The Rise of the English Novel

The Rise of the English Novel Essay - Critical Essays

The Rise of the English Novel

Introduction

The Rise of the English Novel

The dominant genre in world literature, the novel is actually a relatively young form of imaginative writing. Only about 250 years old in England—and embattled from the start—its rise to preeminence has been striking. After sparse beginnings in seventeenth-century England, novels grew exponentially in production by the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century became the primary form of popular entertainment.

Elizabethan literature provides a starting point for identifying prototypes of the novel in England. Although not widespread, works of prose fiction were not uncommon during this period. Possibly the best known was Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, a romance published posthumously in 1590. The novel also owes a debt to Elizabethan drama, which was the leading form of popular entertainment in the age of Shakespeare. The first professional novelist—that is, the first person to earn a living from publishing novels—was probably the dramatist Aphra Behn. Her 1688 Oronooko, or The Royal Slave typified the early English novel: it features a sensationalistic plot that borrowed freely from continental literature, especially from the imported French romance. Concurrent with Behn's career was that of another important early English novelist: John Bunyan. This religious author's Pilgrim's Progress, first published in 1678, became one of the books found in nearly every English household.

In the second half of the seventeenthcentury, the novel genre developed many of the traits that characterize it in modern form. Rejecting the sensationalism of Behn and other early popular novelists, novelists built on the realism of Bunyan's work. Three of the foremost novelists of this era are Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson. Defoe's name, more than that of any other English writer, is credited with the emergence of the "true" English novel by virtue of the 1719 publication of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In the work of these three writers, the realism and drama of individual consciousness that we most associate with the novel took precedence over external drama and other motifs of continental romance. Contemporary critics approved of these elements as supposedly native to England in other genres, especially in history, biography, and religious prose works.

A number of profound social and economic changes affecting British culture from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century brought the novel quickly into popular prominence. The broadest of these were probably the advances in the technology of printing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which made written texts—once the province of the elite—available to a growing population of readers. Concurrent changes in modes of distribution and in literacy rates brought ever increasing numbers of books and pamphlets to populations traditionally excluded from all but the most rudimentary education, especially working-class men and women of all classes. As the circulation of printed material transformed, so did its economics, shifting away from the patronage system characteristic of the Renaissance, during which a nation's nobility supported authors whose works reinforced the values of the ruling classes. As the patronage system broke down through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, authors became free agents in the literary marketplace, dependent on popular sales for their success and sustenance, and thus reflecting more and more the values of a predominantly middle-class readership. The demand for reading material allowed a greatly expanded pool of writers to make a living from largely ephemeral poetry and fiction.

These monumental changes in how literature was produced and consumed sent Shockwaves of alarm through more conservative sectors of English culture at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A largely upper-class male contingent, reluctant to see any change in the literary status quo, mounted an aggressive "antinovel campaign." Attacks on the new genre tended to identify it with its roots in French romance, derided as a sensationalistic import antithetical to English values. The early targets of these attacks were those writers, including Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who had produced original English prose "romances" based on the conventions of the French style. At the same time, however, more women in particular were writing novels that made a display of decorum and piety, often reacting to detractors who charged that sensationalistic tales of adventure and sexual endangerment had the potential to corrupt adult female readers and the youth of both sexes. The outcome of this campaign was not the demise of the novel, but the selective legitimation of novels that displayed certain, distinctly non-romantic traits. These traits became the guidelines according to which the novel as a genre developed and was valued. Most venerated by this tradition are the three leading eighteenth-century male novelists: Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Modern students of the novel are often unaware of the tumultuous controversy that attended its first steps at the end of the seventeenth century. For the most part, feminist scholars have been responsible for generating the recovery of the novel's earliest roots and for opening up discussion of its cultural value in its many different forms.

Overviews

Wilbur L. Cross (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: "From Arthurian Romance to Richardson," in The Development of The English Novel, The Macmillan Company, 1923, pp. 22-5.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1899 and reprinted in 1923, Cross summarizes the course of the English novel from its roots in the seventeenth centuryin the French romance, religious and social commentary, diary, biography, and character sketchto the characteristically "realist" English novel that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century.]

The Elizabethans

… Elizabethan England inherited much that was best in English mediæval fiction: the Arthurian romances, the moralized stories of Gower, and the highly finished tales of Chaucer. From Italy came the pastoral romance in its most dreamy and attenuated form, the gorgeous poetic romances of Tasso and Ariosto, and many collections of novelle. Some of these novelle had as subject the interesting events of everyday life; others were of fierce incident and color, and furnished Elizabethan tragedy with tremendous scenes. From Germany came jest-books and tales of necromancy; from France, the Greek story of adventure with its shipwrecks and pirates; from Spain came 'Amadis,' the 'Diana' of Montemayor, and the picaresque novel. And what the noble printers of the Renaissance gave her, England worked over into fictions of her own.

