Fictional Novel in The Age of Johnson

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      Prose Fiction in England before Richardson. Though it is impossible to dogmatize, and useless to quarrel about the actual beginnings in England of that particular kind of prose fiction which we now call the novel, it is quite safe to say that its firm establishment and assured popularity date from the age of Johnson, and may indeed be accounted the greatest achievement of that age. It may also be fairly contended that it was with Richardson that prose fiction passed definitely into its modern form. We will here, therefore, take his work as a fresh point of departure. But a rapid survey of the evolution of English fiction before his time is necessary, in order that we may place him in his proper historical position.

      We have seen that a certain amount of prose fiction had been produced during the age of Shakespeare, notwithstanding the fact that imaginative energy had then found its chief outlet in the drama. Most of this fiction had been purely romantic, as with Sidney, Lodge, and Greene; or didactic, as with More, Lyly, and Bacon; but a slight tendency to realism had been shown in the picaresque work of Nash. A little later, the long-winded Heroic Romance—a strange compound of sham chivalry, sham pastoralism, pseudo-history, and the extravagant gallantry of a sophisticated society—was imported from France, where for the moment it was immensely popular, and, along with many other French fashions, enjoyed a temporary vogue on English soil. Then, in reaction
against the terrible prolixity and absolute unreality of this type, APHRA BEHN (1640-1689), and several other women writers, began to cultivate a form of story which was marked by brevity and concentration of treatment, and which, while still radically conventional in matter and method, showed by contrast a certain desire to get back to truth and nature. Meanwhile a number of extraneous influences were at work, all contributing, as we can now see, to the transformation of prose fiction into something which, despite all superficial similarities, was to be essentially unlike any of its previous varieties; among them, as we have noted, the work of the Character-writers, and, much more important, of Addison and Steele in the periodical essay. Moreover, Bunyan’s marvelously effective use of fiction as an allegory has to be recognized, and emphasis must also be laid upon the increasing popularity of biography, the forms and methods of which, it is evident, could very easily be carried over from historical into fictitious narrative. This is a matter which, as we remember, is of special interest in connection with the tales of Defoe; and here the question, already touched upon, definitely confronts us, of the place which Defoe occupies in the evolution of fiction. That by rejecting as he did all the fantastic conventions of romance, and adopting with studious preciseness the manner and tone of actual biography, he came very near indeed to the genuine novel, cannot be denied. Yet, none the less, it may still be maintained that he just missed his way. His tales are so far removed from normal life and character, they deal so largely with strange adventure and crime, and the picaresque element in them is so strong, that, speaking strictly, it would seem that they should be classed rather as romances than as novels. This indeed is a question of mere nomenclature, and no great importance needs to be attached to it. But recognition of the qualities of Defoe’s art will at least help to bring the peculiar character of Richardson’s work into relief. Before him, a good deal had been done in prose fiction along many lines. But no one, not even Defoe, had yet written a novel of contemporary social and domestic life, the interest of which should depend upon the doings of ordinary people in a familiar setting. Such a novel Richardson produced in Pamela; and it is in view of the fresh movement which he thus initiated that he may not unjustly be called the father of the modern novel.

