It is a wide generic kind which includes within itself such widely differing forms of prose narrative, as the tragic, the satiric, the picaresque, the idyllic or the epic. For our purposes, the novel may be roughly defined as a long story in prose, meant primarily for entertainment, and presenting a realistic picture of life. But all such attempts at defining the novel are futile, for none does full justice to it. It would, therefore, be better to consider its chief characteristics.
Dr. Tillyard defines the novel rather loosely and says, “a novel is a not too unorganised, fictitious narrative in prose of at least, say, 20,000 words.” He does not think that the novel is a closely definable affair. He further points out that, “novel is not a literary kind but a vague term denoting at most a prose medium, some pretence of action, a minimum of length, and a minimum of organisation.”
The Chief Elements of a Novel are:
(1) It deals with events and actions which constitute its plot.
(2) It has character i.e. men and women which carry on its action and to whom things happen.
(3) The conversation of these characters constitutes the element of dialogue.
(4) It has a scene and time of action i.e. the place and time where different things happen to different characters. It may be some limited region or its action may range over large number of places, cities, even countries.
(5) Its treatment of life and its problems are realistic. Thus, it is realism which distinguishes it from the earlier prose romances. The novel does not provide escape from life and its problems, but rather a better understanding of them. It also reflects the very spirit of the age in which it is written.
(6) It exhibits the author’s view of life and of some of the problems of life. It thus gives the author’s criticism of life or his philosophy of life.
The Essentials of a Good Plot
(1) A Novel is primarily a tale and as such it must be strong in the story interest. It must provide amusement for the leisure hour and a welcome relief from the strain of practical affairs. It must be gripping in its interest. Any novel which provides wholesome and tonic refreshment is fully justified, but to be really great it must deal not with mere trivialities which lie upon the surface of life, but with passions, and conflicts, and problems which constitute the very texture of life. It must have greatness of subject. It may have universality of appeal. It does not mean that the subjects chosen must be from high life, for the simplest story of the humblest people may be as appealing as the story of kings or princes.
(2) It must have authenticity. The novelist must be thoroughly familiar with his subject, what he is not familiar with, he should leave out. The novelist must accept limitations of his range, otherwise the novel would lack fidelity. However, personal knowledge is not necessary. A really creative genius may derive his knowledge second hand i.e. from books or from conversation with others, and may even then attain substantial fidelity. This is what a historical novelist does, this is what Defoe has done in Robinson Crusoe. What is necessary is that the novelist must have a sound and thorough knowledge of life and men, and this would enable him to humanise and vitalise his material.
(3) The plot may be defined as a systematic organisation and arrangement of incidents. A good plot is skillfully constructed i.e. (a) there should be no gaps and inconsistencies, (b) there should be balance and proportion of the different parts in relation to the whole, (c) the events should proceed logically and spontaneously out of each other. (d) even the commonplace things should be made interesting and significant by the novelist’s method of narration, (e) the march of events should appear natural under the circumstances, (f) the denouement should appear to us as the logical summing up of all that has gone before. There should be nothing forced, artificial or unconvincing. Even the greatest novelists have failed in this respect. For example, conclusions of Scott are generally unsatisfactory; there is much huddling up.
(4) The plot of a novel may be of two types:
a) It may be loose and incoherent. The story is composed of detached incidents or episodes, having little logical connection with each other, some unity being provided by the personality of the hero, who binds the otherwise scattered elements together. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is an example of such a loose plot.
b) In the Novel with an organic plot, the plot is compact and closely knit, every incident being a part of general design which has been carefully thought out in advance. However even in a novel with an organic plot there might be much that is purely episodical. Thus in Fielding’s Tom Jones, which has a closely knit, compact plot, there are many incidents and character, that are not an integral part of the plot-pattern.
It should be noted, however, that a highly organised plot is likely to suffer from two faults, faults from which even Tom Jones is not free: (a) Its movement may be unnatural and may strike the readers as forced, mechanical and artificial. (b) Too much reliance may be placed on the use of co-incidence. In Tom Jones, for example, all sorts of 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. Our sense of probability is thus strained.
(5) The plot of a novel may be simple or compound i.e. it may be composed of one story or of more than one story running together. In the latter case the different stories must be wrought together into a single whole. In Vanity Fair, for example, the stories of Beckey Sharp and Amelia Sedley have not been properly amalgamated. Often a novelist makes the different independent elements in a novel to weigh and balance or illustrate each other. Thus the element of melodrama may be offset by broad comedy, farce, etc. Thus in Vanity Fair, while no attempt has been made to fuse the two stories together, the moral and dramatic contrast between the two is constantly stressed.
(6) The method of narration: There are three ways of telling a tale (a) the direct or epic (b) the autobiographical and (c) the documentary. In the first case, which is the most usual, the novelist is a historian narrating from the outside, in the second case he writes in the first person identifying himself with one of the characters, generally the hero or the heroine and thus producing an imaginary autobiography. In the third case the story is narrated by means of letters or diaries as is the case with the novels of Richardson and Wilkie Collins. The first method is usually preferred, for it gives greatest scope and freedom of movement to the novelist. The other two methods, at least in the hands of an unskillful novelist, are likely to be clumsy and unconvincing.