The most characteristic of her adaptations, the one that most fully expressed her restless spirit of adventure and æsthetic restoration of the age of chivalry, was a romance midway between the knightly quest and the pastoral. Of this species, a conspicuous example is Sir Philip Sidney's 'Arcadia' (1590). This romance has in places as background to its pretty wooing adventures the loveliness of the summer scenery about Wilton House, where it was planned,—violets and roses, meadows and wide-sweeping downs 'garnished with stately trees,'—and into it was infused the noble courtesy, the high sense of honor, and the delicate feeling of the first gentleman of the age. Though touching at points the real in its reflection of English scenes and the princely virtues of Sidney and his friends, the 'Arcadia' is mainly an ideal creation. The country it describes is the land of dream and enchantment, of brave exploit, unblemished chastity, constant love, and undying friendship. Villany and profane passion darken these imaginary realms, but they, too, like the virtues, are all ideal. In structure the 'Arcadia' is epic, having attached to the main narrative numerous episodes, one of which—the story of Argalus and Parthenia, faithful unto death—is among the most lovely situations romance has ever conceived and elaborated.

In direct antithesis to its Arcadias, Elizabethan England made hasty studies of robbers and highwaymen; out of which, under the artistic impulse of 'Lazarillo de Tormes' (translated into English in 1576), were developed several rogue stories of considerable pretension, such as 'Jack Wilton,' by Thomas Nash, and 'Piers Plain,' by Henry Chettle. To the same class of writings belong Greene's autobiographies, his 'Repentance,' and 'Groat's Worth of Wit,' in which the point of view is shifted from the comic to the tragic. Occasionally the Elizabethan romancers drew their subjects from the bourgeoisie. An amusing instance of this is 'Thomas of Reading,' by Thomas Deloney, which contains from the picaresque point of view a graphic picture of the family life of the clothiers of the West, and of their mad pranks in London. Its scene is laid in the time of Henry the First, and it thus becomes historically interesting as one of the earliest attempts of the modern story-teller to invade the province of history.

The most immediately popular Elizabethan fiction, whether romantic or realistic, was John Lyly's 'Euphues' (1579-80). In this romance of high life there are no enchantments and exciting incidents such as had furnished the stock in trade of Montalvo and his followers. Lyly sought to interest by his style: alliteration, play upon words, antithesis, and a revival of the pseudo-natural history of mediæval fable books. His characters are Elizabethan fops and fine ladies, who sit all night at Lady Flavia's supper-table, discussing in pretty phrases such questions as, why women love men, whether constancy or secrecy is most commendable in a mistress, whether love in the first instance proceeds from the man or from the woman—a dainty warfare in which are gained no victories. Lyly moralizes like a Gower on the profane passion; he steps into the pulpit and preaches, telling mothers to suckle their children, and husbands to treat their wives mildly, for 'instruments sound sweetest when they be touched softest;' and for young men he constructs a moral code in minute detail, such as Shakespeare parodies in Polonius' advice to Laertes. Weak, puerile, and affected as he was, Lyly wrote with the best intentions; he was a Puritan educated in the casuistry of Rome.

Lyly was the founder of a school of romancers, who, from their following the affectations of 'Euphues,' are known as Euphuists. With them all, language was first and matter secondary: 'A golden sentence is worth a world of treasure' was one of their sayings. Of these Euphuists, Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge excelled their master in the poetic qualities of their work; witness 'Menaphon' (1589) by the former, and 'Rosalind' (1590) by the latter. In fact 'Rosalind,' a pastoral composed in the ornate language of 'Euphues,' is the flower of Elizabethan romance. It satisfies some of the usual terms in the modern definition of the novel. For it is of reasonable length; it possesses a kind of structure, and closes with an elaborate moral.

The Historical Allegory and the French Influence

From Elizabeth to the Restoration, romancing and story-telling gradually became a lost art in England. An imitation of Sidney's 'Arcadia' now and then appeared, a sketch of a highwayman, and a few straggling imitations of contemporary French romance. That was about all. There was for a time a steady demand for Elizabethan favorites: 'Euphues,' 'Rosalind,' and especially the 'Groat's Worth of Wit,' and the 'Arcadia.' With the excitement that sounded the note of the oncoming civil war—the trial of Hampden and the uprising of the Scots—the English suddenly stopped reading fiction as well as writing it….

The Restoration

After the battle of Worcester, the English began once more to read fiction. Lyly, Greene, and Sidney all survived the literary wreckage of the civil wars. From now on the French romances were translated as fast as they were published in France. And for reading them and discussing love, friendship, and statecraft, little coteries were formed, the members of which addressed one another as 'the matchless Orinda,' 'the adored Valeria,' and 'the noble Antenor.' Best known in their own time were the groups of platonic lovers, professing an immaculate chastity, who hovered about Katherine Philips and Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. The literary efforts of these romantic ladies and gentlemen were directed to poetry and letter-writing rather than to fiction. There proceeded from them only one romance, 'Parthenissa' (1664, 1665, 1677), by Roger Boyle, an admirer of Katherine Philips. The most noticeable thing about this inexpressibly dull imitation of Scudéri, is its mixing up in much confusion several great Roman wars. For this, particularly for bringing on the scene together Hannibal and Spartacus, Boyle defended himself in his preface by an appeal to Vergil, who neglected two centuries in his story of Æneas and Dido. For making the same character stand now for one person and now for another in his historical allegory, he gracefully apologized, but he might have cited Barclay as his precedent. Other similar romances were: 'Bentivolio and Urania' (1660), by Nathaniel Ingelo; 'Aretina' (1661), by George Mackenzie; and 'Pandion and Amphigenia' (1665), by John Crowne. The first is a religious fiction; the second, made up of adventures, moral essays, and disquisitions on English and Scotch politics, was an attempt to revive the conceits of Lyly; the third is an appropriation of Sidney's 'Arcadia.' Like Crowne, the Restoration romancers were generally satisfied to remodel and dress up old material. And what is true of them, is also true of the realists. An odd and wretchedly written production of this period is 'The English Rogue' (1665-71), by Richard Head, and in part by Francis Kirkman. For tricks and intrigues they pillaged Spanish and French rogue stories, Elizabethan sketches of vagabonds, and German and English jest-books; and seasoned their medley with what probably then passed for humor. On the other hand, they wrote much from observation. In their graphic pictures of the haunts of apprentices, pickpockets, and highwaymen, they discovered the London slums. Furthermore, unlike their brother picaresque writers, they sent their hero on a voyage to the East, and thus began the transformation of the rogue story into the story of adventure as it was soon to appear in Defoe.

