To a greater extent than any other literary form, the novel is consistently and directly engaged with the society in which the writer lives and feels compelled to explain, extol, or criticize. The English novel, from its disparate origins to its development in the eighteenth century, from its rise in the nineteenth century to its present state, has been strongly influenced by the social, political, economic, scientific, and cultural histories of England. In fact, English writers dominated the novel genre in its earliest stages of development and continued to do so through much of its history. As a realistic form, the novel not only reflects but also helps define and focus society’s sense of itself, and as the novel reflects the growth of England first into a United Kingdom, then into an empire, and its decline to its present role in the Commonwealth of Nations, it does so predominantly through the eyes of the middle class.
Indeed, the origins and development of the English novel are most profitably examined in relation to the increasing growth and eventual dominance of the middle class in the course of several hundred years. Typically concerned with middle-class characters in a world largely of their making, the novel sometimes features excursions into the upper reaches of English society; with more frequency, it presents incursions by members of the upper class into the familiar world of the solid middle class. As a form of realistic literature intended primarily for the middle class, often for their instruction and edification (or excoriation), the novel frequently depicts the worlds of the lower orders of society—not only the exotic cultures subjugated by Imperial Britain but also the familiarly strange domestic worlds of the “criminal classes,” a subculture with its own hierarchies, vocabulary, customs, and occupations.
As distinguished from allegory and romance, the English novel has for its primary focus the individual situated in society and his or her emotions, thoughts, actions, choices, and relationships to others in complex and often bewildering environments. Set against backgrounds that realistically reflect all facets of the English experience, the “histories” or “lives” of the novels’ protagonists must hold a necessary interest for readers who, in turn, seek to make sense of, master, cope with, escape from, or become fully assimilated into the society in which they, like their heroes and heroines, find themselves. While any attempt to trace with great particularity the multiple relationships between the history of the English novel and the larger patterns of English society remains necessarily imperfect, the general outlines of those relationships can be sketched.
Origins of the English Novel
Although long-standing debates about the origin of the English novel and the first English novel continue, it is both convenient and just to state that it is with the fiction of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) that the first novel appeared, especially in the sense that term came to have in the late eighteenth century and continues to have today. Without considerable injustice it may be said that the novel first developed out of a series of false starts in the seventeenth century and a series of accidents in the eighteenth. The reading public, having been exposed to large amounts of novelistic material, fictions of various lengths, epics, and prose romances, appears to have been ready to receive a form that went beyond Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), and the prose works of earlier masters such as Sir Thomas Malory, John Mandeville, Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Nashe. Such a form would emphasize unified action of some plausibility, individualized and articulate characters, and stories presented with such verisimilitude that the readers could find in them highly wrought illusions of the realities they knew best.
The literary children of the eighteenth century, the novel and its sibling the short story, created a taste for fiction of all varieties in a middle-class readership whose ranks were swollen by a newly literate mercantile class. This readership appears to have wanted and certainly received a literary medium of their own, filled with practically minded characters who spoke the same middle class English language and prized the same middle-class English goals (financial and familial success) as they themselves did. In general, the novel helped make the position of the individual in new, expanding, and increasingly urban social contexts more intelligible; frequently addressed directly to the “dear reader,” the novel presented unified visions of individuals in society, reflected the cultural and social conditions of that society, and supported the presumed rationalist psychology endemic to the age, which was fostered by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke.
The novel was influenced by historic events and societal developments, especially tidal changes that involved the class structure of English society. The merchant class had existed for centuries and had steadily grown in the Age of Discovery and during colonization in the seventeenth century. In that century, a number of events conspired to begin the disestablishment of the feudal, medieval world, a disestablishment that would become final in the early nineteenth century. The beginning of the English Civil War (1642) marked the most noteworthy outbreak of religious and class strife England had yet seen. The subsequent regicide of Charles I in 1649 and the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords by the House of Commons in that year signaled the formation of the Puritan Commonwealth (1649- 1660) and the first rise to political dominance of the middle class, a much-contested context. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament invited William of Orange and his wife, Mary, the Protestant daughter of the Catholic James II, to rule England. James II (the “Old Pretender”) fled to France with his son Charles (the “Young Pretender” or Bonnie Prince Charlie), established himself in exile, and began plotting a return to power that would eventuate in the Scottish rebellions of 1715, 1719, and 1745-1746 on behalf of the Stuart monarchy. The Glorious Revolution may, in part, be seen as establishing the principle that the English middle class, through Parliament, could choose their own ruler; it may also be seen as another phase in the growth of power of that middle class.
A war with France (1689-1697) saw the beginning of the national debt, but the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (especially during the reign of Queen Anne, 1702-1714) were marked by material progress, increased mercantilism, drastically increased population, and a rapid and irreversible shift of population from the country to the city. Apart from two major trade monopolies (the Hudson Bay Company in Canada and the East India Company in the Indian subcontinent), trade was open to all after 1689. Free enterprise flourished and with it the middle class, as early eighteenth century England became a mercantile society teetering on the brink of the Industrial Revolution and the concurrent scientific revolution that abetted it. While the governance of England still rested with a relatively small number of families, the hereditary landowners of England had to share power with the new merchant princes of the era.
