An Infinity of Novels

Philip Horne

  • A Short Guide to the World Novel: From Myth to Modernism by Gilbert Phelps
    Routledge, 397 pp, £30.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 415 00765 8
  • The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction by John Sutherland
    Longman, 696 pp, £35.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 582 49040 5
  • The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 by Peter Keating
    Secker, 533 pp, £30.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 436 23248 0

Anthony Trollope once proposed to write ‘a history of English prose fiction’, but ‘broke down in the task, because I could not endure the labour in addition to the other labours of my life’ – for ‘it would be necessary to read an infinity of novels.’ Such a wholesale reading of fiction takes on for many of us, as for Trollope, ‘a terrible aspect’. It doesn’t apparently, though, for Gilbert Phelps, John Sutherland and Peter Keating, surveyors and encyclopedists of the form who in their respective fields have laboured with energetic exhaustiveness and not broken down. Each of these books feels as if it takes in an infinity of novels, and each deserves the gratitude of those who, if they could not have endured the labour involved in the production, will find their understandings helpfully, often excitingly enlarged. Coverage on this ambitious scale carries an implicit rebuke to the specialist in the corner, or at least a reminder that a reframing of the wide angles can also refresh our views.

The broadest perspective is that of Phelps, himself a novelist, who sets out ‘to tell the story ... of the rise of the narrative impulse in the major cultures, both East and West, and in doing so to correct the temptation to think solely in terms of our own’. It is, as this suggests, salutary to submit oneself to nearly 200,000 words (‘short’ is misleading) of his interesting information about works from every epoch and culture; he wants to make us citizens of the world, and to make us feel the novel as a truly international form, conveying at its best ‘the universal human elements’ to every reader. The didactic urge to enlightenment is what seems to keep Phelps going through his 25-chapter journey, which is divided into two parts with a strongly progressive cast: ‘From Myth to Realism’ and ‘From Realism to Modernism’. Where primitive ritual was, there secular narrative will be: this is true and good for him, so that ‘every time an ancient singer composed a fresh song about some god or legendary hero, he was in effect bringing another small area of the primitive mind under aesthetic control.’

Such talk of ‘control’ and ‘the primitive mind’ can raise the spectre of Conrad’s Kurtz, whose blitheness about civilisation and progress comes grievously unstuck; and while most of the old works Phelps includes are given friendly treatment, it is not the alienness and self-sufficiency of the past that receive emphasis but its nascent modernity: ‘What is particularly impressive is the way in which Petronius ... practised one of the most sophisticated techniques of the modern novel,’ and ‘Richardson had an intuitive understanding of modern psycho-pathology.’ The teleological pressure here, with the achievements of former times repeatedly being referred forward for their value, gives a certain impetus to Phelps’s story, and one can hardly help feeling sympathetic towards the candid way he squarely occupies assumptions which are practically constitutive of the mental world of contemporary Western readers. How can we live without some more or less flexible notion of a common humanity, even if we are embarrassed to have it invoked in so many words? Yet, as might be expected, some words don’t fall easily into the line of his chronological scheme.

Tristram Shandy, for instance, introduced as an enlightenment text – ‘progress towards the mature realistic novel continued steadily’ – has then to be acknowledged as backward-looking also, not only in its allusions but also in its forms, to Burton, Cervantes, Rabelais and so on. This is taken by Phelps as pulling against his initial statement that, in the colonising metaphor, Sterne ‘mapped out important new territory for the future’. Perhaps it is an impossible task that Phelps has bravely tackled, and no intellectually integrated or satisfying history of the world novel can be written – without, at least, ignoring great sweeps of the material he is decently determined to include. Along the way many awkward customers implicitly join Sterne in his insinuating challenge – not cited by Phelps – to the straight line of narrative: ‘I defy the best cabbage planter that ever existed, whether he plants backwards or forwards ... – I defy him to go on coolly, critically, and canonically, planting his cabbages one by one, in straight lines, and stoical distances, especially if slits in petticoats are unsewed up – without ever and anon straddling out, or sidling into some bastardly digression ...’ Any ‘straight lines’ of descent the grand schematist might be tempted to draw between, say The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bonfire of the Vanities seem unlikely to trace a true genealogy, and we need the ‘bastardly digressions’ to do justice to what actually happened. The mildest of Leavisites, Phelps administers a gentle rebuke to Sterne for not managing a plotted ‘inevitable conclusion’ like Clarissa’s, and having as ‘controlling principle’ only the force of his ‘genius and personality’: ‘in this respect Tristram Shandy was a retrogressive work.’ Sterne’s novel, a round work in a rather square whole, ‘certainly did not comply with the precepts of the new novelistic mode’, and was ‘a circle perpetually in motion’, so that ‘its composition can be compared with the incremental process that attended the ancient cycle of myths.’ Sterne seems here to hand back some territory to the primitive past, to let the side down.

