I. The Novel and the Drama. The Elements of Fiction. II. Plot in the Novel. Subject-matter in Fiction—The Importance of Fidelity— Plot—The Gift of Story-telling—Loose Plot and Organic Plot— Simple and Compound Plots—Methods of Narration. III. Characterisation. Its Elementary Condition—The Mystery of the Creative Process—The Power of Graphic Description—The Analytical and Dramatic Methods of Characterisation—The Character in the Making—The Question of Range in Characterisation—Characterisation and Knowledge of Life. IV. The Relations of Plot and Character. Their Combination—”Motivation.” V. Dialogue. Tests to be applied to it. VI. Humour, Pathos, and Tragedy. The Quality of the Emotional Element in Fiction—Humour—The Painful Emotions. VII. Social and Material Setting in Fiction. Setting in the Novel—Specialisation in Modern Fiction—Special Social Settings—Setting in Historical Fiction—The Question of Anachronism— Material Setting—The Use of Naure. VIII. The Novelist’s Criticism of Life. Its Place—The Novelist’s Point of View—Ways of presenting a Criticism of Life in the Novel—The Dramatic, or Indirect Way—The Direct Way—Tests of a Novelist’s Philosophy of Life—Truth in Fiction—Realism—Realism and Romance— Morality in Fiction—The Moral Responsibilities of Fiction.
In any historical study of literary forms the drama, as the earlier to evolve, should of course take precedence of the novel. As a matter of convenience, however, we will here reverse the chronological order and deal with the novel first. Manifestly, the drama and prose fiction are compounded of the same raw materials. In this chapter, though our immediate business is with the novel, we shall therefore of necessity have much to say about characteristics which are common to both of them, and to some extent it will thus serve as an introduction also to the study of the drama. But quite as manifestly, owing to differences in conditions, the raw materials in drama and prose fiction are treated in very different ways. In the chapter which follows we shall therefore have to take up our subject at the point where they part company and consider the drama as a specific form of literary art.
We have already seen that the novel owes its existence to the interest which men and women everywhere and at all times have taken in men and women and in the great panorama of human passion and action. This interest, as we have noted, has always been one of the most general and most powerful of the impulses behind literature, and it has thus given rise, according to changing social and artistic circumstances, to various modes of expression— here to epic and there to drama, now to ballad and now to romance. Latest to develop of all these modes, the novel is also the largest and fullest of them. This statement may perhaps be challenged by reference to the drama. But apart from many other considerations, which we need not now discuss, it must be remembered that the drama is not pure literature. It is a compound art, in which the literary element is organically bound up with the elements of stage setting and histrionic interpretation. The novel is independent of these secondary arts ; it is, as Marion Crawford once happily phrased it, a “pocket theatre,” containing within itself not only plot and actors, but also costume, scenery, and all the other accessories of a dramatic representation. This point has important bearings upon the comparative study of the novel and the drama. Evidently such complete immunity from those conditions of the stage to which the drama is bound by the very law of its being, and by which it is everywhere hampered, gives to the novel a freedom of movement, a breadth, and a flexibility to which, even in its most romantic developments, the drama cannot possibly attain. What the novel loses in actuality and vividness by its substitution of narrative for representation it thus amply makes up for in other ways. This is, of course, one reason why the novel has largely displaced the drama, as it has displaced other vehicles for the expression of our common interest in human life, and has established itself as the principal literary form of our complex and many-sided modern world. It is equally evident that we can thus explain one essential difference between the novel and the drama which it is necessary for the student of either to keep well in mind. The drama is the most rigorous form of literary art ; prose fiction is the loosest. It is a familiar fact that for the writing of a play a long preliminary discipline in technique and a thorough knowledge of the stage are requisite, while anyone can write a novel who has pens, ink, and paper at command, and a certain amount of leisure and patience. The moral of this on the critical side is that while it is relatively easy to draw out and formulate the laws of the drama and the standards by which it is to be judged, it is extremely difficult to do this in the case of the novel. Yet some laws and standards there are, nonetheless, even for this most elastic and irregular of all the great forms of literary expression, and it must now be our business to seek out and illustrate the more general and important of these.
Though it is necessary to do so only in the way of a reminder, we will begin with a brief statement of the principal elements which enter into the composition of a novel. In this analysis, as will be seen, we are also tabulating the principal elements which enter into the composition of the drama.
In the first place, the novel deals with events and actions, with things which are suffered and done ; and these constitute what we commonly call the plot. Secondly, such things happen to people and are suffered or done by people ; and the men and women who thus carry on the action form its dramatis personæ, or characters. The conversation of these characters introduces a third element—that of dialogue, often so closely connected with characterisation as to be an integral part of it. Fourthly, the action must take place, and the characters must do and suffer, somewhere and at some time ; and thus we have a scene and a time of action. The element of style may be put next on our list; and with this it might seem that for practical purposes our analysis is complete. But there still remains a sixth component to which too much importance can hardly be attached directly or indirectly, and whether the writer himself is conscious of it or not, every novel must necessarily present a certain view of life and of some of the problems of life; that is, it must so exhibit incidents, characters, passions, motives, as to reveal more or less distinctly the way in which the author looks out upon the world and his general attitude towards it. It is difficult to find a name for this sixth element which is altogether satisfactory, for whatever may be suggested, we are in danger of implying too little or too much. But postponing any discussion of this till we reach it in our proper course, we will for the present call this the novelist’s criticism, or interpretation, or philosophy of life.
Plot, characters, dialogue, time and place of action, style, and a stated or implied philosophy of life, then, are the chief elements entering into the composition of any work of prose fiction, small or great, good or bad. Omitting the element of style, which, as common to all kinds of literature, need not detain us here, we will take the other components one by one and consider some of the questions which naturally arise in connection with each of them in any novel we may select for our study.
In dealing with the element of plot our first business will always be with the nature of the raw material out of which it is made and with the quality of such material when judged by the standards furnished by life itself.
Take, for example, the works of four of the greatest novelists who wrote in English during the last century—Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is immediately evident that these four writers drew their subjects from widely different aspects of life and classes of incident ; and as we turn from David Copperfield to Vanity Fair, and from these again to Adam Bede and The Scarlet Letter, we feel that with each transition we are passing, not only from one kind of plot-interest to another, but even from one kind of world to another. Yet, with all their differences in matter and method, Dickens and Thackeray, George Eliot and Hawthorne are at one in this—their themes possess in themselves a substantial value and a genuine human meaning because they are concerned, not with the mere trivialities which lie upon the surface of existence, but with passions, conflicts and problems which, however their forms may change, belong to the essential texture of life. Deduced from the fundamental conception of literature as an interpretation of life, the elementary test thus suggested is of universal applicability, for it is the certain mark of a great novel, as of all great literature, that, wide as may be the range of its accessory topics, it is primarily engaged with the things which make life strenuous, intense, and morally significant. This does not, of course, mean that greatness in fiction depends in the least upon the external importance of its incidents and characters. Life may be as strenuous, intense, and morally significant in the simplest story of the humblest people as in the largest movements of history or the most thrilling situations of the heroic stage ; and in the agony of Arthur Dimmesdale and the pitiful story of Hetty Sorrel’s downfall we are quite as closely in touch with some of the most powerful motive-forces of life as in the fate of Macbeth or Agamemnon. Nor does it mean that it is to the tragic phases of experience only that a great novel must be confined, for the comedy of life is often as full of large and permanent human interest as its tragedy. The question is one of essential ethical value, and the principle proposed is simply this—that a novel is really great only when it lays its foundations broad and deep in the things which most constantly and seriously appeal to us in the struggle and fortunes of our common humanity.
To prevent possible misapprehension it should perhaps be further stated explicitly that to employ this test and to abide by its results does not imply any censorious denial of the claims to a warm place in our affections of many novels which would fail to meet it. One function of fiction is to provide amusement for the leisure hour and a welcome relief from the strain of practical affairs ; and any novel which serves its purpose in this way may, on the sole condition that the pleasure it affords is wholesome and tonic, be held to have fully justified itself. Moreover, the excellence of its technique, or its dramatic power, or its exceptional cleverness in characterisation, or its abundant humour, or some other outstanding quality of its workmanship, may suffice to lift an otherwise insignificant story to a high rank in fictitious literature. These considerations must be duly recognised, and a narrow and pedantic view of the matter avoided. Nonetheless, all qualifications admitted, our principle remains unimpugned. Matthew Arnold’s emphasis upon the need of sound subject-matter in literature is here very much to the point. The basis of true greatness in a novel is to be sought in the greatness, or substantial value, of its raw materials.