From this milieu of class conflict emerged the earliest English novels. Rooted both in the picaresque tradition stemming from the anonymous Spanish Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; English translation, 1576) and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) and in the pseudohistorical tradition, Daniel Defoe’s novels present their fictions as fact, as the “histories” or “lives” of characters such as Robinson Crusoe, Colonel Newport, and Moll Flanders. Defoe’s novels are distinguished by a realism that employs minute and concerted observations, as well as a morality that—despite lapses, an occasional blind eye to folly, and some ambiguous presentations of vice—fits well with the morality of the middle class, especially when erstwhile sinners repent and exemplify the Protestant virtues of seriousness, usefulness, social responsibility, and thrift. Like their many literary descendants, Defoe’s characters evince a cheerful triumph of person over place and situation, an eventual mastery of the world and its too-familiar snares in the common and the uncommon adventures that form their educative encounters with the world and with themselves.
Even more obviously in line with middle-class Puritan ethics is the work of Samuel Richardson (1689- 1761), whose epistolary novels of personality, sensibility, and moral conflict present the first multidimensional characters in English prose fiction. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) began by accident what Walter Allen calls the “first great flowering of the English novel.” Commissioned to compose and print Familiar Letters as models of correspondence, moral guides, and repositories of advice to “handsome girls,” Richardson expanded the project until it became Pamela. The particular virtue rewarded is chastity, in the face of assaults from a member of the Squirearchy, Mr. B., who is, ironically, a justice of the peace. One important artistic concern in the novel is the power of the written word to effect the conversion of wayward characters. One could take the view that Pamela’s epistles reinforce traditionally Christian, or social, or merely prudential morality and that they also represent the generally desirable triumph of a member of the lower-middle class over representatives of the upper-middle class and the titled upper class. Virtue is, Richardson suggests, its own reward; it is all the better if it brings other rewards prized by the middle class. The novel’s themes of moral courage and virtue reaffirmed bourgeois values and thus helped create an avid reading public.
Following Defoe, whose fiction offered a journalistic facticity, and Richardson, who wrote transparent moral sermons, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was the first to write avowed novels and depict ordinary English life and the panorama of his age. Like Richardson, Fielding’s beginning as a novelist was fortuitous. Sir Robert Walpole served George I and George II as prime minister from 1721 to 1742, and for much of that time he was the object of satire at the hands of several playwrights, Fielding among them. With Walpole’s successful introduction of the Licensing Act of 1737, Fielding’s career as a dramatist ended, and he turned his ironic and satiric vision to the new prose form, the novel, perfecting that form, many argue, in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). Before that accomplishment, however, Fielding began his prose efforts by writing a broad satire of Richardson’s title character, Pamela Andrews, which he titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). He followed this success with The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742), concerning Pamela’s imagined brother, but took the story in new directions at midnovel. His Amelia (1751) is the first novel of social reform and thus was a point of reference for Charles Dickens and the many contributors to the “Newgate novel” in the nineteenth century. In Amelia, Fielding clearly exposes social wrongs and provides possible remedies for them. His portrayal of gambling dens, prison life, and the omnipresent Hogarthian gin mills foreshadows the excessive realism (or naturalism) of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola in France and George Moore in late Victorian England.
Two other great eighteenth century novelists, Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) and Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), added various dimensions of eighteenth century English life to the novel’s inventory. In The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), Smollett brought to the novel the first extended account of one fundament of English trade, prosperity, and adventure: seafaring life. Like Fielding and Defoe, he used English military history as background material for some of the finest English picaresque novels. Sterne, in Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), departed from the norm that his contemporaries had established, introducing a stream-of-consciousness technique to refract society through the prism of an individual mind, a technique that would not be further developed until the early twentieth century in the novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
The Gothic Novel
By the end of the eighteenth century, both the novel of sentiment and the gothic novel had appeared in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith (1728 or 1730-1774) and The Castle of Otranto (1765) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). While Goldsmith’s work and others like it continue in prose the situations and characteristics of the highly popular sentimental domestic drama of middle-class life, Walpole’s novel exists outside of the conventions of eighteenth century thought and fiction. His is the only novel of those already mentioned that does not take as its premise the world as it exists, society in the country or city, and the generally agreed upon concept of the possible as coextensive with the real. Premised, then, on questions of epistemology and radical uncertainty, one can ascribe to The Castle of Otranto the beginnings of gothic traditions in the novel.