Fortunately, Phelps is so accommodating and well-mannered that his preferences and impatiences seldom disturb any reader not out for a quarrel. We may doubt on principle that Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) could be ‘completely objective’ in its depictions, but our guide’s belief in the validity of a neutral authorial stance allows him to get close to a practical transparency – not a bad trait for someone trying to arbitrate between all ages and countries and authors. Only at moments does this fence-sitting become painful: ‘As for the New Testament, narrative power of the highest quality (in the service of the great message it conveys) is displayed time after time.’ Phelps’s studied blandness mostly muffles – here, suffocatingly – any grinding of axes. Nonetheless, a certain amount of parti is being pris. He admits in the Preface that many decisions in the work have had to be ‘purely personal’, and every so often some sequence emerges that seems to call explicitly on less than consensual values: thus, ‘although the later part’ of The Story of an African Farm is ‘attended by a good deal of somewhat portentous philosophising, it also bears witness to the fact that Oliver Schreiner was a genuine liberal’. No doubt this is good news, but presumably it is in part this very ‘portentous philosophising’ which bears the witness, and ‘genuine’, too obviously asking for right-minded applause, begs the question of literary merit which has just been raised. Even more charitable grinding has taken place just before on behalf of a living writer, Patrick White (the contradictory demands of national and international literary histories put many cabbages out of the chronological straight line). Where Beckett, whose prose fiction deserves more consideration, gets nine lines, and Chandler only dates of birth and death, White gets a page and a half (68 lines) and a humanist fanfare: ‘These and other novels ... are outstanding in their range of social portraiture, psychological penetration, imaginative power, in their deep instinctive understanding of the true life-giving sources of the human spirit.’ It is not surprising, though, that it should be Phelps’s treatment of recent writing that is most overshadowed by the suspicion of the arbitrary.

Phelps evades some of the tricky questions of such an enterprise: how far artistic success can be distinguished from moral or political correctness (as in the Schreiner case); whether the historical importance of a work or writer for the tradition is a contribution to, or even constitutes, its literary value. The speed of progress required by this kind of survey, and Phelps’s framing story of ‘the rise of the narrative impulse’, tend to overwhelm the stories the individual novels have to tell. Yet the reservations I have expressed scarcely affect the main value of the Short Guide: not just a useful work of reference, it is a stimulus to exploration, an honourable one-man effort to see the history of the novel steadily, and see it whole. Phelps’s undeniable critical intelligence is not helped by the constraints of space and organisation, which press him to summarise and compromise and simplify: but he has pluckily fought ‘the temptation to think solely’ in terms of our own culture’.

It is one of the most attractive features of John Sutherland’s Companion to Victorian Literature that his sympathies are so intimately engaged with the human and literary detail of what for too many people is still an age of prigs and hypocrites brightened with half a dozen cases of genius. He shares the sense of ‘injustice in literary affairs’ which drove the already successful Trollope to publish anonymously, testing the reviewers and the public who welcomed his work only because they knew his name. At the start of his Victorian Novelists and Publishers in 1976, Sutherland noted with subdued indignation that ‘for most modern critics 19th-century fiction has ... come to mean the great Victorian novelists and their rather shadowy accomplices, the Victorian reading public.’ In that book he brilliantly redressed the balance with regard to publishers, scrupulously reconstructing the conditions and constraints of their trade, carefully distinguishing enlightened houses and individuals from fools and rogues, so that credit could be given where it was due: to George Smith for instance, as the ‘godfather to Esmond’, saving Thackeray from the scatty habits he lapsed into when he wrote for serialisation, and providing support for the more measured creation of an elegiac masterpiece.

In the new Companion the half-dozen ‘great Victorian novelists’ are joined not only by their publishers but by a good contingent of the second and third rank in their own profession – from whom they were not always so easily distinguishable in their day. Sutherland’s passion for justice and feeling for the underdog fuel his efforts: ‘below this corps d’élite there is a quantity of first-rate and consistently worthwhile achievement which has been let go into oblivion; wrongly so, I would maintain.’ He is, then, combating rather than reinforcing the perspective of our own period, and has an intimately known, freshly researched, clearly defined territory to represent in his distinct entries; where Gilbert Phelps in his connected prose, with everything everywhere from the year dot to Salman Rushdie as his portion, is frequently reduced to inoffensive and distantly non-committal generality.