Characterisation in a Novel
The characters must be life-like. They should move us as people in real life do; we should sympathise with them as do with people in real life, and they should linger long in our memory.
To be successful, the novelist must have the power of graphic description. It is only by a vivid description that a novelist can help his readers to a vivid realisation of the appearance and behaviour of his people. Their peculiarities in appearance and behaviour must be clearly indicated. This may be done either by (a) set, formal description, item by item or (b) by slight occasional touches appealing to the imagination of the readers. The second method is preferable.
As regards the psychological side of characterisation, the novelist may use either or both of the methods (a) direct or analytical, and (b) indirect or dramatic. In the first process he portrays his characters from the outside, dissects their passions, motives, thoughts and feelings, explains, comments, and pronounces judgment upon them. In the other case, he stands apart and 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. As the novel is the compound of narrative and dialogue, a combination of both these methods is possible, and the combination is usually made in the handling of character. While direct analysis is seriously over-done by George Eliot and other psychological novelists, in Jane Austen’s novels the dramatic element predominates. Her characters generally reveal themselves through dialogue, while she herself continuously throws cross light upon them in the conversation of the different people by whom they are discussed. The dramatic method is generally preferred, but the novelist may frequently appear on the scene in the capacity of a critic and commentator.
The immense freedom and scope of the novel-form, makes it possible for the novelist to show his characters changing and growing in the course of the novel. He has to deal with characters in the making. The dynamics of characterisation is an important aspect of a novelist’s art. At the very outset, he shows some leading figures with certain potentialities for good and evil, and then follows his movement upward or downward upon the influence of other people, surrounding conditions, personal experiences and his reaction to them, and whatever else enters as a formative factor into life. The novelist must show the gradual moral deterioration or growth of his characters under repeated shocks of temptation. Characters which grow and develop psychologically under the stress of circumstances are called rounded characters; those who do not so develop are called flat.
The question of the range and limitations of a novelist is also important. While some may have more broad and varied powers: others like Jane Austen, may be content to do few things, but to do them well. Special information regarding the speech and manners of particular classes and callings is necessary for authentic characterisation, but broad and intimate knowledge of human nature will go a long way to impart substantial reality and truth even to characters which lie beyond the immediate range of a novelist. Jane Austen achieved greatness by recognising her limitations and working within her range.
Brief Historical Survey
Considered as an art-form the novel is comparatively recent in origin.
Man has always desired to read for entertainment, and some kind of prose-fiction has always been there to satisfy this craving. In the Middle Ages there were Romances or long fairy tales and tales of adventure and knight errantry. Malory’s Morte D’ Arthur, printed towards the end of the 15th century, is a vast collection of such tales. It has been a source of inspiration and entertainment to generations of readers and writers ever since.
About the middle of the 16th century the place of the long medieval romances was gradually taken by Italian prose tales or novelle which appeared in English translation in large numbers. These noveles exercised considerable influence on the pamphlets such as Nash’s Jack Wilton or the Unfortunate Traveller as well as on such great Elizabethan works as John Lyly’s Euphues and Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. These works are the precursors of modern novel, in more ways than one.
Another kind of prose fiction referred to as the Heroic Romance, inspired largely by such French models as D’urfe and Madam Scudery, flourished all through the 17th century, but more specially after the Restoration. They have no place in the history of the English novel except that their popularity testifies to the craving for prose fiction. Mention may only be made of Mrs. Afra Behn’s Oroonoco or the Royal Slave. It is an experiment in the infancy of the novel. It is the first prose story in English “which can be ranked with things that already existed in foreign literatures.”
Another great name in the history of the English novel is that of Daniel Defoe. Defoe for the first time makes the novel an exciting and all-absorbing source of passing the time. Earlier prose fiction was, no doubt, interesting, but it also aimed at instruction and improvement. But Defoe has no other aims except the entertainment of his readers; his novels can be read again and again, with equal keenness, interest and excitement.
Another greatness of Defoe lies in his almost endless accumulation of trivial details, incidents and observations, the combined effect of which is to create in the reader an unconscious acceptance of the facts and characters presented to him. The method is seen at its best in the building up of Robinson’s surrounding in Robinson Crusoe but it is used with great effect in novels like Moll Flanders, Roxana, etc. Defoe is the first of the great magicians who have the peculiar talent of making uninteresting things interesting, merely by presenting them as though they really existed.