An emphasis on shared, common experience and consensus unified society and its conception of itself intellectually, philosophically, and psychologically. This society, in many respects the first truly modern society, emerged near the end of the seventeenth century into the era of Enlightenment and took for its tenets common sense, secular reason, science, and gentility. One fundamental emphasis of this era was upon the necessity to treat life and its problems in the spirit of reason and scientific empiricism rather than in the traditional spirit of appeal to authority and dogma. In this era, the landed gentry and not a few of the merchant princes regarded themselves as “Augustans” and sought to imitate the values and beliefs of the Roman patricians of the age of Augustus. In so doing, they set the intellectual tone of their times by asserting rationalism (and skepticism) as the primary focus of thought and by insisting on symmetry in all phases of life as well as of art, artificial ornament and the preference of artifice to “nature,” reserved dignity in preference to any form of enthusiasm, and expansive, urbane sophistication instead of narrow, superstitious thought. It comes, then, as an extraordinary incongruity to find not only Walpole’s work but also other novels of horror written, avidly read, and widely praised in this neoclassical Age of Reason.
Nevertheless, Walpole’s gothic story was immensely successful, quite probably so in reaction to the restraint of the age, the dominion exercised by the Protestant ethic, and the evangelicalism of the century born in the advent of Wesleyanism and Methodism. In his conscious outlandishness, Walpole set a new course for fiction. His horrific pseudomedieval tale was followed by the gothic novels of Clara Reeve (1729-1807), Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)—especially The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)—and Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775- 1818), and by numerous novels of the Romantic period. The success of this kind of imaginative, experimental writing is most probably what allowed for later development of novels based on fantasy, including science fantasy and science fiction. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) continued the gothic strain in the nineteenth century and became the preeminent novel of experimental science.
The Late Eighteenth Century
The last quarter of the eighteenth century, a period that saw the beginnings of Romanticism, featured the remarkable first ministry of William Pitt, the Younger (1759-1806), a ministry that laid the foundation for much of the reform movement in the nineteenth century. The intellectual tenets of the Augustan Age, already called into question by the gothic novelists and several poets of the age, were about to suffer a sea change in the triumph of individualism that characterized Romanticism. Economically, however, England maintained rather than altered its newfound tradition of progress, legitimatized by the writings of David Ricardo and Adam Smith. The advances of industry and capitalism begun early in the Augustan Age continued and ensured an economic boom that, with few setbacks, was to characterize the nineteenth century and fuel the expansion of the empire. Culturally, the pre-Romantic period was marked by an extraordinary growth in literacy, helped in great part by the growth of charity schools, the drive to regularize and teach English (if only for commercial purposes), the increasing new opportunities for the education of women, and the establishment and development of circulating libraries.
Two writers of this transitional period—the era, roughly speaking, between the outbreak of unrest in the American colonies in the early 1770’s and the accession of Queen Victoria (1837)—stand apart from the mainstream of the rapidly changing world in which they lived. One, Jane Austen (1775-1817), epitomized an age that had already passed; the other, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), eschewed his own world except to the extent that he could translate some of its characteristics to other times. Austen’s works, unpublished until the second decade of the nineteenth century, are the last novels of the Enlightenment. Unlike those of the other great eighteenth century novels, the characters presented by “the great feminine Augustan” are drawn almost exclusively from the landed gentry. In her novels she presents minute descriptions of the members of that class, their characters, beliefs, aspirations, and hopes in a period marked by a strong desire for stability on the part of the gentry despite the fact that they were surrounded by the armies of change. A supremely accomplished novelist, Jane Austen set the pattern for all subsequent novels of manners and family. Her characters interest themselves in issues of importance only to themselves—social position, socially and financially advantageous marriages, and the orderly passage of property from one generation to the next. The portraits that emerge are absolutely dissimilar to those of Fielding and his fellows and are essentially those of the placid, insulated upper class; as such, they present not only highly wrought pictures of the gen try but also invaluable insights into a social stratum that utterly vanished in the twentieth century.
Scott’s Romantic novels, unlike Austen’s works, deal with the world as it might have been rather than as it then was. His novels transplant nineteenth century heroes of sense, sensibility, and virtue to remote places or historically distant times. Moreover, his pioneer work in shaping the historical consciousness and national identity of Scotland while recounting its seventeenth century and eighteenth century history, and his novels of medieval and Renaissance Britain won him a place as a universally respected novelist of his century.
Both Austen and Scott are anomalies. Austen clearly summarizes the Augustan Age and its concerns, and Scott is surely the spokesman of a movement that grew in the last decades of the eighteenth century and took hold as the dominant intellectual mode of subsequent centuries, Romanticism. Though his novels rarely treat the world in which he lived, Scott’s perceptions were conditioned by the growing intellectual and emotional tenets of Romanticism. Although he sought to explore the political and social conditions of earlier times in English and Scottish history, he consistently chose not to recognize the inescapable facts of the Industrial Revolution, the expensive (both in money and in lives) wars England waged in his own time, and the bloodless social revolution that saw the gentry finally replaced by the middle class as the political and economic rulers of England. The largest element of Scott’s Romanticism is a studied medievalism that may be viewed as an escapist alternative (of considerable psychological necessity) to the pervasive and turbulent revolutions in every sector of society and as a reassertion of fundamental and traditional values. One benefit Scott gained by focusing upon Romantic medievalism as his chief fictional concern is that he thereby escaped the social censure and ostracism other Romantics experienced. Not only did he achieve personal respectability as a poet-turned-novelist, but he also created such a large and insatiable reading public for his and others’ novels that the novel became the most popular form of literature.
