CHAPTER IX. THE NOVEL
The faculty for telling stories is the oldest artistic faculty in the world, and the deepest implanted in the heart of man. Before the rudest cave-pictures were scratched on the stone, the story-teller, it is not unreasonable to suppose, was plying his trade. All early poetry is simply story-telling in verse. Stories are the first literary interest of the awakening mind of a child. As that is so, it is strange that the novel, which of all literary ways of story-telling seems closest to the unstudied tale-spinning of talk, should be the late discovery that it is. Of all the main forms into which the literary impulse moulds the stuff of imagination, the novel is the last to be devised. The drama dates from prehistoric times, so does the epic, the ballad and the lyric. The novel, as we know it, dates practically speaking from 1740. What is the reason it is so late in appearing?
The answer is simply that there seems no room for good drama and good fiction at the same time in literature; drama and novels cannot exist side by side, and the novel had to wait for the decadence of the drama before it could appear and triumph. If one were to make a table of succession for the various kinds of literature as they have been used naturally and spontaneously (not academically), the order would be the epic, the drama, the novel; and it would be obvious at once that the order stood for something more than chronological succession, and that literature in its function as a representation and criticism of life passed from form to form in the search of greater freedom, greater subtlety, and greater power. At present we seem to be at the climax of the third stage in this development; there are signs that the fourth is on the way, and that it will be a return to drama, not to the old, formal, ordered kind, but, something new and freer, ready to gather up and interpret what there is of newness and freedom in the spirit of man and the society in which he lives.
The novel, then, had to wait for the drama's decline, but there was literary story-telling long before that. There were mediaeval romances in prose and verse; Renaissance pastoral tales, and stories of adventure; collections, plenty of them, of short stories like Boccaccio's, and those in Painter's Palace of Pleasure. But none of these, not even romances which deal in moral and sententious advice likeEuphues, approach the essence of the novel as we know it. They are all (except Euphues, which is simply a framework of travel for a book of aphorisms) simple and objective; they set forth incidents or series of incidents; long or short they are anecdotes only—they take no account of character. It was impossible we should have the novel as distinct from the tale, till stories acquired a subjective interest for us; till we began to think about character and to look at actions not only outwardly, but within at their springs.
As has been stated early in this book, it was in the seventeenth century that this interest in character was first wakened. Shakespeare had brought to the drama, which before him was concerned with actions viewed outwardly, a psychological interest; he had taught that “character is destiny,” and that men's actions and fates spring not from outward agencies, but from within in their own souls. The age began to take a deep and curious interest in men's lives; biography was written for the first time and autobiography; it is the great period of memoir-writing both in England and France; authors like Robert Burton came, whose delight it was to dig down into human nature in search for oddities and individualities of disposition; humanity as the great subject of enquiry for all men, came to its own. All this has a direct bearing on the birth of the novel. One transient form of literature in the seventeenth century—the Character—is an ancestor in the direct line. The collections of them—Earle's Microcosmography is the best—are not very exciting reading, and they never perhaps quite succeeded in naturalizing a form borrowed from the later age of Greece, but their importance in the history of the novel to come is clear. Take them and add them to the story of adventure—i.e., introduce each fresh person in your plot with a description in the character form, and the step you have made towards the novel is enormous; you have given to plot which was already there, the added interest of character.
That, however, was not quite how the thing worked in actual fact. At the heels of the “Character” came the periodical essay of Addison and Steele. Their interest in contemporary types was of the same quality as Earle's or Hall's, but they went a different way to work. Where these compressed and cultivated a style which was staccato and epigrammatic, huddling all the traits of their subject in short sharp sentences that follow each other with all the brevity and curtness of items in a prescription, Addison and Steele observed a more artistic plan. They made, as it were, the prescription up, adding one ingredient after another slowly as the mixture dissolved. You are introduced to Sir Roger de Coverley, and to a number of other typical people, and then in a series of essays which if they were disengaged from their setting would be to all intents a novel and a fine one, you are made aware one by one of different traits in his character and those of his friends, each trait generally enshrined in an incident which illustrates it; you get to know them, that is, gradually, as you would in real life, and not all in a breath, in a series of compressed statements, as is the way of the character writers. With the Coverley essays in the Spectator, the novel in one of its forms—that in which an invisible and all knowing narrator tells a story in which some one else whose character he lays bare for us is the hero—is as good as achieved.