It is, however, clear that though this is the basis, greatness of subject-matter will not of itself ensure the greatness of a novel. Mastery of handling is now requisite in order that all the varied possibilities of a given theme may be brought out to the full. Here, of course, we approach the whole question of the making of a novel, including the two contributory elements of individual power and technical skill. But before we come to this, there is a preliminary problem to be touched upon, since individual power would be wasted and technical skill exercised to little effect unless they are both supported by an ample knowledge of life.
We are thus brought back to the cardinal principle, already often emphasised, of fidelity to oneself and one’s experiences as the condition of all good work in literature. Because fiction is fiction and not fact, it is sometimes carelessly assumed that it has nothing to do with fact. No mistake could be more serious. Of the relations of fiction to truth we shall, however, speak presently. For the moment we have merely to insist that no novel can be pronounced, I will not say great, but even excellent in its degree, whatever that may be, if it lacks the quality of ‘authenticity.’ Whatever aspects of life the novelist may choose to write about, he should write of them with the grasp and thoroughness which can be secured only by familiarity with his material. What he is not familiar with he should leave alone.
This general principle has been rigorously interpreted to mean that the novelist should confine himself within the field, however small, of his own personal first-hand intercourse with the world, and never allow himself to stray beyond it. Thus we have George Eliot’s well-timed attack upon the work of the ordinary women novelists of her day ; they tried, she complained, to wirte like men and from the man’s point of view, instead of taking their stand on the fundamental difference of sex, with all that this implies, and endeavouring to portray life frankly and sincerely as a woman knows and feels it. One of the writers whom for contrast she singles out for special praise may indeed be taken as our supreme example of unfailing conscientiousness in this particular—that exquisite artist who was content to work upon “two or three inches of ivory” because her knowledge of life was too limited to provide material for larger treatment, but whose novels may be regarded as perfect in their kind though they do not fulfil our first condition of real greatness in fiction. Alike in theory and practice Jane Austen adhered strictly to this principle of absolute fidelity. When a niece asked her judgment on a manuscript story, she gave her the characteristic advice: “Let the Portmans go to Ireland ; but as you know nothing of the manner there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations.” Equally instructive was her own example. Save in two brief passages in The Watsons, there is, I believe, no scene in all her novels in which men only are described as talking together and their dialogue reported. Her women converse with other women, and with men ; but as she had no immediate knowledge of the behaviour of men among themselves in wholly masculine company, she simply left the subject alone. Such willingness to accept her limitations of knowledge, combined as it was with equal willingness to accept her limitations of power, goes far to explain the uniform excellence of Jane Austen’s work.
How little this principle of fidelity is commonly recognised is repeatedly shown in the writings of our minor novelists, who frequently build their plots out of materials lying far beyond their own observation, and are seldom deterred even by the profoundest ignorance from following their story whithersoever it leads. They will boldly challenge comparison with Anthony Trollope in descriptions of the hunting field ; with Halefy in pictures of theatrical life ; with Bret Harte in scenes from the California gold diggings ; with Stevenson and Clarke Russel in the romance of the sea ; though they themselves have never ridden with the hounds, or entered a green room, or lived in the far west, or known more of salt water than may be gathered from a summer passage from Folkestone to Boulogne. If is often said that every man might produce at least one interesting novel if he would only write faithfully of what he has known and felt for himself ; but it is a curious fact that in the vast majority of cases this is the last thing that the would-be novelist ever thinks of doing. On the contrary, inspired rather by the work of some favourite writer, whom he seeks to imitate, than by life itself, he commits the fatal blunder of drawing second-hand information for the groundwork of his plot.
It is not, however, necessary to push the doctrine of authenticity to the extreme represented by the precept and practice of Jane Austen, and, indeed, we should be warranted in doing so only on the supposition that a novel must be realistic which, as we shall see presently, we are not in the least called upon to accept. Knowledge of life may be obtained in various ways besides direct personal experience ; it may, in particular, be obtained through books and through conversation with other people who have touched the world at points where we have not touched it ourselves. A writer of real creative genius, with that power of absorbing and utilising all kinds of material derived form all kinds of sources, and that sheer power of realistic imagination which habitually goes with this, may thus attain substantial fidelity even when he is handling scenes and incidents which have never come within the range of his own experience and observation. Little fault has been found with Robinson Crusoe on the score of inaccuracy even in details, while in the quality of carrying conviction it stands in the front rank of fictitious narratives ; yet it must not be forgotten that the man who wrote it had not only never lived on a desert island, but had never even seen the sea. The historical novelist is evidently compelled to rely upon indirect information for the specific characteristics of any period he undertakes to describe ; and what the historical novelist does in dealing with the past, the novelist of contemporary life may do with equal assurance when the exigencies of his plot carry him beyond his individual field. The doctrine of fidelity must therefore be stated with due qualifications. What is require in all cases is a large many-sided experience of men and things and a resulting general knowledge of life both ample and thorough, the application of which to specific details may vitalise and humanise materials wheresoever gained ; this, and what I have called that sheer power of realistic imagination which will often enable a writer to see more clearly and depict more convincingly a scene he has only heard or read of than could an ordinary person who had himself witnessed such a scene or even taken part in it.
The more technical side of the substance of a novel, which we designate in the word plot, has next to be considered. A novel, whatever else it is or is not, is at any rate a story. Two questions, therefore, suggest themselves which, though it is almost superfluous to do so, we must still state in definite form. Is the story, as story, fresh, interesting, and worth the telling ? And, this being settled, is it well and artistically told ? In other words, we demand, with the most uncritical reader, that the story shall in its own particular way be a good one ; and also—a consideration to which the uncritical reader is for the most part curiously indifferent— that it shall be skilfully put together. By this we mean that on careful examination of all its details, it shall reveal no gaps or inconsistencies ; that its parts shall be arranged with a due sense of balance and proportion ; that its incidents shall appear to evolve spontaneously from its data and from one another ; that commonplace things shall be made significant by the writer’s touch upon them ; that the march of events, however unusual, shall be so managed as to impress us as orderly and natural in the circumstances ; and that the catastrophe, whether foreseen or not, shall satisfy us as the logical product and summing up of all that has gone before.
Mere power of narrative is also in itself a feature which will always repay attention. The gift of telling a story to the best possible advantage is, as anyone may soon discover for himself by listening critically to the anecdotes which are exchanged over a dinner-table, much rarer than is commonly supposed ; while, as the same experiment will further prove, it is also a gift by itself, having, like the historionic faculty, little or nothing to do with a person’s general intellectual ability. Among English poets, Chaucer, Dryden, Scott, and William Morris, dissimilar as were otherwise their qualities of genius, had this gift in a marked degree, while on the other hand Spenser, great as he was in pure description, was here singularly weak ; among our historians Carlyle and Macaulay in particular had it ; and we must recognise this fact in our estimate of these writers apart from any other questions concerning Chaucer, Dryden, Scott and Morris as poets, and Carlyle and Macaulay as historians. So with prose fiction. There are novelists whose books have little weight or permanent value, who can at least tell a story naturally, easily, and in a way to bring out at each stage its maximum amount of interest; there are others of immeasurably greater intellectual power in whom this faculty is poorly developed, or in whose work its exercise is impeded by the pressure of other things. Thus in reading Dumas, for example, who is one of the world’s very best story-tellers, we cannot fail to admire the free and vigorous movement of the narrative, which sweeps us on from point to point with no apparent effort or strain, while a certain sense of effort and strain is almost always with us when we are reading George Eliot, or Balzac, or Tolstoi. Nor is it only at the evolution of the action as a whole that we have to look. We must consider also the writer’s power of managing his separate parts—of handling his situations and working up his effects. Much of the dramatic value of scenes of great potential interest is often allowed to escape under inadequate treatment ; but a novelist who knows his business will make every incident tell with its proper proportion of effect in relation to the whole. Of course, here as elsewhere, methods vary. We may have, for instance, the marvellous brevity and restraint of Thackeray’s account of George Osborne’s death at Waterloo ; we may have, in a totally different manner, the elaborately-wrought detail with which Dickens describes the death of old Krook, and Hawthorne the death of Judge Pyncheon. Hence it will always be a matter of interest not only to observe results, but also to examine the means by which the results are obtained by different writers or by the same writer in different circumstances or at different stages of his career.
