Critic on the couch

So few people are really acquainted with the whole range of Romance (even in English), or with any large part of it, that one may without undue presumption set down in part, if not in whole, to ignorance, a doctrine and position which we must now attack. This is that romance and novel are widely separated from each other; and that the historian of the novel is really straying out of his ground if he meddles with Romance. These are they who would make our subject proper begin with Marivaux and Richardson, or at earliest with Madame de La Fayette, who exclude Bunyan altogether, and sometimes go so far as to question the right of entry to Defoe. But the counter-arguments are numerous; and any one of them would amost suffice by itself. In the first place the idea of the novel arising so late is unnatural and unhistorical. In the second place a pedantic insistence on the exclusive definition of the novel involves one practical inconvenience which no one, even among those who believe in it, has yet dared to face. You must carry your wall of partition along the road as well as across it; and write separate histories of the Novel and the Romance.

I spent some considerable time pondering the best way to attack The English Novel by George Saintsbury for this blog – and must finally confess that the word “attack” may be more apt than I’m quite comfortable with. There is, to be fair, a great deal to enjoy in this 1913 study of that much-cherished subject, “the rise of the novel”, and at first I thought that I was going to get along with Professor Saintsbury almost as well as I did with James R. Foster. And why not?—after all, he refuses to separate “the novel” and “the romance”; he doesn’t think the novel started with Daniel Defoe; and he despises Richard Head.

But finally there was a point where Professor Saintsbury and I parted company—and I need to be very clear about the nature of that point, so as not to end up being guilty of doing exactly what I’m about to criticise Saintsbury for doing.

Fairly late in his text, Professor Saintsbury confesses to being a political conservative—in fact, he prefers to call himself a Tory. I may say that by the time of this admission, it was entirely unnecessary, since the bent of his beliefs had been quite evident for some time. Now—those of you who have been regular visitors to this blog would not, I imagine, need telling that my own tendencies (I prefer not to regard them as “political”) lie in the other direction. Nevertheless, I do try not to let ideological differences intrude upon my assessment of the works I examine here, although obviously I’m going to end up more in sympathy with some than with others.

My objection to the tenor of The English Novel is that George Saintsbury does let his ideology intrude upon his literary analysis—and he’s not shy about it, either. The clearest illustration of this comes, not surprisingly, when Saintsbury considers the radical novelists of the late 18th century, to whom, since he disapproves of them as radicals, he gives extremely short shrift as novelists—refusing to look past the politics to the writing.

And this becomes increasingly Saintsbury’s approach to his criticism as he moves through the literature of the 19th century and into the publications of his own lifetime, to an extent that is both exasperating and disappointing; disappointing in particular, since the early stages of this study, dealing with times in the safely distant past, are both informative and entertaining; while Saintsbury’s idiosyncratic writing style, with its bizarre mix of the chatty and the lofty, and its habit of slipping into the first person, is an entertainment unto itself.

Here are a couple of early quotes, just to give you a taste. That passage quoted up above, arguing the impossibility of dividing the romance and the novel, concludes as follows:

The present writer can only say that, although he has dared some tough adventures in literary history, he would altogether decline this. Without the help of the ants that succoured Psyche against Venus, that heap would indeed be ill to sort.

Still more typical is an early statement bringing the argument into more modern times (and, by the way, giving an example of Saintsbury’s tendency to literary jingoism):

The separation of romance and novel—of the story of incident and the story of character and motive—is a mistake logically and psychologically. It is a very old mistake, and it has deceived some of the elect: but a mistake it is. It made even Dr Johnson think Fielding shallower than Richardson; and it has made people very different from Dr Johnson think that Count Tolstoi is a greater analyst and master of a more developed humanity than Fielding. As a matter of fact, when you have excogitated two or more human beings out of your own head and have set them to work in the narrative (not the dramatic) way, you have made the novel in posse, if not in esse, from its apparently simplest development, such as Daphne And Chloe, to its apparently most complex, such as the Kreutzer Sonata or the triumphs of Mr Meredith. You have started the “Imitation”—the “fiction”—and tout est là.

