Realism in the English Novel Criticism - Essay

Walter Raleigh (essay date 1894)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Richardson and Fielding," in The English Novel, John Murray, 1894, pp. 140-79.

[In the following chapter from his The English Novel, Raleigh discusses both the roots of prose fiction in drama and its maturation in the works of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Much of the credit that he gives these authors depends on the presence of realism in their fiction, especially "direct" narrative from a character's point of view, attention to detail in description, and a focus on the processes of individual consciousness.]

In one or other of the various literary forms dealt with in the last chapter, almost all the characteristic features of the modern novel are to be found. Yet the novel was slow to arise. For many years after the appearance of the masterly sketches and tales of the Tatler and Spectator, writers were content to imitate these more or less exactly in the literary journals of the day, and to seek for no more ambitious development. It was not until years after Madame de la Fayette had created a new era in French fiction by her novel La Princesse de Clèves (1678), not until years after Marivaux by his Vie de Marianne (1731) had singularly anticipated Richardson in subject and treatment, although, so far as can be ascertained, without influencing him, that the English Pamela was born in 1740.

The reason of the delay is not hard to assign. New literary forms, although they are invented by the genius of authors, have a success strictly conditioned by the taste of the public. It is not likely that any professional writer will trouble himself to strike out a new path while the old paths lead to fame and fortune. And the fact is that it was the decline of the theatre during the earlier part of the eighteenth century that made way for the novel. The drama no longer made any pretence of holding the mirror up to Nature, the audiences had no claim to be considered representative of the tastes of the wider literary public. The fashionable ladies of the time, as Fielding says in one of his farces, would "take a stage-box, where they let the footman sit the first two acts, to show his livery, then they come in to show themselves, spread their fans upon the spikes, make curtsies to their acquaintance, and then talk and laugh as loud as they are able." To the upper gallery the footmen and servants of the great had free access, and they imitated their masters in regarding a civil attention to the actors as the last resource of a jaded mind. In the pit were assembled the only serious critics of the play, young templars and city merchants, but their tastes were little likely to redeem the drama from the triviality to which it had sunk.

Nevertheless authors had learnt to regard theatrical success as the crown of literary ambition, and they were slow to unlearn the lesson. Steele and Addison, at the very time when by their literary criticisms they were educating the public to distaste the plays that held the stage, while by their prose sketches of life and manners they were showing themselves true followers of Shakespeare, though at a distance, could not rest content without trying their fortunes also on the stage. Addison's tragedy of Cato (1713) was for factitious reasons a success; Steele, who had an earlier play "damned for its piety," persevered in the drama until in the Conscious Lovers (1722) he produced a comedy that succeeded indeed, but left no issue. And Fielding himself, in spite of the competition of pantomime, spectacle, and opera, for almost ten years kept himself alive by dramatic authorship until the Licensing Act of 1737 curbed his satirical energies, and the unexampled success of Pamela in 1740 directed them into a new channel.

The particular tastes that the novel was to satisfy were now no longer catered for by the drama. A small part only of the new reading public were in the habit of going to the theatre, while, on the other hand, the standard plays of the older dramatists had never before had so many readers. The habit of reading plays is curiously illustrated in Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison, where Miss Byron, writing to Miss Selby, says, "I know, my dear, you love to read plays," and so excuses herself for writing her narrative in dramatic form with the speakers' names recorded in the margin. In his two later novels Richardson gives a list of the dramatis personœ in the beginning, under the heading, "Names of the Principal Persons." It is as if the novel were merely a play with its framework of stage directions expanded for the ease of the reader. And in this form the novel was bound to supplant the play with the reading public. To read a play with full intelligence is at all times difficult for an untrained reader, and the law of least possible effort can be as effectively illustrated from literature as from language. A new form of literature that had all the interest of the drama, but imposed only the slenderest tax on the reader's attention and imagination, was predestined to success.

It was not a professional writer that made the discovery of such a new form, but a short, stout, prim, pedantic bookseller and printer, aged fifty-one, whose excursions into literature had hitherto been of the slightest—a few prefaces and dedications, contributed at the request of others. In these, however, he had displayed some literary facility, and Messrs. Rivington and Osborne, two booksellers who were his particular friends, pressed him to write a little book "of familiar letters on the useful concerns in common life." It was in the course of preparing this that Samuel Richardson be-thought him of a story, told him by a friend, of a young girl, the daughter of honest and pious parents, who had been taken into the service of a great family, had had snares laid for her honour by her employer's son, "a young gentleman of free principles," but had subdued him by her noble resistance, so that at last "he thought fit to make her his wife." This incident running in Richardson's head suggested to him the inclusion of a few letters giving cautions "to young folks circumstanced as Pamela was," and these few letters grew under his hand until they filled the book and became nothing other than the first modern novel.