In dealing with plot-structure we may distinguish roughly between two kinds of novel—I say roughly, because the types, though clearly defined, shade into one another by imperceptible gradations. These are what we may call respectively the novel of loose plot and the novel of organic plot. In the former case the story is composed of a number of detached incidents, having little necessary or logical connection among themselves ; the unity of the narrative depending not on the machinery of the action, but upon the person of the hero who, as the central figure or nucleus, binds the otherwise scattered elements together. Such a novel is, in fact, “rather a history of the miscellaneous adventures which befall an individual in the course of life than the plot of a regular and connected epopæia, where every step brings us a point nearer to the final catastrophe.” Thus while it may be filled to overflowing with interesting separate episodes, it has little in the nature of a comprehensive general design, in the evolution of which each detail plays a distinct and vital part.
Robinson Crusoe and Gil Blas, Joseph Andrews and Roderick Random, Vanity Fair and Pendennis, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, may be cited as familiar examples of this “loose and incoherent” type of novel, as Scott called it; in them one scene leads to another, the characters cross and re-cross; but the books as a whole have little structural backbone or organic unity. In no one of these cases, it is evident, was it necessary that the author should have thought out beforehand the details of his drama ; it was enough that he should have in mind a broad general notion of the course the story was to take ; it could then be left—as Thackeray confessedly left his stories—to unfold itself as it went along. Just as manifestly the case is entirely different with novels of the organic type—with such novels as Tom Jones, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, or The Woman in White. Here the separate incidents are no longer treated episodically ; they are dovetailed together as integral components of a definite plotpattern. In these cases, it is clear, something more than a general idea of the course of the story was necessary before the author began his work. The entire plan had to be considered in detail ; the characters and events arranged to occupy their proper places in it ; and the various lines laid down which were to converge in bringing about the catastrophe.
This distinction, however, as I have said, is a rough one only. I have instanced the above-mentioned books precisely because they represent well-defined types. Several qualifying remarks must now be made. In the first place, even in novels of the organic kind there is often a great deal of purely episodical material. Thus in Tom Jones, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend there are many incidents and characters which lie outside the general design and are not really connected with it. Secondly, all degrees of plot-organisation are, of course, possible between the elaborate compactness of these books and the extreme looseness of The Pickwick Papers or Pendennis. Among Dickens’s novels, for example, David Copperfield and Martin Chuzzlewit exhibit intermediate stages of plot-unification. Again, there are innumerable novels in which (as in those of Jane Austen and Turgenev) the matter of the plot is so simple that no regular development of a dramatic scheme is to be looked for. Nor, finally, is it for a moment to be assumed that the organic novel, as such, is on a higher artistic plane than the loose novel, though Scott thought it necessary to apologise because his stories belonged to the latter class. Indeed, for reasons which will appear presently, a really great novel is likely, as a rule, to approximate rather to the loose than to the organic type. At the same time, compactness and symmetry—a good plot well worked out—undoubtedly give aesthetic pleasure, and we rightly admire the technical skill to which they testify ; while no consideration of their excellence in other respects should tempt us to palliate the total want of structural unity and coherence in such works as Vanity Fair and The Newcomes.
The two drawbacks to which a highly organised plot is specially liable may here just be noted. It may be so mechanically put together that its very cleverness may impress us with an uneasy sense of laborious artifice. This is commonly the case with the novels of our most deft manipulator of mere plot, Wilkie Collins. Or it may lack plausibility in details. Here a frequent error is the abuse of coincidence. Thus in Tom Jones (the plot of which, perhaps because it was the first great effort of the kind in English fiction, has been absurdly over-praised) all sorts of unexpected things are perpetually happening in the very nick of time, while people turn up again and again at the right moment, and in the place where they are wanted only because they chance to be wanted then and there. Even Mr. Austin Dobson is compelled to admit, though he does so reluctantly, the strain which the narrative for this reason frequently inflicts upon our sense of probability. The defence which is sometimes offered for the free use of coincidence—that coincidences do happen in real life—is scarcely to the point ; for the obverse of the dictum that truth is stranger than fiction is, that fiction should not be so strange as truth. Two tests of any plot are thus suggested. It should seem to move naturally, and be free from any appearance of artifice ; and the means used in working it out should be such as we are willing to accept, in the circumstances, as at least credible.
A special aspect of the principle of unity in plot-structure has next to be considered. The plot of a novel may be simple or compound; that is, it may be composed of one story only, or of two or more stories in combination ; and the law of unity requires that in a compound plot the parts should be wrought together into a single whole. Our criticism of Vanity Fair, on the structural side, bears chiefly on this point ; the narrative is made up of two stories—the story of Amelia Sedley and the story of Becky Sharp ; and these two stories are not properly amalgamated. In precisely the same way Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, and Anna Karenina are alike open to criticism. In Bleak House, on the contrary, the three threads of Esther Summerson’s story, the story of Lady Dedlock’s sin, and the story of the great Chancery suit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, are very cleverly interwoven, and thus we have an admirable example on an immense scale of the unification of complex materials. It should also be noted that where several independent elements enter into a plot, it is often the practice of novelists to make them balance or illustrate one another. It was Dickens’s habitual method to offset his melodrama by broad comedy, according to the plan of the romantic dramatists. Even in Vanity Fair, while there is little effort to fuse the two stories, the significance of the moral and dramatic contrast between them throughout is kept clearly in view ; and some such moral and dramatic contrast will be found underlying the two stories in Anna Karenina. About this matter of balance among the different parts of a plot, however, we shall have more to say when we come to speak of the technique of the drama, when the various stages in the movement of a plot will also be considered.
One other point in the study of plot has still to be indicated. While the dramatist is, of course, confined to a single way of telling his story—by representation combined with narrative put into the mouths of his characters—the novelist has his choice among three methods—the direct, or epic ; the autobiographical; and the documentary. In the first and most usual way, the novelist is an historian narrating from the outside ; in the second, he writes in the first person, identifying himself with one of his characters (generally, though not always, the hero or heroine), and thus produces an imaginary autobiography ; as in Robinson Crusone, The Vicar of Wakefield, David Copperfield, Esmond, Jane Eyre ; in the third, the action is unfolded by means of letters, as in the ‘epistolary’ novels of Richardson, Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther ; or—a favourite device of Wilkie Collins—by diaries, contributed narratives, and miscellaneous document. Occasionally, the methods may be blended, as in Bleak House, where Esther Summerson’s story is told by herself, while the rest of the book takes the direct historic form. It is evident that each of these three ways has its special advantages ; for while the direct method always gives the greatest scope and freedom of movement, a keener and more intimate interest may sometimes be attained by the use of either the first-personal or the documentary plan. Yet it will be observed that both these last-named methods involve difficulties of their own, and that on the whole it is best to avoid them save where the compensation gain is considerable. In adopting the autobiographic form, a novelist may frequently fail to bring all his material naturally within the compass of the supposed narrator’s knowledge and power; and he may sometimes miss the true personal tone ; as in the case of Esther Summerson, who (as the least critical reader must be aware) writes altogether too much like Dickens himself and with too marked an admixture of Dicken’s insight and humour. And whatever may be urged in theory on behalf of the documentary method, in practice it is very apt to become, even in the hands of a skilful artist, both clumsy and unconvincing. In our study of any novel in which either of these two plans is followed, we must always ask why the author has chosen to depart from the more ordinary narrative method, and to what extent, and in what ways, his work has gained or lost by the change.
In passing from plot to characterisation in fiction we are met at the outset by one of those elementary questions of which even the most uncritical reader is certain to feel the force. Does the novelist succeed in making his men and women real to our imaginations ? Do they, in Trollope’s phrase, “stand upright on the ground” ? That the great creations of our great novelists fulfil this initial condition is a fact too familiar to need particular illustration. They lay hold of us by virtue of their substantial quality of life ; we know and believe in them as thoroughly, we sympathise with them as deeply, we love and hate them as cordially, as though they belonged to the world of flesh and blood. And the first thing that we require of any novelist in his handling of character is that, whether he keeps close to common experience or boldly experiments with the fantastic and the abnormal, his men and women shall move through his pages like living beings and like living beings remain in our memory after his book is laid aside and its details perhaps forgotten.
