Sunday, December 27, 2015
The Victorian Novel 1906
THE VICTORIAN NOVEL, article in The Outlook 1906
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A book just published on the Victorian novelists suggests the inquiry why it is that Victorian fiction is a product not to be ranked with the Athenian or the Elizabethan drama, or even with the contemporary fiction of Russia. The greater part of the book is about second-rate men, among them Douglas Jerrold, Samuel Lever, Le Fanu, and Whyte Melville. Mr. Melville writes on Thackeray, but not on Dickens, George Eliot, or the Brontes ["Victorian Novelists." By Lewis Melville]. His best essays, perhaps, are on Disraeli and Henry Kingsley, neither of whom has yet had due justice done to him. He is a very sound critic of particular books, and you can trust him to tell you what to read and what not to read; but he does little more than this. He seems to have no general ideas about the Victorian novelists. He says little or nothing about the common characteristics of Victorian fiction or about the manner in which it differs from the fiction of to-day. Even when he writes of one of the greatest men, of Thackeray who is his own special study, he has nothing very new to say about him. He tries to refute the old charge of cynicism, a charge which nobody makes now. "Thackeray," he says, "could depict gentlemen as scarcely any other writer of fiction has done; Colonel Newcome, Esmond, Major Pendennls in spite of his worldliness, and Lord Steyne in spite of his morals." This is rather dangerous praise of a great writer. We are never moved to ask of any of Tolstoy's characters whether they are gentlemen or no. We think of them only as human beings, as we think of the characters in King Lear or Macbeth. Very delightful books can be written about gentlemen and ladies; but the greatest books are about men and women. It is a weak point in Victorian novels that most of them, even the best, are either about people who are gentlemen and ladies or about people who are not, and that the writers of them are apt to be always thinking about the class to which their characters belong.
Energy and diversity are the first things to strike us about Victorian fiction. Dickens of course is the great instance of energy, but Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Surtees, the two Kingsleys and Charles Reade are not less energetic. They all seem to have written as Jehu drove; and then their energy took such different forms. Dickens, Surtees, and Reade were inexhaustible in invention. Charlotte and Emily Bronte were never weary of passion. Charles and Henry Kingsley were never weary of action. But none of these seem to have had much time to think. Their likes and dislikes are very strong, and they run at an abuse like a bull at a red rag. They toss it and tear it to shreds; but it is always some particular abuse, not any general evil of society. None of them seem to have asked themselves whither that strange, new, furious society in which they lived was tending. None of them seem to have had any theories about their art, like their French contemporaries, or any theories about life in general. They spent themselves in invention and had no more energy left for ideas than men who labor in the fields. They had a strong belief that the collective will of man could abolish particular abuses; but they never inquired whether the collective will of man could change the conditions of his existence. Dickens seems to have become suddenly aware that the poor law and the law in general were not administered as they should be; and he hammered at these things as a man might hammer at a nail in his boot that galled his foot. He had an enormous capacity for pity, as he had an enormous capacity for love; but his love and his pity, like his hatred, were all for individuals and particular things. And so it was with Thackeray. While Dickens felt the nail in his boot, Thackeray, like the princess in the fairy tale, felt the pea under the mattress; and his characters, too, are all apt to be too conscious of the pea under the mattress. They are so much taken up with the little things of life that they never have time to pull themselves together and think of great matters. Thackeray is the most intimate of our novelists; but he tells us little or nothing of the history of his characters' minds. Compare any of the finest of his characters; compare George Warrington or Esmond himself with Tolstoy's Levin in Anna Karenina, or Peter in War and Peace. To Levin and Peter there come great experiences and great moments such as come to all men worth making heroes of. But we do not hear of such things in the lives of Esmond or George Warrington. There is the scene where Esmond returns and sees Lady Castlewood in Winchester Cathedral, a beautiful experience beautifully told, but it is all emotion. It has a great effect on Esmond's heart, but none, apparently, on his mind. Indeed one feels that Thackeray's characters are not liable to experiences of the mind as Tolstoy's characters are; and that Thackeray does not much believe in the influence of thought upon character. When Peter in War and Peace is a French prisoner with the other prisoners, his experience of the ultimate facts of life affects his whole character and all his subsequent ideas of life. When Levin goes to see his dying brother, and watches the manner in which his wife cares for him, he feels that he is learning things about life which he never knew before; and the reader too is made to feel the importance of his experience. The novel has this great advantage over the drama, to compensate for so many disadvantages, that it can tell us about the past experiences of a mind as the drama cannot tell us; and Tolstoy and Turgenieff make the utmost use of this advantage.