The account Richardson gave to his friend Aaron Hill of the inception of the book shows that before it was completed he had become conscious that he was introducing "a new species of writing." His hope was, he says, that it "might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue." And so it came about that a book, the original design of which bore about as much relation to literature as the tunes of a piano-organ bear to music, became when completed the ancestor of a literary progeny like the sands of the sea for number.

Richardson's early life had been in some sort a training for the work on which he was to start so late. His father was a joiner, and a friend of Shaftesbury and Monmouth. Probably he was one of the "brisk boys" that ran behind Shaftesbury's coach in London; at any rate, on the failure of Monmouth's attempt on the throne he "was looked on with a jealous eye," and thought proper on the "decollation," as Richardson phrases it, of that unhappy nobleman, "to quit his London business and retire to Derbyshire, though to his great detriment."

In Derbyshire Samuel Richardson was born in 1689, and received a very slight education, learning no language save his own. His schoolfellows, who nicknamed him Serious and Gravity, used to press him to tell them stories. "One of them particularly, I remember, was for putting me to write a history…. I now forget what it was, only that it was of a servant-man preferred by a fine young lady (for his goodness) to a lord, who was a libertine. All my stories carried with them, I am bold to say, an useful moral."

The same highly moral tendency is seen in the fact that before he was eleven years old he assumed a censor's duties by writing a letter to a widow lady of fifty, collecting from the Scripture "texts that made against her," and contrasting her pretensions to religion with her habits of slander and gossip.

His precocity of sentiment was hardly less. "As a bashful and not forward boy," he says, "I was an early favourite with all the young women of taste and reading in the neighbourhood." They would sew while he read aloud to them, and "both mothers and daughters used to be pleased with the observations they put me upon making." When he was only thirteen, three of these young women revealed to him their love secrets, and induced him to write model letters for them to alter as they pleased in copying. "I have been directed to chide, and even repulse, when an offence was either taken or given, at the very time that the heart of the chider or repulser was open before me, overflowing with esteem and affection."

This apprenticeship to the knowledge of the human heart stood Richardson the novelist in good stead. He was intended by his father for the Church, but the necessary education was out of his reach, and in 1706 he was bound apprentice to Mr. John Wilde of Stationers' Hall, whose daughter, after the manner of all good apprentices, he subsequently married. He set up business for himself, at first in Fleet Street, afterwards in Salisbury Court; throve apace, got the printing of the Journals of the House of Commons, and became in 1754 Master of the Stationers' Company. By this time he was a famous man, his novels all were written—for Clarissa Harlowe appeared in 1748 and Sir Charles Grandison in 1753—and his later years, though troubled by failing health, were spent in the midst of the grateful incense that rose from the circle of admirers with which he surrounded himself. He died in 1761.

The character of Richardson deserves all the praise it has received from his biographer, Mrs. Barbauld. His integrity and industry were unfailing, and in material affairs he was generous, but his extreme vanity made him repellent to all but professed devotees, and the pusillanimity with which Johnson charged him, "the perpetual study to ward off petty inconveniences and to procure petty pleasures," is to be seen in his works in that attention to the infinitely little which is their weakness and their strength. He was formal, passionless, and unsympathetic. When he was young his seniors confided in him, but in his later years his stiffness alienated his juniors; "my girls," he said, "are shy little fools." The famous council that criticized and applauded the drafts of his later novels consisted almost entirely of women, and included Miss Mulso, afterwards Mrs. Chapone, and the sisters of Henry Fielding. At North End, Hammersmith, he lived in "a kind of flower-garden of ladies," and so became a singular example of an author whose heroines speak better and more naturally than his heroes. It may be doubted whether he ever fathomed the secrets of the male heart.

