Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476
JOSEPH VANCE is the story of the life of Joseph Vance from his earliest recollections until the last years of his life. As William De Morgan states through the words of his main character, there is much that might have been left out, since there are many threads of the plot that are unimportant to the story. Humor and pathos are successfully mixed; the humor particularly is the quiet kind that makes readers chuckle. It comes largely from the character of Vance’s father, who firmly believes that to be a success a person must know absolutely nothing about doing the job he is hired to do. De Morgan gave his novel the subtitle “An Ill-Written Autobiography” but few of his readers will agree with him.
The influences of Sterne and Dickens are very clear in Joseph Vance. Sterne especially is evident in the tone of the narration, the descriptions of the characters, and in the philosophizing and digressions, for example, on Joe’s Father’s Hat and Human Nature. The author’s style is not as smooth and graceful as Sterne’s, however, resulting at times in a rather strained and arch humor. The protagonist’s father, for example, is too obviously intended to be a grand old “character.” The narrative vitality and sense of place and the minor characters suggest Dickens. The lower-class dialect is often skillfully utilized, but it is carried to the point of preciousness; mispronunciations and absurd grammar alone do not make a character comic. Nevertheless, the story is crowded with telling and often amusing details, despite the occasionally excessive use of letters to move the story forward, and the minor characters are sketched with precise and vivid portraits.
For the most part, the development of the protagonist is interesting, although the narrative is sometimes confusing. Joseph’s bouts with education (especially geometry) and the results when he tries to demonstrate his new learning to his old friends are amusing. De Morgan’s power to create character and convey atmosphere provide the principal merits of the novel. Some of the scenes in the house of the Thorpe family, Joseph’s adopted relations and protectors, possess a quaint and touching charm.
De Morgan did not begin his career as a writer until after retiring from his first career as a ceramic artist and inventor. A member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, he was famous for the quality and beauty of his glazes; much of his work with pottery and tiles is preserved in museums. His second career as a novelist brought him a wide literary reputation and considerable financial success. His last two works were published posthumously. JOSEPH VANCE, De Morgan’s first novel, is still considered his best fictional effort. The richness of the prose, the humor, and the delightful characterizations ensure the book a secure, if minor, place in English literature.
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