      Historical Significance of the Novel. Before we turn to Richardson, however, we may fittingly pause to lay stress upon the great historical significance of the novel from both the literary and the social points of view. The following points should be carefully considered. In the first place, the popularity of the novel, like that of the periodical essay which immediately preceded it, coincided with, and very largely depended upon, the growth of a miscellaneous reading public, and of a public in which women were becoming increasingly numerous and influential. Secondly, as practically a new form of literary art, the novel was a sign that literature was beginning to outgrow the cramping limitations of classicism, and to abandon the doctrine that modern genius was bound to go in the leading strings of tradition. In the epic and the drama, it was impossible as yet that men should reject altogether the authority of antiquity. In the novel that authority could be ignored. There was indeed, as notably in Fielding’s case, some discussion of technical questions from the classicist standpoint and an occasional parade of classical learning. But, in general, the novel offered a fresh field, in which modern writers were able to work independently. Thirdly, the rise of the novel was one result of the democratic movement in eighteenth-century England. The romance, like tragedy, had been almost consistently aristocratic in the range of its interests and characters; and even Defoe, while he repudiated romantic conventions in this as in all other respects, still, as we have said, held aloof from the ordinary social world, merely substituting adventurers and criminals for princes and Arcadian shepherds. The comprehensiveness of the novel, its free treatment of the characters and doings of all sorts and conditions of men, and especially it's sympathetic handling of middle-class and low life, are unmistakable evidences of its democratic quality. It was not by accident, therefore, that it appeared at a time when, under Sir Robert Walpole’s firm rule, this country was settling down after a long period of military excitement, and when, with the consequent growth of commerce and industry, the prestige of the old feudal nobility was on the wane, and the middle classes were increasing steadily in social and political power. As Lord Morley has said of Pamela, it was the “landmark of a great social, no less than a great literary transition, when all England went mad with enthusiasm over the trials, the virtues, the triumphs, of a rustic lady’s maid”. Finally, as the form of the novel gives a far wider scope than is allowed by the corresponding form of the drama for the treatment of motives, feelings, and all the phenomena of the inner life, it tended from the first to take a peculiar place as the typical art-form of the introspective and analytical modern world.

      Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), a prosperous printer, and an embodiment of all the proprieties, had reached the age of 50 without realizing any vocation for authorship, and then drifted by mere accident into the production of an epoch-making book. Two friends of his who were publishers asked him to prepare for them “a little volume of letters in a common style”, as models for “country readers who were unable to indite for themselves”, and at his suggestion—for moral considerations were always uppermost in his mind-guidance in conduct was to be combined with instruction in the art of composition. He had hardly embarked upon his task when a true story he had heard many years before came to his mind, and he conceived the idea of using this as a thread upon which to string his letters. Then the thought occurred to him that such a story (I quote his own words), “if written in an easy and natural manner, suitable to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce, a new species of writing . . . turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance writing, and . . . tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue”. So the proposed ready letter-writer was for the moment set aside, and Pamela, or Virtue Regarded came into being (1740). The story itself is very slight. It tells of a young girl, a lady’s maid, who is for a long time persecuted by the addresses of the libertine son of her mistress, now dead, and successfully resists all his arts and intrigues, until at length, his heart being softened towards her, he makes her his wife. But despite its simplicity of subject, it was so fresh in character and interest that it scored an instant and sensational success. Of its moral teaching, upon which Richardson himself laid the chief emphasis, and which was praised from the pulpit, perhaps the less said the better, for it seems to us today to the last degree sordid and mercenary. As a piece of art it is mainly interesting from the historical point of view, and because it presents in a rather crude form the peculiar methods which were afterward used with a much surer hand and with much finer effect in its two successors, Clarissa, or The Adventures of a Young Lady generally known as Clarissa Harlowe (1747-1748), and Sir Charles Grandison (1753). Clarissa is Richardson’s masterpiece; it gave him a European reputation; and it is still regarded as, in its own way, one of the greatest of eighteenth-century novels. It is also noteworthy as containing Richardson’s most remarkable character-study in the scoundrel, Lovelace, whose name has become proverbial. It is difficult for us now to do justice to Richardson, in part because of profound changes in thought, in part because of the immense development of the art of prose fiction, since his time. His books are extremely long, and are encumbered with endless repetitions and masses of unimportant detail. His stories drag; and their machinery is very clumsy. They are all written in the form of letters which pass among the characters; and while this epistolary method has its advantages in bringing us into intimate touch with the writers themselves, it tends to the scattering of interest, and, involving as it does the initial postulate of everlasting correspondence in and out of season, it leaves us with a disturbing sense of the extreme artificiality of the whole fabrication. But for patient, microscopic analysis of motive and passion, Richardson still holds a pre-eminent place. This is some justification of his remorseless prolixity. His is the art of the infinitely little, and his effects are built up out of thousands of small and seemingly trivial things. In many of its fundamental characteristics his genius was rather feminine than masculine; from boyhood up he had sought by preference the society of women; and it is a point of importance that in general, he succeeded best in the delineation of female characters. His first-hand knowledge of the world was small, and his view extremely narrow, and the moral element in his work (and he wrote primarily as a moralist) suffered greatly in consequence. He carried on the ethical traditions of Addison and Steele, and in his own pragmatic fashion undoubtedly did good work in the purification of society and manners. But his moralizing is apt to sink into wearisome twaddle, and his sentiment is often overstrained and mawkish. In general, the atmosphere of his books is too much like that of a hot house to be entirely pleasant or wholesome.

