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Title: The theory of fiction in England, 1860-1900
Author: Graham, Kenneth
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 1962
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The novel-criticism of Henry James has been allowed to overshadow the achievement of his English contemporaries, whose essays, letters, and periodical-articles show a highly articulate concern with many of the most fundamental problems of novel-writing. This study examines the whole body of critical opinion over the years 1860-1900, both in its detailed expression and in its general movements. The status of the novel as a genre is hotly debated during the first fifteen years or so from a predominantly moral view-point, and critics show themselves urgently concerned with its vast dominance over the literary scene and its influence on the behaviour of society. The old Evangelical suspicions remain, and those who defend fiction are usually obliged to do so in a utilitarian way, emphasing its provision of noble exerapla and strengthening maxims, and its effect on the imagination and the sympathies, which are the key to a virtuous life. After 1880, the moral respectability of novel-reading is fairly assured, in spite of continuing traces of doubt, and argument over the novel's general position is now concentrated on its claims to offer more than mere relaxation, many holding, to the end of the century, that this is the form's main function, but a growing number (especially among the novelists themselves) stressing, on the contrary, its "seriousness", its philosophic scope, and the imaginative heights to which it can attain. At the same time, the aesthetic status of the novel is slowly changing by the attempts of critics to define it vis-à-vis the other arts, to describe its history and its categories, and to enunciate its own laws, despite the opposition of many who continued to believe in spontaneity and informality. The new devotion by some to craftsmanship and the artistic conscience is the final factor in a status for the novel that remains, even in 1900, controversial and insecure. The central question of the novel's realism or non-realism is resolved for many critics in terms of a simple correspondence with life, a mirroring of normal experience without exaggeration or convention, and, above all, a portrayal of characters which affect the reader as if alive. This is widely challenged, however, sometimes only unconsciously, by the modifications necessary in order to give pleasure, the exclusion of dull or sordid subject-matter, the selection of "agreeable" characters, and an artistic treatment that is generally optimistic and consoling. More consciously, Idealism reveals itself in accounts of the novelist's temperament and imagination as a valid distorting medium, his subjectivity, "vision", or sympathy; and, again, in thoroughly non-Realist descriptions of a transcendental realm of Beauty, or Truth, or Essence, which the novel should represent, sometimes by use of the Type or the Symbol. The structural nature of the form is also used to distinguish it from life, especially with reference to the non-mimetic quality of artistic illusion, vraisemblance and compression. All of these traits, Realist and Idealist, are crystallized in the great disputes of the 'eighties and 'nineties caused by the advent of French Naturalism and the supposedly Realist school of Henry James and W. D. Howells; and proponents of Idealism, an unexpectedly numerous band, express their ideas with enthusiasm in their reactions to the revival of the Romance-form in the last two decades. The novel's representation of reality is also modified in various ways by its embodying various value-judgments, and the necessity for moral didacticism dominates many accounts, especially in the earlier years. The nature of the moral code to be observed by novelists is generally of more interest to critics than the specific manner of its implementation in aesthetic terms, and the values prove to be either vaguely Transcendental - the enshrining of the Moral Ideal - or more Empirical, based on social convention and the Christian tradition. The operation of values and ideas in fiction is usually examined by critics from the standpoint of their effect on the "moral sense" or the emotions of readers, or their origins in the moral nature of the artist himself, and comments on how the novelist's judgments are embodied in his Characterisation or in his use of the convention of Poetic Justice take us only a little nearer to the heart of the problem. Didacticism is also widely attacked, on the grounds that it causes unnaturalness and that values should be in some way dramatised and made inherent, but again, few details are given of this proper method, most accounts, like Leslie Stephen's and Saintsbury's, returning to the moral quality of the writer's imagination. Even enemies of traditional morality, like Pater, Swinburne, Henley, Moore, and Havelock Ellis, confine themselves to demanding fewer moral restrictions for the novel, and none denies - or satisfactorily explains - its essential moral or philosophical relevance. Lastly, novel-critics prove to have much to say on questions of technique, centered on the antinomy between the Novel of Plot and the Novel of Character, the organic unity of a novel, and the various problems of narrative-method. After the early favour given to "Character", a reaction occurs against the excessive character-analysis of the French and American schools, and 'plot' becomes a desirable and much-sought quality. The novelty of Henry James' methods is unappreciated, and the conservatism of novel-theory in this respect is most marked. Constructive unity, on the other hand, is a concept that receives much valuable elaboration, and, under various interpretations, is a reviewers' fetish at all times. The question of Point of View is also well-known to the period, the advantages and disadvantages of Omniscience and Autobiography being fully gone into, and, in one remarkable essay by Vernon Lee, is the subject of a full and intelligent discussion. The ageis criticism of fiction, then, despite its limitations, gives an impression of some width and insight, and, with its many unexpected characteristics, must be regarded as an important sector of Victorian literary theory.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: English fiction ; History and criticism ; Criticism ; 19th century