It is unnecessary to enter here into any discussion of the psychology of that dramatic genius by which life is thus given to the figments of fancy and the illusion of reality produced. Intensity of conception and what I have called realistic imagination are doubtless at the bottom of it. But it is well to remember that the processes of creation are confessedly as mysterious to those who possess such creative power as they are to other people. Thus Thackeray spoke of this power as “occult”—as a power which seemed at times to take the pen from his fingers and move it in spite of himself. “I don’t control my characters,” he once protested ; “I am in their hands, and they take me where they please.” He had, as it were, endowed them with independent volition, and by so doing had to a large extent placed them beyond the range of his calculations ; they spoke and acted on their own impulse ; and so unexpected and surprising were occasionally the results that when, as he tells us, one or another of them had said or done something altogether unlooked for, he would be driven to ask in bewilderment, “How the dickens did he come to think of that ?” Such testimony is exceedingly instructive, for it touches upon an experience which, so far from being unique, has been, I am convinced, the experience of every writer of real creative genius from the delineator of Shylock and Hamlet downward. Herein, indeed, lies the ultimate distinction between creative genius and mere talent, however brilliant and well-trained, the latter simply manufactures, and its effects are always within the field of conscious and deliberate effort. The former really creates, and for this reason its outworkings are often as strange inexplicable to the author himself at the time as to those who afterwards pick his characters to pieces in the hope of plucking the heart out of their mystery.
Putting on one side, however, this whole problem of power, and confining ourselves to the question of method, we may note that a Novelist’s success in characterisation necessarily depends on part upon his faculty for graphic description. In the representation of a play those secondary arts of which I have spoken are of immense service in the definition of personality, and the make-up of the actor and his interpretation of his part give us the dress and bearing, the looks and gestures, of the character portrayed by him. In the reading of a novel (save where occasional assistance is furnished by accompanying illustrations—a device seldom satisfactory enough to merit serious attention), all these things are the imagination only; and thus it is an important part of the business of the novelist to help us by description to a vivid realisation of the appearance and behaviour of his people. Whoever is individual and characteristic in their physical aspect general, whatever is of importance in their expression or demeanour at any critical moment, must be so indicated as to stand out clearly in the reader’s mind. But how is this to be accomplished ? This is a question which will always repay careful consideration. It will be found that as a rule a set and formal description, given item by item, is (as Lessing showed) one of the least successful ways of making a character live before us, and that a skilled artist is specially known by his power of selecting and accumulating significant detail and of stimulating the imagination of the reader by slight occasional touches.
In regard to what is more specifically understood as characterisation—that is, the psychological side of it—the principal thing to remember is, that the conditions of the novel commonly permit the use of two opposed methods the direct or analytical, and the indirect or dramatic. In the one case the novelist portrays his characters from the outside, dissects their passions, motives, thoughts and feelings, explains, comments, and often pronounces authoritative judgment upon them. In the other case, he stands apart, allows his characters to reveal themselves through speech and action, and reinforces their self-delineation by the comments and judgments of other characters in the story. I say the conditions of the novel commonly permit the use of these two methods ; they do not always do so, because in fiction in which the autobiographical or documentary plan is strictly adhered to, in fact as well as in theory, and the intrusion of the novelist in person is thus prevented, the presentation of character is confined within the limits of dramatic objectivity. Speaking generally, however, the very form of the novel as a compound of narrative and dialogue, practically involves a combination of the non-dramatic and the dramatic in the handling of character. In the examination of a novelist’s technique, therefore, his habitual way of using these two methods, and the proportions in which he combines them, will evidently prove an interesting question. Often we may observe a distinct bias towards one or the other. Thus Thackeray, though he makes admirable use of the indirect method, supports its results by an enormous amount of personal interpretation and criticism ; while direct analysis is seriously overdone by George Eliot and the so-called psychological novelists in general. In Jane Austen’s works, on the other hand, the dramatic element predominates ; her men and women for the most part portray themselves through dialogue, while she herself continually throws cross-lights upon them in the conversation of the different people by whom they are discussed. We shall naturally find that the largest place is given to direct analysis in novels which deal mainly with the inner life and with complexities of motive and passion ; yet even here it may be abused, and the abuse of it must always be regarded as a grave artistic mistake. Modern criticism rightly favours the fullest possible development of the dramatic method. The principle that it is always better that a character should be made to reveal itself than that it should be dissected from the outside, is thoroughly sound ; and it is easy to perceive that where dissection is perpetually substituted for self-revelation, it is often because the novelist is deficient in true dramatic sense and power. But it is not therefore necessary to go with some extremists, who, on the supposition that the excellence of a novel is in the measure of its approximation to the drama, condemn entirely the employment of analysis and commentary. It is one advantage which prose fiction possesses in comparison with the drama that the author himself may from time to time appear in the capacity of expositor and critic ; and when he avails himself of this privilege he may justly maintain that as he is writing a novel and not a drama, it is by the laws of the novel and not by those of the drama that he is bound.
Further comparison of these two cognate forms of art suggests another important point. The immense scope of the novel, its freedom of movement, and its indifference to considerations of time and place, combine with the advantage just mentioned to give it a special power of dealing with character in the making. Even our earlier novelists were quick to seize the opportunity thus afforded, as we may see in the writings of Defoe and Richardson ; while the whole tendency of literary evolution during the past century has been to force the dynamics of personality more and more to the front. So far as modern fiction is concerned, therefore, there is little exaggeration in the statement of Lotze that “the slow shaping of character is the problem of the novel” ; for it would be difficult to name any really great modern novel in which that problem does not occupy a conspicuous place, even if it does not furnish the kernel or centre of interest. A common practice with the novelist who writes as a serious student of character is thus to present at the outset some leading figure with certain potentialities of good and evil, and then to follow his movement upward or downward under the influences of other people, surrounding conditions, personal experiences and his reaction to them, and whatever else enters as a formative factor into his life. The problem may of course be worked out in many ways ; in particular, the changes in question may be exhibited as the results either of some exceptional crisis by which an entire revulsion of feeling is brought about, or (as Lotze’s view indicates), of a gradual unfolding or atrophy of the moral nature. In either case, our attention should be directed to the means by which the changes are produced, to the question of the adequacy of the assigned causes to account for the supposed effects, and to the psychological power and truth of the delineation as a whole. It is here that, however otherwise we may judge her work, George Eliot holds her special place among our English writers of fiction. Some problem in the dynamics of character (usually conceived on the tragic side) lies at the heart of every one of her novels, and their real greatness is ultimately to be sought in the wonderful insight and skill with which she handles her theme. Where so many illustrations might be given, choice is difficult ; but it may, I think, be said without hesitation that as an elaborate study of moral deterioration under repeated shocks of temptation Tito Melema is the finest thing of the kind in English literature.
It may finally be noted that in our general estimate of any novelist’s characterisation, the question of his range and limitations must not be left out of consideration. Catholicity of course counts greatly in our judgment of his work in the mass ; for while we admire those who, like Jane Austen, are content to do a few things and to do them well, we naturally assign a higher place to those whose accomplishment is broader and more varied. But every novelist who writes much and covers a considerable field is certain to have his points of special strength and special weakness, and the strength and the weakness alike will always throw much light upon the essential qualities of his genius and art. There is, for example, no better way of getting to know the real powers, sympathies, and affiliations of Scott than by a careful analysis of the many different classes of character which make up the dramatis personæ of the Waverley Novels. His nominal heroes possess little life, and are generally, as he confessed, “very amiable and very insipid young men.” “I am,” he writes with his customary candour, “a bad hand at depicting a hero properly so-called, and have an unfortunate propensity for the dubious characters of borderers, buccaneers highland robbers, and all others of a Robin Hood description.” His heroines, though they often possess genuine charm, are usually rather conventional. He has little power over the deeper passions, save, significantly enough, those of loyalty and patriotism. Under the influence of the romantic movement he made frequent excursions into the domain of the abnormal and the fantastic ; but he was too much a man of the eighteenth century to succeed in this direction, and his Madge Wildfire, Meg Merrilies, Dame Urfried, Norna of the Fitful Head, Fenella, and the rest, though highly praised by Coleridge, are in fact poor things, while the White Lady of The Monastery is decisive proof of his deficient sense of the supernatural. We have, therefore, a long list of failures, comparative or complete, to allow for, before we come at length to Scott’s great and memorable successes in characterisation. And where are these to be sought ? I pass over the historical studies because they involve complicating considerations of accuracy into which we cannot now enter, and reply, chiefly among his homely figures from Scottish life ; in such characters as Jeanie Deans and Saunders Mucklebakit ; among his lawyers, peasent-folk, farmers, inn-keepers, old-fashioned retainers and serving-men ; in his humorous eccentrics, such as the Baron of Bradwardine, Dominie Sampson, Jonathan Oldbuck, and Duguld Dalgetty. That the facts thus elicited help us to understand the foundations of Scott’s genius and the real value of his work in the novel is, I believe, evident ; and a similar inquiry into the successes and failures of other novelists would be equally fruitful of results.
