Monday, January 18, 2016
The Greatest Decade in the History of the English Novel by William Phelps
The Greatest Decade in the History of the English Novel - The Mid-Victorians By William Lyon Phelps 1916
Join my Facebook Group
See also The Best Victorian Literature, Over 100 Books on DVDrom
Perhaps the greatest decade in the history of the English Novel was the period between 1850 and 1860 inclusive. The list of titles is more impressive than any comment thereupon. David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Pendennis, Esmond, The Newcomes, The Virginians, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Alton Locke, Hypatia, Westward Ho, Peg Woffington, Christie Johnstone, It Is Never Too Late to Mend, The Cloister and the Hearth, The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, The Woman in White, Villette, The Professor, Tom Brown's School Days, John Halifax, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, Blithedale Romance, The Marble Faun, Uncle Tom's Cabin. In order to find a parallel to such a rapid production of masterpieces in English literature, we should have to go back to the best days of the Elizabethan drama. The mid-Victorian publishers lived in the golden age: and their regular announcements—which make interesting reading in the advertising pages of old weeklies—must have aroused golden anticipations.
In one hundred years from Clarissa, Tom Jones, and Roderick Random, the novel had advanced to full maturity, with the complexity and technique that accompany the complete development of any form of art.
Great writers often come in pairs, and hunt the public in couples. Richardson and Fielding, Scott and Jane Austen, Dickens and Thackeray, Hardy and Meredith, Tennyson and Browning, Goethe and Schiller, Turgenev and Tolstoi, Ibsen and Bjornson, Hauptmann and Sudermann—to mention only some of the modern instances. A good thing this twinning seems to be for literature; genius echoes genius, and each rival spurs the other to his best.
Scott died in 1832; and within four years Englishmen were reading Pickwick Papers, the inspired writing of a new novelist, who had two great qualities not mainly characteristic of Sir Walter—humour and humanitarianism. Never was a man more kind to individuals than the great Scot; but his professional work resembles a long picture gallery, whereas the novels of Dickens make one glorified stump speech, abounding in sympathy for the outcasts, and shining with fun. No voice like this had ever been heard in English Literature; and for thirty years after his death, his silence was almost audible, till he returned to earth and dwelt among us as William De Morgan.
Of all British novelists, none has been more purely creative than Dickens; his tears flow from the great source, the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century, the only link between him and Sterne; but the pathos of Dickens is what the twentieth century finds least admirable in his work. He regarded his own childhood with considerable and justifiable self-pity; but his unfathomable tenderness is shown with especial force toward all children. The sufferings of little boys and girls made to him an irresistible appeal; and he felt that the death of a child was the most tragic event in nature, as Poe thought the death of a young girl the most poetically and romantically beautiful. Dickens insisted on the inherent dignity of childhood— a dignity constantly outraged both by the selfishness and by the condescension of adults.
Although Dickens had an enormous influence on the literature of the Continent, the only foreign novelist who resembled him both in genius and in temperament was Dostoevski. The title of one of the latter's stories, The Insulted and Injured, might almost be taken as the subject of the complete works of both writers. Both had suffered terribly in earliest youth; both knew the city slums; both knew the very worst of which humanity is capable; both loved humanity with a love that survived every experience; both were profoundly spiritual, intensely religious, and thoroughly optimistic. For the great artists who have known suffering and privation are more often optimists than those whose lives have been carefully sheltered. The game of life seems to be more enjoyed by those who play it than by those who look on.
Tolstoi and Dostoevski read Dickens with eagerness and profit. Dickens has been and is to-day more popular in Russia than any other English novelist; the common people feel their kinship to him in the touch of nature. In one of the Siberian provincial jails, where records are always kept of the prisoners' reading, the library minutes for 1914 are interesting. Of British authors in Russian translations, Dickens was called for 192 times; Scott, 98; Wells, 53; Wilde, 44; Kipling, 41; Shakespeare, 33.
