Coats of Every Cut

Michael Mason

  • Robert Surtees and Early Victorian Society by Norman Gash
    Oxford, 407 pp, £40.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 19 820429 9

Vladimir Nabokov said that it was ‘childish’ to read novels for information about society. In the same context (the Afterword to Lolita) he also wrote that ‘reality’ was ‘one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes’. Such scepticism about the capacity of fiction to report on the world is still very fashionable, and in that sense Norman Gash’s book on Robert Surtees goes against the grain of present-day literary analysis.

It does not go against the traditional grain of writing about Surtees, a novelist who has almost always been praised simply as a reporter of the English scene in the mid-19th century, even on the few occasions when he has come under the notice of fairly ambitious critics, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Quentin Bell and Anthony Powell. There is very little published comment on Surtees from his own day, but what there is tends to be emphatic about his fidelity to life. ‘The account of the medical worthies who first made the Handley waters famous,’ said Lockhart, reviewing Handley Cross, ‘will be allowed to equal in accuracy ... any parallel record that could be cited from the pages of Dr Granville.’ (Granville’s Spas of England, of 1841, is a text which Professor Gash also uses as a kind of control against which to test Surtees.) Fraser’s Magazine thought that Surtees on the Newmarket races ‘conveys a better idea of the doings of that noted sport than any we have ever read’.

It is easy to see how the Surtees novels invite this kind of estimate, both in themselves and because of their literary environment. Surtees published eight novels between 1838 and 1864. As can be deduced from topical allusions, each of them is supposed to be set in the most immediate present: not just in the year, but in the very month, of publication (they were first issued in serial form). This extreme and explicit up-to-dateness contrasts with the practice of every other Victorian novelist of importance. Also, Surtees’s novels return again and again to the same groups in English provincial society. Certain aspects of the lives of these groups are reported in great detail, sometimes with the claim tacked on by the author that this detail is representative. The novels have little plot and not much of a moral scheme; they are apparently not in danger of being blown off an empirical, descriptive course as more elaborately constructed or more didactic novels might be.

Nabokov’s sneer about using novels as evidence about society is misplaced: novels do contain veridical information about a non-problematic reality. The rawest kind of information they contain of this sort – which indeed they cannot avoid containing – is linguistic: even the most fustian of 19th-century historical romances is evidence about 19th-century usage. But it is true that the material in question is usually so hard to identify in a novel that only an extreme dearth of other kinds of information about a society would lead a historian to fall back on the evidence of its fiction. If every record of Victorian England except the novels of Dickens were to vanish, historians would pore over this vestige as their only possible means of reconstructing the reality of the period. Their conclusions would often be uncertain, but the attempt not ‘childish’.

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