What has previously been said about the need of fidelity to personal observation and experience in the plot and manners of a novel is of course no less applicable to its characterisation. In his “essay to prove that an author will write the better for having some knowledge of the subject on which he writes,” Fielding properly urged that “a true knowledge of the world is gained only by conversation ; and the manners of every rank must be seen in order to be known.” This may be accepted as thoroughly sound doctrine, disregard of which has been responsible from time to time for some conspicuous failures on the part of even the greatest novelists. Yet the general statement must be qualified in the way already pointed out. Special information concerning the manners and speech of particular classes and callings is indeed a prerequisite of their correct portraiture. But a broad and intimate knowledge of human nature at large, a keen insight into the workings of its common motives and passions, creative power and dramatic sympathy, will together often suffice to give substantial reality and the unmistakable touch of truth to characters for which scarcely a single suggestion can have been taken directly from the life.
Thus far we have dealt with plot and characterisation separately; but as in practice they are always united, something must be said about their relationships.
In common talk we distinguish roughly between two classes of novels—those in which the interest of character is uppermost, while action is used simply or mainly with reference to this ; and those in which the interest of plot is uppermost, and characters are used simply or mainly to carry on the action. Quite inadequate as the distinction is, since, like all such haphazard groupings of literature, it takes cognizance only of the more extreme forms, it is nonetheless useful because, as indicating differences of emphasis, it suggests the question of the relative value of incident and character in fiction. To this question I do not hesitate to reply that of the two elements characterisation is the more important ; from which it follows that novels which have the principal stress on character rank higher as a class than those which depend mainly on incident. The interest aroused by a story merely as a story may be very keen at the time of reading ; but it is in itself a comparatively childish and transitory interest, while that aroused by characterisation is deep and lasting. Now, there is ample evidence to show, as indeed one might have anticipated, that a certain amount of opposition always exists between the claims of plot and those of character ; where attention is paid primarily to plot, the characters have often to be forced into its service, even at the cost of some sacrifice to their consistency ; where attention is paid primarily to character, the expansion of personality—often quite unforeseen at the outset—as the story runs its course, will frequently prove fatal to the regularity of the plot design. We now see why the novels which hold the highest places in literature are in nearly all cases novels of character and not novels of plot. Our greatest novelists, indeed, have habitually shown a disregard of mere plot sometimes amounting to positive carelessness ; a fact which explains the generalisation already mentioned, that a really great novel is likely as a rule to approximate rather to the loose than to the organic type of plot-structure.
These considerations lead to a principle of great importance. While in every novel plot and characters must be combined, there is a right way and a wrong way of treating their relationship. The wrong way is to bring them together arbitrarily and without making each depend logically upon each ; the right way is to conceive them throughout as forces vitally interacting in the movement of the story. In a merely sensational novel, where the writer’s main concern is with his plot, the machinery of the action will commonly be found to have little to do, save in the most general sense, with the personal qualities of the actors. The plot itself having been put together with little or no reference to them, they are simply puppets pulled this way or that, as the intrigue demands, by the showman’s string. But it is in the personal qualities thus subordinated that in all really good fiction the mainsprings of the action must ultimately be sought. Simple or complex, the plot evolves as a natural consequence of the fact that a number of given people, of such and such dispositions and impelled by such and such motives and passions, are brought together in circumstances which give rise to an interplay of influence or clash of interests among them. The circumstances themselves may indeed count greatly as co-operating factors, and an impersonal element may thus combine with the personal in the development of the action. Yet even so, the personal reaction to circumstance will always remain a central consideration. Incident is thus rooted in character, and is to be explained in terms of it. One point to be kept in view, therefore, in the examination of a novel, is the degree of closeness with which plot and characters are interwoven.
This introduces the special question of ‘motivation.’ “It is a part of the author’s duty,” as Scott properly remarks, “to afford satisfactory details upon the causes of the separate events he has recorded.” This means that in the evolution of plot out of character, the motives which prompt the persons of the story to act as they do must impress us as both in keeping with their natures and adequate to the resulting incidents. If for the sake of the plot a character is made to take a line of action in contradiction to the whole bias of his disposition, or on motives which seem insufficient or fantastic, then the true relation of plot and character is ignored, and the art is faulty. We are thus brought round again to the problem of psychological truth, which, as will now be seen, is as essential in the management of plot as in the handling of character itself.
By a natural transition we pass from the characters of fiction to their conversation.
Dialogue, well managed, is one of the most delightful elements of a novel ; it is that part of it in which we seem to get most intimately into touch with people, and in which the written narrative most nearly approaches the vividness and actuality of the acted drama. The expansion of this element in modern fiction is, therefore, a fact of great significance. Any one who watches an uncritical reader running over the pages of a novel for the purpose of judging in advance whether or not it will be to his taste, will notice that the proportion of dialogue to compact chronicle and description is almost always an important factor in the decision. Nor is the uncritical reader to be condemned on this account. His instinct is sound. Good dialogue greatly brightens a narrative, and its judicious and timely use is to be regarded as evidence of a writer’s technical skill.
Investigation shows that while dialogue may frequently be employed in the evolution of the plot—the action moving (as often in the drama) beneath the conversation—its principal function is in direct connection with character. It has immense value in the exhibition of passions, motives, feelings ; of the reaction of the speakers to the events in which they are taking part ; and of their influence upon one another. In the hands of a novelist who leans strongly towards the dramatic method, it may thus often be made to fill the place and perform the work of analysis and commentary. Where this can be done naturally and effectively, the gain, as I have already pointed out, is considerable. Even where the analytical method is freely used, dialogue will prove of constant service as a vivifying supplement to it.
The chief requirements which dialogue should fulfil may be briefly formulated.
In the first place, it should always constitute an organic element in the story; that is, it should really contribute, directly or indirectly, either to the movement of the plot or to the elucidation of the characters in their relations with it. Extraneous conversation, however clever or amusing in itself, is therefore to be condemned for precisely the same reason as we condemn any interjected discourse on miscellaneous topics by the author himself ; namely, that having no connection with the matter in hand, it breaks the fundamental law of unity. Examples of such infraction will be found in plenty in the discussions on politics, society, literature and art, which fill so many pages in the novels of Bulwer Lytton. Conversation extended beyond the actual needs of the plot is to be justified only when it has a distinct significance in the exposition of character.
Beyond having this organic connection with the action, dialogue should be natural, appropriate, and dramatic ; which means that it should be in keeping with the personality of the speakers ; suitable to the situation in which it occurs ; and easy, fresh, vivid, and interesting. It is evident that these are elementary conditions of good dialogue. Yet it must be noted that the last-named of them is to a certain degree in antagonism to the other two, and that to fulfil them all in combination is possible only by a delicate compromise which it is one of the most difficult parts of the novelist’s art to attain. The actual talk of ordinary people, and even the talk of brilliant people in exceptional situations, would, if realistically reproduced, seem hopelessly slipshod, discursive, and ineffective ; while on the other hand there is a constant danger lest, in his effort to escape from the flat and commonplace, the writer should become just as hopelessly stilted, bookish and unconvincing. “In a quarrel that takes place in real life,” says Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, “you will find a great many undramatic repetitions and anti-climaxes, and sometimes a vast amount of unnecessary language. On the stage all this has to be avoided.” In the novel, too, all this has to be avoided ; but in the one case as in the other, while the periphrases and ineptitudes of an actual altercation must be eliminated and the entire matter re-cast with an eye to dramatic effect, theatrical declamation is not to be accepted as the proper substitute for racy and natural utterance. It was one of the besetting sins of Dickens that, master though he was of admirable dialogue, he habitually fell into melodramatic rant and bombast in scenes of tragic stress or passion. It will be admitted by all but the most uncompromising realists that to use the exact language which such a girl as Alice Marweed would have employed in her passionate outbursts of anger and hatred, would never do at all ; but then the language which Dickens puts into her mouth, not one syllable of which rings true, will never do either. To find the proper mean between such extremes, alike in ordinary conversations and in situations of emotional intensity, is the problem which the novelist has to solve. He has to edit and re-fashion his dialogue, but to do this without taking the genuine flavour out of it. His aim must therefore be, not to report the actual talk of everyday men and women, but to give such a conventionalised version of this as shall at once maintain the required dramatic rapidity and power, and leave the reader with a satisfying general sense of naturalness and reality.