      Henry Fielding. The second of our eighteenth-century novelists, and by far the greatest of them all, HENRY FIELDING (1707-1754), was a man of very different type. His was a virile, vigorous, and somewhat coarse nature, and his knowledge of life, as wide as Richardson’s was narrow, included in particular many aspects of it from which the prim little printer would have recoiled shocked. There is thus a strength and a breadth in his work for which we look in vain in that of his elder contemporary. Richardson’s judgment of Fielding—that his writings were ‘wretchedly low and dirty’—clearly suggests the fundamental contrast between the two men. Moreover, for some ten years before he took up the novel, Fielding had been busy writing plays, and this long training in the drama had taught him many valuable lessons in the art of construction. Unlike Richardson, therefore, he started with a good preliminary preparation in technique.

      Oddly enough, his own first experiment in the novel was a direct offshoot from the first experiment of Richardson. In 1740 all England was in raptures over Pamela, Fielding did not share the general enthusiasm. The underlying absurdities of the story appealed to his quick sense of humor; he was struck by the downright artfulness of the little heroine, whose virtues were paraded with so much satisfaction; and the author’s overwrought sentimentalism disgusted him. The happy idea, therefore, occurred to him to take advantage of the popularity of the book, and at the same time to raise an honest laugh against it, by turning it into burlesque. This was the origin of The Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742). Fielding began by reversing the initial situation in Pamela, As Richardson’s heroine had been tempted by her master, so his hero (who is supposed to be Pamela’s brother) is tempted by his mistress; and he keeps up the parody till his tenth chapter. After this, carried away by his own invention, he discards his first design, and the story becomes an ‘epic of the highway’, full of adventures, horseplay, and not-too-decent fun. This was experimental work only, but it helped Fielding to find his proper way. It was followed in 1749 by The Adventures of Tom Jones, the greatest novel of the eighteenth century. Here Fielding takes an enormous canvas, and crowds it with figures. His hero is a foundling, who is brought up in the west of England by a squire named Allworthy, with whom, however, he presently quarrels; after which he tramps up to London in quest of fortune. Countrymen and manners fill the first part, metropolitan men and manners, the second part, of the book, which as a whole gives us our fullest and richest picture of English life about the middle of the eighteenth century. Fielding’s third great novel, Amelia, appeared in 1751. In this, as the title indicates, the interest centers in the character of a woman, and thus Fielding, probably of set purpose, met the author of Clarissa on his own ground. The story tells of the courage and patience of a devoted wife and of the ill-doings of her weak-willed husband. It is far sadder, far less vigorous, and far less humorous, than its predecessors; and, despite the excellence of some of its character-drawing, it exhibits unmistakable signs of failing power.