Another manner of fiction—the autobiographical—had already been invented. It grew directly out of the public interest in autobiography, and particularly in the tales of their voyages which the discoverers wrote and published on their return from their adventures. Its establishment in literature was the work of two authors, Bunyan and Defoe. The books of Bunyan, whether they are told in the first person or no, are and were meant to be autobiographical; their interest is a subjective interest. Here is a man who endeavours to interest you, not in the character of some other person he has imagined or observed, but in himself. His treatment of it is characteristic of the awakening talent for fiction of his time. The Pilgrim's Progress is begun as an allegory, and so continues for a little space till the story takes hold of the author. When it does, whether he knew it or not, allegory goes to the winds. But the autobiographical form of fiction in its highest art is the creation of Defoe. He told stories of adventure, incidents modelled on real life as many tellers of tales had done before him, but to the form as he found it he super-added a psychological interest—the interest of the character of the narrator. He contrived to observe in his writing a scrupulous and realistic fidelity and appropriateness to the conditions in which the story was to be told. We learn about Crusoe's island, for instance, gradually just as Crusoe learns of it himself, though the author is careful by taking his narrator up to a high point of vantage the day after his arrival, that we shall learn the essentials of it, as long as verisimilitude is not sacrificed, as soon as possible. It is the paradox of the English novel that these our earliest efforts in fiction were meant, unlike the romances which preceded them, to pass for truth. Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year was widely taken as literal fact, and it is still quoted as such occasionally by rash though reputable historians. So that in England the novel began with realism as it has culminated, and across two centuries Defoe and the “naturalists” join hands. Defoe, it is proper also in this place to notice, fixed the peculiar form of the historical novel. In his Memoirs of a Cavalier, the narrative of an imaginary person's adventures in a historical setting is interspersed with the entrance of actual historical personages, exactly the method of historical romancing which was brought to perfection by Sir Walter Scott.
In the eighteenth century came the decline of the drama for which the novel had been waiting. By 1660 the romantic drama of Elizabeth's time was dead; the comedy of the Restoration which followed, witty and brilliant though it was, reflected a society too licentious and artificial to secure it permanence; by the time of Addison play-writing had fallen to journey-work, and the theatre to openly expressed contempt. When Richardson and Fielding published their novels there was nothing to compete with fiction in the popular taste. It would seem as though the novel had been waiting for this favourable circumstance. In a sudden burst of prolific inventiveness, which can be paralleled in all letters only by the period of Marlowe and Shakespeare, masterpiece after masterpiece poured from the press. Within two generations, besides Richardson and Fielding came Sterne and Goldsmith and Smollett and Fanny Burney in naturalism, and Horace Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe in the new way of romance. Novels by minor authors were published in thousands as well. The novel, in fact, besides being the occasion of literature of the highest class, attracted by its lucrativeness that under-current of journey-work authorship which had hitherto busied itself in poetry or plays. Fiction has been its chief occupation ever since.
Anything like a detailed criticism or even a bare narrative of this voluminous literature is plainly impossible without the limits of a single chapter. Readers must go for it to books on the subject. It is possible here merely to draw attention to those authors to whom the English novel as a more or less fixed form is indebted for its peculiar characteristics. Foremost amongst these are Richardson and Fielding; after them there is Walter Scott. After him, in the nineteenth century, Dickens and Meredith and Mr. Hardy; last of all the French realists and the new school of romance. To one or other of these originals all the great authors in the long list of English novelists owe their method and their choice of subject-matter.
With Defoe fiction gained verisimilitude, it ceased to deal with the incredible; it aimed at exhibiting, though in strange and memorable circumstances, the workings of the ordinary mind. It is Richardson's main claim to fame that he contrived a form of novel which exhibited an ordinary mind working in normal circumstances, and that he did this with a minuteness which till then had never been thought of and has not since been surpassed. His talent is very exactly a microscopical talent; under it the common stuff of life separated from its surroundings and magnified beyond previous knowledge, yields strange and new and deeply interesting sights. He carried into the study of character which had begun in Addison with an eye to externals and eccentricities, a minute faculty of inspection which watched and recorded unconscious mental and emotional processes.