The Victorian Novel
The Victorian novelists—Charles Dickens was arguably the greatest of them—mark a new era in the novel, an era in which the primary middle-class emphasis on its own place in society and the reformation of society in its own image came to the fore. Society itself expanded in the Victorian Age to include not only England and the United Kingdom but also an empire upon which, proverbially, the sun never set. In consequence, novelists, in their characters, backgrounds, and plots, often surveyed an empire that extended geographically to all continents, covering fully one-tenth of the earth’s surface, and financially to the entire populated world. Trade and tradesmen literally moved the empire, opened Australia and Canada to colonization, brought India into the fold (first via the East India Company and then, in 1857, under the Crown), and brought about the foundation of the corporate world with the Companies’ Act of 1862.
The reform movement, in part attributable to the Romantic rebellion and in larger part to the middle-class redefinition of societal ideals, came to partial fruition in the 1820’s and flourished in the 1830’s and in subsequent decades. The hated and inflationary measure of 1815 prohibiting grain imports, the Corn Law, was modified in 1828; the Combination Acts of the era illustrate the pronounced middle-class opposition to trade unionism; the repeal of the Test Act (1828) and the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Bill (1829) brought about a liberalization of attitudes toward Roman Catholics and extended political franchise to a large number of men; the Third Reform Bill (1832) abolished slavery in the empire; the Factory Act (1833) regulated working hours and required two hours of schooling daily for children under the age of thirteen; and the New Poor Law (1834) represented another phase of regularizing governmental services and social programs. These reforms typify, without nearly exhausting, the great social legislation of this era. Reform was the byword of the early decades of the nineteenth century and the hallmark of the entire Victorian era as English society evolved. Subsequent reforms in suffrage, for example, seem to have moved at a glacial pace and only included women in 1928, but each new enfranchisement under the ministerial guidance of Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone added appreciably to the power of the middle class. It was quite natural, then, for the English novel to add social reform to its repertoire of themes.
Conditions for novelists also improved in nineteenth century England. As the eighteenth century marked the end of patronage as the primary support of artists and writers, so the explosion of periodicals, the multiplication of newspapers, the growth of publishing firms, and the extension of consumerism to literary works in the nineteenth century made it possible for more writers to try to live by and from the pen. “Grub Street” had meant, since the mid-eighteenth century, hard times for writers such as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, and in the eighteenth century the supply of writers far exceeded the demand. This, too, was the case in the nineteenth century, but less severely so, and it would remain the case despite the paperback, magazine, and other media revolutions of the twentieth century. It has often been suggested that Dickens,William Makepeace Thackeray, and most popular novelists of the century whose novels were first serialized in journals and magazines wrote at such length because they were paid by the line of print; while padding is one possible consequence of such a method of publication and payment, the leisurely pace of the novel, its descriptiveness and its length, date from the eighteenth century and grew without regard to such payment schedules. Serial publication no doubt influenced how authors arranged their plot developments. Authors provided rising action toward the end of each installment rather than solely toward the end of the entire novel. These suspenseful moments became known as “cliffhangers” for their ability to tease readers into purchasing the next issue.
The Victorian novel as exemplified in the works of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) not only describes life but competes with it as well. Here one finds a verisimilitude so persuasive that the swarming complexities of Victorian life seem fixed in the novels. While carrying on the traditional celebration of middle-class values, Dickens also tried to make sense of the complex variety of choices open to his readers, of the fabric of society (by explaining, exposing, and mythologizing the middle class), of the ills of his society (by exposing them and calling for their reform), and of the patent injustices of capitalist society (by emphasizing their consequences, the plight of the victims of injustice, and the dehumanization of its perpetrators). To all of these concerns Dickens added a sense of comedy that suffused his early and some of his middle work but that changed to ferocity in his last complete novel, arguably his best after Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book), Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865, serial; 1865, book).
Like Scott and many of his own contemporaries, Dickens is not above providing in his fiction a psychological escape from the mechanized world of his readers, as in Pickwick Papers (1836-1837, serial; 1837, book), a genteel picaresque work set in the period before the Age of Steam. Little else but artificially contrived escape exists for the reader and the protagonist of Oliver Twist (1837-1839, serial; 1838, book), an intense (and in its initial chapters unrelieved) examination of the workhouse system, one of the more depressing phenomena of the reform movement. Similarly, his descriptions of the criminal classes (so severely criticized, especially in regard to his depiction of prostitutes and child criminals, that he felt compelled to document his observations in the preface to the novel’s second edition) illustrate the predatory relationship of this class to all other classes and form an indictment of the society that spawned and neglected them, an indictment that Dickens reiterated in Bleak House and elsewhere. Dickens the social reformer achieves some of his most enduring effects by indulging in the sentimentalism inherent in the sort of melodrama popular in the Victorian Age and still popular in some sectors today.