Blandness is not a danger for Sutherland. ‘Single authorship risks a high degree of error and bias,’ as he says in the Preface, ‘but sometimes results in a zestier book.’ We certainly get the benefit of his appetite for the period here, and the generosity of the Companion with biographical circumstance results in a gratifying solidity of specification. Sutherland’s remark about the Countess of Blessington, moreover, that her ‘fiction is scarcely more romantic than her own life,’ could be applied in some measure to many of the authors included here. Where Phelps’s concatenated chapters cage their protagonists in a framework that somewhat curbs their bewildering variety, Sutherland’s 1606 entries each accord full importance to the matter in hand, giving the effect less of a cramped zoo than of a thronged but ample safari park. Dramatic lives run alongside melodramatic fiction.

Mary Braddon, for example, best-selling author of Lady Audley’s Secret and a bohemian variant on Jane Eyre, went to live with the publisher John Maxwell, who had ‘five children, and a wife in an Irish lunatic asylum’; after 13 years the wife died and she could at last marry him. It is little wonder that she was interested in bigamy. There is a good deal of bad behaviour recorded in these pages: Froude’s father buying up from the bookshops and destroying his son’s slightly scandalous Shadows of the Clouds (1847); Bulwer-Lytton having his furiously estranged Irish wife Rosina temporarily locked away on grounds of insanity to shut her up during his 1858 election campaign; Meredith’s wife bearing him a son, running off, and dying three years later, deserted by her lover; Caroline Norton’s estranged husband, a barrister, persecuting her well after their separation, ‘even attempting to acquire her literary copyrights as his property’. In his cool dry way Sutherland suggests that he has views on such conduct.

If there is brutish villainy, there is also, often in the way of New Grub Street, sometimes in the manner of Little Dorrit, heroism and pathos. In the 1976 book, Sutherland remarked that ‘there are few sadder sights in Victorian literature than the worn-out novelist doomed to produce increasingly unsaleable wares,’ and he is acutely sensitive to the material and psychological distresses of the literary labouring class. His Companion is eminently sensible in its judgments, but splendidly tender-hearted. Trollope’s Autobiography, a book which has greatly influenced him, pays a moving filial tribute in its account of the author’s miserable early years: ‘my mother was left alone in a big house outside the town, with two Belgian women-servants, to nurse three dying patients – the patients being her husband and children – and to write novels for the sustenance of the family! It was about this period of her career that her best novels were written.’ The tone here, with its combination of decent emotion and decent understatement, derived perhaps from Trollope’s favourite Henry Esmond (which Sutherland has edited), is not infrequent in the Companion, for there are many comparably harrowing stories to be evoked:

This was the period of the Irish famine and Mrs Bell Martin ... devoted herself to the relief of her father’s tenants. In so doing, she ruined her family and was gratefully termed ‘The Princess of Connemara’ by her people. Thereafter penniless and landless, she emigrated to Belgium where she supported herself writing romances. The Bells sailed for America in 1850 and she died in childbirth on board ship.

This account, though it has no great manner, recalls Johnson in its fierce compression, its artful sequences and juxtapositions and ironic sharpenings; and in its powerful feeling.

In addition to the 878 biographical entries on novelists, there are many publishers, illustrators, magazines and genres, and an extraordinary 554 entries on individual novels (aside from the incidental accounts incorporated in the biographical entries). In these also, the critical edge is kept sharp. Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893), and generations of avid readers, get their just deserts with three killer blows: ‘Reviewers found the novel absurd and tasteless. Even for Corelli, the dialogue is grotesquely unconvincing. By 1951, the work was in its 59th English printing.’ Other varieties of pretension than the extravagantly vulgar suffer from Sutherland’s sceptical attention. The Gods, Some Mortals and Lord Wickenham (1895), by ‘John Oliver Hobbes’ (Pearl Mary-Teresa Craigie), inspires the tough comment that it is ‘depressive and “sensitively” written (i.e. almost impossible to read), in the style fashionable in the 1890s’.

