Novel & Novelist in The Age of Tennyson

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      General Characteristics. The literary and social significance of the rise and establishment of prose fiction during the eighteenth century has already been pointed out, and in the light of what was then said, its prominence in the literature of the Age of Tennyson will be readily understood. Yet the special place which it has now come to fill must still be emphasized. The mere fact that it was soon recognized as incomparably the most popular form of literature with the great and ever-increasing general reading public will itself go far to explain, on the well-known principle of supply and demand, its attractiveness to innumerable writers of the most varied powers and aims; but its breadth and elasticity, and the freedom it gave to each new practitioner to do his own work in his own way, must also be taken into account. Absorbing into itself a very large part of the creative energy of the time, the novel thus became a vehicle of ideas as well as a means of amusement. Writers of different schools of thought employed it to embody their general criticism of life, while it was found to lend itself equally well to the purposes of those who, having some special thesis to expound, desired to reach the largest possible body of readers. It was inevitable that it should thus come to reflect all the forces which were shaping the complex modern world. The spread of science made it realistic and analytical; the spread of democracy made it social and humanitarian; the spirit of religious and moral unrest, of inquiry and criticism, was often upper-most in it; often, too, it revealed the powerful influences of the romantic revival. In its very variety of matter and treatment, therefore, the Victorian novel is the index of the many-sided interests and conflicting elements of the Victorian Age. At this point the well-marked tendency towards specialization in fiction should also be noted. Here and there, it is true, novelists aimed (as Fielding had cloned in Tom Jones) to give a fairly comprehensive picture of contemporary society. But as a rule aspects of life were picked out for separate treatment, and subdivision of labor and interests was the result. Thus, for example, we have novels of the sea and of military life, of high life, middle-class life, low life, criminal life, of industrial life, political life, artistic life, clerical life, and so on; while frequently the subdivision follows geographical lines, as in the fiction which is concerned with Irish life, or Scottish life, or even, it may be, the life of different English counties. It is largely through the free development of these subdividing tendencies that prose fiction has expanded on all sides until it has become practically coextensive with all the aspects and activities of the modern world.

      It would be impossible, even if it were necessary, to undertake here a detailed consideration of the Victorian novel. Only so much needs to be said about it as will serve to complete our brief survey of Victorian literature in general. I shall, therefore, first touch upon the broad characteristics of the three chief novelists of the time—Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot—after which I shall try just to indicate the significance of the work done by their more important contemporaries in fiction.

      CHARLES DICKENS (1812-1870) sprang suddenly into fame with the Pickwick Papers (1837), and at twenty-five found himself the most popular of English novelists - a position which he still holds today. Technically considered, his work falls into two chronological divisions. He began as a follower of the traditions of Smollett (see 76), whom as a child he had read with great enthusiasm, and who, despite the immeasurable difference between them in spirit and tone, may be regarded as his master; and his early novels—Pickwick, for instance, and Nicholas Nickleby—like Smollett’s, bundles of adventures, connected, so far as they are connected at all, only by the characters who figure in them. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843), Dombey and Son (1846-48), and David Copperfield (1849-50), some effort is made towards greater unification, but even these books belong substantially to the loose, chronicle type. Bleak House (1852-53) may be said to open his second period, because here for the first time we find a systematic attempt to gather up all the diverse threads of the story into a coherent plot. It cannot be held that Dickens was very successful with his plot building, and even in his latest books, there is still a great deal of merely episodical material. But it was in accordance with this changed structural method that the novels after Bleak House—Little Dorr it (1855-57), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1861), Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), and the unfinished Edwin Drood—were planned.

