The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Critical Essays and Documents


Arnold Kettle

This anthology of writings on the nineteenth-century novel has been designed with an Open University course in mind. This needs to be said at the outset since the choice of contents would otherwise seem more arbitrary than it is. Having said it, one can, I think, reasonably claim that the interest and value of the collection is by no means dependent on the particular needs of Open University students. Any serious reader of nineteenth-century fiction—student or not—should find here matter of considerable interest, much of it not easily available outside the best, and often all too distant, of libraries.

It might indeed be argued that, all anthologies involving a good deal of arbitrariness, there is something to be said for one in which the selection of items has at least some logic, or even some built-in limitation, to it. The Open University course on ‘The Nineteenth-Century Novel and its Legacy’ has at its centre the study of eleven substantial novels, six of them English (Henry James’s Maisie being seen in this context as ‘English’) and five foreign. The choice of novels and novelists—Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Dickens, George Eliot, James, Hardy, Balzac, Turgenev, Mark Twain, Zola and Tolstoy—was not exactly inevitable (there was special regret in leaving out Melville and Dostoievsky, to mention only the most obvious omissions), but certainly not notably eccentric. Various considerations, including length and variety, had to be taken into account. This isn’t the place to defend the choice but merely to explain its necessity.

Given the prescribed novels, the principles of choice of contents of this ‘Course Reader’ also need a few words of explanation. The main point was to make available to Open University students supporting material, of interest in itself, which would also be referred to and discussed in the teaching material provided for the Course. In deciding what these supporting essays should be we were influenced by a number of considerations of which the need for variety and the limitations of our students’ time were perhaps the most important. Just to pick out the critical essay on each novel which the particular teacher considered the best wasn’t either enough of a principle or quite the right one: for it might have involved too much repetition of similar critical approaches and too little contrast with that of the teacher concerned. There was also involved (I think it may be confessed) a certain reluctance to submit our Open students to an unrelieved diet of standard ‘Eng. Lit.’ assumptions and vocabulary.

What in the end we settled for was the sort of arrangement the list of contents indicates. We start with a number of pieces dealing with general problems of novel-reading, not peculiar to the nineteenth century but common to everyone delving at all deeply into the nature of novels. They vary very much in approach and in difficulty. E. M. Forster’s famous piece is straightforward and, after years of the lit. crit. industry, must seem a shade old-fashioned. Its merit and purpose is to persuade people not used to thinking much about ‘the novel’, as opposed to the novel they happen to be reading, that such thought can be both enjoyable and profitable. The intellectual high-jinks of Northrop Frye’s brilliant essay on genres and categories are of quite another sort. The less experienced student may find that it involves too formidable a range of reference; though of course you don’t have to have read all the books Professor Frye mentions to get what he is driving at. He is deliberately ranging wide because he is trying to bring needed order to a vast and complex subject which most literary historians have funked and few, indeed, have the equipment or courage to tackle at all. The reader who finds Northrop Frye ‘difficult’ needn’t be afraid that he is alone or shamed.

The two short essays by D. H. Lawrence are at once very * idiosyncratic and marvellously ‘central’. They let you know how one great modern novelist saw the novel and that in itself is greatly interesting. But to read them primarily as a display of Lawrence’s oddity is to do them, and him, far less than justice. No one else could conceivably have written them, that’s true. And of course he is using provocative shock-tactics, rejecting any sort of approach that is remotely academic. Forster, modestly and perhaps a bit coyly unpretentious, was yet speaking to a respectable Cambridge audience. But no university, however open, could have contained Lawrence for long. Yet his essays go bang to the heart of several essential matters. What is the novel? What is it for? What does it do to us? In what ways does or can or should it affect our lives?

The two final contributions to the preliminary, general section are extracts from longer works, and it is to be hoped that they have not been unduly mutilated by being, necessarily, removed from their contexts. Both deal, from contrasting points of view, with some of the most complex yet rewarding facets of novel- criticism. The one, by Wayne C. Booth, is American and formalist in approach; the other by Georg Lukács, central European and philosophical, specifically Marxist in flavour. Both will seem difficult to readers unfamiliar with the two milieux. Some will find Professor Booth’s sophisticated formalism (neither word has normally a pejorative significance in American academic circles) as unpalatable as others find Lukács’ handling of philosophical abstractions.