The Chancery Court and the legal system are the objects of Dickens’s satiric wrath in Bleak House, a novel that amply illustrates that “the Law is a Ass,” while in few other novels has the middle-class Gospel of Wealth been so soundly condemned as in Dombey and Son (1846-1848, serial; 1848, book). It is significant that in this novel the railway appears for the first time in Dickens’s works. Dickens cast a cold eye on another English social institution, debtors’ prison, in Little Dorrit (1855-1857, serial; 1857, book), in which London’s Marshalsea Prison is the primary setting. On a smaller canvas in Hard Times (1854), he took on the educational abuses favored by the Gradgrinds of British industrial Coketowns, complete with their belief in the dullest of “facts.”
Similar social issues and notions of reform appear in the Newgate novels (picaresque tales of crime and punishment by incarceration in Newgate Prison) and in the important work of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810- 1865). Both Gaskell and Charles Kingsley (Alton Locke, 1850) did much to introduce the working-class or proletarian figure as a central focus of fiction, a focus Thomas Hardy would further sharpen late in the century.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), a contemporary and sometime friend of Dickens, presented the world of the upper-middle class and limited his novels to that sphere. His Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-1848) eschewed the conventional novel of intrigue and focused on the steady social climb of Becky Sharp from the position of governess to the ranks of the leisured gentry, a new class only possible to the England of empire and Industrial Revolution. Thackeray is at pains to glorify the virtues of the upper-middle class and to bolster them through his fiction: Marriage, home, and children constitute the proper society he portrays. Surely it is still possible to see in these ideals the safe harbors they had become for Victorians: It is also possible to view them as indicative of the societal dichotomy present in nearly every aspect of Victorian thought, a dichotomy that, in this case, emphasized an intense desire for security while positing the need for the adventurous life of acquisition. Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Thackeray turned his hand to the historical novel to explore from a nineteenth century perspective the social and literary life of the Queen Anne era, the Jacobite plots to return the Stuarts to monarchy, and the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough.
Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) brought to the novel two new subject areas drawn from Victorian life: In his Barsetshire novels he introduced the first accurate portraits of English clerics; in his political or parliamentary novels he presented accurate descriptions of English politicians and political life rivaled only by those of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the first earl of Beaconsfield and twice prime minister of England (1867- 1868; 1874-1880). In the novels of Trollope and Disraeli the vast and intricate world of ministries and parliaments, political intrigue, and the multifarious activities of empire in relation to the political process achieve a place in the novelistic tradition of England.
The religious controversies of the era, notably the Oxford Movement and the Anglo-Catholicism it induced, are present as background to Trollope’s Barsetshire novels. The controversies are the concerns of several characters in the works of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880), and enter into Sartor Resartus (1833- 1834, serial; 1836, book) by Thomas Carlyle (1795- 1881) as well as into numerous other novels of the era, many of which use the historical convention of setting stories in Roman times to explore the religious question. Eliot’s explorations of the internal motivations of her characters, in Middlemarch (1871-1872), for example, led to a brand of novel sometimes described as “psychological,” although the full manifestation of this inside story would be independently delivered by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (1882-1941) after the turn of the century. The scientific basis for certain religious controversies, such as the influx of German higher criticism, the use of evidence from the expanding science of geology, and the introduction of the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), also find their way into the novels of the period. The religious question and its attendant fideist, agnostic, and atheistic responses find novelistic expression in the works of such writers as Trollope; Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), the exponent of “Muscular Christianity”; Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), especially in Father and Son (1907); and Samuel Butler (1835-1902), particularly in Erewhon (1872), Erewhon Revisited (1901), The Fair Haven (1873), and The Way of All Flesh (1903).
Both abrupt and gradual changes in the religious climate are reflected in many Victorian novels, particularly in the otherwise quite dissimilar works of George Meredith (1829-1909) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Meredith’s championing of “advanced ideas” generally and his particular advocacy of woman suffrage, free thought, political radicalism, and evolutionary theory (optimistically considered) combine to form a vision of the Comic Spirit that suffuses his works. Hardy was differently affected by the multiplicity of Victorian controversies and conflicting claims; in his works one finds not comedy but a tragic vision of human life dominated by an inexorable sense that the evolutionary process has produced in man a kind of alien species against which the permanent forces of nature are constantly arrayed. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jude the Obscure (1895), a novel so universally condemned by churchmen and the conservative literary establishment that Hardy turned away from the novel to become a poet of considerable importance.
Another element in the continuing debate that the Victorians carried on with themselves springs from the social reform movements of the era and collides with the positivistic thought of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who coined the term “sociology.” This element surfaced in some of Dickens’s work (Bleak House; Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843-1844 [serial], 1844 [book]; Our Mutual Friend; and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870), rose to a different plane in the novels of Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1860; The Moonstone, 1868), and formed much of the matter of “yellowback” or pulp novels as “shilling shockers” and “penny dreadfuls.” It reached its logical Victorian zenith in the accounts of the world’s greatest private consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), narratives that range from A Study in Scarlet (1887) to The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927).