The Picaresque Novel
But Defoe does not rank as one of the greatest of English novelists, because his plots are rather loose. They are not well-knit and compact. As a matter of fact, his novels are of the Picaresque type. The word ‘Picaresque’ has been derived from the Spanish word ‘Picaro’ which means a “rogue” and “knave”. The Picaresque novel is the tale of the adventures or misadventures of a picaro or rogue who wanders from one country to another, from one setting to another, from the town to the country, from one inn to another, and in this way the novelist gets an opportunity of introducing a variety of characters and incidents, of painting society as a whole realistically. The picture may be satiric but the aim of the novelist is to delight and entertain, and not to reform or improve. In the words of Edwin Muir, “The Picaresque novel is the tale of a hard worked travelling hero, posting from inn to inn, now in the country, now in London, knocking at the doors of the great, mixing with rogues and thieves, languishing in prison, or on board the ship, suffering every vicissitude good or bad, and enduring them all, not because the novelist has any tender regard for his hero’s suffering or fortunes, but because he is avid of variety, and is determined to get a pass to as great a number of scenes as he can.”
To Thomas Nash goes the credit of being the first writer of a picaresque novel in English. His the Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton, relates the adventures of Jack Wilton, a page of Henry VIII, who travels through France, Germany, Flanders and Italy. The scenes laid in Italy deal alternately with the arts and splendour of Italy, and the Italy of courtesans and assassins. Nash displays the marvels of the land, but also its intrigues, violence and blood-shed. Much space is given to horror, torture, and violence.
Thomas Nash had no disciples with the possible exception of Richard Hood whose The English Rogue is also in the Picaresque tradition. However, the next great practitioner of this genre is Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). His novels are formless and they narrate the adventure of some social outcast or rogue, who moves from place to place and country to country and has a variety of adventures. They are in the picaresque tradition and he may be said to have enlarged the scope of the picaresque novel by depicting the adventures of a dissolute heroine, instead of a dissolute hero. His Moll Flanders certainly is in the picaresque tradition, but it cannot be called a picaresque novel. Referring to this Ian Watt says, “It is because her crimes, like the travels of the picaresque novel. The picaro happens to have a real historical basis – the breakdown of the feudal social order. Defoe, on the other hand, presents his whores, pirates, highwaymen, shoplifters, and adventurers as ordinary people who are normal products of their environment, victims of circumstances which anyone might have experienced and which provoke exactly the same moral conflict between means and ends as those faced by other members of society. Some of Moll Flanders, actions may be very similar to those of the picaro, but the feeling evoked by them is of a much more complete sympathy and identification: author and reader alike cannot but take her problems much more seriously.”
Smollet’s novels also are all in the picaresque tradition. He was well read in the novels of this genre, but he was specially influenced by the Gill Blas of Le Sage. A picaresque novel is a union of intrigue and adventure, and the only unity in it is provided by the central figure. Smollett’s novels are extremely loose in construction. Indeed, they have no plot worth the name. Roderick Random ends in the manner of Fielding with the marriage of the hero and the heroine, the end is merely mechanical, being simply a device for stopping somewhere. “When Roderick has made use of his friends, knocked down his enemies, and generally elbowed and shoved his way through the crowd of adventurers long enough, Narcissa and her fortune are not so much the reward of his exertions, as a stock and convenient method of putting an end to the account of them” (Saintsbury). Smollett’s novels are strings of adventure and personal history, and it is not clear to the readers why they should not end differently from the way in which they do. Many of the minor characters and minor scenes, some of them quite capable ones, can be easily dispensed with, without the reader being conscious of any gap or missing links.
Fielding’s Tom Jones also is built on the picaresque model. It has a strong element of the picaresque. Its hero, Tom Jones, is a foundling. He is an illegitimate child with no parents to look after him. For various reasons he is turned out of home by his patron, Squire Allworthy, and then has to shift for himself. Though he is not a rogue, he is in no way wicked at heart, but he is imprudent and reckless and is, therefore, involved in a number of misadventures. The novel deals with his adventures and vicissitudes as he passes through various scenes, meets with various incidents, and comes in contact with a great variety of characters. He even joins the army, fights several times for a good cause, and is wounded. He even meets with such strange characters as the man on the hill and the gypsies. The incidents are thrilling and sensational. The adventures of the hero enable the novelist to present realistically a complete picture of the life of the times, and to introduce a great variety of characters from different strata of society.
Despite these strong picaresque elements, Tom Jones differs from a picaresque novel in several important respects. As already noticed above, its hero is not a rogue. He is essentially generous and benevolent at heart; and his sexual laxity is merely the imprudence of youth, and not an expression of wickedness. After every lapse, he suffers from pangs of conscience and is true to his love in thought, if not in need. Secondly, the aim of the novelist is definitely moral. It is to show that real goodness is of the heart, and one should judge, not by actions but by motives. Besides, innocence and virtue must ever be on their guard, as they are often lead astray and ensnared by the wicked and the cunning. Thirdly, its plot is coherent and well knit, and not a mere series of episodes, having no organic connection with each other.