To do this he employed a method which was, in effect, a compromise between that of the autobiography, and that of the tale told by an invisible narrator. The weakness of the autobiography is that it can write only of events within the knowledge of the supposed speaker, and that consequently the presentation of all but one of the characters of the book is an external presentation. We know, that is, of Man Friday only what Crusoe could, according to realistic appropriateness, tell us about him. We do not know what he thought or felt within himself. On the other hand the method of invisible narration had not at his time acquired the faculty which it possesses now of doing Friday's thinking aloud or exposing fully the workings of his mind. So that Richardson, whose interests were psychological, whose strength and talent lay in the presentation of the states of mind appropriate to situations of passion or intrigue, had to look about him for a new form, and that form he found in the novel of letters. In a way, if the end of a novel be the presentation not of action, but of the springs of action; if the external event is in it always of less importance than the emotions which conditioned it, and the emotions which it set working, the novel of letters is the supreme manner for fiction. Consider the possibilities of it; there is a series of events in which A, B, and C are concerned. Not only can the outward events be narrated as they appeared to all three separately by means of letters from each to another, or to a fourth party, but the motives of each and the emotions which each experiences as a result of the actions of the others or them all, can be laid bare. No other method can wind itself so completely into the psychological intricacies and recesses which lie behind every event. Yet the form, as everybody knows, has not been popular; even an expert novel-reader could hardly name off-hand more than two or three examples of it since Richardson's day. Why is this? Well, chiefly it is because the mass of novelists have not had Richardson's knowledge of, or interest in, the psychological under side of life, and those who have, as, amongst the moderns, Henry James, have devised out of the convention of the invisible narrator a method by which they can with greater economy attain in practice fairly good results. For the mere narration of action in which the study of character plays a subsidiary part, it was, of course, from the beginning impossible. Scott turned aside at the height of his power to try it in “Redgauntlet”; he never made a second attempt.
For Richardson's purpose, it answered admirably, and he used it with supreme effect. Particularly he excelled in that side of the novelist's craft which has ever since (whether because he started it or not) proved the subtlest and most attractive, the presentation of women. Richardson was one of those men who are not at their ease in other men's society, and whom other men, to put it plainly, are apt to regard as coxcombs and fools. But he had a genius for the friendship and confidence of women. In his youth he wrote love-letters for them. His first novel grew out of a plan to exhibit in a series of letters the quality of feminine virtue, and in its essence (though with a ludicrous, and so to speak “kitchen-maidish” misunderstanding of his own sex) adheres to the plan. His second novel, which designs to set up a model man against the monster of iniquity in Pamela, is successful only so far as it exhibits the thoughts and feelings of the heroine whom he ultimately marries. His last, Clarissa Harlowe is a masterpiece of sympathetic divination into the feminine mind. Clarissa is, as has been well said, the “Eve of fiction, the prototype of the modern heroine”; feminine psychology as good as unknown before (Shakespeare's women being the “Fridays” of a highly intelligent Crusoe) has hardly been brought further since. But Clarissa is more than mere psychology; whether she represents a contemporary tendency or whether Richardson made her so, she starts a new epoch. “This,” says Henley, “is perhaps her finest virtue as it is certainly her greatest charm; that until she set the example, woman in literature as a self-suffering individuality, as an existence endowed with equal rights to independence—of choice, volition, action—with man had not begun to be.” She had not begun to be it in life either.
What Richardson did for the subtlest part of a novelist's business, his dealings with psychology, Fielding did for the most necessary part of it, the telling of the story. Before him hardly any story had been told well; even if it had been plain and clear as in Bunyan and Defoe it had lacked the emphasis, the light and shade of skilful grouping. On the “picaresque” (so the autobiographical form was called abroad) convention of a journey he grafted a structure based in its outline on the form of the ancient epic. It proved extraordinarily suitable for his purpose. Not only did it make it easy for him to lighten his narrative with excursions in a heightened style, burlesquing his origins, but it gave him at once the right attitude to his material. He told his story as one who knew everything; could tell conversations and incidents as he conceived them happening, with no violation of credibility, nor any strain on his reader's imagination, and without any impropriety could interpose in his own person, pointing things to the reader which might have escaped his attention, pointing at parallels he might have missed, laying bare the irony or humour beneath a situation. He allowed himself digressions and episodes, told separate tales in the middle of the action, introduced, as in Partridge's visit to the theatre, the added piquancy of topical allusion; in fact he did anything he chose. And he laid down that free form of the novel which is characteristically English, and from which, in its essence, no one till the modern realists has made a serious departure.