Richardson has left a portrait of himself in the description he wrote for Lady Bradshaigh, who worshipped him from afar—

Short; rather plump than emaciated, notwithstanding his complaints; about five foot five inches; fair wig; lightish cloth coat, all black besides; one hand generally in his bosom, the other a cane in it, which he leans upon under the skirts of his coat usually, that it may imperceptibly serve him as a support when attacked by sudden termors or startings, and dizziness which too frequently attack him, but, thank God, not so often as formerly; looking directly foreright, as passers-by would imagine, but observing all that stirs on either hand of him without moving his short neck; hardly ever turning back; of a light-brown complexion; teeth not yet failing him; smoothish-faced and ruddy-cheeked; at some times looking to be about sixty-five, at other times much younger; a regular even pace, stealing away ground, rather than seeming to rid it; a grey eye, too often overclouded by mistinesses from the head: by chance lively, very lively it will be, if he have hope of seeing a lady whom he loves and honours; his eye always on the ladies; if they have very large hoops he looks down and supercilious, and as if he would be thought wise, but perhaps the sillier for that; as he approaches a lady his eye is never fixed first upon her face, but upon her feet, and thence he raises it up, pretty quickly for a dull eye; and one would think (if we thought him at all worthy of observation) that from her air and (the last beheld) her face, he sets her down in his mind as so or so, and then passes on to the next object he meets.

It is necessary, in passing from the man to his novels, to say something first about the method of telling a story by way of letters—a method that Richardson hit upon almost by accident, but which he continued in his later novels from choice. Of the three ways most in vogue for telling a story, it has been perhaps the least popular, but it is not hard to see that it suited Richardson's matter and style the best.

The first and most usual way is that the author should tell the story directly. He is invisible and omniscient, a sort of diable boiteux, who is able to unroof all houses and unlock all hearts, and who can never be questioned as to how he came to a knowledge of the events he narrates. There are stories that can be told in no other way than this; the favourite way of Fielding, Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray. At a slight sacrifice of dramatic force the events of the story are supplied with a chorus, and at any time that suits him the author can cast off his invisible cloak and show himself fingering the "helpless pieces of the game he plays."

The second method, the chosen expedient of Marivaux, Goldsmith, and Prévost, is to put the whole story in the mouth of the principal character. The realism of Swift and Defoe adopted this method, which gives at once a dramatic centre and a certain unity to the events narrated, from their bearing on the fortunes of one person. For the intense presentment of the main character, as in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre or Villette, this way remains perhaps the best. Yet it has its difficulties and its pitfalls; every incident of the story must be brought within the knowledge of the narrator; and although the single point of view is valuable to evoke sympathy, it takes from the novelist the privilege of killing his hero, who may be condemned to death without awakening in the reader the slightest anxiety as to his safety in the event. Moreover, if the story extend over a number of years, a detailed account of its earlier parts can only be given by sacrificing the sense of vivid and present reality that attends the hearing of a personal story told by a living voice; the sense of perspective and contrast is lost, the near becomes far and the far near, the narrator is forgotten in the actor. Coleridge, in his Ancient Mariner, gives perhaps the most consummate illustration of the artistic value of present circumstances as a frame for past events; Defoe, in the intricate maze of his story, is apt to forget the actual speaker.

In employing a third way, and telling his story by a series of letters, Richardson endeavours to combine the advantages of both these methods, to retain the vividness of personal narration by an eye-witness without sacrificing the freedom and omniscience of the impersonal author. For sentimental analysis, in which he excelled, his device served him well; the microscopic minuteness which he loved seems less unnatural in a letter written an hour after the events described than in a story told perhaps some forty years after. But he takes little advantage of the scope that is afforded by his method for variety of characters and styles, and he does not succeed in evading the difficulty caused by the fact that the whole of life does not naturally find its way into letters. In order to supply some one to whom the heroine of each of his novels shall communicate her most intimate feelings, he is obliged to revive an old stage device, and Tilburina, in white satin, is attended by her "confidant" in white linen. The worthy Pamela, it is true, writes only to her parents, who take singularly little interest in her misfortunes, but Clarissa has the invaluable and lively Miss Howe, and Harriet Byron exercises her absurdly exact memory on the long-suffering Miss Selby, writing, according to the computation of Mr. Leslie Stephen, in the space of three days as much as would fill one hundred and forty-four pages of octavo print. And dramatic propriety stands aghast at the confidences that pass between Mr. Robert Lovelace and his friend Mr. John Belford.