Picaresque Novel in the Modern Age: Vertical Climbing:
Picaresque novels continue to be written in the present age also but in a different form. As Edwin Muir in his The Structure of the Novel writes in this connection, “There is an almost exact parallel to it in contemporary fiction in the recurring story of the young man who begins in poor circumstances and climbs vertically through all the social classes until he reaches the top. The counterpart of Smollett’s travelling hero is Mr. H.G. Well’s climbing hero. Seen from this point of view, and by allowing the word ‘picaresque’ a larger and wider meaning then the traditional meaning associated with it, we will discover that the Picaresque note is quite an important element in the novels of Charles Dickens. Great Expectations, Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Olive Twist, are all Picaresque novels in a way. ‘Oliver Twist’ is a picaresque story humanized and given a realistic setting in the London slums” (W.L. Cross). The adventures of Pip in Great Expectations are really picaresque adventures. The only difference is that they take place on a psychological rather than physical plane. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has also a strong element of the picaresque. Becky Sharp is not only an unprincipled adventuress who moves from place to place, from London to the countryside and to various places in Europe, but she is also a keen social climber. She climbs up vertically with great speed, and her downfall is equally steep.
The picaresque element is strong in a host of modern novels, so many that they cannot even be touched upon in the limited space at our disposal.
The Panoramic Novel
Henry Fielding, the father of the English novel, is the creator of the panoramic or the epical-novel. In this kind of novel, the novelist ranges over a wide ground and provides a comprehensive picture of the life of the times. The picture which he presents of contemporary life, society, dress, habits, and manners, is epical in its range, sweep and variety. Every aspect of contemporary life has been presented with rare force and realism, and this makes his four novels, more specially Tom Jones, important social documents. As Richard Church puts it, “he is the first writer to focus the novel in such a way that it brought the whole world as we see it, within the scope of this new, rapidly maturing literary form.” Thackeray is another important practitioner of the panoramic novel.
Tom Jones is constructed on an epic scale. The plot is organic, and it also has epic-range, sweep and variety. Fielding merely claims to narrate the life-history of Tom Jones, a founding, but in reality he has given us a comprehensive picture of the life of the times. To the simple tale of the adventures of Tom Jones, the hero, are added a number of episodes, one episode leading to another, and so on, and in this way, “is built up a very complicated and elaborate structure.” “In other words, the plot is complicated; it is episodic, and it is panoramic. The novel holds a mirror to contemporary life. It reflects faithfully the life in the country, on the roads, in the wayside inns and taverns, and in the city. Every professional and social group is well represented; no aspect of the life of the times has escaped the attention of the novelist. And the comprehensive picture it presents is the result of personal experience and observation of its author as a London Magistrate. Hence it is that the picture is remarkable for its truth and veracity.
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is also panoramic, and like Fielding’s Tom Jones, makes a comprehensive and elaborate survey of the Victorian scene. The setting, so far as physical place is concerned, moves from London to Brighton, to the Continent including Paris, Rome, Brussels, and Pumpernickel, a small German principality. The reader moves from city-house to country estate, from private Academy to the sponging house, or debtor’s jail.
The enormous canvas of the novel portrays the conventions and manners of genteel society realistically and effectively. The novel has an immense variety of character and incident. This makes it a most valuable social document showing how England in the Victorian era was riddled with snobbery, and craze for social climbing. The novelist has presented convincingly the immense panorama of social life in the Victorian vanity fair, and not only has he rendered the social manners of the age, he has also exposed their folly and vanity. All the characters are shown to be self-deceived pursing phantoms which elude their grasp, or, when achieved, bringing no satisfaction or sense of fulfillment.
The Historical Novel
Another important genre of the novel is the historical novel. The historical novel, on the face of it, seems to be a contradiction in terms. The word novel designates a work of fiction; and facts, we know, are the underlying basis of history. A historical novel then, must be a combination of bad history and bad fiction – because it departs from fiction and deviates from facts. This would seem to imply that a perfect historical novel is impossible. But good historical novels there are in plenty. This only shows that if history and fiction are correctly understood and made use of it is possible to write a good historical novel. There should be an equal proportion of facts and fiction. The historical novelist takes certain events and characters from history and weaves around them a fictitious enchantment. In making use of facts, the novelist does not follow the method of the historian but of the artist. He selects facts and arranges them according to his choice. In short, he takes into account what may be described as the spirit and atmosphere of history. He reconstructs imaginatively the life of the past. He does not allow historical facts to come in the way of his fiction; nor does he permit his fiction to violate the significance of historical facts.
Sir Walter Scott is the creater of the Historical novel. He blended into a unity fact and fancy, and history and romance. It is true Scott alters the facts of history and changes the sequence of events in the interest of his art. In order to understand Scott’s divergence from history, we must remember that he regarded the historical novel as a grouping of the facts of history so centralised as to illuminate a passion, plot or character, as a presentation of historical events so arranged as to form an interesting picture. From Scott’s stray observations in the prefaces to some of his novels, like Ivanhoe and Quentin Durward, we may conclude that he seems to have regarded history as related to the historical novel in the same way as the architect’s elevation is related to the perspective view of an artist. The historical novel is not mere history, it is rather magnetised history in which every fact leads to some focal pole of unity.