In speaking of plot, characterisation, and dialogue in prose fiction I have not, it will be remarked, made any overt reference, though reference has several times been implied, to the question of the novelist’s powers of humour, pathos, and tragic effect. These special attributes are so conspicuous by their presence or absence, as the case may be, and they are so inevitably recognised or missed by even the most careless reader, that it is unnecessary to do more than make passing mention of them. It is no less evident that in our estimate of any novelist’s work as a whole, there are two points which in particular will here come up for examination. There is first the question of the extent and limitations of his powers. In the comparative study of fiction this question has some interest, since one writer is weak in humour who is strong in pathos ; with another the conditions are reversed ; a third is most at home among the fiercer passions ; while here and there we may find one who has something of Shakespeare’s assured mastery of many moods, and can touch us with equal certainty to mirth, to pity, to terror. Secondly, there is the more important question of the quality of his accomplishment in any of these directions ; for humour may vary from broad farce to the subtlest innuendoes of high comedy ; pathos from weak sentimentalism to the most delicate play of tender feeling ; tragedy from a crude revelling in merely material horrors to the most soul-moving calamities of the moral and spiritual life. Without further discussion it may be taken for granted that in the study of any novel or author both these questions of range and quality of emotional effect will be considered as a matter of course.
It must however be added that, simple as it may at first seem, the question of quality involves the large and in some respects difficult problem of the use and abuse of the emotional elements in fiction. This problem has many sides, one or two of which only can be indicated here.
That humour, one of the greatest endowments of genius and the one which beyond all others should help to keep a novelist’s work sane and wholesome, may yet be misemployed in various ways, will readily be perceived. It is misemployed, for example, when it is enlisted in the service of indecency or used to turn to ridicule what should arouse sympathy or the sense of revulsion rather than mirth. To lay down an abstract rule is impossible, for many things which are intrinsically pitiable or disgusting, like drunkenness, have still their comic aspect, and may therefore rightly be handled in the comic way. Often too such comic handling is morally most effective, and for this reason humour has always been a potent instrument for the correction of manners and the castigation of vice. Much depends upon spirit and treatment. But we are at least safe in saying that when our laughter is stirred it shall be by no unworthy subjects, that it shall not partake of cruelty, and that it shall leave no bad taste in the mouth.
A similar problem confronts us in connection with the painful emotions. Why we enjoy them at all when we experience them in the mimic world of art, is a question concerning which, since Aristotle started it in a famous passage in the Poetics, much has been written and countless theories propounded. That we do enjoy them is at any rate a patent fact, while the place that they occupy in much of the world’s greatest imaginative literature testifies eloquently to the depth and permanence of their appeal. Yet these painful emotions may easily be abused, and often have been abused. Sentiment may degenerate into sentimentalism and an unhealthy indulgence in the luxury of grief, and no one will deny the danger of this tendency who remembers how much fiction is written with the express purpose of satisfying a widespread craving for this particular kind of morbid excitement in weak or over-sensitive natures. In the same way, the proper bounds of tragic feeling may be over-stepped or its power perverted, as in the numerous instances in which descriptions of suffering are drawn out to a point at which they become positively agonising, or the reader is compelled to linger over scenes the whole effect of which depends upon their profusion of pathological detail. Once more it is impossible to formulate general principles for the guidance of taste, for healthy sentiment passes by insensible degrees into sickly sentimentalism, while the border-line between the tragic horror which is justifiable and that which is unjustifiable is equally shifting and vague. We can only suggest the importance of watching carefully the after-effect of fiction upon ourselves. If, the spell of the moment being broken, we look back on a novel we have just been reading and become conscious that we have been tricked into strong feeling without sufficient or upon unworthy cause, that our emotion has been merely factitious and will not stand the impartial judgment of the next say, or that the interest aroused has been of that gross and morbid kind which leaves a taint upon the mind, then, no matter what may be its artistic merits, the book must stand condemned. A rough test is thus provided, and though it is only a rough one, in practice it should prove of some utility.
We turn next to the question of setting in a novel, or what we have called its time and place of action. In this term we include the entire milieu of a story—the manners, customs, ways of life, which enter into its composition, as well as its natural background or environment. We may therefore distinguish two kinds of setting—the social and the material.
One marked feature of modern fiction is its specialisation. Fielding probably intended to give in Tom Jones a fairly complete picture of the English life of his time. Balzac and Zola alike attempted, not in one novel but in a series of novels, to embrace the whole of French civilisation in all its phases and ramifications. How far in these, and in other such cases, success has been achieved, it is unnecessary now to inquire. We have only to note the fact that few novelists have written with so comprehensive an aim. The tendency of the modern novel to spread out in all directions until it has become practically coextensive with the complex modern world, has inevitably been accompanied by a parallel tendency towards the subdivision of its subject-matter. A certain largeness of design is indeed often noticeable, as in the work of Dickens ; yet, for the most part, life is rather treated in sections, each novel concerning itself chiefly with one or two aspects of the great social comedy. Thus we have novels of the sea and of military life ; of the upper classes, the middle classes, the lower classes ; of industrial life, commercial life, artistic life, clerical life ; and so on. Subdivision also follows topographical lines, as in the innumerable novels of different localities and of local types of character : Scotch novels, Irish novels, “Wessex” novels; the ‘sectional’ stories which have long been popular in America ; and many novels in French literature which, like Daudet’s wonderful studies of the southern temperament, have a similar concentration of interest. Frequently, of course, the local type of character is presented amid its natural surroundings, but often its peculiarities are brought out by the device of transplanting it into another and contrasted environment. Whichever plan is adopted, it is evident that in all novels in which particular phases of life are kept to the fore, characterisation and social setting are vitally associated, and each element must therefore be considered in its connection with the other. But it must further be remembered that many novels owe much of their attractiveness and literary value to their skilful portrayal of the life and manners of special classes, social groups, or places. At this point the work of the novelist has again to be judged by the accuracy and power of his descriptions.
These principles hold good for the historical novel, which aims to combine the dramatic interest of plot and character with a more or less detailed picture of the varied features of the life of a particular age. Sometimes the historical setting has comparatively little to do with the essence of the narrative, the basis of which is provided rather by the permanent facts of experience than by the forms which these facts assume in special circumstances. George Eliot utilises in Romola the setting of the Italian Renaissance, and gives a laborious study not only of the outer life but also of the peculiar intellectual movements and spiritual struggles of that strange and brilliant period. Yet the central tragedy of Tito’s downfall is largely independent of the historical surroundings—a fact which she herself indicates in advance by dwelling as she does in her introductory chapter on the broad uniformities of human life beneath all superficial variations of place and time. Sometimes, on the other hand, the permanent is so bound up with the temporary and interpenetrated by it, that the setting becomes an essential element in the human drama itself. This is illustrated in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. As a study of sin and the effects of sin upon the soul, this powerful romance transcends all conditions of time and place. But the actual tragedy is wrought out of the materials furnished by New England Puritanism, and permanent moral issues thus assume in it a local and temporary form. While therefore it is possible to think of Tito’s story with little reference to the particular phases of life which constitute its background, to think in this way of the story of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne is impossible. It will thus always be well to observe the connection between theme and setting and the extent to which the latter is essential to the former. In some cases we shall find that the plot and characters are used simply to focus the outstanding features of the period dealt with; as in Newman’s Callista and Pater’s Gaston do Latour.