And yet these are hardly defects in Richardson, for they are the very foundation of his art. To spend hours in narrating her most trifling experiences, and recording her most casual conversations, may well be said to make a lady appear small-minded, but how shall those who have followed her story with unflagging interest be the first to make the accusation? Richardson has had not a few readers who smiled, perhaps contemptuously, but continued to read. His power of analysis lies chiefly in this, that no detail is beneath his attention. It is the exact function of the microscope; the commonplace becomes interesting, not by its setting, not by the glamour lent to it by the imagination of a poet, but merely because it is magnified and made novel by detail previously unperceived. Nor are there wanting subtle touches, rapid and minute, that lay bare the very hearts of his characters. Thus Pamela, when she has escaped from her master, receives a humble letter from him asking her to come back. For a moment she is inclined to consent, but remembering his repeated perfidies and cruelties, she ponders her impulse and argues against it: "Therefore will I not acquit thee yet, O credulous, fluttering, throbbing mischief! that art so ready to believe what thou wishest; and I charge thee to keep better guard than thou hast lately done, and tempt me not to follow too implicitly thy flattering impulses! Thus foolishly dialogued I with my heart, and yet all the time, that heart was Pamela."

By his power in sentimental analysis it was that Richardson earned the famous eulogy of Diderot, who gives him a place in his esteem beside Moses, Homer, and Euripides. And the main interest of Richardson's persons has never been better expressed than in Diderot's words, "Ils sont communs, dites-vous (ces personnages); c'est ce qu'on voit tous les jours? Vous vous trompez, c'est ce qui se passe tous les jours sous vos yeux et que vous ne voyez jamais." And Johnson laid stress on the same quality when he said that there was more knowledge of the human heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all Tom Jones.

More dissection of the human heart, a fuller display of its processes, there certainly is. But Fielding set before himself models of epic breadth, while Richardson shows the defects of his qualities in the extreme slowness of his dramatic development. The events recorded in the eight volumes of Clarissa occupy eleven months. In Sir Charles Grandison the story is arrested while the characters are displayed, contrasting their thoughts, plans, and sentiments. And there is an incessant doubling back on what has gone before; first a letter is written describing what "has passed," this letter is communicated by its recipient to a third character, who comments on it, while the story waits. This constant repercussion of a theme or event between one or more pairs of correspondents produces a structure of story very like The House that Jack Built. Each writer is narrating not events alone, but his or her reflections on previous narrations of the same events. And so, on the next-to-nothing that happened there is superimposed the young lady that wrote to her friend describing it, the friend that approved her for the decorum of the manner in which she described it, the admirable baronet that chanced to find the letter approving the decorum of the young lady, the punctilio of honour that prevented the admirable baronet from reading the letter he found, and so on. It is very lifelike, but life can become at times a slow affair, and one of the privileges of the novel-writer is to quicken it. This privilege Richardson foregoes. Any one reading Sir Charles Grandison at a leisurely pace (it cannot be read fast) must be particularly happy in having no history if he has not lived through more events than he has read through by the time he comes to the end of it. As Johnson again said, "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story only as giving occasion to the sentiment."

There remains to be considered the feature of Richardson's work on which he most valued himself, and which attracted the enthusiastic applause of his contemporaries—its morality. He looked on himself as a moral reformer, and in the preface to Pamela he sets forth a portentous list of the "desirable ends" that are "attained within these sheets." By Johnson once more his especial praise is thus summarized: "He has enlarged the knowledge of human nature, and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue."

How his microscope enlarged the knowledge of human nature has already been shown, but what shall be said of his success in this loftier exploit? He did not himself think it difficult. In speaking of the lady Clementina, in Sir Charles Grandison, a lady who had conceived a passion for that monster of perfection, whom her religion forbade her to marry, Richardson excuses himself for implying, towards the close of the novel, that she marries some one else by saying to one of his correspondents, "I want to have young people think that there is no such mighty business as they are apt to suppose in conquering a first love." The passions are not really very formidable, it seems; virtue has only to pipe to them, and they dance the most decorous of concerted jigs. And yet the reader, who had expected to see the lion-tamer go into the den and subdue the raging animals with a glance, is somehow disappointed when it is shown to be so easy, and begins to entertain suspicions that the beasts are stuffed. And the virtue that subdues them is of no heroic mould. At its worst and crudest Richardson's conception of virtue is merely "tickling commodity," an injunction to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market; at its best, in Clarissa, it is far too negative in quality, a sort of showman leading his perfectly tamed passions from place to place. Of a virtue that should inflame the higher, rather than allay the lower, passions, he had little or no idea.

In Pamela or Virtue Rewarded the prudential doctrine appears in its earliest and most disgusting form. The main plot has already been indicated; Pamela's virtue is rewarded by the success of her scheme to marry the man who has heaped on her every indignity that subhumanity could suggest. But he is wealthy and has position, and the original story, in two volumes, closes with a scene of benediction, Pamela's pious parents thanking Heaven that their daughter has laid to heart their early precepts. Two more volumes were afterwards added by Richardson to assuage the fears of those who were not quite easy about the fate of the heroine. In these Pamela "reforms" her husband, and shows herself a model matron in high life.