Yet for all its ability to amuse – and to bewilder – it must be said that George Saintsbury’s writing style has a tendency to distract from and even to overwhelm his content, to the point where I finally came away from this study feeling that I had learned infinitely more about “George Saintsbury” than I had about “the English novel”.

At the outset, The English Novel seems like the rise-of-the-novel study to beat all rise-of-the-novel studies. Most of these works, as we have seen, open with a debate over where to draw their line in the sand—Richardson? Defoe? Behn? Not for George Saintsbury such timid stuff: his study plunges straight back into antiquity:

One of the best known, and one of the least intelligible, facts of literary history is the lateness, in Western European Literature at any rate, of prose fiction, and the comparative absence, in the two grwat classical languages, of what we call by that name. It might be an accident, though a rather improbable one, that we have no Greek prose fiction to a time long subsequent to the Christian era, and nothing in Latin at all except the fragments of Petronius and the romance of Apuleisus. But it can be no accident, and it is a very momentous fact, that, from the foundation of Greek criticism, “Imitation”, that is to say “Fiction” (for it is neither more nor less), was regarded as not merely the inseparable but the constituent property of poetry, even though those who held this were doubtful whether poetry must necessarily be in verse. It is another fact of the greatest importance that the ancients who, in other forms than deliberate prose fiction, try to “tell a story”, do not seem to know very well how to do it.

From here Saintsbury jumps from Apollonius Of Tye to The Vision Of St. Paul, and from there makes a series of leaps that take in Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval tales, the Arthurian legends and Malory’s choices, the rise of prose in Italy and Spain, and finally the Elizabethan romances of Philip Sidney and his ilk, and their 17th century descendents—eventually running up against the eternal question of where and when, exactly, “the novel” may be said to have begun. Saintsbury digresses here slightly in order to mention Henry Neville, and be nice to Aphra Behn and rude to Richard Head, then makes a strong case for John Bunyan’s place in the novel’s timeline, while classing him with Swift and Cervantes as an allegorist rather than a novelist per se. The most unexpected stroke here, however, is the introduction of a new player into the age-old debate, as he argues for the influence of the early 18th century periodicals, and the writing of Steele and Addison, over the subsequent development of English prose.

Saintsbury’s study of the novel proper starts with a consideration of Defoe (and he gets irritated with those who pass him over in the timeline and start with Richardson in exactly the same way that I get irritated with those who start with Defoe and pass over Aphra Behn [and, ahem, Francis Kirkman]). He concedes the ongoing difficulty of deciding how much of Defoe’s fiction actually is “fiction”; finally concluding that it doesn’t matter—and in my opinion, making a stronger case for Defoe than many of those who have written entire books on the subject:

But, apart from all these things, there abides the fact that you can read the books—read them again and again—enjoy them most keenly at first and hardly less keenly afterwards, however often you repeat the reading.

It is this re-readability that inclines Saintsbury to position Defoe as, sigh, “the father of the novel”; arguing that the art of the novel lies very much in its capacity to yield repeated pleasure, in spite of the reader’s familiarity with the text; that is, its ability to entertain in more than one way.

From here The English Novel plays out in a conventional manner, if not always a conventional style—though we must of course acknowledge that what we recognise here as “conventional” is a measure of how far Saintsbury’s approach was later copied. He was certainly the model for those critics who later chose to select a “Big Four” amongst the English novelists – in tandem with paying scant heed to those who didn’t make the cut; an approach to literary criticism that would dominate the field until late in the 20th century. For the rest, Saintsbury starts with The Usual Suspects – Fielding, Richardson, Smollet, Sterne – and also divvies them up in the usual way, tagging Fielding and Smollet as “masculine” and Richardson and Sterne as “feminine”, or at least “feminised”, and offering the latter two as the models for the later hordes of “scribbling women”. A note that will recur through much of the rest of this book begins to emerge here, which is something I shall return to shortly.

