Last year I obtained a copy of James R. Foster’s 1949 work, History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England (a library discard – shame on you, Ohio University!); and, while I did go through it, it would be too much to say that I read it: the book is a dizzying compendium of forgotten novelists and obscure novels, and what time I gave to it was spent transferring information from the printed page to The Wishlist.
This time around, however, I sat down to take it all in properly, and was immediately overcome by a case of the warm fuzzies. While there are few things so difficult as working through a non-fiction book whose viewpoint is at severe odds with your own, when the reverse is true – when you stumble over an unexpected kindred spirit – it’s like being given a hug.
So you can imagine how I felt when in his preface, James R. Foster stated his position thus:
In general the attitude toward the bulk of pre-romantic novels has been rather depreciatory. Admittedly, they cannot compete with the wit and verve of the realistic novel, yet in their day they entertained and even charmed their readers. Besides, they helped shape the novelistic genre in its formative years. They preached the religion of the tender heart, stirred the emotions and the imaginations, and planted in many a breast the desire for higher ideals, tolerance, and benevolence.
The scholar, who must admit the importance of minor works, cannot afford to ignore these pre-romantic novels, even though few of their authors were geniuses. Nor can he, like those Victorian critics who strongly disapproved of certain trends of the “Godless” eighteenth century, refuse to free himself from his own fashion of thinking and feeling and so measure by arbitrary standards. Without a sympathetic understanding of what the eighteenth-century novelists were trying to say, the critic cannot judge whether what they said was said well or not.
The only slightly worrying thing I’ve encountered in this book so far is a rather antagonistic reference to the early 20th century critic George Saintsbury, who, as you might remember, caught my attention a while back by simultaneously saying nice things about Aphra Behn and extremely rude things about Richard Head; and whose 1913 work, The English Novel, is next cab off my reading rank. Foster essentially accuses Saintsbury of elitism, which may mean (in spite of his apparent credentials) that he’s not a critic after my own heart after all. Not that I’m not an elitist, I just tend to be one in the opposite direction.
Anyway – as I always seem to end up saying at the end of these short pieces – we’ll see.