More original work than this was done by Mrs. Aphra Behn, who wrote besides many comedies several short tales, the most noteworthy of which is 'Oroonoko' (1688). In this story, which is a realistic account of a royal slave kidnapped in Africa and barbarously put to death at Surinam, she contrasts the state of nature with that of civilization, severely reprimanding the latter. 'Oroonoko' is the first humanitarian novel in English. Though its spirit cannot for a moment be compared, in moral earnestness, with 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' yet its purpose was to awaken Christendom to the horrors of slavery. The time being not yet ripe for it, the romance was for the public merely an interesting story to be dramatized. The novels of Mrs. Behn that bore fruit were her short tales of intrigue—versions in part of her own tender experiences. One of her successors was Mrs. Mary Manley, who wrote 'The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians' (1705), 'The New Atlantis' (1709), and 'The Power of Love, in Seven Novels' (1720). Mrs. Manley was in turn followed by Mrs. Eliza Haywood, the author of 'Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to Utopia' (1725), and 'The Secret Intrigues of the Count of Caramania' (1727). These productions taken together purport to relate the inside history of the court from the restoration of Charles the Second to the death of George the First. To their contemporaries, they were piquantly immoral; to later times, they are not so amusing. Nevertheless, in the development of the novel, they have a place. They represent a conscious effort to attain to the real, in reaction from French romance. They are specimens, too, of precisely what was meant in England by the novel in distinction from the romance, just before Richardson: a short story of from one hundred to two hundred pages, assumed to be founded on fact, and published in a duodecimo volume.

To John Bunyan the English novel owes a very great debt. What fiction needed, if it was ever to come near a portrayal of real life, was first of all to rid itself of the extravagances of the romancer and the cynicism of the picaresque story-teller. Though Bunyan was despised by his contemporary men of letters, it surely could be but a little time before the precision of his imagination and the force and charm of his simple and idiomatic English would be felt and then imitated. As no writer preceding him, Bunyan knew the artistic effect of minute detail in giving reasonableness to an impossible story. In the 'Pilgrim's Progress' (1678-84) he so mingled with those imaginative scenes of his own the familiar Scripture imagery and the still more familiar incidents of English village life, that the illusion of reality must have been to the readers for whom he wrote well-nigh perfect. The allegories of Barclay and Scudéri could not be understood without keys; Bunyan's 'Palace Beautiful' needed none.

Literary Forms that contributed to the Novel

Outside the sphere proper of fiction, there was slowly collecting in the seventeenth century material for the future novelist. It was quite the fashion for public and literary men—witness Pepys and Evelyn—to keep diaries and journals of family occurrences and of interesting social and political events. These diaries and journals suggested the novel of family life, and indicated a form of narrative that would lend to fiction the appearance of fact. In 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'Pamela' and hundreds of other novels down to the present, the journal has played a not inconsiderable part. At this time, too, men were becoming sufficiently interested in their friends and some of the great men of the past to write their biographies. In 1640 Izaak Walton published the first of his charming 'Lives.' A quick offshoot of the biography was the autobiography, which, as a man in giving a sympathetic account of himself is likely to run into poetry, came very close to being a novel. Margaret Duchess of Newcastle's 'Autobiography,' published in 1656 in a volume of tales, is a famous account of a family in which 'all the brothers were brave, and all the sisters virtuous.' Bunyan's 'Grace Abounding' is a story of the fierce struggles between the spirit and the flesh, and of the final triumph of the spirit. This autobiographic method of dealing with events, partly or wholly fictitious, has been a favorite with all our novelists, except with the very greatest; and it is employed more to-day than ever before.

It also occurred to several writers after the Restoration that London life might be depicted by a series of imaginary letters to a friend. A most amusing bundle of two hundred and eleven such letters was published in 1664 by Margaret Duchess of Newcastle. Her object was to transfer to letters, scenes and incidents that had hitherto been the material of the comedy of humor. In 1678 a new direction to this letter-writing was given by a translation from the French of the 'Portuguese Letters.' These letters of a Portuguese nun to a French cavalier revealed to our writers how a correspondence might be managed for unfolding a simple story, and for studying the heart of a betrayed and deserted woman. Edition after edition of the 'Portuguese Letters' followed, and fictitious replies and counter-replies. In the wake of these continuations, were translated into English the letters of Eloisa and Abelard, containing a similar but more pathetic tale of man's selfishness and woman's devotion. They, too, went through many editions and were imitated, mutilated, and trivialized. As a result of this fashion for letter-writing, there existed early in the eighteenth century a considerable body of short stories in letter form. Hardly any of them are readable; but one of them is of considerable historical interest, 'The Letters of Lindamira, a Lady of Quality, written to her Friend in the Country' (second edition, 1713). The author, who may have been Tom Brown 'of facetious memory,' states that, unlike his predecessors, his aim is 'to expose vice, disappoint vanity, to reward virtue, and crown constancy with success.' He accomplishes this 'by carrying Lindamira through a sea of misfortunes, and at last marrying her up to her wishes.' It was in this weak school of fiction, aiming at something it hardly knew what, that Richardson must in some degree have learned how to manage a correspondence.