Booth analyses a novel very largely in terms of its technique and literary method. He would doubt, I think, whether one can use fully say much about the ‘what’ of a novel (what it’s saying) except in terms of its ‘how’ (how it’s said). He is so concerned about ‘device’ and ‘artifice’ because he sees these factors not as ‘extras’ added by the cunning novelist to help him express a concept already achieved in his mind, but as integral parts of the very conception itself. Lukács works in a different way. He insistently probes for the social and intellectual content and implications behind and within whatever formal devices the novelist may use; so that the contrast he draws between the novelist who ‘relates’ and he who ‘describes’ is at once linked with the whole outlook of the novelist, itself seen in terms of his relationships with his material and with the society within which he lives. Neither Booth nor Lukács in these extracts uses the word ‘point-of-view’ to describe the novelist’s essential artistic ‘position’: but if they had done. Booth’s ‘point-of-view’ would refer essentially to the writer’s stance as artist while Lukács’ would be traced, via his ideology, to his stance in life. Yet, having made this contrast, I don’t want to imply that Booth is simply interested in ‘form’, Lukács in ‘content’. Such a simplification would amount to an injustice to both critics, for they would both agree, I feel certain, that between form and content there can in the end be no satisfactory separation. What a man says and how he says it are inextricably intertwined. The difference of their emphases and starting points, however, implies philosophical differences which can’t be spirited away and informs not only the critical implications of their two approaches but the whole tone of their discourse.

As I’ve implied, I don’t think most students will find either critic easy. But both are eminently worth persevering with as high-level examples of their respective approaches. If Lukács gets more pages than Booth it’s because he takes longer to develop his argument and because his incidental references to Tolstoy and Zola have a special relevance for the Course our anthology is serving.

The questions of ‘style’, ‘narrative method’ and ‘point-of-view’ which both Booth and Lukács raise may seem at first to involve giving a disproportionate amount of time to the analysis rather than the appreciation of novels. In fact I don’t think it is feasible to separate the two. Directly one asks the question ‘What exactly is Jane Austen (or any other novelist) up to?’ one is bound to land oneself in some sort of analytical process. As Derek Oldfield, in a later essay in this volume remarks:

To the argument that the reader is not conscious of style, I would reply that he must be unconsciously responding to the succession of stylistic stimuli provided by the author.

To become more conscious of the way a particular writer is operating in a particular novel may not necessarily in that particular case at once increase one’s pleasure in that novel, though it often can. But that in a more general way a fuller consciousness leads to fuller appreciation seems to me a proposition scarcely open to doubt. An opinion that stands up to argument and experience is better than one that doesn’t. It is true that a high-grade analytical apparatus is no guarantee of, much less an alternative to, a sensitive personal response to any novel. But the test of the analysis which a good literary critic provides is that it should sharpen and even sometimes give a whole new dimension to the sensitivity of the reader. It is one of the convictions behind the compilation of this anthology that a reader’s pleasure in a novel is more likely to be increased by the intelligent analysis and discussion of the many sorts of issues it raises than by a more rhapsodic attempt to proclaim its beauties.

So perhaps I should, especially in view of one or two of the reservations made in the paragraphs that follow, assert very briefly the case for ‘criticism’ as such, not, of course, as an alternative to reading creative literature, but as an almost essential supplement to it.

To read a novel without attempting to assess it is as unsatisfactory, if not as impossible, as to meet a new group of people without coming to decide, within a reasonable time, which of them you like and trust and which you can’t rely on. To some readers the word ‘criticism’ suggests a spirit at once carping and authoritarian, someone laying down the law as to what you ought to like. But criticism really involves something quite different—assessing the value of things. And it is almost impossible to assess the value of anything without some equipment for defining, explaining, comparing and arguing about it. I do not think this can ever be, in any precise sense of the term, scientific: which is not to say that one critical statement may not be more valid than another.

Nine of the essays that follow in the larger section of the anthology are studies in individual works. Of these nine, F. R. Leavis’s piece on Anna Karenina stands somewhat apart, partly because he is writing about a translation but also because it has a range and concern somewhat wider than those of the other essays.

The analytical-interpretative essay on the single novel has become an established feature of modern, and especially American, ‘English Studies’. It is a genre that has produced much valuable work and my colleagues and I would claim that every one of the contributions included here has something to say well worth the consideration of any serious reader.

Nevertheless it is perhaps worth spelling out the point (without, I hope, the smallest breath of discourtesy to any of our contributors) that those of us who teach Literature at the Open University don’t want our students to accept anything, especially criticism, uncritically. Nor, while convinced of the value—indeed the necessity—of literary criticism, do we regard the methods and emphases developed in the last fifty years or so in British and American universities as necessarily the models which our students should feel themselves under some obligation to applaud and adopt. The turning of ‘Eng. Lit.’ into a university subject has had negative as well as positive aspects; and if some of our Open University students, ploughing their way through the pages of this anthology, are seized with some sort of impatience or even revulsion, we don’t at all ask them to repress those emotions, which may well express a justified reaction against some of the accepted ways of ‘treating’ literature academically. ‘What,’ you may suddenly and quite overwhelmingly feel, ‘has all this writing to do with a body of literature so various and so delightful, so humane and as a rule so unself-conscious, as nineteenth-century novels? Is there no better way of thinking about them than this?’ The answer is that, if there is, not many people seem to have found it, though also that widespread doubts do certainly sweep the profession, the teachers of English in British universities, that we may well, over the last half-century, sometimes have taken high roads when the lower road would not only have got us more quickly to where we want to go but might well have taken us somewhere different and more rewarding.