In the history of British fiction, Dickens fills the biggest place, contributed the largest number of permanently interesting characters, owed less to other authors than any other novelist, and would be the one I should keep if all but one had to perish. No other writer has made so great a contribution to the greatest happiness of the greatest number; and while it is possible to contemplate the history of the novel minus any other author, we simply cannot get along without Dickens. The extraordinary succession of masterpieces that he produced with hardly any lapses for thirty years put the whole world hopelessly in his debt. He was the most creative and the least critical of all our writers of fiction; he attempted no formal essays; his American Notes ought not to have been written, and his Child's History of England would have blighted the reputation of a lesser man. It is absurd to call his characters mere caricatures: he turned the powerful searchlight of his mind into many dark places, and his persons stand out against the background in a conspicuous glare. But if these people are not true, why is it that all observers since 1840 are continually pointing out persons who "look like characters from Dickens"?
Although the middle of the nineteenth century saw the Novel playing successfully the role of life's interpreter, nearly every prominent writer felt bound to produce one historical romance. Dickens lacked everything but imagination in this field, and to me A Tale of Two Cities is the poorest of all his stories, with the one exception of Little Dorrit. As soon as he had shaken himself free from it, he wrote one of the best novels in English literature—Great Expectations; even as Stevenson, flinging aside St. Ives, produced the unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston. George Eliot also failed; when all is said, Romola is a work of construction rather than creation, more ponderous than splendid. And as a study of moral decay, it is not so impressive as Mr. Howells's Modern Instance. Charles Reade was so successful, however, that The Cloister and the Hearth is worth all the rest of his works put together—I wonder if he realised before he died how immensely better it is? And it seems now, as if Westward Ho would outlast the more sensational and formerly more popular Hypatia. For Charles Kingsley was an Elizabethan by nature, and was more at home with the seadogs of Devonshire than in a joint debate with Newman. It remained for Thackeray to write the best historical romance in our language, Esmond.
This book is almost entirely free from Thackeray's worst faults: his sentimentalism, his diffuseness, his personal intrusions on the stage. The story is told in the first person, which shut out the author: it was published as a whole in book form instead of being dragged out in monthly numbers; and it is a narrative so full of passion—real passions, love, jealousy, lust, revenge,—that there is no room for anything less vital. He wrote Esmond at white heat in a short time, and the manuscript shows few corrections. I like it best because it contains the best of Thackeray—and the best of Thackeray has not been surpassed in English fiction.
Thackeray's mind was more critical than that of Dickens: he was a natural-born critic, parodist, burlesquer, commentator. He walked the garden of this world and his novels—except Esmond—are gigantic commentaries on what he saw. Never was a writer less of a cynic and satirist than Thackeray; no doubt, like many people, he thought he was very severe; but as a matter of fact, he was a sentimentalist and a preacher, who loved humanity, saw its follies with the sharp sight of the humourist, and wished all the time that he could say something to make his readers profit by his personally conducted tours.
He was a chivalrous, magnanimous, tenderhearted, essentially noble character; no English novelist has ever better deserved the grand old name of gentleman. He confessed his sins against art like a man. "Perhaps of all the novel-spinners now extant, the present speaker is the most addicted to preaching. Does he not stop perpetually in his story and begin to preach to you?" He really missed the point of the objection to this practice. It is not that we are eager to hear what happened next and want no interruption: it is that these interruptions destroy the illusion, and are, from the artistic point of view, deplorably insincere. For this reason, I find The Newcomes an unreadable book. He wrote it frankly for cash, and said so.
Of the three great mid-Victorians, George Eliot was less rich in natural endowment than either Dickens or Thackeray, but wrote with more soberness of mind. She said she was neither pessimist nor optimist, but called herself a meliorist. Be this as it may, her books were all written in shadow, and have none of the abounding cheerfulness of Dickens, nor the lambent humour of Thackeray. Her humour, of which she had a plenty, was grave and ironical; no one has better depicted middle-aged women who combine vacuity of intellect with venomous selfishness. In fact I think no novelist has ever better depicted the unloveliness and corroding force of selfishness.