Moreover, the character-sketch, which was the most prolific literary form in England and France during the seventeenth century, has a direct bearing on the novel. As conceived by Ben Jonson and Thomas Overbury, who had before them a contemporary translation of Theophrastus, it was the sketch of some person, real or imaginary, who embodied a virtue or a vice, or some idiosyncrasy obnoxious to ridicule. One character was set over against another; and the sentences descriptive of each were placed in the antithesis which the style of Lyly had made fashionable. Surely from this species of literature, the novelist took a lesson in the fine art of contrast. The type of sketch set by Jonson and Overbury was a good deal modified by the fifty and more character-writers who succeeded them. Not infrequently as a frame to the portrait was added a little piece of biography or adventure; and there are a few examples of massing sketches in a loose fiction, as in the continuations of 'The English Rogue,' and in the second part of the 'Roman Bourgeois.' The treatment of the character-sketch by Steele and Addison in the 'Spectator' (1711-12) was highly original. They drew portraits of representative Englishmen, and brought them together in conversation in a London club. They conducted Sir Roger de Coverley through Westminster Abbey, to the playhouse, to Vauxhall, into the country to Coverley church and the assizes; they incidentally took a retrospective view of his life, and finally told the story of his death. When they had done this, they had not only created one of the best defined characters in our prose literature, but they had almost transformed the character-sketch into a novel of London and provincial life. From the 'Spectator' the character-sketch, with its types and minute observation and urbane ridicule, passed into the novel, and became a part of it.

The Passing of the Old Romance

At the dawn of the Renaissance, verse was usually an embellishment of fiction, and the perfect workman was Chaucer, whose 'Troilus and Cressida' and 'Canterbury Tales' are differentiated from the modern novel mainly by the accident of rhyme. Of the later romances in prose, the two that have gained among all classes a world-wide fame are 'Don Quixote' and the 'Pilgrim's Progress'; and second to them is the 'Princess of Clèves.' Nearly everything else that has been mentioned is to the modern as if it had never been written. That such a fate should have overcome the old romances must be lamented by every one acquainted with their lovely imagery and inspiring ideals of conduct. But it was inevitable, for they almost invariably failed in their art. The great novelists since Fielding have taught the public that a novel must have a beginning and an end. A reader of contemporary fiction, after turning a few pages of Sidney's 'Arcadia,' becomes aware that he is not at the beginning of the story at all, but is having described to him an event midway in the plot. From this point on, the narrative, instead of moving forward untrammelled, except for the pause of an easy retrospect, becomes more and more perplexed by episodes, which are introduced, suspended, resumed, and twisted within one another, according to a plan not easily understood. The picaresque writers, the first of them, adopted the straightforward manner of autobiography; but under the influence of romance, they, too, soon began to indulge in episodes. If at their best the picaresque stories had a beginning, they had no end. They were published in parts; each part was brought to a close with the recurring paragraph that a continuation will be written if the reader desires; and so adventure follows adventure, to be terminated only by the death of the author. It is thus obvious that the romancers and story-tellers had no clearly defined conception of what a novel should be as an independent literary species. They took as their model the epic, not the well-ordered epic of Homer or Vergil, but the prose epic as perverted by the rhetoricians in the decadent period of Greek art.1

Moreover, it has come to be demanded not only that a novel must possess an orderly structure, but that it shall be a careful study of some phase of real life, or of conduct in a situation which, however impossible in itself, the imagination is willing to accept for the time being as possible. Accordingly, those who wish to shun the word 'romance' are accustomed to speak of the novel of character and the novel of incident. In the novel of character the interest is directed to the portrayal of men and women, and the fable is a subordinate consideration; in the novel of incident the interest is directed to what happens, and the characters come more by the way. To the former class no one would hesitate to assign 'The Mill on the Floss.' To the same class might very properly be assigned 'The House of the Seven Gables,' which, though Hawthorne called it a romance, is, as he intended it, 'true to the human heart.' To the latter class belong the Waverley novels, and to mention an extreme example, 'The Prisoner of Zenda.' Before Defoe, writers of fiction did in some degree fulfil the conditions necessary to a novel in the modern view; but to concoct fantastic adventures in high or low life, in accord neither with the truth of fact, nor with the laws of a sane imagination, nor with the permanent motives that sway our acts—that was the main business of the romancer and the story-teller. From them to Defoe and Richardson the transition is analogous to that from the first Elizabethan plays to Shakespeare and his contemporaries; it is the passing from a struggling and misdirected literary form to a well-defined species. Nevertheless, a study of European fiction before Defoe has intellectual, if not æsthetic, compensations, and to the student it is imperative. It gives one a large historical perspective. From Arthurian romance and the fabliau downward, in the eternal swing between idealism and realism, there is a continuous growth—an accumulation of incidents, situations, characters, and experiments in structure, much of which was a legacy to the eighteenth century.