I’ve said before that my interest these days in the history of the novel lies in its black holes – the writers before Defoe, and those that lie between Defoe and Richardson, and between Sterne and Austen. Not surprisingly, then, I began to part company with George Saintsbury at this point in his study, as he gives a quick overview of quite a number of writers of the second half of the 18th century, but very much in the spirit of, I’m telling you this so you don’t have to bother with them. It is in this stretch that the radicals get their comprehensive dismissal, with Saintsbury obviously feeling than he has said all that needs to be said to turn us away from the works of Robert Bage and Thomas Holcroft when he tells us that they were not gentlemen. (So they weren’t; but on the other hand, they weren’t snobs, either.)

It soon becomes evident that Saintsbury’s eagerness to get out of the 18th century lies in the fact that two of the writers he considers the all-time greatest belong to the early 19th. We are probably not surprised to find Jane Austen on Saintsbury’s personal “Big Four” list, nor do I have the least inclination to argue with his analysis of her myriad perfections as a novelist:

It is the absolute triumph of that reliance on the strictly ordinary which has been indicated as Miss Austen’s title to pre-eminence in the history of the novel. Not an event, not a circumstance, not a detail, is carried out of “the daily round, the common task” of average English middle-class humanity, upper and lower. Yet every event, every circumstance, every detail, is put sub specie eternitatis by the sorcery of art. Few things could be more terrible—nothing more tiresome—than to hear the garrulous Miss Bates talk in actual life; few things are more delightful than to read her speeches as they occur here. An aspiring soul might feel disposed to “take and drown itself in a pail” (as one of Dickens’s characters says) if it had to live the life which the inhabitants of Highbury are represented as living; to read about that life—to read about it over and over—has been and is always likely to be one of the chosen delights of some of the best wits of our race. This is one of the paradoxes or art: and perhaps it is the most wonderful of them…

But the problem with this positioning of Jane is that it sets the tone for the next sixty or seventy years of English literary criticism—during which time the majority of critics seem to have concluded that, having said nice things about Austen, there was no need for them, and certainly no obligation upon them, to admire or even acknowledge any other female writer.

And indeed, Saintsbury himself finds precious little of merit in the works of Austen’s literary sisters either before her or after her – not even in those whom she admitted as an influence. He is extremely and, in my opinion, unjustly harsh about Frances Burney, who is dismissed as a mere mimic rather than a novelist, and not a very good one. He manages some tepid praise for Maria Edgeworth and Mary Brunton, while dwelling on their faults, and is kind to Ann Radcliffe (while misspelling her name) because she was obviously “a lady”. More typical of this section are his comments on popular novelists like Regina Maria Roche, second in success only to Radcliffe herself as a Gothic novelist, whose novels, “Should probably be read …in late childhood or early youth. Even then an intelligent boy or girl would perceive some of their absurdity…” Likewise, of Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), we hear that, “Nothing she wrote can really be ranked as literature, save on the most indiscriminate and uncritical estimate“, while the works of Harriet and Sophia Lee, “Are not exactly bad; but also as far from possible from consummateness.” Furthermore, while explaining to us exactly what was wrong with novel-writing during the second half of the 18th century, he repeatedly illustrates his argument with reference to female writers, finally bookending this unsatisfactory era as running from, “The Female Quixote to Discipline” – or to put it another way, from Charlotte Lennox to Mary Brunton. Admittedly, Saintsbury does find plenty to criticise in most of the male writers of this era, too, but he doesn’t dwell in the same way, and generally the note of contempt is missing.

(I suppose I should be grateful that Saintsbury seems never to have come across Catherine Cuthbertson.)