In true human pathos, her Scenes of Clerical Life were a revelation in English literature. What an enormous contrast between these depths of tragedy and the eighteenth century pools of sentiment! The restraint shown by the author emphasised the dignity of suffering. And one has only to compare young Maggie Tulliver with Little Nell to see George Eliot at her best and Dickens at his worst. The constant attrition under which Maggie suffered is more painfully real to us than Nell's melodramatic and elaborate preparations for the tomb.
The Mill on the Floss leaves the tricks of realism and enters the field of reality. It is a noble, permanent example of the psychological novel, which had been started by Richardson. It would be difficult to find outside of Turgenev any love scenes in fiction which combine less carnality with more passion than the scenes between Stephen and Maggie. And it is not surprising that Turgenev admired this book. For once upon a time three men, Mr. George H. Lewes, Professor Boyesen of Columbia, and the Russian Turgenev were engaged in a warm discussion as to which one of George Eliot's novels was the best. Mr. Lewes declared for Daniel Deronda, the husband naturally thinking her latest was her finest; Professor Boyesen voted for Middlemarch, as being richest in content; but the great Russian, who valued correct analysis and profound sincerity above all other qualities in fiction, gave his opinion for The Mill on the Floss. I think Time is on his side.
George Eliot's last novel, Daniel Deronda, is over-weighted with opinion and propaganda, and is visibly sinking beneath the surface of literature. I wish I knew how many people had read it through in 1915! She wrote no more novels, and I do not think she could have written another. The best scenes in this book are the terrifying conversations between Grandcourt and Gwendolen, which I have always suspected were inspired by Browning's poem, My Last Duchess. The refinement of cruelty is so truthfully portrayed that one shudders as if present at a scene of torture.
Anthony Trollope's Autobiography is more interesting than his stories, and more improbable. There has never existed a less pretentious artist. He tells us exactly how his work was done, and we know nothing whatever about it. He said he would not be read in the twentieth century, but he is; even the enormous amount of his production—I saw an edition in eighty-eight volumes—has not swamped his reputation. Hawthorne's criticism of him accounts for his permanence; his novels are just like life, some of them being so dull that we fly to other books. No one would dare call Trollope a genius, and he would have ridiculed such an appellation. It is rather singular that this uninspired Englishman, in a grey business suit, is so much more conspicuous in the history of fiction than many gesticulating sensationalists like Hall Caine; and it will be food for reflection if he should eventually outlast so brilliant a dandy as Bulwer-Lytton.
Anthony Trollope has had a curious and altogether charming reincarnation in the twentieth century in the person of Archibald Marshall, whose novels may be confidently recommended to admirers of Barchester Towers. Where does Mr. Marshall get that skill—absent from English literature since Trollope's death—of representing ordinary events and ordinary characters, not one of whom is wholly good or wholly bad, in a way that makes the reader follow with tense interest, unwilling to skip a word? The trilogy of the Clinton family, and Exton Manor, The Greatest of These, The Old Order Changeth are good stories well told—I for one wish they were twice as long. These books have not got the "punch," nor any "red blood," nor any lubricity or vulgarity. Strangest of all qualities, they are filled with charming, decent, well-bred, kindly, human people, so that to read these novels is like visiting in a good home. Instead of being forced to associate with dull, coarse, dirty loafers, whom one would not pick for acquaintances in every day life, the reader is brought into contact with extremely attractive men and women. No one ought to quarrel with Mr. Marshall for his principle of choice— since readers and critics who prefer to spend their time in the slums, in the antiseptically safe way of realistic fiction, have constant and abundant opportunity to do so. I think that it is more difficult to write any one of Mr. Marshall's novels than it is to produce the vast majority of tales dealing with criminals and abnormal villains. And our contemporary Trollope is really "true to life"; for the world does actually contain some persons whom it is a pleasure to meet.