8. Daniel Defoe

'Robinson Crusoe' (1719) is the earliest English novel of incident. It was at once recognized in England and throughout literary Europe as something different from the picaresque story to which it is akin. In what does this difference consist? The situations and jests of Head and Chettle were in some cases as old as Latin comedy; 'Robinson Crusoe' was an elaboration of a contemporary incident2 that made a fascinating appeal to the imagination. The writer of the rogue story did not expect to be believed. The aim of Defoe was to invest his narrative with a sense of reality; to this end he made use of every device at his command to deceive the reader. He took as a model for his narrative the form that best produces the illusion of truth—that of current memoirs with the accompaniment of a diary. He adroitly remarks in his preface that he is only the editor of a private man's adventures, and adds confidentially that he believes 'the thing to be a just history of fact,' at least, that 'there is no appearance of fiction in it.' He begins his story very modestly by briefly sketching the boyhood of a rogue who runs away to sea—one of thousands—and thus gradually prepares the reader for those experiences which are to culminate in the shipwreck on the Island of Despair. When he gets his Crusoe there, he does not send him on a quest for exciting adventures, but surprises us by a matter-of-fact account of Crusoe's expedients for feeding and clothing himself and making himself comfortable. He brings the story home to the Englishmen of the middle-class, for whom he principally writes, by telling them that their condition in life is most conducive to happiness, and by giving expression to their peculiar tenets: their trust in dreams, their recognition of Providence in the fortuitous concurrence of events, and their dogmas of conviction of sin, of repentance, and of conversion. And finally, 'Robinson Crusoe' has its message. Undoubtedly its message is too apparent for the highest art, but it is a worthy one: Be patient, be industrious, be honest, and you will at last be rewarded for your labor. 'Robinson Crusoe' must have seemed to the thousands of hard-laboring Englishmen a symbol of their own lives, their struggles, their failures, and their final rest in a faith that there will sometime be a settling of things justly in the presence of Him 'who will allow no shuffling.' To put it briefly, Defoe humanized adventure.

'Robinson Crusoe' was the most immediately popular fiction that had yet been written. At once it became a part of the world's literature, and it remains such to this day. Defoe took advantage of its vogue to write many other adventures on land and sea. Captain Singleton's tour across Africa is as good reading as Stanley; and to the uninitiated, it seems quite as true to fact. In 'Moll Flanders' is gathered together a mass of material concerning the dregs of London—thieves and courtesans—that remains unequalled even among the modern naturalists. The 'Memoirs of a Cavalier,' once regarded as an actual autobiography, so realistic is the treatment, is the relation of the adventures of a cavalier in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, and later at Marston Moor and Naseby. It is a masterly piece of historical semblance, and it is thus significant. The 'Journal of the Plague Year' is so documentary in appearance that public libraries still class it as a history, though it is fictitious throughout. This verisimilitude which was attained through detail and the unadorned language of everyday life is Defoe's great distinction. Bunyan was in a measure his forerunner, and his immediate successor was Swift, who, under the guise of his delightful voyages among the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians (1726), ridiculed in savage irony his king, 'his own dear country,' and 'the animal called man.' These three writers who usher in a new era for the novel are the source to which romance has returned again and again for instruction, from Scott to Stevenson.

Notes

1 See the Greek romance, 'Theagenes and Chariclea,' translated, T. Underdown, 1577.

2 See Steele's account of Alexander Selkirk in the 'Englishman,' No. 26.

Francis Hovey Stoddard (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "The Evolution of the Novel," in The Evolution of the English Novel, in The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 1-42.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1900 and reprinted in 1902, Stoddard proposes a law of development that he believes is applicable to any literary form: "the depiction of the external, objective, carnal, precedes, in every form of expression of which we can have records, the consideration of the internal, the subjective, the spiritual."]

I do not undertake to show that the novel has grown out of any preceding form of literature with such preciseness that the traces of its growth can be shown. It is extremely doubtful if we can yet work out a perfect statement of the development of the novel out of any other form of literature; it is doubtful if we can work out any chronological sequence even within the period—the one hundred and fifty years—of the novel's life in English literature to the present day. We cannot say that the novels of 1740 legitimately developed into the novels of 1780; that the novels of 1780 logically developed into the novels of 1820; that the novels of 1820 legitimately and regularly developed into the novels of 1850. As with poetry, with literature, with the drama, with the epic, we find ourselves confronted with the operation of the human mind expressing itself in forms antedating, or postdating the theoretical stages; expressing itself often in forms greater, expressing itself sometimes in forms much less, in importance than any theory would demand.