That said, one hastens to introduce the contributions of Marvin Mudrick, Dorothy van Ghent, Robert Stange, Derek Oldfield, J. W. Gargano, F. Baldanza and R. P. Adams as—one and all —valuable examples of their kind which, quite apart from the particular insights and judgements they reveal, will give the student new to the more specialized study of literature a sense of the sort of procedures serious literary critics of the novel have in recent years adopted.

It’s not claimed, of course, that all or any of these critics are necessarily ‘right’ about their view of the novel they treat. Some of the essays have been chosen precisely because the approach they contain is considerably at variance with that of the Open University teacher responsible for that novel. For example, Graham Holderness, writing about Wuthering Heights in his ‘course unit’, pays much more attention to local and social considerations than Dorothy van Ghent in her essay on the same novel. The student has to make up his own mind whether the two approaches are irreconcilable, if so which he backs, and, in any case, what he has learned from the confrontation.

By and large, these contributions speak for themselves, but one or two brief explanations may be in order. Middlemarch and Huckleberry Finn are both treated to two essays, but for different reasons. Middlemarch is so big a book, in scale and in aim, that it was felt to be useful to include two approaches that concentrated on doing two quite different things. In the passages from U. C. Knoelpflmacher’s Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel, the ‘philosophical’ background of George Eliot’s work is explored, especially that very Victorian preoccupation, the relationship between religion and science. Derek Oldfield confines himself to a stylistic analysis of the presentation of a single character, thereby throwing light not only on Dorothea but on George Eliot’s method as a novelist. The two approaches are complementary. The two essays on Huckleberry Finn both develop lines of thought and analysis which the author of the Open University course unit on that novel mentions but does not pursue in anything like the same detail.

Alongside these essays in modem critical analysis we have put into this collection a selection of writings which, because they already belong as much to the history of the novel’s development as to the history of novel-criticism, are perhaps best called ‘documents’.

Balzac’s Preface (Avant-propos) to The Human Comedy isn’t easily available in English translation. But it is an essay of great importance, not only because it tells us so much about the way one of the greatest of novelists saw his role and his art; but also because it raises explicitly so many critical issues. What is the relation, for instance, between a ‘realist’ writer’s drive for total ‘realism’ and the moral responsibilities he holds as a social being? Where do the methods of the artist and the sociologist separate and where converge? Is the novelist who sees his characters as ‘types’ betraying human individuality and uniqueness?

Zola’s essay on ‘The Experimental Novel’, one of the great manifestoes of nineteenth-century ‘naturalism’, continues and develops an examination of many of the issues Balzac had posed half a century earlier. The two throw rewarding light on one another and also on the social developments which separate them. And the two together, in their concern over the ‘theory’ as well as the practice of their craft, form a most interesting contrast to the attitudes of British novelists who tend not to theorize much about what they are up to. Yet because French theory and practice did come, as the century went on, to influence novelists who wrote in English, it’s particularly interesting to compare what Balzac thought of himself with what, with hindsight and ambiguous admiration, the aging Henry James thought of him.

James’s piece on Balzac (it is part of the Preface to the publication in English of one of Balzac’s least typical novels) is written in the full flush of his ‘late’ and most convoluted style. The reader unfamiliar with the late James is likely, until he grasps its strange speech-rhythms (now so unlike the way anyone talks), to find it very odd. But it is full of generosity as well as eccentricity and is in any case a fine example of an attitude to art almost inconceivable fifty years before.

