condemning. Harrow and Oxford had given Galsworthy a fine sense of traditional values, a respect for life and a refinement of taste. But it did nothing to harden the sensitiveness that made him conscious of suffering and forced him instinctively to take sides with the underdog.

      Galsworthy’s handling of the novel is the flower of the central traditional manner. That is to say, he aimed at a well-proportioned combination of story and characterization; he gave his main characters a background, both of minor characters and of physical setting and atmosphere, and he kept his own part as unobtrusive as possible. In ‘Soames’ he has certainly added one more to the rich gallery of individual portraits in the English novel. He stands out as a unique figure among all the Forsytes, typical but distinct beyond possibility of mistake. But there, are many others of his people who carry their personality in all their words and acts: it is only when he steps below the Property line that Galsworthy fails to give life. His women, too, especially Soames’s first wife, Irene, and his daughter Fleur, are realized in the clear personal separation of their nervous vitality.

      (iv) Joseph Conrad: About 1920 Conrad stood in general opinion, alongside Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy, as one of the chief novelists, but his work differed greatly from theirs. Conrad, telling on the whole, more exciting and colorful stories than did the other three nevertheless, paid much more attention than they to the psychological presentation of character and motives and also achieved at the same time a more comprehensive and universal criticism of life. At mid-century Conrad may well appear the most modem of these four by virtue of his painstaking artistry and subtlety of his psychological approach.

      How different his work was from that of his great contemporaries, ‘Virginia Woolf acknowledged in her essay on Modem Fiction, in which she not only, exempted him from her attack on materialism as exemplified in the novels of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy, but also placed him with Hardy as one fit to receive: “our unconditional gratitude”. Indeed, far from writing in any materialistic spirit, Conrad wrote with the vision and spirit of a poet: he wrote of the conflict between man and nature, and of the mysteries of the human soul, and, in his view of man, the word “soul” was an inevitable word to use.

      Conrad’s first two works are based on his experiences of Malaya - Almayer’s Folly and An Outcast of the Island. They give a foretaste of his later works in their use of a tropical background. Then came one of his remarkable achievements, ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, a moving story of life on board ship which is remarkable for its powerful atmosphere. One of his other novels, The Rescue, is long-drawn out but has moments of high excitement.

      It is impossible to think of Conrad as novelist apart from his devotion to the sea, for in that intimate love lay the secret of his view of life. The sea was at once the concrete and symbolical test of character. In the school of the sea the great lessons learned were simple basic virtues the most important of which was the idea Of fidelity. The philosophic narrator, Marlow, through whom Conrad often expresses himself, puts this faith in the simple things vigorously in ‘Lord Jim’: "Hang ideas They are tramps,...each carrying away some crumb of that belief in a few simple notions you must cling to life if you want to live decently and would like to die easy.”

      Life indeed in Conrad’s books is a hostile force: how malignantly hostile Nature could be is most powerfully shown in The Heart of Darkness, in which the evil power of the African jungle converts an idealist into a living pagan deity fit for the savage tribes who worship him. In the battle against nature many fail. Conrad’s interest, as often with Browning, lies frequently in the failures, in analyzing the weakness of a man’s character, and, as does Shakespeare, he often pits a man against just those circumstances that are fatal to his weakness. His psychology is the servant of his moral vision.

      Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and Conrad-these were the four outstanding novelists who maintained the prestige of the traditional type of novel in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Besides these four traditionalists, mention must be made of Henry James who was an innovator in some respects and had a powerful influence on the novel of this century.

      (V) Henry James: Among the pioneers of psychological novel Henry James deserves a special mention. In the beginning of the twentieth century it was he who proceeded to make his main concern the inside rather than the outside of his characters, and to replace the primary interest of story by the fascination of the carefully traced reasoning and feeling which motivated a few figures. This was a narrowing of the broader human interest of the novel to a more specialized study of motives and character; and the general tendency towards the twentieth century was indeed in the direction of making the interest of the intellect predominate over the love of a story.

      The high water-mark of the career of Henry James was reached in three novels: The Wings of the dove, ‘The Ambassador’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’. In these novels he achieved a subtlety of character study, a delicacy of perception and an elaboration of artistic presentation which ranked hip-high among modem novelists. He was concerned little with external events and almost entirely with the detailed and elaborate study of the subtlest shades of human reaction to the situations which he conceived. It was a great innovation in the field of fiction, but perhaps the time was not ripe to receive the new technique, and that is why he could riot gain popularity, inspite of his being a superb artist.

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