In Sir Charles Grandison there is described Richardson's beau-ideal of manly virtue. He was moved to write the book by the complaints of those who urged on him that "Mr. B.," Pamela's persecutor, and Love-lace, the chief male characters of the two earlier novels, were both villains, and that it was his duty to give to the world the picture of a true hero, for its admiration and imitation. The vanity of Richardson fell into the trap, and in Sir Charles Grandison he designed a man of large fortune, high birth, and perfect breeding, who unites in himself all possible accomplishments, and all the virtues hitherto invented. Sir Charles Grandison's ready benevolence undertakes the most diverse tasks,—setting up a poor family in life, rescuing a distressed lady from a man of title who is carrying her off by force, making considerate alterations in the structure of his own paternal mansion, and finding a wife for his gouty old uncle. In his youth he is sent abroad to travel on the Continent, and meantime his father dies. He hurries home to console his sisters, and appears,—"a graceful youth of seventeen with fine curling auburn locks waving on his shoulders, delicate in complexion, intelligence sparkling in his fine free eyes, and good-humour sweetening his lively features." This is the sort of language he holds,—"'What I think to do, cousin,' said Sir Charles, 'is to inter the venerable remains (I must always speak in this dialect, sir), with those of my mother. This I know was his desire. I will have an elegant, but not sumptuous monument erected to the memory of both, with a modest inscription that shall rather be a matter of instruction to the living than a panegyric on the departed. The difference in the expense shall be privately applied to relieve or assist distressed housekeepers, or some of my father's poor tenants who have large families, and have not been wanting in their honest endeavours to maintain them. My sisters, I hope, will not think themselves neglected if I spare them the pain of conferring with them on a subject that must afflict them.'"

He keeps his word; throughout the book he speaks in this dialect and maintains this insufferable bearing. He is never subjected to the trials of Job, or of the Vicar of Wakefield. Wealthy, accomplished, universally beloved, with the smoke of devotion and flattery ascending to him from scores of grateful and adoring hearts, he passes through life, bestowing pleasure with a smile, causing pain and remorse with a sigh, improving the occasion at all times, until the reader is seized with a blind desire to enact the part of the adversary, to tear him from place and power and set him to earn his living.

He is more than once challenged to a duel. He disapproves of duelling, but so skilled is he with the rapier that he can disarm any adversary by a turn of the wrist and let him depart unharmed.

The tribe of women who surround him with adulation attribute his hesitation to marry to his delicate consideration for the hearts that would thus be desolated and deprived of their hope. "He called me his Emily," says his ward, Miss Jervois, "but all the world is his Emily, I...

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Arthur Jerrold Tieje (essay date 1913)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Rise of Realism," in PMLA, N.s., Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1913, pp. 213-52.

[In the following essay, Tieje unearths in fiction previous to Richardson a "striving toward a crude form of realism," which he defines as an author's desire "to gain the implicit credence of the reader"—that is, strategies and styles fashioned to convince the reader that the story is factual rather than imaginative.]

No investigator of the expressed theory of pre-Richardsonian fiction need labor long before he discovers that all the declared aims of writers of prose fiction may probably be reduced to five: desire to entertain the reader, to edify him, to impart information to him, to depict...

(The entire section is 8649 words.)

Bliss Perry (essay date 1920)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Realism," in A Study of Prose Fiction, Revised Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920, pp. 217-57.

[In the excerpt that follows, Perry first examines the primary meanings of "realism" in both fine art and literature from the Renaissance through the twentieth century and subsequently proposes a definition of realism as an "effort to depict things as they are, life as it is."]

We are to discuss in this chapter a somewhat difficult theme,—one that has long occupied the attention of the reading public, and about which all the critics, and indeed most of the novelists, have at one time or another had their say. No term dealing with literary methods has been more...

(The entire section is 8224 words.)

Ian Watt (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, University of California Press, 1962, pp. 9-59.

[Watt's The Rise of the Novel has remained one of the most important critical works on the English novel. In the two chapters reprinted below, Watt claims formal realism as the single most significant ingredient in the novel's rise to precedence as a literary genre.]

There are still no wholly satisfactory answers to many of the general questions which anyone interested in the early eighteenth-century novelists and their works is likely to ask: Is the novel a new literary form? And if we assume, as is commonly done, that it is, and that it was...

(The entire section is 13548 words.)