It is a rather curious fact that in the history of fiction in all languages, only two women have risen to the first rank—Jane Austen and George Eliot. This is the more odd because the art of the novel is to a certain extent imitative and critical, not nearly so purely creative as the art of musical composition, where no women of genius have ever appeared. Although not to be compared with the two names I have mentioned, the three Bronte sisters still have a place of their own in English literature. Anne now shines only by reflected light; few read Agnes Grey, and none would read it were she not the sister of Charlotte and Emily. The latter had perhaps the greatest natural endowment of the three; and Wuthering Heights, while more hysterical than historical in its treatment of human nature, has at any rate the strength of delirium. It was written by one who had passed, like old Dr. Donne, through the straits of fever—per fretum febris. It is short-sighted criticism that wonders at the mental range of passion of a girl shut up in dreary loneliness; her capacity for expression is what is remarkable, her passionate intensity exactly what one might expect from such stifling repression. It is ridiculous to believe that a woman's passions are passive and not active; that she is unaware of them until some man appears on the scene; or that even then her love is the love of reciprocation, that cannot be roused independently of purposeful masculine attention. Such ideas may make a fancy virginal picture pleasing to some persons, but they are exactly contrary to the facts of human nature. The recent publication of Charlotte's love-letters ought to open the ears of the deaf; but then, if they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.
Emily's narrow bodily existence fanned the flames in her soul; and she could have counted herself a queen of infinite space, had she not had bad dreams.
Charlotte Bronte used in her novels her Yorkshire and her Continental experiences; but chiefly when she wrote, she looked into her heart, as is indeed the way with most novelists of distinction. Most novels are really autobiographies, and did we know as much about the external and spiritual life of all writers of fiction as we do of Tolstoi's, I think we should find often an equally faithful following of experience, though with less genius for recording it. Charlotte and her sister Emily wrote novels of revolt, expressing the hatred of that conventionality submitted to by so many women with such inner dissenting repugnance; for conventionality is such a tyranny that its bonds often become galling to women, every one of whom has the love of adventure in her heart; the desire for some thrilling excursion of the soul. Men of desperate valour seem to appeal to women more than those who are wise and prudent. No woman can endure a man who has too much caution. The little school-mistress in Quality Street loved the "dashing" officer— loved him and no other.
The fiery energy of Charlotte Bronte caused Jane Eyre to attract as much attention as a conflagration; it blazes still. She is a torch in literature rather than a fixed star. After she is extinguished the world will still be reading Pride and Prejudice and Silas Marner. To turn even now from Jane Eyre to these books is like passing from a vivid dream to reality.
Professor Brander Matthews has somewhere or other called attention to the distinction between invention and imagination, showing that while we may admire the cleverness of great inventive ingenuity, and while this gift may bestow upon its author immense temporary vogue, it does not, never has, and cannot place him with the immortal gods. A story ought to be the foundation of a novel; but a novel does not become immortal through a good plot. An excellent illustration of this is seen if one places side by side Wilkie Collins and George Eliot. As an inventor and manipulator of plot intricacies, we knew not the equal of Collins till Conan Doyle appeared. The Woman in White, Armadale, The Moonstone—marvellous, indeed, is the construction of these books. I sometimes think I have never seen a plot anywhere that rivalled in successful complexity the plot of The Moonstone. Suppose a good talker were to attempt to amuse and excite an audience by telling in his own fashion the outline of a famous novel— think of the contrast for such a purpose illustrated by The Moonstone and The Mill on the Floss! Yet there is not the slightest doubt that the latter is so much greater in literature that the two cannot even be named together. Collins was amazingly clever; each of his stories was an enigma, a delightful puzzle offered to the public. They brought him a vast number of readers and no fame—for Collins has no real fame; he hardly belongs to literature at all, except as a striking example of the school of mystery and horror. He felt himself that he was only an entertainer, and he made an effort to write a "purpose" novel, which he accomplished in Man and Wife, an attack upon college athletics and the marriage laws; but the only interest of this book is in its ingenuity. Critics would no more place Collins on a level with George Eliot, no, nor with Anthony Trollope, than they would rank on the platform a sleight-of-hand magician with Daniel Webster.