The range of Scott’s novels is fairly wide and covers three centuries of English, Scottish and European History. “He was thus an inspired, and exalted, pageant-master, of enormous energy and sparing no expense, who organised a procession through the ages from the medieval to the 19th century, a movement in which every degree of humanity played a part, and wore the appropriate costume. Kings and queens, outlaws, cut-throats, men of law and of war, girls and crones, witches and even ghosts, took their places in that procession, hundreds of them, winding their way out of the past, making the recognizable gesture spearing the expected words. Louis XI of France in Quentin Duward, James in The Fortunes of Nigel, Queen Elizabeth in Kenilworth, these are a few examples of the vivid imagination. But merely presenting the past was not enough for him. “He boldly projected the present into the past, and used his knowledge of contemporary life to humanise his old world characters. Manners may change and fashions alter, but human nature remains constant; and thus we have the apparent paradox that Scott’s success as an historical novelist lay in his sturdy realism, that he made the men of Robin Hood’s day and Shakespeare’s day alive and actual by virtue of his acquaintance with the men that lived in his own day,
There may since have been more accurate interpretations of history, but Scott was an artist, not a scholar. He violated chronology; he invented situations; he allowed his imagination free play with the costume cupboard and the makeup box, but in making the past come alive he was gloriously successful. He saw history as a pageant sweeping by with tableaux, characters, and moments of high drama. But behind the changing scenes was a movement, a pattern, which he discerned and tried to interpret. His view of history was Elizabethan rather than modern; he saw the great struggles as expressions of moral destiny, not as record of events. The actors in the drama knew their parts and were impelled to play them. Scott depicted their behaviour but he did not inquire too closely into causes and motives or attempt for the most part to explore the psychology of his characters. It is on this point that he differs much from the present-day writer of historical fiction. If he glamourised the past, it was partly because he saw in the past centuries the values modern life was rapidly destroying. He loved the spirit of the Middle Ages which he thought bound men in the brotherhood of Christ; he saw these bonds being cast away in exchange for a soulless greed for money, while in the economic freedom of laissez faire he saw no individualism but indifference and selfishness. Above all, it was the poetry of distance that exercised its magic upon him. When he approached the less remote past, the attraction was warmer and more saddening. He drew near to catch the last flicker of the flames before the grey ashes cooled for ever.”
In Bulwer Lytton’s (1803-1873) novels such as Rienzi and The Last Days of Pompeii, historical fiction attains maturity, in them we find the historical spirit distinctly guiding the novelist’s art. Bulwer Lytton does not merely gather historical details to give scenery and romantic atmosphere to his novels. He attempts to reconstruct the history of the time completely and to present that history in relation to individual life. In the opinion of Richard Cross, no historical novel has had so many readers as The Last Days of Pompeii.
Thackeray’s Henry Esmond takes the historical novel a stage further. Here we have the imaginative interpretation of history. By allowing such things as conscience, hesitation and doubt, and conflict between love and duty, to come into the novel and dwell there side by side with geographical realism. Thackeray makes the historical novel, the novel of the soul. In doing this he has completed the work of his predecessors in historical fiction. As Bliss Perry observes: “Scott and Dumas made history the bond-maiden of romance; Bulwer made historical investigation the companion of romance; Thackerary made history the master of romance. These are the three stages of the evolution of the historical novel.”
William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-82) wrote some forty historical novels, of which the best known are Road-wood, Jack Shephard, The Tower of London, Old St. Paul’s and The Lancashire Witches. Ainsworth’s novels are not remarkable for their subtle delineation of character, the diction of his heroes and heroines is often absurdly stilted; and he had little reverence for probability. Though his tales are frequently lurid and violent, they are also animated; he wrote with gusto and energy; his narrative style, too, is vastly better than the style of his dialogue. He is too slipshod to rank as a first-rate historical novelist; but he probably impressed upon many of his readers who would otherwise have been unaware of it, that there is such a subject as history. His novels are readable enough and wholesome enough, though contemporary critics found fault with him for his idealization of rogues.
Charles Reade (1814-1884) is another great historical novelist. His masterpiece, The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) is a historical romance. Reade was a poet at heart, and this helped him to produce The Cloister and the Hearth which contains a true Renaissance of wonder in its pages. The novel is romantic through and through. The Victorian critics described and welcomed it ‘as the greatest historical novel ever written’. Swinburne considers it to be a great work of art and places it among the most important masterpieces of narrative. Charles Reade has achieved a marvellous success in his handling of the various historical sources on which the novel is based. It is great also because of its broad and deep humanity and its splendid subject. It is, as the title suggests, a story of the most potent elements in the life of humanity, religion, on the one hand, and family affections on the other. It is great again because of its immense range and variety. Its action moves through medieval Europe, from the North sea-coast of Holland to the Mediterranean coast of Italy and produces everywhere the same impression of reality and truth.
Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) is another great historical novelist of the Victorian era. Westward Ho, published in 1855, is the most important of his novels. It is a patriotic tale of adventure, Jesuit intrigue, and noble enterprise. The action is set in the age of Queen Elizabeth. “The Elizabethan setting to Westward Ho brings the partisanship more prominently forward and the spirited story with its patriotic note would have been all the better had Kingsley been less anxious to idealise our attractive but not over-squeamish old sea-dogs, Hawkins and Drake, and to paint in such lurid colours the Catholic Spaniard.” Other historical novels of his are of little worth, and few care for them today.
Historical Novel To-day
In the 20th century, the historical novel has suffered a decline. The times are uncongenial to the historical novels of the Scott-type, dealing with romance of knight-errantry and woman-worship. A historical novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, an imaginative treatment of history, and such an imaginative treatment which would necessarily select, order, arrange its material is not congenial to the rational and scientific temper of the age. The modern stress is on the sub-conscious, on the study of the psyche, on the analysis of motives, while the historical novel deals with external events and action.
The Novel of Social Reform
The novel of social reform is associated with the name of Charles Dickens. He was the first English novelist who consciously used the novel-form to focus public attention on the many social evils prevalent in his age. In this way, he tried to cure some of these evils which caused great suffering to the poor. In this way, he rendered great service to society, and contributed much to the well-being of the under-dog of society. Thus he made the novel an instrument of social reform.
His one wish and hope was “to strike a blow for the poor,” and many such blows he did strike right manfully. Many of the social ills of the day come within the lash of Dickens. The various evils of Industrial Revolution, specially the employment of child labour, have been highlighted through the suffering of such children as David Copperfield, employed in various industrial establishment. There were no factory laws and Trade Unions and so the factory owners were free to exploit tender children for their own profit. David goes to work at the tender age of ten. He works from early in the morning till late in the night in the most unhealthy and suffocating environment. He is paid only six or seven shilling a week, hardly enough to provide him with two full meals a day. The result is he suffers terribly and David’s suffering is the suffering of man a poor and helpless Victorian child.
The need for prison reform has been stressed through pictures of the squalor and dirt, drinking and gambling, sorrow and suffering of prison life, which are scattered all over his work. In David Copperfield there is the realistic picture of kings’ Bench prison for debtors. Prisoners were treated like dumb, driven cattle, more like wild beasts than human beings. The aim was to inflict social vengeance on them, rather than to reform them. Dirt, disease and death were the common lot of the prisoners. Conditions in prisonships, called hulks, were even more appalling. We get a glimpse of the life in the hulks in Great Expectations and the picture is horrible in the extreme. Through such pictures, Dickens’ aim was to awaken the conscience of his age.
The educational system of the day has been satirised and its horrors exposed, in one novel after another. The education was in the hands of private persons and schools were run out of profit motif. The owners of such schools were educationists only in name; they were themselves uneducated and did not know how to impart education. Their treatment of the boys was unsympathetic and harsh, their motto being, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” A clear idea of the horrors of such schools and the suffering of the boys entrusted to the care of such headmasters can be formed from the life of David at Salem House. Mr. Crekle is harsh and callous and to inflict pain on the boys is a matter of pleasure for him. He knows nothing about the principles of education, neither does he care for it. However, the approach of Dickens in this respect is not entirely negative, in Dr. Strong’s Academy he has also given us his concept of an ideal school.
Abuses of the legal system, and delays in the meting out of justice, are also criticised by him in “David Copperfield”. In the novel, we get a detailed account of the working of the courts of the Doctors Common and their abuses. He had a first hand knowledge of the legal system of the country, and among the most vivid of his characters are the portraits of the professional figures from lawyer’s offices. Through such pictures, Dickens succeeded in focusing attention on the many abuses of the legal machinery of his day. Thus Spenlow and Jorkins are selfish lawyers who exploit the legal machinery for their own benefit. They have entered the profession to earn money and they freely exploit the people to further their own ends. As a reformer, often Dickens’ views are unjust as when he prefers outdoor relief to the relief provided by the work-houses. In one novel after another, he is sharply critical of Poor Laws and the working of the workhouses. He could never reconcile himself to the Poor Laws which, despite their shortcomings, were of immense good to the poor.
The Regional Novel
The Regional novel is the novel which depicts the physical feature, life, customs, manners, history etc. of some particular region or locality. However, this does not mean that regionalism is mere factual reporting of photographic reproduction. The regional artist emphasises the unique features of a particular locality, its uniqueness, the various ways in which it differs from other localities. But as in all other arts, so also in regional art, there is a constant selection and ordering of material. In other words, regional art is also creative. Through proper selection and ordering of his material the novelist stresses the distinctive spirit of his chosen region and shows, further, that life in its essentials is the same everywhere. The differences are used as a means of revealing similarities; from the particular and the local, the artist rises to the general and the universal. The selected region becomes a symbol of the world at large, a microcosm which reflects the great world beyond. The greatness of a regional novelist lies in the fact that he surmounts the bounds of his chosen region, and makes it universal in its appeal. That explains the continuing and makes it universal in its appeal. That explains of the continuing and world-wide popularity of regional novels, say those of the Brontes and Thomas Hardy.