      Fielding was much concerned about the structural principles of prose fiction, a matter to which neither Defoe nor Richardson had given much attention. To him, the novel was quite as much a form of art as the epic or the drama. Hence the interest of his preface to Joseph Andrews and of the introductory chapters to the successive books of Tom Jones, which are in fact a skilled craftsman’s essays on various questions connected with his craft. His own success in construction was not indeed nearly so great as is commonly supposed, and the praise which Coleridge and Thackeray lavished upon the plot of Tom Jones must be dismissed as wildly extravagant. But he still deserves the fullest credit for what he did by both theory and practice to carry over into the novel those ideas of unity and balance which are essential to any work of art. While we are now often repelled by his grossness and animality, we must also remember that Fielding was, like Richardson, in his own way avowedly a moralist, though he repudiated root and branch Richardson’s pinched ideas of conduct, and the spirit of smug respectability which pervades his work. As a social satirist and teacher, his place is close beside his friend, Hogarth, whom he resembled in his total want of squeamishness, the limitless freedom which he assumed in depicting vice, and the downright honesty and sincerity with which he sought, in his own words, “ to expose some of the most glaring evils, as well public as private, which at present infect the country”. There are weak points in Fielding’s ethics, and he touches certain matters with a laxity which we may deplore. But, on the whole, as he was a much greater artist than Richardson, so his treatment of life and the tone of his writings are both truer and healthier than his.

      Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), is usually associated with Richardson and Fielding in the history of the eighteenth-century novel, but it must be distinctly understood that his work is on a much lower level than theirs. In early life, Smollett spent some years as surgeon on a man-of-war, and thus gained that first-hand knowledge of the sea, of sailors, and of the appalling conditions of the naval service, which he afterward turned to good account. He settled in London with the intention of practicing his profession, but medicine failing, like Goldsmith, he turned to literature. As a bookseller’s hack, again like Goldsmith, he produced a large amount of miscellaneous work, including a History of England, which was a publisher’s opposition venture to Hume’s. The success of Richardson and Fielding naturally prompted him to try his hand in fiction, and he wrote half a dozen novels, the most important of which are The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Smollett conceived the novel as ‘a large diffused picture’ of life, and, unlike Fielding, made little attempt to organize his materials into an artistic whole. His stories are simply
strings of adventures, and such unity as they possess is given to them only by the personality of the hero; while his one object is to keep the reader’s interest alive by a perpetual succession of incidents. His fertility of invention and animation are undoubtedly remarkable; but we soon weary of mere incident when it is not related to the interest of character; and Smollett’s characters are generally very crudely drawn. Alike in the looseness of his composition, in his dependence upon action, and in the nature of his subjects, he reverts to the picaresque type of fiction. Though he still has his admirers, the enjoyment of his novels requires stronger nerves than most of us today possess. The world as he depicts it is a dirty and dingy place, and its inhabitants for the most part are very sorry and disagreeable fellows; he loves to dwell upon the most foul and nauseating phases of life; and he gives us little that is really cheerful to relieve the prevailing gloom, for even his humor is commonly of the coarse physical kind. An exception must indeed be made in favor of Humphry Clinker, which is far finer in tone and richer in genuine comedy and character interest than its predecessors; but in regard to these it can only be said that, while they often carry us along by the zest of their narrative, they have in them much to disgust even the least fastidious reader. It has, however, to be remembered that Smollett wrote expressly as a satirist and reformer, and that his purpose was to paint the monstrous evils of life in their true proportions and colors that he might thus drive them home upon the attention of the public; and we must certainly set it down to his credit that the sickening realism of the ship scenes in Roderick Random led directly to drastic changes for the better in the conditions of the naval service. While in general, he compares very unfavorably with his two forerunners, he also did something to enlarge the scope of fiction. He was the real creator of the English novel of the sea and of sailors, and the first of our novelists to exploit systematically and successfully the national peculiarities of Irish, Scotch, and Welsh.

