This essay presents a brief overview of the development of the nineteenth century English novel.
Transition and Transformation:
One could be forgiven for believing that the words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’ mean one and the same thing. The main reason for this confusion is that both of them have a common denominator; they both tell a story. In the novel, we have the theatre of life and for over two centuries it has been the most effective agent of the moral imagination. Though it has never really achieved perfection in form and its shortcomings are numerable, nevertheless one experiences from it not only the extent of human variety, but also the value of this variety. Fiction existed right from the first time man told a story and thus it is in this respect only, that it is similar to the forerunner of the novel as we know it today, which is any work of fiction in England written before 1670.
Novelists express their conscious conclusions about life as they experience it and these manifest themselves not only in the characters they create and their interaction with each other, but also in the way they make them react or respond to the various situations in which they find themselves and in what they say within these situations. They are relatively free to choose their material, but their conclusions about life and the nature of their novels are dependent on their innate personality, as this affects not only the way in which they present their characters, but also our own understanding and response to their inherent values and behaviour. In this sense, novelists can be seen as mediators between their characters and their audience, as this is the only way through which they can convey to us their attitude towards their characters and the total situation they are rendering.
The Victorian novel reflected the pressing social problems and philosophies of a complex age, which was prevailingly one of social restraints and taboos, relatively reminiscent of the Puritan period and authors were in the main didactic, moral and purposeful. One of the most important differences between the novelists of the first half of the century and those of the second was that to a significant extent the former were at one with their Age. They drew from it their strengths and weaknesses. They were its mouthpiece and accepted the notion of progress without much argument. The latter were more or less highly critical against their age and in this sense it is easy to view them as being rebellious.
One of the greatest achievements of the age was the universal acceptance of respectability. This idea accommodated all classes of the society irrespective of social position, wealth or learning, mainly because it applied to anyone who exploited clean and tidy habits and who was honest and decent in behaviour. Though in reality the ‘respectable’ may not have been numerically large, nevertheless they did perform the role of informing public opinion. In the main, they made up the reading public and it was to them that the greatest novelists of the age addressed themselves. The notion of ‘respectability’ could also be viewed as a worthy attempt to do something about the vices and weaknesses of the age and the novelists were the mouthpieces of their audiences.
Prevailing attitudes towards sex also changed in respect of taboos relating to the candid recognition and expression of it. There was indeed a double standard of morality and it affected both sexes differently. However, by the time of Samuel Butler and John Conrad, these attitudes had drastically changed, mainly because the vices of the age existed in too high a level to be ignored. No longer was the novelist out to please only his public. In fact, public acceptability of his works was no longer a great concern. After the Forster Education Acts of 1870, the reading public grew larger and thus it was harder to please everyone, as unlike for novelists such as Dickens and Thackeray, it was beyond their universal command. Inevitably, this sense of alienation led to a stratification of the novel. This, coupled with the demands of the new reading public, led to the breakdown of the Victorian novel into sub-genres like the psychological novel, the novel of adventure, the picaresque novel, the detective and thriller novels and other such classifications. The traditional three volume novel disappeared to be replaced by the single volume works, thus reducing the content to about a third of the normal length. This streamlined the novel and imposed on the novelist the necessity to be more choosy and critical about their choice of incident and material. Previously, the novel had been a dumping ground for unnecessary claptrap, which tended to weaken the plot while at the same time sacrificing organization and balance merely in the interest of filling space. Thus serialization disappeared and the creation of an autonomous work, as we know it today, came into being.
By far the most popular of the nineteenth century novelists was Jane Austen, but she was by no means the only one who helped usher in the age, while simultaneously contributing to the sustained interest and overall development of the novel form. There were others like Fanny Burnley with The Old Manor House (1793), Mrs. Ann Radcliffe with her gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Maria Edgeworth with Castle Rackrent (1800). Of these, Maria Edgeworth probably occupied first importance because her novel was published at the turn of the century. Essentially a didactic writer, she had the ability to create round characters and tended to dramatise them. In Castle Rackrent, written in the first person, we are aware for the first time of the uniqueness of her contribution to the nineteenth century novel. In literary circles it is recognised as the first of all saga novels because it traces the history of a family through several generations. Maria is also responsible for giving the novel a local habitation and a name. Previously, the setting of the English novel had been generalised and conventionalised, because the novelists of the eighteenth century hardly ever had a sense of place.