Nevertheless, we have to do in the English novel with a kind of literature separate in method and in extent from other sorts. It belongs to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has a character of its own; it is limited in extent; it is specific in its selection of subject and in its method of treatment. In such a limited field the study of a development, if possible anywhere, may be carried on with reasonable prospects of success. Granting the difficulty, it is yet more than probable that we can find, if we take up this limited division of literary expression, and if we study it with something of regularity and system, that certain indications of what may be properly, though not too technically, called a development may be shown; and that the examination of these indications, of these apparent stages of growth, may be useful. In this work I undertake the study of five specific kinds of expression in fiction: the novel of personality, the novel of history, the novel of romance, the novel of purpose, and the novel of problem. I take these five divisions in the order in which I have named them, for the reason that it is somewhat the order in which these specific kinds of expression in novel form appeared. The novel of personal life, of individual, separate, domestic life, is the basal form. A novel is a record of emotion; the story of a human life touched with emotion; the story of two human lives under stress of emotional arousement; the story of domestic life with emotion pervading it; the story of a great historical character in his day of aroused emotional activity; or the story of the romantic adventures of some person seeking strange regions under stress of emotional desire. So that the novel of personal life is really the basal form of the novel, and one may say that all novels become novels only when each is the story of some life stirred by some emotion. The earliest and the latest novel will come under this main division, to the discussion of whose characteristics the second chapter is given. The historical and the romantic novel, which are the subjects of the third and fourth chapters, developed later as a special form; and the novel of purpose later than either. In treating these in successive chapters I am, then, following somewhat a law of chronological appearance; but I by no means suggest that the novel of the domestic life, of the individual life, developed into the historical novel, and that again into the romantic novel, and that again into the novel of purpose, and that again into the problem novel. One must look farther than to this rough and general classification if he seeks to frame a law of the development of fiction.

We have seen that it is not easy to set forth in detail any order of succession of literary forms of expression. Yet I think he is but a superficial student of the literature of recorded time who does not note one tendency of later work, of later method, of later procedure, of later life, as compared with earlier work, earlier method, earlier procedure, and earlier life which seems to imply an underlying law. If there be such an underlying law, it is the purpose of this chapter to suggest it and to apply it with some exactness to the history of the novel form. This law of tendency is, in general, that the depiction of the external, objective, carnal, precedes, in every form of expression of which we can have records, the consideration of the internal, the subjective, the spiritual. We go from shapes, and forms, and bulk, and externals, to the presentation of the life within. To illustrate this law, I may call attention to a step in the development of art significant of the evolution of the idea of inner personality as opposed to outward symbol, which seemed to show itself in the last years of the Mediaeval Ages, and the first years of the Reformation era. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the day of Cimabue, of Quintin Massys, of Van Eyck, the typical presentation of the Madonna was that of a vague face, without expression, shone upon by a light from without, illumined and dignified by an external halo. The Madonna of the later time, of the greater time, was a human face, with human expression, illumined and glorified by a light from within. The halo, the external sign, had gone; the inner life, the expression of the divinely aroused human emotion, had come in its place. This seems to be in accordance with a law that the progress of evolution is from external embellishment to inner life. It is this law that I propose in this work to apply to the novel.

The theory of development that I set forth is that progress, in speech, in literature, in methods religious, educational, and political, in theories of the relation of the individual to his life work and life duty, has always been from the expression of the external form, from the consideration of the external characteristics, from the suggestion of the external remedies for evils and rewards for endeavor, to the expression of the abstract thought beneath the external form, to the consideration of the internal character which finds embodiment in the external characteristics, to study into the causes of evils, and to the satisfaction of the soul with duty done in place of external reward of endeavor. It is a progress that advances from the physical to the intellectual, from the carnal to the spiritual. I shall endeavor to apply this theory to the novel with intent to suggest that such development of expression as we find in form of novels advances from the depiction of far-off occurrences and adventures to the narration and representation of contemporaneous, immediate, domestic occurrences; and, finally, to the presentation of conflicts of the mind and soul beneath the external manifestations. If the theory is true, we may expect to find at the beginning of novel-expression a wild romance, and at its end an introspective study into motive.

First, then, for the theory. The earliest speech of any people, the earliest speech of the Indian, of the savage, is a picture story. It is hardly probable that the Indian speeches familiar to our boyhood's days from the records of the "Boy's Own Speaker," are exact transcripts of the utterances of the chiefs around the warparty camp-fire two hundred years ago; but they are veracious in one respect,—the voice of the utterance is external. An Indian's speech is a series of pictures, of illustrations, of external representations of his ideas. He sees a happy hunting-ground, a great spirit. He lays the implements of the dead warrior by him in the grave; he makes visible images which he can touch, feel, handle, for the embodiment of his ideas. So the early primitive nation worships a visible God,—a sun, a totem, a joss, an idol. So primitive peoples personify phases of nature into nymphs, spirits, and fairies. It is the later day which gives the power to see, to speak, to think directly without the visible image, without the symbol, without the external form. It is an indication of progress in intellectual as well as mathematical excellence, when the boy ceases visibly to touch his actual fingers as he counts. And as in spoken speech, so also in recorded speech. It is no accident that the epic stands at the beginning of poetic life and that in modern days the epic has passed away; for the epic is the most objective, the most external, the most physical of all forms of poetic expression. With the complexity of modern life, if this theory of progress from the outward to the inward, from the external to the internal, from the objective to the subjective, is true, we might expect the passing of the epic, as it has passed. Or, again, if we interrogate folklore, one may note one characteristic of the tales of folklore which are dearest to the hearts of all peoples, and this characteristic is that the stories most loved are stories of the physically largest and most perfect, overthrown and defeated by the weaker, by the less physically great, by the more intellectually potent. The folklore story is always of the one physically strong overthrown by the one weak in body but strong in intellect and spirit. It is always the giant killed by the insignificant Jack; it is always the fire-breathing dragon killed by the saintly knight; it is always Grendel destroyed by Beówulf; it is always Brer Fox outwitted by Brer Rabbit. The external, the forceful, the physically massive, is overcome, defeated, by the physically weak, but the more intellectual, the more spiritual. If this be a law, we may look to find, as we study the novel, that it begins with the presentation of the external phases of life; finds the impulse of its action in compulsions from without, in accidents, incidents, catastrophes; takes its motive from the external. And we may find, if the theory is a true one, that the study of the romantic novel, or the historical novel, or the novel of domestic life, becomes a study of progress toward the depiction of the relation of man to man, taking the impulse of its action and its motive from the aroused desire in the mind or heart of its hero. Fiction begins with the objective novel; it progresses into the introspective and the subjective novel.