Our great English novelists do not. They tell us little that could not be told more vividly and concisely in a play; and so we cannot but feel that their novels are an inferior form of art to the greatest drama. In the drama, the swiftest, most concise and most vivid form of literature, there is seldom much room for the expression of ideas. It deals with the critical passages in men's lives and it can only hint at all the long experiences of the mind by which its characters have been prepared for those passages. But in the novel these experiences can be treated at length, and they are so treated in the great novels of Tolstoy, in War and Peace and Anna Karenina; and so these books seem to tell us things about men and women that we have never found in any of the older kinds of literature. Tolstoy, because he was profoundly interested in ideas as being a great part of the life of man, made ideas a great part of his subject-matter; and he revealed character just as much through ideas as through action. In his masterpieces the ideas seem to belong to the characters, just as much as tricks of speech and oddities of appearance belong to the characters of Dickens. Our great Victorian novelists are wonderful observers of what men say and what they do, of their gestures and faces and clothes and habits. But Tolstoy, besides noting all these things. is a wonderful observer of men's thoughts. You will find in a great English novel one character, or perhaps two, observed from the inside. David Copperfleld is so observed and George Warrington in The Virginians, and oddly enough, Rosamond Vincey in Middlemarch, and Ravenshoe. There is also a good deal of Thackeray's own tender melancholy in his Esmond. But in Tolstoy's greater books the majority of the characters seem to be observed from the inside, both men and women. You would think that not only Peter and Levin were Tolstoy himself, but that in Natasha he was remembering his own youth, and that in some former existence he must have been a young wife and mother, like Kitty; and the reason of this is that he has been accustomed to study people's ideas and that he knows how they think no less than how they talk and act and look.
In fact, the great defect of the Victorian novelists is that they do not see the importance of ideas in the making of characters and that was the great defect of their age. Speaking generally, the people of that time did not look upon thought as a very serious thing. They valued action and facts; but as for ideas they held that all that were of real importance had been fixed for ever, and that speculation was a kind of game to be played for a little in leisure hours, but dangerous if played too seriously. Certainly it is dangerous; but we cannot do without it, especially in a time when conditions are changing and knowledge increasing more swiftly than ever before. All through the nineteenth century men did things with a vast and blind energy, and that vast and blind energy was expressed in the novels of the time, and most clearly of all in the novels with a purpose, which were then so fashionable. For in such novels—in Bleak House or It is Never too Late to Mend, for instance—the particular abuse aimed at is always attacked as a politician might attack it. It is a piece of foreign matter, hard concrete and isolated, embedded in the story and not to be dissolved by the writer's imagination. For he, like a politician, believes in doing, not in thinking; he hopes so to work upon his readers that some one will bring a Bill into Parliament to abolish his abuse. To the novelist of ideas a particular abuse would be but an instance of some evil tendency in life, and it would come into his story only to illustrate that tendency and to show how it affected the minds of his characters. Dickens and Charles Reade illustrate abuses with an extraordinary fertility of invention, but they never make these abuses quite real to us, because they never succeed in working them into the lives of their characters. Their novels with a purpose are defective artistically because they are defective intellectually, and indeed the main defects of Victorian fiction are intellectual. These wonderful novelists could do anything except think; and owing to their lack of thought they exhausted their art instead of strengthening it. They established no school and no tradition for the unfortunate novelists of our time to carry on. Their energy seems to have died out as it had to die out, because it was not fed with ideas; and it will not come back to English novelists until they have acquired great ideas of life and until they begin to try to express them.
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