Novelists of the Later Victorian Period

The novel in the later Victorian period took a new trend, and the novels written during this period may be called ‘modern’ novels. George Eliot was the first to write novels in the modern style. Other important novelists of the period were Meredith and Hardy. The year 1859 saw the publication not only of George Eliot’s Adam Bede but also of Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feveral. Though they are vastly different from each other, they stand in sharp contrast to the works of established novelists that appeared the same year—as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and Thackeray’s Virginians.

The novelists of the early Victorian period—Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and others—had followed the tradition of English novel established by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Their conception of themselves was modest, and their conscious aim nothing much more elevated than Wilkie Collins’s “make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” Set against this innocent notion of the novelist’s function, the new novelists of England as well of other countries of Europe, began to have high ambitions of making the novel as serious as poetry. The Russian novelists—Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the French novelists like Flaubert, all began to look upon the novel as a medium of conveying profound thoughts. Flaubert especially arrogated to himself the rights and privileges of the poet, and he talked about his talent and medium as seriously as poets do theirs. He stated his ambition as a novelist thus: “To desire to give verse rhythm to prose, yet to leave it prose and very much prose, and to write about ordinary life as histories and epics are written, yet without falsifying the subject. It is perhaps an absurd idea. But it may also be a great experiment and very original”. These words of Flaubert show that the European novelists in the middle of the nineteenth century were making the same claims about their vocation as the Romantic poets in England did in the beginning of the century. The seriousness of these European novelists was both moral and aesthetic, and it came to English fiction with George Eliot and Meredith. Both of them were intellectuals and philosophers and had associates among such class of people. On the other hand, their predecessors, Dickens and Thackeray, had association with journalists, artists and actors, and they themselves belonged to their group. George Eliot lived in a much larger world of ideas. These ideas conditioned her views of fiction, determined the shape of her novels and the imagery of her prose. Meredith who was partly educated in Germany and was influenced by French writers, developed a highly critical view of England and its literature. Thus specially equipped, these two novelists—George Eliot and Meredith—gave a new trend to the English novel, and made it ‘modern’. They were followed by Hardy who extended the scope of the novel still further.
(a)       George Eliot (1819-1880)
The real name of George Eliot was Mary Ann Evans. For a long time her writings was exclusively critical and philosophic in character, and it was when she was thirty-eight that her first work of fiction Scenes of Clerical Life (1857) appeared. It was followed by Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), and Middlemarch (1871-72).
George Eliot was born in Warwickshire, where she lived till her father’s death in 1849. It was her Warwickshire experience—the life of an English village before the railway came to disturb it, which provided the substance of most of her novels. Gifted with a wonderful faculty of observation, she could reproduce faithfully the mannerism of rustic habit and speech. Having a thorough knowledge of the countryside and the country people, their hierarchies and standards of value, she could give a complete picture of their life. Moreover, she could beautifully portray the humour and pathos of these simple folk as no English novelist had done before. Just as we look to Dickens for pictures of the city streets and to Thackeray for the vanities of society, we look to George Eliot for the reflection of the country life in England.
In George Eliot the novel took its modern form. Every story derives its unity from its plot. The different episodes are all related to one another and subordinated to the main story. The chief appeal to the emotions of the reader is made by the inevitable catastrophe towards which the whole action moves. This unity of plot construction was lacking in the English novel before George Eliot appeared on the scene. This was a singular contribution of hers to the development of the English novel. Another important feature of George Eliot’s novels is that they reflect more clearly than any other Victorian novels the movement of contemporary thought. They specially appeal to the mind which is troubled by religious and ethical difficulties. The mood of much of her work is like that of Matthew Arnold’s poems. She shares also with him his melancholy and depressing mood.
In her novels George Eliot takes upon herself the role of a preacher and moraliser. Though profoundly religious at heart, she was greatly affected by the scientific spirit of the age; and finding no religious creed or political system satisfactory, she fell back upon duty as the supreme law of life. In all her novels she shows in individuals the play of universal moral forces, and establishes the moral law as the basis of human society. The principle of law which was in the air during the Victorian era and which deeply influenced Tennyson, is with George Eliot like fate. It is to her as inevitable and automatic as gravitation and it overwhelms personal freedom and inclination.
All the novels of George Eliot are examples of psychological realism. She represents in them, like Browning in his poetry, the inner struggle of a soul, and reveals the motives, impulses and hereditary influences which govern human action. But unlike Browning who generally stops short when he tells a story, and either lets the reader draw his own conclusion or gives his in a few striking lines, George Eliot is not content until she has minutely explained the motives of her characters and the moral lessons to be learned from them. Moreover, the characters in her novels, unlike in the novels of Dickens, develop gradually as we came to know them. They go from weakness to strength, or from strength to weakness, according to the works that they do and the thoughts that they cherish. For instance, in Romola we find that Tito degenerates steadily because he follows selfish impulses, while Romola grows into beauty and strength with every act of self-renunciation.