All this will follow if the theory is true. But it is worth while, in enunciating so far-reaching and apparently so arbitrary a proposition, to illustrate it still farther. I may, no doubt, find suggestion of it in very trifling matters close at hand even better than in more serious ones. It was but a few years ago that the engines on our railroads glittered in brass adornments; the bell, the water tank, the signal light, and the rails, shone like gold. There was a great outcry when the late Commodore Vanderbilt ordered all these engines to appear in plain black paint. It was argued that the love of the engineer for his engine, the pride in it, would pass with the passing of the glittering external. It did not. The excellence was inside, and the removal of the halo did not diminish the admiration of the driver for his engine. Or I may name the passing of certain details of the external on the stage. In one of the Miracle Plays, Adam is represented crossing the stage, going to be created. The imagination needed its visible symbol. Similarly there are ghosts in the Elizabethan plays. In Shakespeare's time there was a visible physical ghost, possibly with the "invisible" coat of the Middle Ages,—a remarkable garment through the donning of which an actor could become, as it were, conspicuously invisible,—more likely a visible ghost, boldly expressed, with no disguise. But since Shakespeare's day we have progressed beyond the need of this physical symbol of the vanished spirit hovering for an instant on the confines betwixt life and death, and to us the externally manifested ghost has come to seem too close a personation. The later stage managers have tried various devices to spiritualize, to decarnalize, this ghost presentation; they have tried mirror reflections, illusions. But it was Henry Irving in the presentation of Macbeth who gave the modern thought. The ghost of Banquo is present in Shakespeare's play; but on the stage, as Henry Irving presents Macbeth, there is no ghost of Banquo; there is merely the empty chair and a light on the empty chair of Banquo. So we have come from the exhibition of an external form to the suggestion of the subtler thought beneath. For though no modern dramatist would ever introduce a ghost in writing a drama, and no modern novelist would ever make a ghost a real character in a serious novel, yet we think of these unthinkable things, we ponder on these spiritual problems in our plays and in our novels no less intently than did our anthropomorphic ancestors. We think and ponder only the more intently because unhampered by the external symbol. The visible ghost no longer walks the boards of our stage, nor stalks through the reveries of our imaginations; but the mystery of death, of life, of life extending beyond the visible death, is none the less a problem in our plays, in our novels, and in our meditations. It is but the external manifestation which has passed.

It has passed, too, in things very much greater than the speech of Indian, or the method of poetic expression, or the decoration of engines, or the portrayal of Madonnas, or the exhibition of incorporeal visions on the stage. The thought of sin cannot be said to be a modern thought; but it is only since the Reformation that repentance for sin has come to be a matter of spiritual exercise. We need go back only one thousand years to find that the religious exercise of repentance for sin committed demanded external observance as its essential. It was not alone the king who did penance for his people's sin in public, or led a Crusade as a religious rite; it was a universal proposition of religious procedure that penitence was a public function which involved penitential observances, external fastings, mortifications of the external flesh, removal from the shows of external social life, departure from the occupations of the external world, pilgrimages to shrines, to Meccas, to that Canterbury Cathedral in which lay the bones of the martyred Thomas à Becket. Penitence was to be expressed by some external observance, visible to the eye, painful to the flesh. It is a modern thought that penitence is a private duty; it is a modern thought that it demands contrition instead of external observance as its essential; that it concerns the sinner and is, perhaps, most sincere when least visibly manifested. The progress is from the requirement of objective external forms of atonement, of repentance, to the exercises of the individual soul. So far as this indicates a law, it would indicate that in the earlier method of the romantic novel, of the historical novel, of the novel of life, we should have the external phases of the historical day, of the romantic adventure, of the life procedure; and that in later stages we should have the relations of man to the historical day, we should have the subtler, the less physical, aspects of the romantic life, of the domestic life, portrayed.

But not alone is such a tendency as I have indicated evidenced in religious observances. It is even more easily recognized in educational and in political methods. Students of the educational tendencies of the last one hundred years have no doubt noted that the motive force upon the student has shifted in the last seventy years from an external to an internal compulsion. The college of seventy years ago was an absolute monarchy; the student was intellectually handled, mastered, disciplined, prepared, by an educational force, in the selection of which, toward the influencing of which, in the modelling of which, he had absolutely no choice. A faculty set for him certain required studies, to be pursued at certain stated times, to be evidenced by recitations, to be guaranteed by examinations at certain fixed periods under unchangeable rules and regulations. There was no election, no option, no opportunity of individual choice given the student. It was a compulsion from an external. Such was the system in our colleges—even in Harvard College—seventy years ago. Under such a system as this most excellent men were trained, and trained most excellently. There may be some who will maintain that we have not wholly gone toward perfection in education, as we have in modern times given, more and more, the voice of the determination of his college career to the student. I do not argue this point; I merely point out that the college of to-day has gone from a method of education by which the student was dominated from beginning to close by a force external to himself, to a system in which the student's own desire, the student's own choice, the student's own private notion, is in his case the keynote of procedure. And I am sure that this change from the external power modelling the boy, to the boy's own desire controlling his development, is a change in accordance with the theory I have been presenting—that evolution proceeds from the dominance of the external toward the preëminence and the potency of the immanent idea.