      Dickens’s qualities are obvious to all who read, and in particular, his overflowing irresistible humor, his unsurpassed descriptive power, and the astonishing vitality of his characterization. Criticism has, of course, to point out, in regard to his characterization, that the range of his success was, after all, very limited; and it is, moreover, questioned whether even his humorous creations (and it was in the field of the odd and the grotesque that his great achievements lay) belong in any sense to the world of realities. It must be admitted that with him character was generally heightened into caricature. Yet the fact remains that no other writer in our literature, save only Shakespeare, ever called into being so many men and women who have become permanent elements of that humorous tradition into which we of the English-speaking race are privileged to be born. Dickens’s principal fault was the over-wrought quality of much of his emotion. It is here that he has suffered most from changes of taste. In his craving after effect he continually had recourse to heavily-loaded emphasis, and, as a result, his work became crude. He loved melodrama, and his melodrama was too frequently theatrical; in his many passages of studied sentiment and pathos, he was often extravagant and mawkish.

      His novels belong entirely to the humanitarian movement of the Victorian era, of which they are indeed, in the domain of fiction, by far the most important product and expression. He was from first to last a novelist with a purpose. In nearly all his books he set out to attack some specific abuse or abuses in the existing system of things, and throughout he constituted himself the champion of the weak, the outcast, and the oppressed. Humanitarianism was indeed the keynote of his work, and as his enormous popularity carried his influence far and wide, he may justly be reckoned one of the greatest social reformers of his age. At the same time, he shared to the full its sanguine spirit. Despite its many evils—the hardness of heart and the selfishness of those in high places—the greed and hypocrisy which were so prevalent—the wicked class prejudices which divided man from man—the world was still for Dickens a very good world to live in. A man of buoyant temper and unflagging energy, he put his unwavering optimism into everything he wrote, and his contagious high spirits were undoubtedly a factor in his success.

      Thackeray. Dickens’s world was that of the lower and lower middle classes, and when he left this, he nearly always failed. The world of his great rival, WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY (1811-1863), on the other hand, was that of ‘society’ of the clubs, the drawing rooms, and the well-to-do. This world he called, in his first really successful and most thoroughly characteristic book, Vanity Fair (1847-48), and his use of this phrase out of the Pilgrim’s Progress indicates both the nature of his subject matter and his own attitude towards it. The subtitle of the same work—A Novel - without a Hero—still further points to the spirit of his writing and the founding principles of his art. Thackeray was essentially a social satirist and a realist. He knew nothing of Dickens’s humanitarianism and tremendous zeal for reform. But his persistent and telling attacks upon snobbery, affectation, and humbug may after all be regarded as the parallel, though on a different plane, of Carlyle’s terrific denunciations of quackery, shams, and insincerity. His conscious rupture with romanticism in fiction was inspired rather by moral than by purely artistic considerations. The romantic novel, with its high-flown sentiment and distorted views of motive and character, gave, he believed, a totally false impression of life, and thus did immense harm; and he held with his great master, Fielding, that “truth is best, from whatever pulpit”. He made it his business, therefore, to portray the world as he himself had found it; and as he had not found it in the least romantic, he would not paint it in romantic colors. In fact, in his reaction against the long popular romantic tradition, he practically changed the center of gravity of interest in fiction, making vice rather than virtue the pith and substance of his stories. We must indeed recognize the increasing geniality of his books. He began by dealing almost exclusively with the sordid and ugly aspects of life, as in Barry Lyndon; the more comprehensive picture in Vanity Fair allowed a much larger place for purity and unselfishness; and after Vanity Fair in Pendennisy The Newcomes, The Virginians and Philip—good element gained steadily in prominence and importance. Yet to the end, though the satire became less ferocious and sweeping and the tone more tender and sympathetic, the evil of life still bulked large in Thackeray’s thought. He was not, as has often been alleged, a cynic, for though his caustic criticism occasionally gives plausibility to the charge, he felt, as the cynic does not, the pity and pathos of human things, as well as their absurdities. But his general view of existence, in contrast with that of Dickens, was profoundly melancholy. The text of his many moralizings may be stated in his favorite phrase—Vanitas vanitatum.

      Thackeray’s interest was always centered in character; he paid little or no attention to questions of construction, and his novels belong to the sprawling, inorganic kind. His characterization, however, redeems all faults of technique, for it is marvelously penetrative and truthful. As a writer of colloquial prose, he holds a place well to the fore in our literature, and merely as a writer, though not always correct, he is always charming. Despite the immediate purpose of his social satire, he did some of his best work with materials furnished by the past. His Henry Esmond (1855), with its wonderful re-creation of the life and atmosphere, and even of the tone and style of the early eighteenth century, is one of the very finest historical novels in the language.