The wonderful mystery-criminal tales, dressed out in such gorgeous style by Poe, were developed prodigiously by Collins, who in our day has been almost obliterated from view by Conan Doyle. It would be difficult to exaggerate the popularity of this author. Sherlock Holmes is at this moment one of the best-known fictitious characters that has ever been created. And he is known in all languages, he has appeared on the stage in all countries. The Russians and the Japanese know their lean detective as well as the English. And yet, despite this universal vogue, despite our pleasure in these blood-curdling tales, despite our gratitude to the author for so many hours of delightful bewilderment, what would happen to the critic who should rank him among the great British novelists, or associate him in letters with another living Englishman, Thomas Hardy?
Such a state of things arouses reflection. It is clear that there must be something besides cleverness, even diabolical cleverness, to win anything like permanent fame.
In comparison between British and American novelists—whether one takes the nineteenth or the twentieth century—the patriotic American would suffer actual pain, were it not that the more patriotic a person is the more incapable he is of seeing the truth. Love is blind, love of country stone-blind. But however harsh the contrast in the domain of the novel, there is a special province where America has actually excelled England. This is seen in the production of the Short Story, a species of art quite different, as has been pointed out, from the story that is short. Silas Marner is a story that is short, but not a Short Story; The Gold Bug is a Short Story. Our first humourist, Washington Irving, occasionally attained unto perfection in this difficult field. For in Rip Van Winkle and in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow his narrative is so good and his technique so perfect that the world has agreed to regard these two as imperishable classics. Irving's pathos seems thin and flat to-day, and many of his meditative musings are staled by custom; but his humour, quite English rather than American, is genuine, and a marvellous preservative.
A world-genius followed Irving—Edgar Allan Poe. Poe's tales of mystery, in comparison with Cooper's tales of adventure, illustrate the analogy of the lyric and the epic. This analogy will not usually hold good; because the lyric represents one mood and is usually subjective, whereas Guy de Maupassant's short stories, for example, represent a variety of moods and are as near objectivity as it was possible for their gifted author to make them. But Poe was really a lyrical poet by nature; and the best of his short stories are almost perfect examples of prose lyrics. This becomes instantly apparent in reading The Fall of the House of Usher and (my own favourite) Ligeia. The sombre mood prevails, and rises to an agonising climax exactly as Tennyson's meditative rapture reaches a climax of passion in Tears, Idle Tears. The perfection of Poe's art, joined with the thrilling suspense of his plots, made him a world-figure, a fruitful influence in all countries. No foreign writer has reached the level of Poe's best work in the analysis of the passion he made his specialty—fear.
This level, however, is not the highest level. That was reached by Hawthorne, whose moral grasp of the realities of life gave to his short stories a firmer foundation and a broader and more lasting appeal. For while I have never outgrown Poe, I find that many others have, if they are telling the truth about it; it is impossible for any one to outgrow Hawthorne. The difference between Poe and Hawthorne is the difference between the uncanny and the spiritual; in human emotion, it is the difference between realism and reality. Poe makes our flesh creep with sensations; Hawthorne penetrates into the depths of our souls. Hawthorne used only the smallest fraction of his material; and to understand his method and his aim, it is necessary to read only Ethan Brand.
Bret Harte was another master of the short story, and a germinal writer as well. He found more gold in California than any of the miners, and he had a private mint of his own, by which he made it current coin, good wherever the soul of man is precious. His two best tales, The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, are as vivid now as then; their drama and their pathos are real, approaching the line of melodrama and sentimentality without once stepping over.
In North Carolina they have just erected a statue to "O.Henry." He was a profoundly sincere artist, as is shown, not only in his finished work, but in his private correspondence. His worst defect was a fear and hatred of conventionality; he had such mortal terror of stock phrases, that as some one has said, he wrote no English at all—he wrote the dot, dash, telegraphic style. Yet leaving aside all his perversities and his whimsicalities, and the poorer part of his work where the desire to be original is more manifest than any valuable result of it, there remain a sufficient number of transcripts from life and interpretations of it to give him abiding fame. There is a humorous tenderness in The Whirligig of Life, and profound ethical passion in A Blackjack Bargainer. A highly intelligent though unfavourable criticism of Porter that came to me in a private letter—I wish it might be printed—condemns him for the vagaries of his plots, which remind my correspondent of the quite serious criticism he read in a Philadelphia newspaper, which spoke of "the interesting but hardly credible adventures of Ulysses." Now hyperbole is a great American failing; and Porter was so out and out American that this disease of art raised blotches on his work. Yet his best emphasis is placed where it belongs.