But it is when Saintsbury begins to deal with women writers post-Austen that he really makes us open our eyes. First of all, he dismisses the Brontes collectively as just too weird; he struggles with Elizabeth Gaskell, and clearly thinks she should have stuck to domestic themes rather than venturing into social reform (although he doesn’t much care for her work even when she does); and then, in what from a modern perspective is probably this study’s most startling moment, he reveals an entire lack of enthusiasm for George Eliot—who he criticises roundly for, of all things, taking novel-writing too seriously. Indeed, Saintsbury passes over Eliot so swiftly that he offers little chance to come to grips with any specific objections to her writing – and finally we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that his personal conservatism may again have been intruding upon his literary judgement. For one thing, Saintsbury insists on using inverted commas all the way through this brief section – “George Eliot” – and at one point he refers to her as Mrs Cross, which is just spiteful. My impression here is that while Saintsbury may have been able to treat the misbehaviour of, say, Aphra Behn with indulgence, as being a safe two hundred and fifty years in the past, he was unable to overlook the transgressions of Mary Ann Evans, which must have been ongoing in his lifetime.

Anyway—you can probably appreciate that by this point in The English Novel, I was starting to feel a slow burn creeping up the back of my neck. This is not to say I ever lost interest in it, though, since its very iconclasm keeps you hanging on—and shows itself again in Saintsbury’s revelation of Fielding and Austen’s companions in his Big Four: Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray, neither of whom have figured very prominently in any of these “ranking” contests since Saintsbury put pen to paper. Of Scott, indeed, Saintsbury is almost unstinting in his praise, and he has very little time for those who find fault with him:

    Not here, unfortunately, can we allow ourselves even a space proportionate to that given above in Miss Austen’s case to the criticism of the individual novels… The brilliant overture of Waverley as such, with its entirely novel combination of the historical and the “national” elements upon the still more novel background of Highland scenery; the equally vivid and vigorous narrative and more interesting personages of Old Mortality and Rob Roy; the domestic tragedy, with the historical element for little more than a framework, of The Heart Of Midlothian and The  Bride Of Lammermoor; the little Masterpiece of A Legend Of Montrose; the fresh departure, with purely English subject, of Ivanhoe and its triumphant sequels in Kenilworth, Quentin Durward, and others; the striking utilisation of literary assistance in The Fortunes Of Nigel; and the wonderful blending of autobiographic, historical, and romantic interest in Redgauntlet
    That he knew what he was doing and what he had to do is thus certain; that he did it to an astounding extent is still more certain; but it would not skill much to deny that he did not always give himself time to do it perfectly in every respect, though it is perhaps not mere paradox or mere partisanship to suggest that if he had given himself more time, he would hardly have done better, and might have done worse. The accusation of superficiality has already been glanced at: and it is pretty certain that it argues superficiality, of a much more hopeless kind, in those who make it…

Between Scott and Thackeray, Saintsbury spends a little time with the likes of Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, before offering up a peculiar analysis of Charles Dickens, in which he seems unable to make up his mind whether he considers Dickens a genius or a mountebank. (Both, would be the short answer.) The overriding sense here, however, is that it is not Dickens himself who is the problem, but rather that Saintsbury grew up having Dickens’ genius dinned into his ears until he was sick and tired of it. But there may have been another factor in his dislike:

The remarkable originality and idiosyncrasy of Dickens have perhaps, to some extent and from not a few persons, concealed the fact that he was not, any more than other people, an earth-born wonder… There is probably no author of whom really critical estimates are so rare. He has given so much pleasure to so many people…that to mention any faults in him is upbraided as a sort of personal and detestable ingratitude and treachery. If you say he cannot draw a gentleman, you are told you are a parrot and a snob, who repeats what other snobs have told you; that gentlemen are not worth drawing; that he can draw them; and so forth… If you intimate small affection for Little Nell and Little Paul, you are a brute; if you hint that his social crusades were quite often irrational, and sometimes at least as michievous as they were beneficial, you are a parasite of aristocracy and a foe of “the people”…