      George Eliot. The novel, then, was humanitarian in the hands of Dickens and satiric in the hands of Thackeray. In the hands of MARY ANN, or MARIAN EVANS, always known by her pen-name of GEORGE ELIOT (1819-1880), it became moral and philosophical. As Dickens’s world was that of the London streets and Thackeray’s that of the clubs and drawing-rooms, so hers was for the most part that of the old-fashioned provincial life with which she had been familiar in her girlhood. In one novel, indeed, Romola— a tale of the Renaissance in Florence— she made an excursion into the past; but she was always at her best when, as in Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871), she kept close to the scenes and the types of character she had early known and loved. Superficially considered, her work thus somewhat resembles that of Jane Austen (see 104), and due note must be taken of its excellence as a representation of men and manners in Midland village and country town. But where Jane Austen had written only of the externals of the social comedy, George Eliot was concerned with great moral struggles beneath the surface of an existence which to the casual observer would seem dull and commonplace. With her power of weaving tragedy, and tragedy as poignant and deeply moral as anything to be found in Aeschylus or Shakespeare, out of home-spun materials (as in Hetty Sorel’s pitiful story in Adam Bede) she is thus, like Wordsworth in Michael, an exponent of the democratic movement in our modern literature. Humor of a rich and delicate kind, and pathos which was never forced, are to be reckoned among her principal gifts; and though the foundation of her art was avowedly uncompromising truth to life, her realism was everywhere tempered with the widest and tenderest sympathy. But the distinctive features of her work are to be sought in the philosophic element which fills so large a place in it, and which, like her realism, connects her with the scientific tendencies of her age. George Eliot was a great thinker; beginning her career as a novelist late in life, she brought to it scholarship such as no other English writer of fiction has ever possessed; she was in intimate touch with all contemporary discoveries and speculations; and while she early abandoned the evangelical Christianity in which she had been bred, her earnest religious nature gave her a wonderful insight into all phases of spiritual experience. Her work thus takes its place, not with light literature, but with the most serious literature of the century; her novels are great essays on life, though their teachings are embodied in the concrete forms of art. Her central theme was habitually the conflict between the higher and the lower life duty and inclination; and as this theme was almost always worked out by her tragically—as the movement of the story was commonly from weakness to sin and from sin to nemesis—her books are profoundly sad. But as with all really great tragedy, hers is a purifying sadness. She had however, the faults of her qualities, and these faults have proved extremely detrimental to her posthumous fame. Her tendency from the first was towards the excessive use of analysis and commentary; this tendency grew upon her as her creative faculty waned, and her later writings—like Daniel Deronda, for example—are almost choked by science and psychology.

      Other Novelists of the Period. As in a brief catalog of these, it is difficult to find any other basis of classification, I will arrange them here mainly in order of birth, only departing from this as convenience may suggest.