      Other Novelists of the Period. Of the innumerable works of fiction which now flooded the market, the vast majority are no longer remembered today even by name. We have here to glance only at the productions of a few writers who, whether by the intrinsic excellence or the temporary importance of what they did, have a recognized position in literary history. It is natural to speak first of GOLDSMITH’S one excursion into the field of fiction, The Vicar of Wakefield. In structure, this shows that, like Smollett, Goldsmith had learned little of the art of the novel from the precepts and practice of Fielding, for its plot is ill-concocted, full of glaring improbabilities, and huddled up in the most ludicrous manner at the close. But as we are willing to make the amplest allowance for the writer’s personal weaknesses, so we are ready to make a similar allowance for the technical defects of his work, because it is instinct with his peculiar charm and tenderness, and because its materials are handled with that transfiguring power which touches the simplest details with idyllic beauty. Its humor is perennially delightful; and, while much of its characterization is purely conventional, no praise would be excessive for the subtlety with which the good Dr. Primrose and his family are portrayed. Its spirit is that of quiet, manly piety, without the slightest suggestion of the “goody-goody”; and the large sympathy which is conspicuous in many of its descriptions—notably in the prison scenes towards the end—show that in human feeling and real social insight alike Goldsmith was ahead of most of the professional preachers and teachers of his time. The novel had been didactic in the hands of his predecessors, but he made it directly humanitarian.

      Reference must next be made to the strange work of a very strange man, the REV. LAURENCE STERNE (1713-1768), whose Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman appeared in nine volumes from 1759 to 1767. This can hardly indeed be called a novel. It is rather a medley of unconnected incidents, scraps of out-of-the-way learning, whimsical fancies, humor, pathos, reflection, impertinence, and indecency. Sterne’s method was that of deliberate oddity and carefully cultivated caprice; and his work has so little backbone that, had he lived ten years longer (for he left it incomplete at his death), he could easily have written nine more volumes on the same plan and without advancing in the least towards any real conclusion. He owes his rank as novelist to the wonderful power of his character drawing in the elder Shandy and his wife, Corporal Trim, and Uncle Toby, who are among the most living figures in eighteenth-century fiction. In one other way he also counts much historically. We have spoken of the reinstatement of the emotions as a chief fact in the life of the period now under review. Considering the general conditions of the time, it is not surprising that in the reaction against the dry intellectuality of the preceding generation, the feelings should run riot, and a new mood—the ‘melting’ mood of heightened sensibility—should arise in consequence. A fresh type of man—the man of feeling—now appeared upon the scene, whose nature was exquisitely attuned to the pathos of things, and who found a curious satisfaction in the cultivation of melancholy; and as people at large began to discover that there was a peculiar and delicate kind of pleasure to be extracted from overwrought emotional states, those who catered for their entertainment naturally addressed themselves to the task of inducing such states. There is a good deal of this new emotionalism in Richardson; but Sterne was our first English writer—as Rousseau was the first writer on the Continent—to employ it as part of his regular literary stock-in-trade; and with him it becomes so much of a habit that it fills his pages with a kind of mildew. He also appears to have discovered the proper name for it. In a letter, about 1740, to a friend, Miss Lumley, he reminds her of the ‘sentimental’ repasts they had enjoyed together. This is the first known use of the epithet in the sense now attached to it, and Sterne himself presently made the word classic and current in his record of continental travel, the Sentimental Journey. He was not, of course, the creator (no one man was the creator) of this tearful mood, but his work fell in with a fast-growing fashion, which it therefore helped to stimulate and spread. Among his direct followers, one has some distinction HENRY MACKENZIE (1745-1831), whose principal novel, The Man of Feeling, carries its significance in its title. Possessing nothing of Sterne’s other qualities, Mackenzie exaggerated his high-pitched emotionalism, and his book is from beginning to end a perfect welter of tears. As has been well said, at least it is not a dry book. I should take it, on the contrary, to be one of the dampest books in English literature.

      In later life, Mackenzie opposed the French Revolution, but his earlier writings reveal many traces of the influences of that general spirit of revolt which gained strength rapidly in England during the second half of the eighteenth century. This leads us to note that, as we might expect, writers who had a message to deliver soon began to perceive that the novel could be used with great effect as a means of popularising their political and social ideas. Thus, to take one instance only, WILLIAM GODWIN (see 71) wrote his powerful Caleb Williams, or Things as They are (1794), in order (in the words of the original preface) to give “a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man”.