The regional novel concentrates on some particular region, and it is remarkable for its vivid and illuminating presentation of its scenes and sights, of its landscape and geographical features form the background or setting to the human drama that is enacted in the novel. As the same scenes and sights, the same geographical features – rivers, hills, dales, etc., – appear and re-appear in successive novels, the separate works of the novelist are welded into a single whole. His separate novels acquire in this way a continuity and a wholeness which is not possible for other kinds of novels. Sometimes, the presentation of the scenic background, of the local details, is so vivid, realistic and life-like that the fictitious seems to be real and actual. Thus many Hardy enthusiasts have visited his ‘Wessex’ and tried to locate the various landmarks which appear in his novels like Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Further, the regional novel is essentially democratic. It deals with the ordinary men and women living in a particular locality, and shows them going about the business of living very much like average humanity. They are shown carrying on the professions and occupations, as well as following the customs and traditions, that are peculiar to the region. In this way, the particular region is immortalised in the regional novel. Moreover, concentration within a limited region results in intensity of emotion and passion. The novelist shows that dramas of Sophoclean grandeur may be enacted within the confine of a small village, and in a humble cottage. It is so in the novels of The Brontes and the ‘Wessex Novel’s of Thomas Hardy.
Maria Edgeworth (1767 – 1849) is the first of the great regional novelists of England. As a matter of fact the year 1800 is a landmark in the history of the English novel, for in that year Maria Edgeworth published her Castle Rackrent. P.H. Newby compares her with Jane Austen and writes, “whereas Jane Austen was so much the better novelist, Maria Edgeworth conquered new territory for the novel. Before her, except when London was the scene, the local of English fiction had been generalized, and conventionalised. The eighteenth-century novelists rarely had a sense of place; the background of his fiction is as bare of scenery, almost, as in an Elizabethan play; and when landscape came in for its own sake, with Mrs. Radcliffe, it was there not because it was a specific landscape but because it was a romantic one.
Maria Edgeworth gave fiction a local habitation and a name. And she did more than this: she perceived the relation between the local habitation and the people who dwell in it. She invented, in other words, the regional novel in which the very nature of the novelist’s characters is conditioned, receives its bias and expression, from the fact that they live in a countryside differentiated by a traditional way of life from other countrysides. The region she discovered was Ireland, and, with Ireland, the Irish peasant. She was an Anglo-Irish novelist who exploited the humours of the Irish peasantry and its relation to the big houses. She is the founder of the regional novel, and all later regional novelists are indebted to her.
Castle Rackrent was followed by The Absentee, another great work of fiction. In this novel. Miss Edgeworth has seized upon the essential situation of her country at the time of writing – the absence of its landowners in England and the stranglehold their agents had on a helpless peasantry. Thus the novel has a theme that was of the highest importance in its day, and it is bodied forth in a set of admirable characters. Maria Edgeworth had a most enviable gift of creating characters in the round, characters that seem for much of the time at least, to exist independently of their author. Had she allowed them to exist independently of her all time, she would truly have been a great novelist.
Inspired by Maria Edgeworth, many other took to the regional novel. Susan Ferrier (1782-1854) is another great novelist of the age. Her three famous novels are Marriage (1812), The Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831). “What Miss Edgeworth did for Irish life, Miss Ferrier did for Scottish. The two writers had much in common: humour, observation, and a vein of earnest didacticism; but Miss Ferrier’s work shows great variety” (Compton-Rickett).
The Brontes and the Regional Novel
Next come the three Bronte Sisters, the greatest among the regional novelists of England. The Yorkshire Moorlands which they knew most intimately, as they had been born and brought up in the seclusion of the Moors, is the region which forms the background to their novels. The Most obvious contribution of the Bronte sisters is the presentation of the life of Yorkshire and its rich and beautiful nature-background. They all present its landscape – Charlotte realistically, Anne nostalgically, Emily fully, poetically, superbly. They use its rich rough dialect, and they present its people realistically. In Wuthering Heights the Yorkshire lasses who ever lived had been distilled into the willfulness of Cathy. In Shirely the Yorkshire character is shown to us realistically and consciously.
The Bronte sisters experienced life within a narrow confine, but their narrow and limited experience did not stand in the way of their achieving excellence in their work. Rather, it imparted intensity to it. Of course, the repetition of the same themes made their novels somewhat stale, but this lack of freshness was compensated for by the presentation of passion and emotion in an intensified form. Charlotte Bronte and Anne Bronte had experience of life as governesses, school teachers and pupils, and they repeated the same scenes and experiences again and again in their novels. The Professor is enjoyable but the repetition of the same theme in Villette makes the book uninteresting. But the emotional fervour and exuberance of the novelist carries the readers through. A highly charged emotional atmosphere is the, most remarkable feature of their novels. Love in their novels is highly passionate and intimate.
