I seem to spend so much time – either mentally or here – arguing with the writers of non-fiction that it always comes as a most pleasant surprise when I come across someone I actually agree with (and no, I don’t mean, Who agrees with me…honestly). It’s happened twice, reasonably recently: the first instance, which I have mentioned previously, came in the form of James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England, from 1949, which I really must get around to writing a proper review of; and the second, which I stumbled across while reading around Richard Head, is George Saintsbury’s The English Novel from 1913.
I haven’t read this book in full yet, but these excerpts are enough to make me want to:
“[The English Rogue] is quite openly a picaresque novel: and imitated not merely from the Spanish originals but from Sorel’s Francion, which had appeared in France some forty years before. Yet, if we compare this latter curious book with Head’s we shall see how very far behind, even with forty years’ advantage in time, was the country which, in the next century, was practically to create the modern novel…”
“Very few of the characters of The English Rogue have so much as a name to their backs: they are “a prentice,” “a master,” “a mistress,” “a servant,” “a daughter,” “a tapster,” etc. They are invested with hardly the slightest individuality: the very hero is a scoundrel as characterless as he is nameless. He is the mere thread which keeps the beads of the story together after a fashion. These beads themselves, moreover, are only the old anecdotes of ‘coney-catching,’ over-reaching, and worse, which had separately filled a thousand fabliaux, novelle, ‘jests,’ and so forth: and which are now flung together in gross, chiefly by the excessively clumsy and unimaginative expedient of making the personages tell long strings of them as their own experience.”
“When anything more is wanted, accounts of the manners of foreign countries, taken from ‘voyage-and-travel’ books; of the tricks of particular trades (as here of piratical book-selling); of anything and everything that the writer’s dull fancy can think of, are foisted in. The thing is in four volumes, and it seems that a fifth was intended as a close: but there is no particular reason why it should not have extended to forty or fifty, nay to four or five hundred. It could have had no real end, just as it has no real beginning or middle. One other point deserves notice. The tone of the Spanish and French picaresque novel had never been high: but it is curiously degraded in this English example…”
“Except in a dim sort of idea that a novel should have some bulk and substance, it is difficult to see any advance whatever in this muck-heap—which the present writer, having had to read it a second time for the present purpose, most heartily hopes to be able to leave henceforth undisturbed on his shelves…”
That last bit made me keel over in sympathetic laughter. Oh, Georgie, my man, I know exactly how you feel!
But it doesn’t stop there. In this same section Saintsbury draws comparisons between Richard Head and another Restoration writer:
“The reign of Charles II…is properly represented in fiction by two writers, to whom, by those who like to make discoveries, considerable importance has sometimes been assigned in the history of the English Novel. These are Richard Head and Afra Behn, otherwise ‘the divine Astræa.’ It is, however, something of an injustice to class them together: for Afra was a woman of very great ability, with a suspicion of genius, while Head was at the very best a bookmaker of not quite the lowest order, though pretty near it…”
“Not in this fashion must the illustrious Afra be spoken of… There is no doubt that The Royal Slave and even its companions are far above the dull, dirty, and never more than half alive stuff of The English Rogue. Oroonoko is a story, not a pamphlet or a mere ‘coney-catching’ jest. To say that it wants either contraction or expansion; less ‘talk about it’ and more actual conversation; a stronger projection of character and other things; is merely to say that it is an experiment in the infancy of the novel, not a following out of secrets already divulged. It certainly is the first prose story in English which can be ranked with things that already existed in foreign literatures…”
The book which contains this admiring but thoughtful positioning of Oroonoko appeared slightly earlier than Montague Summers’ editing and reissuing of Behn’s works, which is generally considered the beginning of her “official” rehabilitation…although it was about another seventy years before her place in the timeline was secure (and some people still want to give us an argument). The English Novel is available through Project Gutenberg, and I think I’ll have to put it on the reading list—particularly since it is clear that George Saintsbury isn’t one of those who thinks that the history of the novel began in England (and for the record, no, I don’t think that; I just came to the party late); still less does he think that the modern novel “began” with Richardson…or even with Defoe.
And as for myself— After that succinct yet comprehensive disposal of The English Rogue by My Man George, is there any real need to say any more? No, probably not—but of course I will anyway…