Quotations are deployed with powerful economy. Sometimes to convey a limiting judgment: Mary Coleridge’s ‘main idea in historical fiction is expressed in the preface to The Shadow on the Wall (1904): “history is chock-full of improbabilities.” ’ Sometimes to re-create a colourful milieu, as with the unusual hunting novelist Mrs Edward Kennard, who at 50 in 1900 was a keen auto-mobilist: ‘Reviewers liked her slapdash, highly ungrammatical style of writing in which they discerned “lots of go” and a “thoroughly healthy tone”.’ The plots are often more or less absurd, and Sutherland knows it, but he keeps off the explicit hilarity which often poisons the reader’s amusement: ‘In Not Wisely But Too Well (1867), the heroine almost stoops to folly with a bounder, holds back at the brink, but ultimately expires in the agony of virtuous self-control.’ Mockery might also be in order for the crude premise of Arthur Brookfield’s politically inflammatory Simiocracy (1884) – ‘a polemical fable about a Liberal Party which enfranchises orang-utans and then imports them by the million to vote for the cause’: but the account lets us see that for ourselves.

Sutherland’s good Companion packs together measured storytelling, biographical fact, sane moral and critical adjudication, and an elegiac feeling for its subject (he would turn a fine obituary). The end of the entry on Henry Kingsley, who died at 46, is an especially striking example.

In 1873, a windfall legacy had supplied Kingsley with enough money to make his remaining months of life comfortable. He developed cancer of the tongue, and retired to Cuckfield, Sussex, to die. A number of legends have clustered round Henry, whose life evidently had its share of dissipations. He may well have been homosexual and was almost certainly alcoholic. His life and work trace the pathological edge of the muscular school, where its cult of virility merges into narcissistic depravity. At its best, his fiction has picaresque jollity, and devil may-care verve.

The set of twists here keeps us guessing to the last, and constructs an intricate weave of judgments which stimulates interest in Henry as a complex figure. Indeed, the Companion, a labour of love, arouses interest and curiosity at almost every turn. Even the names have a story to tell, sometimes, perhaps the best being ‘BOOTH, Mrs [Eliza Margaret J.] Otto Von (‘Rita’, later Mrs Desmond Humphreys, née Gollan, 1860?-1938)’. The abundance and range of concerns and tendencies in the period is amply reflected: movements and positions like Tractarianism, Evangelicalism, muscular Christianity, Roman Catholicism, atheism, socialism, feminism and antifeminism; types like New Women, anti-suffrage women, huntsmen, soldiers, Punch journalists, and classic English eccentrics; trials like dying children, alcoholism, madness in loved ones, bankruptcy, wretched marriage and divorce, and incapacitating disease. All these and others animate the book, making it, with due allowance for the special angle it takes, the picture of an age.

It is a pity that many of the interests I’ve mentioned cannot be traced through the nearly 700 loaded pages of the Companion without a cover-to-cover reading: there is no index of any sort, of themes or of names or titles, so that the valuable material Sutherland has mined has still not all been brought quite to the surface. If one doesn’t know the author of a novel whose title is not among the 554, there is no way of finding it except inspired guesswork. This is something of a drawback in a work of reference. And insofar as he frequently makes very helpful connections of works or authors with issues or institutions or genres, and can give in each entry only a very selective array of cross-references, this is one case where a thematic index would increase companionability. Not that reading the book right through is unrewarding.

Another reservation aboout the framing of the Companion, which may have to do with constraints of space but may derive from Sutherland’s hostility to The Great Tradition and its placing of all the literary-critical eggs in half a dozen baskets, is that it excludes two major writers, whose birth outside the Commonwealth might be what disqualifies them – except that the Dutchman Maarten Maartens gets in. It is never – surprisingly – spelt out what enables an author to be matriculated as a Victorian novelist, but publishing novels in English with English settings or characters, in England during the reign of Victoria, and living here, doesn’t seem to have helped Henry James or Joseph Conrad. We know quite a lot about them already, of course: but Sutherland’s comments on other only partly Victorian writers like Wells are well worth having, and there would be propriety in offering views of them as Victorian figures. Swinburne, author of Love’s Cross-Currents and the unfinished Lesbia Brandon, is possibly an even more incomprehensible exclusion; and poor old Howard Overing Sturgis, with Tim (1891) and All that was possible (1895), doesn’t get in either. Perhaps they write too ‘sensitively’, or maybe their omission is merely an oversight. More generally, this is a very British-and-Commonwealth-centred work: the USA and the Continent don’t get much of a look-in, despite the lively trafficking which sometimes went on between the literary cultures.