(b)       George Meredith (1829-1909)
Another great figure not only in fiction, but in the general field of literature during the later Victorian period, was Meredith who, though a poet at heart expressed himself in the medium of the novel, which was becoming more and more popular. The work of Meredith as a novelist stands apart from fiction of the century. He did not follow any established tradition, nor did he found a school. In fact he was more of a poet and philosopher than a novelist. He confined himself principally to the upper classes of society, and his attitude to life is that of the thinker and poet. In his novels, he cared little for incident or plot on their account, but used them principally to illustrate the activity of the ‘Comic Spirit’. Comedy he conceives of as a Muse watching the actions of men and women, detecting and pointing out their inconsistencies with a view to their moral improvement. She never laughs loud, she only smiles at most; and the smile is of the intellect, for she is the handmaid of philosophy. Meredith loves to trace the calamities which befall those who provoke Nature by obstinately running counter to her laws. A certain balance and sanity, a fine health of body and soul are, in his view, the means prescribed by Nature for the happiness of man.
The Ordeal of Richard Feveral, which is one of the earliest of Meredith’s novels, is also one of his best. Its theme is the ill-advised bringing up of an only son, Richard Feveral, by his well-meaning and officious father, Sir Austen Feveral. In spite of his best intentions, the father adopts such methods as are unsuited to the nature of the boy, with the result that he himself becomes the worst enemy of his son, and thus an object of ridicule by the Comic Spirit. Besides containing Meredith’s philosophy of natural and healthy development of the human personality the novel also has some fines passages of great poetic beauty. Evan Harrington (1861) is full of humorous situations which arise out of the social snobbery of the Harrington family. Rhoda Fleming (1865), Sandra Belloni (1864), Harry Richmond (1871) and Beauchamp’s Career (1876) all contain the best qualities of Meredith’s art—intellectual brilliance, a ruthless exposure of social weaknesses, and an occasional poetic intensity of style. In all of them Meredith shows himself as the enemy of sentimentality. In The Egoists which is the most perfect illustration of what he meant by ‘comedy’, Meredith reached the climax of his art. The complete discomfiture of Sir Willoughby Patterne, the egoist, is one of the neatest things in English literature. This novel also contains Meredith’s some of the best drawn characters—the Egoist himself, Clara Middleton, Laetitia Dale, and Crossjay Patterne.
Like George Eliot, Meredith is a psychologist. He tries to unravel the mystery of the human personality and probe the hidden springs there. Being at heart a poet, he introduced in his earlier novels passages of unsurpassable poetic beauty. A master of colour and melody when he wills, Meredith belongs to the company of Sterne, Carlyle and Browning who have whimsically used the English language. He seldom speaks directly, frequently uses maxims and aphorisms in which are concentrated his criticism of contemporary life. Like Browning, Meredith preaches an optimistic and positive attitude to life. Influenced by the theory of Evolution, he believes that the human race is evolving towards perfection. This process can be accelerated by individual men and women by living a sane balanced and healthy life. They should follow the golden mean and steer clear of ‘the ascetic rocks and sensual whirlpools’. On account of this bracing and refreshing philosophy, the novels of Meredith, though written in a difficult style, have a special message for the modern man who finds himself enveloped in a depressing atmosphere.
(c)       Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
The greatest novelist of the later Victorian period was Thomas Hardy. Like Meredith, he was at heart a poet, and expressed himself also in verse. But unlike Meredith whose attitude to life is optimistic, and who has written comedies, Hardy’s attitude to life is rather pessimistic and he has written tragedies. Hardy thinks that there is some malignant power which controls this universe, and which is out to thwart and defeat man in all his plans. It is especially hostile to those who try to assert themselves and have their own way. Thus his novels and poems are, throughout, the work of a man painfully dissatisfied with the age in which he lived. He yearned for England’s past, and he distrusted modern civilisation because he suspected that its effect was frequently to decivilise and weaken those to whom Nature and old custom had given stout hearts, clear heads and an enduring spirit. In his books, ancient and modern are constantly at war, and none is happy who has been touched by ‘modern’ education and culture. Hardy also resists the infiltration of aggressive modernity in the quiet village surroundings.