If we take a brief look at the last four decades of the era, say from Great Expectations (1860) to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), we can view more clearly other basic changes in the genre when compared with the works of the early Victorians. The most glaring – as mentioned earlier – was the change in the relationship between the reader and the writer. This was later thought of as old fashioned and was replaced by an attitude which pretended to deny the actual presence of the reader. Approximately four decades separate these two novels and yet this fairly brief period of time saw a lot happen to the novel. One obvious thing is that it had changed. It was no longer a question of dates of publication; it was a whole historical vista. The shift in the writer-reader relationship saw a change of approach by and many novelists such as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and George Eliot assumed that they were communicating directly with people, who in the face of all difference, knew that they had much in common and who were there to be spoken to.
This literary symbiosis between writer-reader is characteristic of all great prose of the Victorian period. As late as 1850 the English Novel began to drift away from the previously dominant literary tendency of aristocratic Romanticism. Dickens and his contemporaries had found this to be artificial, in the sense that its ulterior purpose was not to help people cope in a positive way with everyday life, but to convey them to a world different, idealised and more attractive than their own. This was gradually replaced by a wholly individualistic literary rebellion by other novelists like Joseph Conrad, Samuel Butler, Thomas Hardy and George Elliot against the subjectivity of the Romantics and the idealism and myopic social range of previous literary attitudes.
This awareness of the shortcomings of the English novel increased the desire of Victorian novelists to make it not only much more interesting and exciting, but also a much more serious and significant form of art. As a result the novel developed towards a deeper philosophic analysis of the implications of a situation and a rendering of experience which was more careful, realistic and ‘poetic’. There was the tendency to lay emphasis on the daily life of the common man, often concentrating on the sordid and disagreeable and it employed an impersonal style to match. For an age marked by rapid scientific growth and drastic changes in both class structure and social organization, it was an art form that was well-suited to the times. With this conscious movement towards realism, a new stream of consciousness in the English novel evolved whereby the novelist’s view of and disposition towards character, scene and event gradually replaced their previous approach towards these issues.
In 1899 Queen Victoria was sixty years on the throne and England ruled the farthest flung empire the world had ever known. The English way of life was changing and the Literature was progressively moulded and given an identity by the growing awareness of being modern. There was also a greater consciousness of continental aims and standards. Conrad saw the times full of modern imperialism, of war and violence and mass neurosis all on a scale of a kind radically different from previous human experience. The setting in many cases had shifted accordingly from that of the provincial English country or metropolitan scene, to one of continental scope. Conrad wrote of foreign lands, Malaya, Africa, India, Indonesia - as in Nostromo (1904), or in Heart of Darkness (1902) - which was published a year after the death of Queen Victoria and after she had become Empress of India. He contributed immensely towards establishing in the English novel the strict necessity to find new forms for every undertaking and the closeness of the novels to his own experiences was developed, transfigured and shaped in extraordinary ways. However, by 1880 we see a deliberate attempt by authors such as Mark Rutherford, Samuel Butler and Conrad to become even more personal and autobiographical. In a sense they became more self-critical in an attempt to have a better understanding of their own lives. In the case of Butler, he had such a strong influence on twentieth century writers that after his semi-autobiographical novel The Way of all Flesh (1903)came many other autobiographical novels of our time.
The English novel is a social document that has gone through a period of literary metamorphosissince its inception and it forms an integral part of the historical development of fiction. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century it was obvious that there was an open breach with the past, reminiscent of the rejection by early Victorian novelists of the neo-classical ideals of the previous century in favour of Romanticism. The later Victorian novelists shunned Romanticist ideals for a more realistic approach to the situations of their times and with Conrad and Butler ushering in the twentieth century with the publications of Heart of Darkness and The Way of all Flesh further far-reaching transformations of the novel form had already started to develop.
The development of the nineteenth century novel was a journey of literary transition and transformation. The Victorian novelists participated with their audience in the obsessions and preoccupations of the era and produced an art form which was to become tremendously popular and which was to make an immense contribution to a Iiterary heritage that was truly national in all its ramifications.