No writer of distinction has, I think, been more closely identified with the short story in English than O.Henry. Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, Bret Harte, Stevenson, Kipling attained fame in other fields; but although Porter had his mind fully made up to launch what he hoped would be the great American novel, the veto of death intervened, and the many volumes of his "complete works" are made up of brevities. The essential truthfulness of his art is what gave his work immediate recognition, and accounts for his rise from journalism to literature. There is poignancy in his pathos; desolation in his tragedy; and his extraordinary humour is full of those sudden surprises that give us delight. Uncritical readers have never been so deeply impressed with O.Henry as have the professional, jaded critics, weary of the old trick a thousand times repeated, who found in his writings a freshness and originality amounting to genius.
Among the thousands of short stories written by lesser Americans than the five mentioned above, two by Richard Harding Davis will certainly be read for many years to come—Gallagher, the wonderful boy who "beat the town," and The Bar Sinister, which seems already to have won its way into the select canine classics of the world.
Russia, a country that has taught the world more about realistic novels than any other, and which has supplied the world with the best illustrations of the art, has also been pre-eminent for the last hundred years in the short story, her later writers achieving their highest fame in this field. Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature, is the originator, as seen in his "other harmony" of prose; Gogol's Overcoat had more influence on succeeding writers than any other work; Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches are beautiful specimens and exerted a powerful moral influence as well; Tolstoi's short stories are among the best ever written, inspired by the New Testament parables, which are themselves incomparable, the absolute despair of modern art; after Tolstoi, the most notable master of the short story in Russian is Chekhov, whose influence is just beginning to be felt in America; and if any one feels a doubt as to the excellence of the modern Russians, one should read Garshin's Four Days, Andreev's Silence, Gorki's Twenty-six Men and a Girl, and Artsybashev's Nina. Every Russian novelist of distinction has written admirable short stories except Dostoevski. As the American defect is humorous exaggeration, so the Russian defect is tragic exaggeration—it might be a wholesome corrective for each nation to study the best art of the other. Unfortunately, though quite naturally, the only American short stories that are really popular in Russia are the evil dreams of Edgar Allan Poe.
Although we have no young Americans who can compare with Andreev, Sologub, Artsybashev, Gorki, Kuprin, there is one respect in which American short stories and indeed all American fiction in general show superiority to the Russian; and I am fully aware that what I regard as our chief merit is precisely the thing for which we are most stridently condemned. I mean our reserve in depicting the passion of sex. We have been scourged for this not only by foreign writers, but by many of our "advanced" journalists; it is incidentally well to remember that not one of these American men and women who ridicule the work of Mr. Howells and Mr. James has ever written anything that approaches it in literary distinction. We ought not to be ashamed of the American reverence before the mystery of passion; we ought to regard it with pride. We have scarcely any outrageously indecent authors, whose work, common enough in Europe, bears about the same relation to true art that a boy's morbid sketches on fences bear to Michael Angelo's frescoes. Indecency is not necessarily sincerity. Instead of omitting the motif of passion in art, instead of ignorance, timidity, or prudishness, our American reticence really indicates a better appreciation of its tremendous force. For as Henry James once pointed out, the silence of the American before the mysteries of passion shows more reverence than profuse and detailed exhibitions. It shows more reverence, more understanding, and more dignity.
Our American literature is sadly in need of improvement, but we shall not improve by imitating the only thing in Continental literature which takes no talent to copy. Changing the trumps will not help us nearly so much as more skill in playing the game.
For a list of all of my disks and ebooks (PDF and Amazon) click here