And in like manner, our days have seen a similar progress of the notion of political headship from the external, objective symbol to the dominance of the invisible idea. The earliest kings were kings by virtue of force. The largest man, the man with the strongest arm, with the muscle of iron, with the nerves of steel—was the first king. He was an objective manifestation of physical power. That is the first stage in the king-notion. The second stage is of to-day, in England let us say, where the king or queen is but the symbol of a power—without force, almost without influence—the inactive physical symbol of the power of the state. In more modern community systems men will not admit that they have a king at all. If a Democratic leader or a Republican leader rules the politics of a State, he rules it, not by displaying, but by concealing, the fact that he is a king—a political king—a "boss." In our government of the United States can it least of all be said that he who stands as President stands as king. The real ruler of these seventy millions of people is an intangible, immaterial, invisible force called "public opinion." Before the breath of that unembodied idea the physical force of a political boss, of a Congress, of a President, bows. The external yields to the internal, the physical to the mental and the spiritual.

If such examples as I have given are not sufficient, I can easily add to their number. I can, for example, suggest how the notion of individual personal liberty, in religious matters, in political matters—of liberty untrammelled by any external force, of liberty dominated only by the mind, the heart, the conscience—is a modern, an evolved, a developed idea. Or I can point out that a hint of all the suggestions that I have been making has been given in revelation, in the fire, the thunder, the lightnings, the tablets of stone when the first Commandments came; in the voice saying that "a little child shall lead them," that "except ye become as little children," and that "ye must be born again," uttered when came the New Commandments. The fire, the thunder, the lightnings passed, but God was in the still, small voice. And I may finally claim that a further suggestion can be found in the prophecy that in the world to come the body shall cease, and the spirit be alone the living force. I do not give these examples as proofs. I desire only to use such illustrations as are near at hand in making clear this suggestion of a general habit of progress in evolution. If true as respects the novel, we may expect to find a tendency away from external manifestations and toward the presentation of the motive beneath such manifestations,—away from the manifestation of the objective, the physical, from the picturing of a thoughtless hero dashing about through forests and over streams to rescue or to kill other individuals as unspiritual, as unintellectual as himself,—toward the study and the depiction of the internal relations of men and women in daily life. It is with illustrations such as these that I formulate a proposition concerning the novel in its growth to completeness: that, earlier than its appearance in the works of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, in the decade of 1740 to 1750, we may find romances and chivalric tales of men on horseback ranging through strange countries; we may find romances of adventures, stories of wanderings and seekings through far lands; and that at a much later date, as typical of the most advanced thought of a later day, we may find novels of the soul, of the mind, introspective studies into the motives which move hearts and influence lives. Let us then turn from theory to history and study the fact. When we interrogate the history of the true novel we find it a most recent literary form. A novel is a narrative of human life under stress of emotion. It differs from the epic in that it is a narration of human rather than superhuman life, under stress of ordinary rather than of excessive or heroic emotion. It differs from the drama in that the latter represents clashes and conflicts of emotion rather than a life procedure under influence of emotion, and represents in action rather than in narrative. In English speech, though not in German and French usage, the term novel is used as a general expression to include all prose fiction; the romance and the story being thus names of types and classes of novels; the term novel being the generic, the term romance and story being the especial, designation. In German usage a sharp distinction is drawn between the term Novelle and Roman, the latter being, as in the French, the general term corresponding to novel in English. In English usage the "story" is that form of novel which gives an action of life or a sequence of events of life with least possible complexity of emotion; and the "romance" is that form of novel which portrays a life when influenced by emotion to undertake material, spiritual, or physical exploration into regions unfamiliar. In English fiction the type form is the novel, and the novel in...

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Women And The Novel

Paula R. Backscheider (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Woman's Influence," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XI, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 3-22.

[In the essay that follows, Backscheider examines some methods of influencing other people, particularly men, and bringing about change that female authors of early novels gave to their female characters.]

The meaning and attainment of influence, power, and success frequently provide conflicts and themes for fiction. In spite of the fact that female writers were necessarily concerned with these concepts, that readers of novels were predominantly women, and that the issues of the Feminist Controversy remained...

(The entire section is 19911 words.)

Contemporary Commentary On The Novel

Lennard J. Davis (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Theories of Fiction in Early English Novels," in Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel, Columbia University Press, 1983, p. 102-22.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that early novelists put forth concepts of fiction that implicitly sought to disarm a public that paradoxically both demanded fiction and looked down upon "untruthful" tales.]

If Robinson Crusoe wound up on an island, historians of the novel were partially responsible for putting him there. Until fairly recently, it had generally been the practice of literary histories of the novel, to regard Defoe as the first English...

(The entire section is 8290 words.)

Further Reading

Allen, Walter. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc, 1951, 454.

Devotes a prefatory chapter to considering which pre-eighteenth-century literary forms precipitated the emergence of the novel. The critic focuses primarily on the divergent threads of realism, exemplified by John Bunyan, and romance, exemplified by Aphra Behn, in the development of the novel genre..

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 300 p.

Treats the development of the novel—both as...

(The entire section is 613 words.)