Regional Note in George Eliot
The early novels of George Eliot, Adam Bede, Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner are realistic and concrete in the presentation of the life of the Midland Counties of Warwickshire and Derbyshire, which she had intimately known. This particular region, with its life and characters, comes to life in these novels. In these early novels, George Eliot freely took her material from her own experience of life, from her personal memories and from the life and activities of her relatives and friends. In this way she showed that personal experience and memories could supply all the matter that a novelist needed. Therefore, realism and faithful portraiture of life and characters known to her are the hallmarks of these novels.
Thomas Hardy and His Wessex
Thomas Hardy is the most important of the regional novelists of England, and deserves more space and attention. His Wessex stretches from the English Channel in the South, to Cornwall in the West, and as far as Oxford to the North. It is this limited region which forms the scenic background to each of his “Wessex Novels.” The same physical features – appear and reappear in all his works. This imparts to his works a kind of scenic continuity and a touch of realism difficult to match in any fiction. Every event takes place within this locality. It is seldom that he strays out of it. It is for this reason that he is a regional novelist.
He had acquired a thorough knowledge of this region. He was permeated with its scents and sounds, with its scenes and sights. He has described the physical features of his Wessex with great accuracy and realism. He has expressed the very spirit of this locality in his works. He has immortalized the land of Wessex which is a living, breathing reality in his novels. That is why many a Hardy enthusiast and topographer has taken the imaginary for the real and has gone in search of various landmarks described in the Wessex novels. For example, the description of Casterbridge in The Mayor of Casterbridge is so realistic that many have taken it to be an exact reproduction of the town of Dorset. Similarly, all visitors to the Hardy country have testified that the dreary and desolate atmosphere of Flint-Comb-Ash farm in Tess of the D’urbrevilles is exactly the same as that of the real place.
In more recent times, we have another great regional novelist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931). He was essentially a realist and a regionalist and his realism is well brought out in the vivid and real pictures of the pottery districts of England or in his study of the Five Towns. The Old Wive’s Tale, Clayhanger, Imperial Palace, etc., are among his better known novels. The life of materialism is well-portrayed in his novels. The internal economy of houses and hotels down to their plumbing, to food, bought, prepared and eaten, to clothes and their fashions, to means of transport, indeed, to all the machinery, equipment and paraphernalia of living, claimed Bennett’s absorbed interest” (A.S. Collins). Bennett became an interpreter of the life and society of a particular region the Five Towns which he knew well. But it is to his credit that like a true artist he maintained an air of impartiality and detachment in the presentation of the life of this region. He did not aim at any propaganda or moral preaching through the medium of his art. A charming Dickens-like humour plays over all, and makes the reading enjoyable. The impression of drabness, dullness and sordidness, that might be created by a study of his realistic pictures of the life of Five Towns, is further removed by his addition of romance, specially the romance of love. Besides finding romance in love, Bennett, like Kipling finds romance in the ordinary things of life. He refused to identify romance, “with the merely picturesque or the merely extraordinary.” God had endowed him with the ability of, “evoking the beauty and romance of the ordinary folk which is one of the most attractive features of his best novels.”
The Regional Novel To-day
The regional novel to-day is a well established art-form with some of the greatest novelists of England as its devoted votaries. It could have been rightly expected that with the obliteration of regional and local differences following the mass use of swift means of communication – the car, the railways, the aeroplane and the radio and the television – the regional novel would lose its value and significance, but regional novels of great worth and significance continue to be written. E.C. Booth, Mary Webbe, Thomas Moult, Sheila Kaye Smith, Constance Holme, Frances Brett Young, are a few of the more prominent practitioners of this form in the modern age.
The Psychological Novel
A psychological novelist analyses the motives, impulses and mental processes which move his characters to act in a particular way. He depicts the inner struggles of his characters and thus lays bare their souls before his readers. Thus in a psychological novel there is much soul-dissection, as in the dramatic monologues of Browning, and the novel acquires a broad intellectual tone. Samuel Richardson, George Eliot, and George Meredith are some of the great, early novelists to be mentioned in this connection.
The Stream of Consciousness Novel
Coming to modern times, we find a new kind of novel. “The stream of consciousness novel” carries this probing into the soul, this analyses of motives and mental processes, a step further. It depicts the flux of emotions and sensations passing through the consciousness of a character, without any organisation or ordering on the part of the novelist. It is concerned with the pre-speech level of thought and emotion. The novelist, so to say, places us within the mind of his characters and shows what is happening in his soul at the sub-conscious or even the unconscious levels. It depicts the chaos and incoherence, the welter of sensations and emotions, that constitute the human consciousness before organisation takes place. The action moves backwards and forwards in harmony with the thought-process, and the complete soul of the characters, at different levels of consciousness, is laid bare. Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson etc., have practised this form of the novel with great success.