      With no claim to rank as a literary artist, Captain FREDERICK MARRYATT (1792-1848) deserves mention as our racist and most amusing novelist of the sea (e.g., Peter Simple, Mr. Midshipman Easy). Though born, as will be seen, before the eighteenth century was out, his first novel, Frank Mildmay, was not published till 1829. A year before this EDWARD BULWER LYTTON, afterward LORD LYTTON (1803-1873) had caused a sensation with Pelham. Lytton was a man of infinite cleverness and versatility, and in his work in fiction he scored success in many styles; in melodramatic tales of society and crime (e.g., Paul Clifford, Ernest Maltravers, Eugene Aram); historical romance (e.g. The East Days of Pompeii, Harold, The Last of the Barons); tales of the supernatural (e.g., Manoni)', stories of social purpose (e.g., The Coming Race), and novels of domestic life (e.g., The Caxtons, My Novel). The brilliancy of his achievement in all these fields will not be denied; but this brilliancy often degenerates into meretricious glitter, and much of his writing is marred by extravagance and unreality. The same defects are conspicuous in the novels (e.g., Henrietta Temple Coningshy, Tancred) of BENJAMIN DISRAELI, EARL OF BEACONSFIELD (1804-1881). One of these, however, Sybil (1845), calls for mention apart because, as a powerful exposure of abuses connected with the relations of capital and labor, it belongs to the humanitarian movement in contemporary fiction. Very different in quality was the work of GEORGE BORROW (1803-1881), an eccentric man of many crotchets, who traveled much (see, e.g., The Bible in Spain), studied the gypsies (see, e.g., The Gypsies in Spain), and produced two rambling autobiographical novels, Lavengro and its sequel, The Romany Rye. Three years younger, CHARLES LEVER (1806-1872) wrote many volumes, but is chiefly remembered today for two books of rollicking Irish fun and military adventure, Harry Lorrequer and Charles O'Malley. With CHARLES READE (1814-1884) social purpose is generally dominant (e.g., Foul Play, Put Yourself in His Place, Hard Cash), but the best of his books is his vigorous and exciting historical romance, The Cloister and the Hearth. MRS. GASKELL (1810-1865) may also be included here among the humanitarian novelists (e.g., her pathetic story of factory life, Mary Barton), but for most readers now she lives as the author of the quaint and charming village idyll, Cranford. ANTHONY TROLLOPE (1815-1882), a far too voluminous writer, was a realist of the realists, and his photographic pictures of early Victorian provincial life (e.g., Bar Chester Towers, Dr. Thome) already begin to possess an historical value. He was at his best as a novelist of clerical life (e.g., The Warden, Framley Parsonage). In her first and most successful book, Jane Eyre (1847) CHARLOTTE BRONTE (1816-1855) put an intensity of passion and a frankness of description into the novel which were quite new to the women’s fiction of the time, and shocked not a few old-fashioned people. Her sisters, EMILY (1818-1848) also ranks highly; her chief work, Wuthering Heights, is considered a masterpiece. The third sister ANNE (1820-1849) is less important; her chief novels are Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In CHARLES KINGSLEY (1819-1875), an enthusiastic disciple of Carlyle and an ardent social reformer, we reach one of the most vigorous of the humanitarian novelists of the mid-Victorian Age. His Alton Locke, Yeast, and Two Years Ago, are full of the unrest of their time and of the writer’s passionate earnestness in the cause of the masses; but his finest work as literature was done in his two historical novels, Westward Ho and Hypatia. His brother, HENRY (1830-1876), though far less known, is sometimes accounted the better novelist. His Geoffrey Hamlin has been pronounced by competent judges our best novel of Australian life. WILLIAM WILKIE COLLINS (1824-1889) has his standing secure in English fiction as our greatest master of sensation and plot (e.g., The Woman in White, The Moonstone). It was in part at least under his influence that his friend Dickens changed, as we have seen, from the inorganic to the organic type of story. RICHARD DODDRIDGE BLACKMORE (1825-1900) wrote at least one book which will live — his spirited Exmoor romance, Lorna Doone. SIR WALTER BESANT (1836-1901) may roughly be said to belong to the school of Dickens in virtue in particular of the strong humanitarianism and direct social purpose of much of his work (e.g., All Sorts and Conditions of Men, Children of Giheon) but he often worked with much success on somewhat different lines, as in his capital eighteenth-century story, The Chaplain of the Fleet. Two of the most important names in the long list of our Victorian novelists come at the last, and with these our survey may fitly close. One of these is GEORGE MEREDITH (1828-1909), the other ROBERT Louis STEVENSON (1850-1894). Though never widely popular, Meredith is now acknowledged as one of our very greatest English writers of fiction, and two of his works, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and The Egoist, seem already to have taken rank among the classics. One of the most delightful of personalities and of stylists, with a spirit and a touch all his own, Stevenson perhaps more than any other man of his generation led the way from realism to romance, and there can be no doubt in the mind of any judicious reader that his Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae, are hallmarked for immortality. He and Meredith together carried on the finest traditions of fiction till well on towards the end of a long period of extraordinary and many-sided activity.

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