Origins and Development of the Novel, 1890-1980 Introduction


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The environment in England during the 1880’s and 1890’s was especially fertile for the development of new trends in literature. As the century came to a close, all the giants of the novel, except George Meredith, had either died or stopped writing. Even Thomas Hardy, who can be justly classified as either “Victorian” or “modern,” quit writing prose in 1895 and turned to poetry. The great Victorian poets, too, were disappearing: Matthew Arnold died in 1888, Robert Browning in 1889, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1892. The Victorian stage, for decades the province of producers and directors who spared no expense to provide “spectacle” to audiences whose penchant for grand performances demanded ever-greater mechanical wonders on the boards, was becoming the province of men such as George Bernard Shaw. His plays, while amusing at times, generally abandoned the grandiose for the middle class and did so with a striking (and sometimes disturbing) sense of realism. Upstarts such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater were turning their backs on “traditional” subjects in art and presenting material that the general populace could only describe as decadent.

The younger generation of writers had turned away from their English ancestors, seeking inspiration from French novelists whose naturalistic treatment of subjects glorified the commonplace and vulgar while minimizing the good in traditional morality; Honoré de Balzac andÉmile Zola became the luminaries whom budding authors copied with dedication and fidelity. Among this generation of writers and readers, the Victorian notion of “high seriousness” was giving way to a concern for subjects only whispered about during the heyday of that glorious queen who gave her name to the period. That aging lady still occupied the throne, but everyone knew that she was to die soon, and with her would pass an “age” in English life.