In whatever way the setting may be treated, however, the interest of an historical novel will always inhere in part—for this is one sense is the very justification of its existence—in its vivid reproduction of the life of a bygone age. Here again the tests to be applied are those of descriptive power and substantial accuracy. It is the business of the historical novelist to bring creative imagination to bear upon the dry facts of the annalist and the antiquarian, and out of a mass of scattered material gleaned from a variety of sources, to evolve a picture having the fulness and unity of a work of art. It is this power of making real and picturesque some particular period of civilisation, and of doing this without any suggestion of the dry-as-dust and pedantic, that the ordinary reader values most in the writer of historical fiction. About the question of his scholarship and fidelity he probably troubles himself little. That question must, however ultimately enter into our estimate of any novel which purports to describe a past epoch, though it is far too large and complex to admit of consideration here. Two points only may just be mentioned. In the first place, while of course an historical novel should adhere to truth in the narrative of such actual events as fall within its compass, it is far more important that it should represent faithfully the manners, tone, and temper of the age with which it deals. Thus we blame Scott because he is often guilty of anachronism in detail ; as when he brings Prince Charlie back to Scotland after Culloden, and makes Shakespeare the author of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a time when he could have been only some eleven years old ; but still more we blame him because in Ivanhoe—which is from first to last one sustained anachronism—he gives us a totally false impression of the life and spirit of the Middle Ages. Secondly, though, despite his many defects as an interpreter of history, Scott still remains our greatest historical novelist, it must not be forgotten that the sense of the importance of truth in historical fiction has developed enormously since his time. The historical novel was in part a product of the romantic movement, and in the hands of a writer like Dumas, it was almost pure romance. But the scientific spirit has now invaded it, and the writer who undertakes to rehabilitate the past has in a measure to accept the responsibilities of the chronicler. He has thus to satisfy at once the claims of history and the claims of art.
On the other kind of setting in fiction—the material—little needs to be said. Every reader will perforce note for himself the difference between novelists who, like Jane Austen, pay slight attention to the milieu of their scenes, and those who, like Balzac and Dickens, specially delight in minute descriptions of streets, houses, and interiors ; while the question of skill, vividness, method, and general artistic value will just as inevitably come up for consideration. There is, however, one special problem connected with material setting which should perhaps be emphasised. In our examination of a novelist’s use of nature, our first concern will be with his power as a landscape painter. But it must be remembered that, like the narrative poet, he may treat the natural background and accessories of his action in various ways. He may introduce them for picturesque purposes only and without relating them to his human drama ; or he may associate them directly with his drama either through contrast or through sympathy. There is, for instance, a touch of contrast suggested by the fact, though it is not mentioned in the scene itself, that little Paul Dombey’s death occurs on a fine Sunday in June ; there is, on the other hand, a hint of sympathy when Barkis dies at the hour of the outgoing tide. Hawthorne makes effective use of contrast when he shows the “fresh, transparent, cloudless morning” peeping through the windows of the silent chamber in which Judge Pyncheon sits dead ; Daudet employs the opposed principle of sympathy when in Le Nabab he describes the pitiless deluge of rain at the close of the day which had witnessed the absolute collapse of Jansoulet’s great fete. Of these two methods, that of making external conditions harmonise with the action or the mood of the characters is the more common. The use of nature in sympathy with man is indeed one of the most familiar of all dramatic devices ; and the connection is often accentuated to the full and most elaborately worked out ; as in the many storms which, as every novel-reader will remember, synchronise with and intensify situations of tragic power. The effect of contrast, of course, depends upon the sense of nature’s ironical indifference to human joys and sorrows, which are thus thrown into greater relief. In the sympathetic use of natural background nature often becomes almost symbolical.
It remains for us now to consider that sixth element in the novel, which we have described as the writer’s criticism, interpretation, or philosophy of life.
I put the matter first in its simplest form. Like the drama, the novel is concerned directly with life—with men and women, and their relationships, with the thoughts and feelings, the passions and motives by which they are governed and impelled, with their joys and sorrows, their struggles, successes, failures. Since, then, the novelist’s theme is life, in one or several of its innumerable aspects, it is impossible for him not to give, expressly or by implication, some suggestion at least, if nothing more than a suggestion, of the impression which life makes upon him. Little as he may dream of using his narrative as the vehicle of any special theories or ideas, certain theories or ideas will nonetheless be found embodied in it, and even the slightest story will yield under analysis a more or less distinct underlying conception of the moral values of the characters and incidents of which it is composed. To this extent, therefore, if no further, every novel, no matter how trivial, may be said to rest upon a certain view of the world, to incorporate or connote various general principles, and thus to present a rough general philosophy of life.
To this statement the reply may be made that it would manifestly be absurd to talk about a philosophy of life in connection with the ordinary run of our ephemeral works of fiction, which have no depth of interest, and are written with no purpose beyond that of providing amusement for the idle hour. Undoubtedly. But this is not because some kind of philosophy is not there ; it is only because it is not fresh and serious enough and is not expressed with sufficient truth and power, to be worthy of consideration. But the great novelists have been thinkers about life as well as observers of it ; and their knowledge of character, their insight into motive and passion, their illuminative treatment of the enduring facts and problems of experience, to say nothing of the ripe wisdom which they often bring to bear upon their task, combine to give to their view of the world a moral significance which no thoughtful reader is likely to overlook. How important this philosophical element in their work really is, strikingly shown by the fact that in discussing any great novel we soon find ourselves involved in the discussion of life itself.
It is not to be understood by this that we are to think of a novelist as starting out to expound a set body of ethical doctrines, or as contriving his story as an embodiment of certain ideas about life. This would be to misconceive grossly the attitude and method of the true creative artist. Of the question of purpose in the novel something will be said presently. For the moment we have only to insist that philosophical significance does not necessarily imply any preliminary philosophic aim. What a novelist thinks about life will inevitably guide him, consciously or unconsciously, in the arrangement of his plot and the treatment of his characters. But his primary concern is not with abstract questions but with the concrete facts of life, and he may—I do not say that he generally does, but that he may—handle these concrete facts without any effort or desire to suggest their moral meanings. It is certainly safe to assume—to take the example of the greatest creative power in literature—that Shakespeare’s interest throughout was in concrete facts—in action and character as such. There is therefore a sense in which it would be quite unwarrantable to speak of Shakespeare as a moralist at all. Yet, even if we waive the question whether he himself cared in the least about the ethical problems involved in his plays, there is another sense in which he may be regarded as one of the greatest of moralists. Thus Prof. Moulton is entirely justified in discussing the “moral system of Shakespeare” ; by which phrase he does not mean that Shakespeare wrote his dramas to prove any thesis or convey any lesson, or that he had any thesis or lesson in mind while composing them ; but simply that, as they stand, they actually present “a vast body” of “creative observations in human life,” which “invite arrangement and disposition into general truths.” In precisely the same way, if in no other, we may speak of the moral system of any great novelist, and regard his works as bodies of “creative observations” capable and worthy of being formulated into general truths.
Such moral system, or philosophy of life, may be given, and commonly is given, in the novel in two ways. In the first place, like the dramatist, the novelist interprets life by his mere representation of it. He selects certain materials out of the mass which life offers to him ; by his arrangement of these he brings certain facts and forces into relief ; he exhibits character and motive under certain lights ; and in the conduct of his plot indicates his view of the moral balance among the things which make up our human experience. As Prof. Moulton puts it, “every play of Shakespeare,” critically examined, turns out to be “a microcosm, of which the author is the creator, and the plot its providential scheme.” Similarly, every novel is a microcosm, of which the author is the creator and the plot the providential scheme. Merely by selection and organisation of material, emphasis, presentation of character and development of story, the novelist shows us in a general way what he thinks about life; and it is one business of criticism to reduce this scattered and implied philosophy to a systematic statement of fundamental principles.
Thus far the novelist’s course is the same as the dramatist’s: they both interpret life by representation. But while the dramatist is confined to this indirect method, the novelist is able, if he chooses, to supplement it by direct personal commentary and explanation. He can, as it were, step before the curtain, elucidate the action, discuss the characters and their motives, and generalise on the moral questions suggested by them. Where he avails himself of the privilege afforded by the free form of the novel to do this, he becomes himself the interpreter of the mimic world he has called into existence, and therefore of life at large ; thus anticipating the critic in the task of systematising and formulating his thought.
In estimating the philosophy of life contained in any novel, we have to test it from two points of view—that of its truth and that of its morality. But in applying these tests, we must be on our guard against some rather serious misconceptions which are current in respect of them.