We have, of course, learned enough of George Saintsbury by this time to suspect that his views on “gentlemen” and “the people” may indeed have coloured his opinion of Dickens; although that said, I confess I’m in sympathy with his stance on “Little Paul and Little Nell”…

However, Saintsbury’s consideration of the “unrealistic” Dickens is merely his way of paving the way for his section on Thackeray, who he considers the true heir of Fielding, a novelist in whose works:

…the problem of “reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality” is faced and grasped and solved—with, of course, the addition to the “nothing but” of “except art”… [It is] the scheme of the realist novel in the best sense of the term—the novel rebuilt and refashioned on the lines of Fielding, but with modern manners, relying on the variety of life, and relying on these only. There is thus something of similarity (though with attendant differences, of the most important kind) between the joint position of Dickens and Thackeray… Both wrote historical novels: it is indeed Thackeray’s unique distinction that he was equally master of the historical novel and of the novel of pure modern society… Thackeray takes sixteen years of experimentation before he trusts his genius, boldly and on the great scale, to reveal itself in its own way, and in the straight way of the novel.

In the last section of his study, Saintsbury focuses on the mid- and late-Victorian novel. It is here that George Eliot – sorry, “George Eliot” – receives her congé, although on the whole Saintsbury is more indulgent with the writers of this period, perhaps because he is dealing with the books that were so important in his own formative years. Anthony Trollope is kindly treated (though generally viewed as a Thackeray wannabe), and Elizabeth Missing Sewell and Charlotte Yonge are actually the recipients of a few kind words, although chiefly the latter (probably because her conservatism makes Saintsbury look like a radical). 

A plethora of minor novelists then flit past our consciousness before  Saintsbury steps back to consider the changing world of writing and publishing in the late 19th century, and indeed the changing face of literary criticism, prior to wrapping things up with a look at the two most determinedly original novelists of the time—George Meredith and Thomas Hardy:

The chorus of praise, ever since it made itself heard, has not been quite quite unchequered. It has been objected both to Mr Meredith and Mr Hardy that there is in them a note, perhaps to be detected also generally in the later fiction which they have so powerfully influenced—the note of a certain perversity—of an endeavour to be peculiar in thought, in style, in choice of subject, in handling of it; in short in general attitude… There is truth in this, but it damages neither Mr Meredith nor Mr Hardy on the whole; though it may supply a not altogether wholesome temptation to some readers to admire them for the wrong things…

Translation: they both wrote about sex.

George Meredith, whom Saintsbury obviously admired greatly in spite of, or because of, his “peculiarities”, died while this book was being prepared for publication; and here Saintsbury segues into an odd sort of obituary in which praise and exasperation struggle for supremacy.

(Since our mutual opinion of George Meredith is one of those rare points at which Saintsbury and I are in agreement, I’d like to be able to say that this is a typical reaction to Meredith, but the truth is that these days, exasperation tends to reign unchallenged. I regret it, but I’m hardly surprised.)

Saintsbury is unwontedly gentle during this stretch of his writing. However, he recovers his spirits at the end, when he reflects on what he views as the inverse relationship between novel quality and novel sales:

Yet whatever faults there might be in the supply there could be no doubt about the demand when it was once started. It was indeed almost entirely independent of the goodness or badness of the average supply itself. Allowing for the smaller population and the much smaller proportion of the population who were likely to—or indeed could—read, and for the inferior means of distribution, it may be doubted whether the largest sales of novels recorded in the last century have surpassed those of the most trumpery trash of the “Minerva Press” period—the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth century. For the main novel-public is quite omnivorous, and absolutely uncritical of what it devours. The admirable though certainly fortunate Scot who “could never remember drinking bad whisky” might be echoed, if they had the wit, by not a few persons who never seem to read a bad novel, or at least to be aware that they are reading one.

There’s more—but the tone of that is so entirely representative, I think we’ll leave things here.