      It is an interesting feature of the growth of the novel that almost from the first women began to take part in it. But though a number of women had been writing fiction before FRANCES BURNEY (1752- 1840), her Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, laid the real foundations of the woman’s novel. Published in 1778, twelve years after the Vicar of Wakefield, when ‘little Fanny’ (as Johnson affectionately called her) was only twenty-six, this was reckoned the greatest success since Clarissa. In many ways it belonged entirely to the eighteenth-century school. It clearly owed much to Richardson, whose epistolary method and tone of sensibility it adopts; while, in broad humor, its strongest point, it follows the tradition of Fielding and Smollett, but without their coarseness. At the same time, as the first novel in which a woman wrote of life quite frankly from the woman’s point of view, it was really a new thing. We may therefore regard Miss Burney as the founder of the ‘tea-table school’ of fiction. Her second book, Cecilia, was more ambitious, but lacked the freshness of its predecessor. Her later novels were failures.

      The Revival of Romance. While the eighteenth-century novel arose as a picture of men and manners, the favor which it enjoyed made it inevitable that it should soon expand in many directions under the various influences of the time. One important new movement was thus initiated when it began to respond to that growing interest in the middle ages which, as we shall learn more fully later, was a prominent feature in the great changes which were then coming over popular taste. A revival of romance was the result. In this revival, the most conspicuous name is that of HORACE WALPOLE, who has already been mentioned as a letter-writer. A busy trifler, who in the course of a long life as man of fashion and virtuoso dabbled in many things, Walpole among other fads took up mediaevalism. As early as 1747 he bought a small house or ‘villakin’, near Twickenham, which little by little he transformed into a miniature Gothic castle. In this he installed with great satisfaction his collection of curiosities and art treasures, suits of armor, illuminated missals, specimens of stained glass, and other miscellaneous articles of the same general description. His ‘Gothic’ romance, as he called his Castle of Otranto (1765), was simply the expression in fiction of the peculiar tastes already manifested architecturally in this toy Castle of Strawberry Hill. Inspired, according to his own account, by a dream of ‘a gigantic hand in armour’, this extraordinary book impresses us today as a mere jumble of childish absurdities, and we only smile when we should be amazed and awed by its crude supernaturalism by the picture which descends from its frame, for example, and the statue which bleeds at the nose. But the point to emphasize is that it broke new ground. It was taken very seriously at the time and by readers of the next generation; for Gray was so frightened by it that he dreaded to go upstairs to bed, Byron called it “the first romance in the language”, and Scott praised it with his usual reckless generosity. Its popularity, of course, bred imitations, one of which, CLARA REEVE’S Old English Baron (1777), also described as ‘a Gothic story’, is specially important because it is avowedly an attempt (though not a very successful one) to create romantic interest with machinery less violent and implausible than that which Walpole had employed. Sensationalism of the most extravagant kind was, however, the general characteristic of the romantic fiction which was produced in enormous quantities during the closing decades of the eighteenth century. Most of this has gone into the lumber heap of forgotten things; but the works of two writers have still a faint historical interest. ANN RADCLIFFE (1764-1823) gained an immense public by her Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797)—books which are very long, very complicated in plot, full of thrilling situations, and so compact of horrors that though the author was in fact a very quiet, commonplace kind of woman, the story got about that she had actually gone insane in writing them. MATTHEW GREGORY LEWIS (1775-1818), now best remembered for his personal relations with Scott, achieved a great success on somewhat similar lines with his first book, Ambrosiot or The Monk. Published when he was only twenty, this owes much to The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho, though it outdoes both in the wild sensationalism of its machinery and effects. There is little in the productions of either of these writers to interest us much today. But we must note the historical significance of their return to the romantic middle ages, and of their appeal to the imagination by the free use of the mysterious and the supernatural; and we must remember that they did much to stimulate and fertilize the genius of Scott.

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