The truth we demand in fiction is not identical with the truth we demand from science. Plato made the mistake of confusing them, holding that all imaginative literature is “false” because it does not reproduce the actual facts of existence ; that Homer’s poetry, for instance, is full of “lies.” Even to-day we may meet with people who are more or less troubled by this difficulty, and who, failing to perceive any difference between fiction and falsehood, look askance at all kinds of fictitiuous writing in consequence. But with the penetrative insight which carried him to the heart of so many questions, Aristotle pointed out the fallacy of Plato’s view, rightly maintaining the existence in all great works of the imagination of a ‘poetic truth’ which is really deeper and more comprehensive than the mere literal fidelity to fact which we expect in the work of the historian. For while the historian is bound down to things which, in Charles Reade’s witty phrase, have gone through the formality of taking place, the creative artist is limited only by what Aristotle called “ideal probability.” In the one case, truth means fidelity to what was or is ; in the other, fidelity to what may be. Already the great Greek philosopher detected the distinction, for a clear statement of which we are indebted to De Quincey, between the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. The literature of knowledge must be judged by its accuracy in matters of fact ; and with every step forward taken by science, it necessarily becomes antiquated. Thus it is that our text-books of biology and physics have perpetually to be re-written, and that even our histories have continually to be revised. But the truth of the literature of power is fidelity to the great essential motives and impulses, passions and principles, which shape the lives of men and women ; and because these change so little amid all the vast upheavals of the ages, the books which have in them this supreme element of essential truth remain, however old in years, as fresh and vital in their human interest as in the days when they were written. Aristotle’s own science has now only a curious significance for the special student of thought, but when are we likely to outgrow the Odyssey, Agamemnon, Antigone ?
A wit has said : “In fiction everything is true except names and dates ; in history nothing is true except names and dates.” I am not at the moment concerned to defend history against this cynical assault. I quote the paradox only because it describes so sharply the kind of truth upon which all greatness in fiction ultimately depends. The novelist may take innumerable liberties with his subject ; he may re-arrange his materials in fresh and startling combinations ; he may invent outright ; but we insist that he shall still be true to ideal probability and the great elemental facts and forces of life. If at this point his work proves to be faulty, without hesitation we adjudge it unsound.
It will be seen that this does not in the least tend to check the free play of the imagination in fiction. We have heard more than enough in recent years of realism in the novel, and advocates of this realism have told us with wearisome iteration that the one and only business of the novelist who takes his art seriously is to go direct to actual life and reproduce what he finds there with photographic fidelity. Now, in common practice this doctrine of realism is often shamefully abused. Sometimes it is made to justify detailed pictures of the sordid, base, and ugly—pictures which, while they may be painfully accurate in their presentation of selected particulars, are so completely out of perspective that they are anything but true to life at large. Sometimes it is employed to dignify the much-ado-about-nothing of a certain class of writers whose chief concern seems to be the elaboration of the trivial and the commonplace, and who offer us little but cross-sections of life as seen through a powerful microscope. But even when not so abused in one or other of these two ways, the theory of realism as generally understood—that the novelist should never venture beyond actual fact—is to be rejected because it involves in another form the old confusion between scientific and poetic truth. Art cannot without self-destruction adopt the aims and borrow the methods of science. “The artist’s work,” as Goethe admirably says, “is real in so far as it is always true ; ideal, in that it is never actual.”
Bearing this principle in mind, we shall cease to be greatly disturbed by the loud quarrel of the rival schools of novelists and critics over realism and romance. We shall see that, properly understood, both are justified, since both spring from fundamental instincts : the source of the one being our delight in seeing the near and familiar artistically rendered ; of the other, our pleasure in the remote and unfamiliar. We shall see too that while each has its justification, each has likewise its conditions. Realism must be kept within the sphere of art by the presence of the ideal element. Romance must be saved from extravagance by the presence of poetic truth.
In dealing with the question of truth in fiction I have to some extent anticipated the consideration of the closely-allied question of morality. The ethical element too has to be interpreted broadly; but so interpreted, it has to be emphasised to the full. The common distrust of so-called novels with a purpose”—by which is properly meant novels written specifically to make out a case or to prove a set thesis—is well grounded ; for, though there are exceptions, the attempt to do two things at once—to write a good story and at the same time to produce a sermon on a stated text, an essay in philosophy, or a political pamphlet—has seldom ended in anything but failure. But to confuse specific purpose with general purpose—direct didacticism with large moral meaning—is to make a serious mistake. I have said that a novelist’s chief concern must always be with the concrete facts of life, and in doing this, I assumed that he may deal with concrete facts without troubling himself in the least about their moral bearings. Such assumption was made for the sake of the argument. It has now to be added that, while theorists of a certain school may say what they like about the moral indifference of fiction, it remains nonetheless true that nearly all the really great novelists of the world have been declared moralists, and have troubled themselves a great deal about the moral bearings of the concrete facts presented by them. A general moral philosophy is, therefore, almost always embodied in their work as a more or less distinctly avowed part of their plan. But the conditions of success in the carrying out of such moral purpose under the forms of fiction and with due regard to the demands of art, must be clearly recognised. The ethics must be wrought into the texture of the story ; the philosophy must be held in solution ; the novelist must never for a moment be lost in the propagandist or preacher. It is therefore less in its directly inculcated lessons than in its whole interpretation of life, thought, character, and action, and its occasional illuminative commentary upon these, that the fundamental morality of a novel has habitually to be sought. Even its plot, with its perhaps quite arbitrary scheme of poetic justice, may have little to do with its true philosophy. For example, at the end of The Vicar of Wakefield, Goldsmith restores his long-suffering hero to earthly prosperity and happiness, and thus exhibits ‘virtue rewarded’ in the most orthodox fashion. He does this, however, by means so desperate that, it is sometimes urged, the moral value of the book is destroyed. But on further consideration it will be found that the happy ending is only a weak concession to the taste of the average novel-reader of the time ; it was not an essential part of Goldsmith’s ethical design. Where then is the real moral of the tale ? As the author himself suggests in the heading of the twenty-eighth chapter, it lies in the beautiful and sympathetic portrayal of simple courage, piety, and faith in God under stress of accumulated afflictions. This, and not the conventional and hopelessly unconvincing conclusion, “shows Goldsmith,” as Prof. Walter Raleigh has well remarked, “high among the moralists of the century.” In our estimate of the moral philosophy given or implied in any novel, we have therefore to consider chiefly the impression made upon us by the spirit and temper of the work as a whole.
That we have a perfect right to include the problem of moral value in our final judgment upon any work of fiction— that, until this problem is settled, our judgment remains in fact incomplete—is a proposition concerning which I personally do not entertain the slightest doubt. Discussing poetry as a criticism of life, John Addington Symonds wrote : “If one thing is proved with certainty by the whole history of literature down to our own time, it is that the self-preservative instinct of humanity rejects such art as does not contribute to its intellectual nutrition and moral sustenance. It cannot afford to continue long in contact with ideas that run counter to the principles of its own progress. All art to be truly great, must be moralised— must be in harmony with those principles of conduct, that tone of feeling, which it is the self-preservative instinct of civilised humanity to strengthen. This does not mean that the artist should be consciously didactic or obtrusively ethical. The objects of ethics and art are distinct. The one analyses and instructs ; the other embodies and delights. But since all the arts give form to thought and feeling, it follows that the greatest art is that which includes in its synthesis the fullest complex of thoughts and feelings. The more complete the poet’s grasp of human nature as a whole, the more complete his presentation of life in organised complexity, the greater he will be. Now, the whole struggle of the human race from barbarism to civilisation is one continuous effort to maintain and extent its moral dignity. It is by the conservation and alimentation of moral qualities that we advance. The organisation of all our faculties into a perfect whole is moral harmony. Therefore artists who aspire to greatness can neither be adverse nor indifferent to ethics.”
The application of these admirable remarks to the special question of prose fiction will be evident. In respect of the novel, as of other kinds of imaginative literature, it is often said that art as art has nothing to do with morality. The reply is, that in the sense in which morality is understood by Mr. Symonds—in the sense in which the word has been employed throughout the present discussion—art is vitally connected with morality. Art grows out of life ; it is fed by life ; it re-acts upon life. This being so, it cannot disregard its responsibilities to life. It is therefore to the last degree absurd to talk of the artist, whatever his line of work, as if he stood without the field of ethics. Certainly, we cannot thus speak of the novelist. As he deals with life, he must deal with the moral facts and issues everywhere involved in life ; and it is upon his moral power and insight and upon the whole spirit and tendency of his philosophy, that the real greatness of his work very largely depends.