6 Responses to “Critic on the couch”

  1. The comments on Roche might make some sense; I’d certainly argue that a writer like H. P. Lovecraft (of whom I’ve read rather more) is best encountered first at the age of twelve or so, so that one can pick up a love of his work that can carry one over a later appreciation of stylistic infelicities and allow him to take his place as one of the best horror writers of the twentieth century.

    One of my particular maggots – I’ve probably mentioned it here before – is the rise of explicitly new fiction, by which I mean that an author openly admits that he made up a story rather than claiming it’s from an “old French boke” or other source of antiquity (or, like The Floating Island, making it openly satirical). A story made up anew purely for recreation is, I think, considered a very edgy concept – it’s lying, after all – and this transition is what got me started on the amatory fiction of the late 1600s and early 1700s. And that’s why I get so annoyed at suggestions that the novel starts just after this time…

    I think the modern ebook market is another example of the omnivorous reading public – if lots of people are satisfied with yet another story about sexy vampires written by a new author who’s being paid practially nothing, fewer of them will pay for a story written by someone competent who needs to be paid more. Gresham’s Law of Fiction?

  2. Traditional publishers will need to transition away from supplying endless low-grade crap stories that indiscriminate readers want, because in The Future stuff like that will be as abundant as porn.

    I was listening to an old Escape Pod the other day, and it was an action-adventure story about steampunk cowgirls fighting an alien invasion with homemade superweapons. And I’m wondering why this is in a professional market, when this ought to just be on somebody’s home page for free.

  3. I think we need to discriminate between the people who really can’t tell low-grade crap when they read it, and those who deliberately choose sparkly vampires, or soppy romances, or smut, or steampunk cowgirls, or “trumpery trash from the Minerva Press” as their preferred comfort reading.

    I’m so far out of the current publishing market that I don’t really have opinions on any of this, but you’re making it sound as if we’ve gone full circle back to the 1680s, when bookseller / publishers kept professional writers on tiny retainers that were barely sufficient to feed them.

    And then, too, it’s a question of how far you’re willing to take the “at least they’re reading something” line of argument. It is interesting, and rather sad, to think that one of the perceived problems with “the rise of the novel” is that people read too much. We seem to be back to the 1680s in terms of readership, too, except then people had the excuse of being actually, rather than just habitually, illiterate.

    Re: Regina Maria Roche, I think Saintsbury is suggesting that as an adult, her “infelicities” are all you would see. I’ll actually be reading her Clermont soon, one of the Northanger “horrid novels”, so I guess I’ll find out for myself.

    To suggest that the novel began anywhere near the 18th century is absurd: the fiction / fact divide had clearly been passed before this blog’s cut-off date. We’ve already looked at quite a lot of out-and-out, undisguised, unapologetic fiction – from Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, which is set in an absolutely recognisable modern reality but never claims to be real, to something like Cynthia, with its “once upon a time” and fantasy elements.

    At this point, and even earlier, it was not so much that people had a problem grasping the concept of “fiction”, as such, but they struggled with fiction that looked like non-fiction – fake travelogues, in particular, but also the criminal biographies. But no-one believed that any of the picaresques were true, despite the frequent first-person narratives claiming to tell a whole life.

    It was after the rigidness of the Age of Reason, when “imagination” was seriously disapproved, that “based on a true story” really came back into vogue as a serious ploy. Incredible to think that people actually believed that The Castle Of Otranto was translated from an old manuscript – and then got mad when Walpole ‘fessed up.

  4. at the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century, parents were complaining about their kids (usually boys) reading trash – books like Horatio Alger’s books, books about the wild west, or books about the bootblacks and newsboys. Louisa May Alcot has a parent complain about it in “Eight Cousins”. The complaints were almost identical to the complaints toward the end of the 20th century about video games (why can’t they read a book instead?) The moral I take from it is, kids will always find something to waste their time on that parents will complain about.

  5. sorry, it’s Alcott. but you probably knew who I meant.


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