Hardy passed the major portion of his life near Dorchester, and his personal experiences were bound up with the people and customs, the monuments and institutions of Dorest and the contiguous countries of south-western England, which he placed permanently on the literary map by the ancient name “Wessex’. Thus Hardy has left a body of fiction unique in its uniformity. No other novelist in England has celebrated a region so comprehensively as Hardy has done. Though he has dealt with a limited world, he has created hundreds of characters, many of whom are mere choral voices as in Greek drama.
On account of Hardy’s philosophy of a malignant power ruling the universe which thwarts and defeats man at every step, his novels are full of coincidences. In fact, chance plays too large a part in them. For this Hardy has been blamed by some critics who believe that he deliberately introduces coincidences which always upset the plans of his characters. In real life chance sometimes helps a man also, but in Hardy’s novel chance always comes as an upsetting force.
The great novels of Hardy are The Woodlanders, The Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Though most of Hardy’s novels are tragedies, yet the role of tragedy becomes intensified in The Return of the Native, Tess and Jude. The last chapter of Tess outraged the religious conscience of 1891; to-day it offends the aesthetic conscience by its violation of our critical sense of order and imaginative sufficiency. Hardy had said enough in Tess before the beginning of the last chapter. As it stands, the novel is a masterpiece, but it is scarred by an unhappy final stroke, the novel is a masterpiece, but it is scarred by an unhappy final stroke. Jude the Obscure, though a very powerful novel is spoiled by Hardy’s ruthlessness. At no time are Sue and Jude permitted to escape the shadowing hand of malignant destiny. They are completely defeated and broken.
As a writer of tragedies Hardy can stand comparison with the great figures in world literature, but he falls short of their stature because he is inclined to pursue his afflicted characters beyond the limits of both art and nature. In the use of pathos Hardy is a past master. As for Hardy’s style, his prose is that of a poet in close contact with things. In his evocation of scenes and persons, his senses bring into play a verbal incantation that relates him to the pre-Raphaelites. He describes characters and scenes in such a manner that they get imprinted on the memory.
The main contribution of Hardy to the history of the English novel was that he made it as serious a medium as poetry, which could deal with the fundamental problems of life. His novels can be favourably compared to great poetic tragedies, and the characters therein rise to great tragic heights. His greatest quality as a writer is his sincerity and his innate sympathy for the poor and the down-trodden. If at times he transgressed the limits of art, it was mainly on account of his deep compassion for mankind, especially those belonging to the lower stratum.
(d)       Some Other Novelists
Besides George Eliot, Meredith and Hardy there were a number of other Victorian novelists during the later Victorian period. Of these Stevenson and Gissing are quite well-known.
(i)        Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94)
Stevenson was a great story-teller and romancer. He took advantage of the reader’s demand for shorter novels. His first romance entitled Treasure Island became very popular. It was followed by New Arabian Nights, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, which contain romances and mystery stories. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he departed from his usual manner to write a modern allegory of the good and evil in the human personality. In The Master of Ballantre Stevenson described the story of a soul condemned to evil. At his death he was working on unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston, which is considered by some critics as the most finished product of his whole work. In it he dramatised the conflict between father and son—the Lord Justice-Clerk, the hanging judge, and his son Archie who has the courage to face him.
The contribution of Stevenson to the English novel is that he introduced into it romantic adventure. His rediscovery of the art of narrative, of conscious and clever calculation in telling a story so that the maximum effect of clarity and suspense is achieved, meant the birth of the novel of action. He gave a wholly new literary dignity and impetus to light fiction whose main aim is entertainment.
(ii)       George Gissing (1857-1903)
Gissing has never been a popular novelist, yet no one in English fiction faced the defects of his times with such a frank realism. Like Dickens he paints generally the sordid side of life, but he lacks Dickens’s gusto and humour and Dickens’s belief that evil can be conquered. Working under the influence of French realists and Schopenhauer’s philosophy, he sees the world full of ignoble and foolish creatures. He considers the problem of poverty as insoluble; the oppressed lower classes cannot revolt successfully and the rich will not voluntarily surrender their power. Under such circumstances it is the intellectuals who suffer the most, because they are more conscious of the misery around them. This is the moral of all Gissing’s novels, chief among which are Worker in the Dawn (1880), The Unclassed (1884), Domes (1886), The Emancipated (1889), New Grub Street (1891), Born in Exile (1892). One can guess the subjects treated in them from their titles.
All Gissing’s novels bear unmistakable traces of his many years of struggle against poverty, obstruction and depreciation. He drew his inspiration from Dickens, but he made the mistake of omitting altogether that which is present in Dickens even to excess-the romance and poetry of poverty. He saw the privations of the poor, but unlike Dickens, he was blind and deaf to their joyousness. In his later years he discovered his mistake, and in 1903 he brought out The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, a great autobiographic fiction, which is written in a most delightful manner revealing his inner life.
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