It would be ungrateful, though, to complain of these omissions when one benefits from so many unbargained for and exciting inclusions. The Companion is as pleasurable to browse through as, in another field, the rich pastures of David Thompson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. The impression it leaves – and in this it is itself like some long, densely-plotted Victorian novel – is of a mass of life, work, achievement, suffering, moral uplift and death. Mrs Humphry Ward, for instance, whose life Sutherland is writing, ‘paid a personal price for the terrible labour which it took her to write in the form of crippling physical disorders, and never enjoyed good health again for the rest of her life’. His sympathy for such striving, and his own Trollopian productivity, make Sutherland a fine chronicler of the strenuous Victorians.

Peter Keating’s dates in The Haunted Study, 1875-1914, overlap considerably with the Companion, 1837-1901, but he has a different (not contrary) brief, and his wide-ranging ‘continuous narrative or interrelated narratives’ points or point much further forward.[*] The title comes from James’s ‘The Death of the Lion’, where the long-unrecognised writer Neil Paraday is grateful to be lionised, to leave his solitary cell and socialise. Keating starts his Preface by citing Arnold – ‘Whoever seriously occupies himself with literature will soon perceive its vital connections with other agencies’ – and in fact it is these ‘other agencies’ that he scrutinises as they bear on the novelist of the period, whether dictating his conduct in public or haunting his thoughts in the dubious privacy of his study. Keating’s argument in this elegant, compendious and readable survey – which combines the narrative verve and sweep of the best historical writers with scrupulous accuracy and measured judgment – is that what we call Modernism, and its legacy for the rest of our century, was profoundly conditioned by the changing economic and social structure of the literary scene at the end of the 19th century.

He marshals a convincing array of figures to show ‘the necessity for a novelist to have a source of income other than that derived from book sales’ by the end of his period; and he makes the point that the miserable conditions depicted in New Grub Street (1891), when the three-decker was still to be abolished, were not a low point, but only a stage in a decline. ‘Reardon’s financial situation was not enviable in the mid-1880s (the period in which New Grub Street is set), though it should be noted that even on his own reckoning his annual income was still higher than that of most wage-earners in Britain. Twenty years later, under the new system, his position would have been untenable.’

The extreme case of the new tendency would be Joyce: writing for art because sufficient money could no longer be made from serious fiction without unacceptable compromise; even having recourse to patronage in order to pursue his recherché ambitions; and reacting against the levelling implications of the new democracy, as when he approvingly quoted Giordano Bruno’s ‘No man can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude.’ What’s more, Joyce might stand for the obscuring of story, the triumph of Robert Browning’s oblique ‘truth broken into pragmatic hues’ over the direct address achieved, he said, by his wife: ‘You speak out, you ...’ ‘The novelist had metamorphosed himself into an Artist, and described himself proudly as such. His novels were works of art and hailed as works of art by discriminating critics, but for the vast majority of readers, entertainment they certainly were not.’

For the pained Keating, one seems to gather, the large process he describes has not been for the best: it leads to arrogant romantic reclusion, on the one hand, and enthusiastic commercial debasement, on the other. His fluent discussion incorporates procedural and institutional shifts in the period in a way which persuasively dissolves the transitions between topics within his encompassing view: the new royalties system, the Society of Authors, international copyright, statistics of published fiction, the rise of the short story, the Times Book Club and the TLS, the arrival of the literary agent, paperbacks and cheap editions, public libraries – all these are sensibly brought into relation. It is hard to imagine so comprehensive a scrutiny of this field being done with so much literary sensitivity by a professional historian, or with so much careful historical documentation and understanding by a ‘pure’ literary critic. In fact, it is far from clear that Keating regards himself as a critic, judging from his reference to ‘the historical approach I have taken to a number of issues which are frequently discussed or mentioned by critics and theorists’.

The Haunted Study seems to be itself a haunted study – haunted by the way in which it comes out of the questionable discipline of English Literature whose foundation is an integral part of its story of specialisation and retreat. The Epilogue, in a way which is at first puzzling, tells of the subject’s beginnings without quite declaring how this is related to what goes before, and what conclusion we are to draw. The implication seems to be that the story Keating has told is not just history, it’s the story of where we are now. His book comes out of English, but also comes out against it: against the compensatory élitist moves he sees as characterising the literary scene at least since Eliot, the attempts to shut out a much larger real world of economics and political and social change – Arnold’s ‘other agencies’. His grim vision, embodied in a labour of long years, deserves thought by all who are interested in 20th-century literature.

[*] An overlapping, but yet more recent, set of dates define the subject of another significant survey, Douglas Hewitt’s firm and challenging English Fiction of the Early Modern Period 1890-1940 (Longman, 275 pp., £16.95 and £7.50, 21 August, 0 582 49285 8 and 0 582 49284 X).