The Detective and Spy Novels
The phenomenon of detective fiction captured the interest and imagination of the Victorian public at all levels of society. Organized police forces were first created in the nineteenth century, the science of criminology was born, and ingenious threats to life and, especially, property from the criminal classes grew apace with the unremitting urbanization of England. The steady progress of the fictional criminal, from the endearing rogues of sentimental fiction to the personification of social evil created by Conan Doyle in his Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty, is directly related to the growth of the propertied middle class, to the swelling population of the “undeserving poor” (in George Bernard Shaw’s phrase), to the ample opportunities for anonymity which urban centers and clear class divisions afforded, to the inevitable lure of easy money, and to the multiple examples of corrupt politicians on a national scale. Crime fiction kept pace with developments in crime and in criminal investigation, and in some cases the fiction anticipated developments in criminal science. The crime thriller, mystery story, and detective novel are still staple items of English fiction and have been so for more than a century, thanks to the efforts of Conan Doyle and the prodigious work of such writers as Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and John Creasey (1908-1973).
Still another subgenre linked to the detective novel was born of the armies of empire, international political events, and the information and communication explosions of the nineteenth century—the spy novel. Espionage had run through several Romantic and Victorian novels, but the Secret Service—John le Carré’s “Circus” in his novels of the 1960’s and 1970’s—first came to prominence in Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling (1865- 1936), and revolutionary espionage and anarchy came to the fore in The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). The spy novel in the twentieth century had great impetus from the events of World War I and World War II (in The Third Man: An Entertainment, 1950, for example, by Graham Greene) but is most closely associated with the post-1945 Cold War.
Both the detective novel of the Victorian Age and the spy novel born in its last days came to emphasize, of necessity, plot and action over character development and so tended to evolve into forms that do not fully coincide with the mainstream novel as the Victorians established it for themselves and their successors. A primary example of this is Ian Fleming’s (1908-1964) character James Bond; a notable exception is John le Carré’s (born 1931) George Smiley: Both writers and their characters face each other across an abyss. Yet the impulse to both sorts of fiction is historically rooted in the Romantic fiction of Scott and in the Romantic revival of the late nineteenth century, a revival sparked by an ever more urgent necessity to seek in fiction an escape from the complexities and difficulties of the present, and to find in fiction the disordered world set right, a finer or more exotic world, an adventurous world providing a chivalrous alternative to and a definite release from mercantile and corporate life.
In the Romantic revival of the late Victorian era, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) provided the best and most enduring fictional alternatives to the everyday life of Edinburgh, London, and the great industrial cities of the United Kingdom. Stevenson’s novels of Scotland (Kidnapped, 1886; The Master of Ballantrae, 1889; David Balfour, 1893; Weir of Hermiston, 1896), Treasure Island (1881-1882), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) set a new fashion for tales of adventure and terror with such prime ingredients as soldiers, rebellions, pirates, and a monstrous transmogrification. His example was followed by H. Rider Haggard (1856- 1925) in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Anthony Hope (1863-1933) in The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), Bram Stoker (1847-1912) in Dracula (1897), and P. C. Wren (1885-1941) in Beau Geste (1924), and by the writers of “best sellers” in succeeding generations. The novels of Alistair MacLean (1922-1987), Frederick Forsyth (born 1938), Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson, born 1929), and the hundreds of novels about World War II continue the Scott-Stevenson tradition, mixing reality with escapism. Further other-world fiction was provided by authors such as H. G. Wells (1866-1946) who, in science fantasies such as The Time Machine: An Invention (1895) offered readers hypothetical realities in novels that were sometimes classified as “speculative fiction.”
The Twentieth Century Novel and Beyond
The end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the accession of Edward VII (1901) truly marked the end of an age and of a century in which the novel rose to literary supremacy. On the eve of the twentieth century, England had passed several relatively peaceful decades since the Napoleonic era. The military excursions of the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Sepoy Rebellion in India (1857), a war with China (1857-1858), and the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) in no way prepared the empire for the global struggle that began in 1914 in the reign of George V and lasted as the Great War (now, World War I), until 1918. This and other military conflicts of the twentieth century left clearly discernible marks upon the development of the English novel. World War II (1939-1945), the most cataclysmic for England, is also the most notable of the conflicts but not the longest. Wars, “police actions,” and skirmishes in the distant corners of the empire, from Suez (1956) or Palestine (1949) to the Falkland Islands (1982), and extending temporally from the Boer War to the Argentinian conflict, may have matched in sporadic intensity but not in overall bitterness the continuing Anglo-Irish struggle, begun many centuries ago and marked in the twentieth century by the Easter Rising (1918), the partition of Ireland (1922), and the move to Commonwealth status (1937) and to Republic (1949) for the South.
World War II, however, justly overshadowed all other military events of the twentieth century and exerted such an influence on the course of the English novel that the number of fictional works about Britain’s “finest hour” has grown astronomically since 1945. World War II may have passed into cultural memory, but it remained, for whole generations, a recent event of personal history that also marks the beginning of the “postmodern” world. Shortly after the war, beginning around 1947, the empire was virtually dismantled, and more than one billion people throughout the world gained political independence.