James on Turgenev (it’s really a sort of obituary) has something of the same flavour. It is included partly because it gives a useful short summary of the Russian’s achievement but chiefly because, in its emphasis on ‘art’, on the ‘novelists’ novelist’ aspect of Turgenev, it is in such total contrast to the contemporary review-article (which James had certainly not read) on On the Eve by Dobrolyubov. This is one of the classic documents of nineteenth-century novel-criticism and it couldn’t conceivably have been written by anyone but a Russian. From it, so polemical in tone, so high-minded yet so down-to-earth, so totally opposed to ‘aesthetic’ criticism as understood in Western Europe, emerges with extraordinary force what literature (including novels) meant to the Russian intelligentsia of the mid-nineteenth century. Dobrolyubov, the young radical (he would be dead within a year), writing under the strict censorship of an autocracy, is using his review to say things he could not have said ‘straight’ about Russian life and Russian politics. Dobrolyubov and his colleague Chemyshevsky, Lukács has written, ‘were genuine, fearless and uncompromising revolutionaries in the sense in which Marat or St. Just were revolutionaries in the days of the French revolution’. But he isn’t merely ‘using’ Turgenev’s novel. To dismiss his discussion of it in such terms would be to miss more than half the point. He is asserting an attitude to literature and to ‘realism’ as theoretically potent as Balzac’s or Zola’s, so that ‘When Will the Day Come?’ is a document as relevant to the study of the novel as an art-form as it is to the student of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian history.

Our collection ends, with a certain appropriateness, with F. R. Leavis’s essay on Anna Karenina. Appropriate because, in our Course, we have reserved a special place for Tolstoy’s book as perhaps the supreme achievement among those of the nineteenth-century novelists; but appropriate too because the critic’s approach to it is of the kind it is.

Leavis is not interested in ‘literary history’ or even analysis in the narrower, more academic senses of the terms: his great merit as a literary critic is his insistence on relating literature to life in ways which increase our comprehension and respect for both. His claim that ‘Anna Karenina, in its human centrality, gives us modern man’ is precisely the sort of claim which best illustrates our reasons for seeing the nineteenth-century novel as a supremely rewarding field of study.


The Open University,
March, 1972

* that is to say, the Course team. All Open University courses are planned and produced by teams. Individual academics are responsible for their own ‘units’, but a general overall responsibility for the Course rests with the team. So that while responsibility for this Introduction is mine as Course Team Chairman, I’m conscious that in an important sense I am writing on behalf of a team, the members of which are listed opposite the title page.


Introduction 1
Part One: On General Problems of Novel-Reading  
1 E. M. Forster
     from Aspects of the Novel (1927)
2 Northrop Frye
     ‘Specific Continuous Forms’
         from The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)

3 D. H. Lawrence

      (i) ‘Why the Novel Matters’
         from Phoenix (1936)
      (ii) ‘Morality and the Novel
         from Calendar of Modern Letters (1925)

4 Wayne C. Booth
     ‘Telling and Showing’
         from The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)


5 Georg Lukács
     ‘Narrate or Describe?’
         from Writer and Critic (1970)

Part Two: On Nineteeth-Century Novels  
6 Marvin Mudrick
     ‘The Triumph of Gentility (Mansfield Park)’
         from Jane Austen (1968)
7 Dorothy van Ghent
     ‘On Wuthering Heights
         from The English Novel: Form and Function (1961)
8 G. Robert Stange
     ‘Expectations Well Lost: Dickens’s Fable for his Time’
         from College English XVI (1954-55)
9 Honoré de Balzac
     Preface (Avant-Propos) to The Human Comedy (1842)
10 Henry James  
      (i) ‘Honoré de Balzac’
         from Notes on Novelists (1914)
      (ii) ‘Ivan Turgenev’
         from Library of the World’s Best Literature (1897)
11 N. A. Dobrolyubov
     Extracts from ‘When Will the Day Come?’ (1860)
         from Selected Philosophical Essays (1948)
12 U. C. Knoelpflmacher  
      (i) ‘George Eliot and Science’ 211
      (ii) ‘The “Metaphysics” of Middlemarch
         from Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel (1965)
13 Derek Oldfield
     ‘The Language of the Novel: the character of Dorothea’
         from Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel (1967)
14 James W. Gargano
     ‘What Maisie Knew: the Evolution of a “Moral Sense”’
         from Nineteenth Century Fiction (1961)
15 Arnold Kettle
     ‘Hardy the Novelist: a Reconsideration’
         W. D. Thomas Memorial Lecture, University College, Swansea (1966)
16 Frank Baldanza
     ‘The Structure of Huckleberry Finn
         from American Literature XXVII (1955)
17 Richard P. Adams
     ‘The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn
         from Tulane Studies in English VI (1956)
18 Emile Zola
     ‘The Experimental Novel’
         from The Naturalist Novel (1893)
19 F. R. Leavis
     ‘Anna Karenina’
         from Anna Karenina and Other Essays (1963)
Acknowledgements 354
Index  355

SOURCE: Kettle, Arnold, ed. The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Critical Essays and Documents [for the Open University Nineteenth-Century Novel and Its Legacy Course Team]. London: Heinemann Educational, 1972. Introduction, pp. 1-9; Contents, pp. v-vii.

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