The Proletarian Novel and the Novel of Social Criticism
The British economy was sapped by expensive modern warfare, the rapid dissolution of the empire, and the immigration of large numbers of the middle class; it was plagued by taxation (marked by the establishment of the first modern social security system, in 1912, and later by the socialistic British welfare state, 1945-1951), devastated by the Great Depression of 1929 and the wholesale destruction of property in the Battle of Britain and the subsequent saturation bombing of London, and eroded by massive unemployment and the steady devaluation of the pound sterling. These events and their economic effects form a background for the rise of the proletarian novel and the novel of social criticism of the 1950’s and subsequent decades, including works by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), John Braine (1922-1986), John Wain (1925-1994), and Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010), who are now known as the Angry Young Men.
Social issues that occasioned the protests of the Victorian novelists were largely resolved during the last decades of Victoria’s reign, ceased to have the same importance in the years when Edward VII was monarch (1901-1910), and, except for the extension of the voting franchise to women (1928), became legally moot in the early years of George V’s reign. A divergent set of social issues replaced them for twentieth century novelists such as John Galsworthy (1867-1933), H. G. Wells (1866-1946), Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), and George Moore (1852-1933). Galsworthy, for example, captured the decline and disintegration of Victorian/Edwardian pillars of the middle class into the “lost generation” of the 1920’s, and in so doing raised lapsarian questions that contribute to a “modernist” sensibility. Wells, apart from his socialist propaganda, also examined the possibilities of dehumanization and the inevitable destructiveness of the retrograde evolution of English class, social, and scientific structures. Bennett and Moore, like Galsworthy, pilloried the bourgeoisie and Victorianism generally, and both imported techniques from the French naturalistic novel to do so. Although French and other Continental writers exerted considerable influence on the cultural development of the English novel from roughly the mid-nineteenth century onward (one finds such influences extending from the novels of George Eliot to those of Henry James), it is noteworthy that the anti-Victorian writers should employ the naturalistic technique of Balzac and Zola in their novelistic experiments.
The form of the novel, as established in the eighteenth century, had evolved but had not drastically changed throughout the nineteenth century. With the influx of the French aesthetic, symbolist, and decadent literature in the 1890’s, and the experiments of Bennett and Moore, the stage was set for more radical experiments with the English novel, experiments that centered primarily on the traditional focus of the novel, character, and subordinated all else to it. One must look to the Anglicized American, Henry James (1843-1916), as a primary source for the experimental novel, even if James did remain clearly within the confines of the English novelistic tradition. By emphasizing such elements as angle of narration, the capturing of actual experience and the way people are, the primacy of individual psychology, and the disappearance of the traditional hero, James prepared the way for further experiments by Joseph Conrad, James Joyce (1882-1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), and Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), among others. In their fiction variations on the modernist questions of ultimate meaning, individual responsibility, and elemental issues of guilt, moral alienation and dehumanization, and atonement find enduring expression as each writer searches for individual answers to similar questions. Whether the scope of the search is global, as in Conrad’s settings throughout the empire, or intensely local, as in Joyce’s Dublin, Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire, or the mind of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it is the same inner search. In the light of the experimental novels of the twentieth century, Tristram Shandy no longer seems the oddity it once appeared to be.
Differing from the vast quantity of twentieth century English novels written in the authorized veins of bourgeois or antibourgeois traditions, the abundant novels of adventure, detection, mystery, romance (in all senses), espionage and humor—all forms in which society is reflected and sees itself—the experimental novel provided a different sort of novelistic focus, the novel of social criticism and satire in which the protagonist is no longer concerned with a place in society but is, as his or her American cousins have been since the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, most frequently an outsider who seeks to preserve and justify alienation from a disordered and dissolving society and culture. Set adrift from intellectual, social, religious, and cultural stability and identity, the interbellum generation (1918- 1939) and the postwar or postmodern generations consistently emphasize the futility of human community under the social contract. Not only the Angry Young Men but also their predecessors, successors, and contemporaries such as Ronald Firbank (1886-1926), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), George Orwell (1903-1950), William Golding (1911- 1993), Graham Greene, and John le Carré engage in social criticism and satire that ranges from assailing the societal, mechanistic, technocratic trivializing of human dignity to asserting the necessity of a solitary quest for personal ethics in an era that lacks an ethical superstructure and in which organized religion is one among many residual elements of limited use.
Multiculturalism in the Novel
Beginning in the last half of the twentieth century, a reinvigorated strain of fiction came to reflect the growing ethnic diversity of England’s people and their multicultural character and global concerns, as many Commonwealth writers and expatriates chose England as their residence and principal forum. In addition, the growing genre of postcolonial fiction gave writers from the former British colonies new themes, genres, and readers. Three writers of the 1980’s amply illustrate this diversity. Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954; his family moved to England in 1960. Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), is narrated by a Japanese widow, a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, who is living in England. An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is the story of an old Japanese painter oppressed by guilt over the prostitution of his art in the service of Japanese imperialism. With his universally acclaimed third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), winner of the Booker Prize, Ishiguro made a bold leap; here his first-person narrator is an English butler in the mid-1950’s, a figure at once comic and poignant. The first-person narrator of When We Were Orphans (2000) is also an Englishman, but one who grew up in colonial Shanghai in the 1930’s. The Unconsoled (1995) is Ishiguro’s exploration of a dreamscape so ambiguous that it thoroughly upsets traditional narrative concepts. The main character, Mr. Ryder, finds that his conflicted past and his insecurities about his future transform everything he encounters into a surreal dream of reality. This defamiliarization from the real is one of the universal themes that Ishiguro gravitated toward in rejection of the earlier emphasis on the lapse between Japanese and English cultural identities. In either case, his fiction cautions that “we tend to think we’re in far more control than we are.” This confusion about identity and lack of control is fully realized in Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go (2005), which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best British science fiction novel of the year.
Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1947, was educated in England. His novel Midnight’s Children (1981) views the partition of India and the creation of the independent Muslim state of Pakistan through the lens of Magical Realism. The novel was chosen, on the fortieth anniversary of the Booker Prize, as the Best of the Booker, the best of the novels ever to have won the coveted prize. Shame (1983) covers much of the same territory. Rushdie achieved international notoriety with his Joycean novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), a great wheel of a book that was condemned by Muslim fundamentalists for what they considered blasphemous treatment of the Qurãn and of the life of Muhammad. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a children’s book written for adults as well, Rushdie, threatened with death and forced into hiding, answers his critics with a celebration of storytelling and the unconstrained imagination. His return to the context of improbable reality in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) offers readers a heightened emphasis on storytelling as a theme. Rushdie returned to the theme of partition with Shalimar the Clown (2005), set in Kashmir, but he set The Enchantress of Florence (2008) squarely in the fifteenth century, in Italy, and in the realm of fantasy.
V. S. Naipaul (1932-2018), a Trinidadian-born British writer whose heritage is Indian, is a leading figure in postcolonial literature and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novella, In a Free State (1971), the first book by a writer of Indian descent to win the Booker Prize, is set in a newly independent East African country, modeled on Kenya, which became independent from Great Britain in 1963. A Bend in the River (1979), also set in Africa, is narrated by an Indian shopkeeper who fits in neither with the Africans nor with their former colonizers. In Half a Life (2001) and its sequel Magic Seeds (2004), Naipaul depicts an Indian writer who moves to London and then to Africa. Naipaul has been criticized by postcolonial theorists for his apparent sympathies with the colonizers rather than with the colonized, but his Nobel citation praised him “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”
Women writers have used fiction to tell neglected stories in multicultural Great Britain. Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001) was born in what was then British Guyana, now the independent nation of Guyana. She traveled to Great Britain to study at the University of London, and she became a teacher, a psychotherapist specializing in the needs of black women and children, and a writer. Her first novel for adults, Frangipani House (1986), is set among the elderly in Guyana, and Boy-Sandwich (1989) depicts the experiences of young black boys in Great Britain’s large cities. Bangladeshi British author Monica Ali (born 1967) shows the struggles faced by women in London’s Bangladeshi neighborhoods in Brick Lane (2003), which was adapted as a feature film in 2007. White Teeth (2000), by Zadie Smith (born 1975), is about the moral and psychological struggles of immigrants, and her On Beauty (2005) explores the life of a mixed-race family.
Less emphatically concerned with diversity issues, A. S. Byatt (born 1936) and Julian Barnes (born 1946) seem to have inherited the position of authorial status occupied by the writers of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Their novels exhibit such sophisticated strategies that in some cases, such as Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and Arthur and George (2005), they are considered “post-postmodern.” Byatt’s works tend to focus on intellectual problems characteristic of past eras, such as allegorical representation common to the Renaissance, evidenced in The Virgin in the Garden (1978), and deistic wrangling over biblical stories, in Babel Tower (1996). Byatt translates these pedantic puzzles into contemporary English life, providing relevance for both the society she writes about and the history of ideas that influences them. She often combines modern and historical characters in one novel, as in the Booker Prize-winning Possession (1990) and The Biographer’s Tale (2000), both of which tell the stories of intellectual figures from history and the scholars who study them.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Ian McEwan (born 1948) emerged as one of the leading writers of the English novel. The author of several novels as well as short stories, screenplays, poetry, a play, an opera, and books for children, he won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998), a novel about a composer and a newspaper editor struggling with moral questions, hatred, and vengeance. A feature film adaptation of Atonement (2002), McEwan’s most popular work, was released in 2007. This novel also deals with the consequences of making moral missteps. His 15th novel Machines Like Me was published in 2019.
The English novel, then, to paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, holds the mirror up to society and shows the very age and body of the time, its form and pressure. Even a brief sketch of the varied patterns of societal influences on the development of the English novel demonstrates that the novel is of all literary forms the most responsive to the changing emphases of an evolving society. Whether in overt reaction to the values of a society, in praise of them or in criticism of them, the novel consistently presents the society as the individual must confront it, explains that society to itself, and helps society to define itself.
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Categories: History of English Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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