In the matter of his novels, he excels by reason of a Shakespearean sense of character and by the richness and rightness of his faculty of humour. He had a quick eye for contemporary types, and an amazing power of building out of them men and women whose individuality is full and rounded. You do not feel as you do with Richardson that his fabric is spun silk-worm-wise out of himself; on the contrary you know it to be the fruit of a gentle and observant nature, and a stock of fundamental human sympathy. His gallery of portraits, Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams, Parson Trulliber, Jones, Blifil, Partridge, Sophia and her father and all the rest are each of them minute studies of separate people; they live and move according to their proper natures; they are conceived not from without but from within. Both Richardson and Fielding were conscious of a moral intention; but where Richardson is sentimental, vulgar, and moral only so far as it is moral (as in Pamela), to inculcate selling at the highest price or (as in Grandison) to avoid temptations which never come in your way, Fielding's morality is fresh and healthy, and (though not quite free from the sentimentality of scoundrelism) at bottom sane and true. His knowledge of the world kept him right. His acquaintance with life is wide, and his insight is keen and deep. His taste is almost as catholic as Shakespeare's own, and the life he knew, and which other men knew, he handles for the first time with the freedom and imagination of an artist.
Each of the two—Fielding and Richardson—had his host of followers. Abroad Richardson won immediate recognition; in France Diderot went so far as to compare him with Homer and Moses! He gave the first impulse to modern French fiction. At home, less happily, he set going the sentimental school, and it was only when that had passed away that—in the delicate and subtle character-study of Miss Austen—his influence comes to its own. Miss Austen carried a step further, and with an observation which was first hand and seconded by intuitive knowledge, Richardson's analysis of the feminine mind, adding to it a delicate and finely humorous feeling for character in both sexes which was all her own. Fielding's imitators (they number each in his own way, and with his own graces or talent added his rival Smollett, Sterne, and Goldsmith) kept the way which leads to Thackeray and Dickens—the main road of the English Novel.
That road was widened two ways by Sir Walter Scott. The historical novel, which had been before his day either an essay in anachronism with nothing historical in it but the date, or a laborious and uninspired compilation of antiquarian research, took form and life under his hands. His wide reading, stored as it was in a marvellously retentive memory, gave him all the background he needed to achieve a historical setting, and allowed him to concentrate his attention on the actual telling of his story; to which his genial and sympathetic humanity and his quick eye for character gave a humorous depth and richness that was all his own. It is not surprising that he made the historical novel a literary vogue all over Europe. In the second place, he began in his novels of Scottish character a sympathetic study of nationality. He is not, perhaps, a fair guide to contemporary conditions; his interests were too romantic and too much in the past to catch the rattle of the looms that caught the ear of Galt, and if we want a picture of the great fact of modern Scotland, its industrialisation, it is to Galt we must go. But in his comprehension of the essential character of the people he has no rival; in it his historical sense seconded his observation, and the two mingling gave us the pictures whose depth of colour and truth make his Scottish novels, Old Mortality, The Antiquary, Redgauntlet, the greatest things of their kind in literature.
The peculiarly national style of fiction founded by Fielding and carried on by his followers reached its culminating point in Vanity Fair. In it the reader does not seem to be simply present at the unfolding of a plot the end of which is constantly present to the mind of the author and to which he is always consciously working, every incident having a bearing on the course of the action; rather he feels himself to be the spectator of a piece of life which is too large and complex to be under the control of a creator, which moves to its close not under the impulsion of a directing hand, but independently impelled by causes evolved in the course of its happening. With this added complexity goes a more frequent interposition of the author in his own person—one of the conventions as we have seen of this national style. Thackeray is present to his readers, indeed, not as the manager who pulls the strings and sets the puppets in motion, but as an interpreter who directs the reader's attention to the events on which he lays stress, and makes them a starting-point for his own moralising. This persistent moralizing—sham cynical, real sentimental—this thumping of death-bed pillows as in the dreadful case of Miss Crawley, makes Thackeray's use of the personal interposition almost less effective than that of any other novelist. Already while he was doing it, Dickens had conquered the public; and the English novel was making its second fresh start.
He is an innovator in more ways than one. In the first place he is the earliest novelist to practise a conscious artistry of plot. The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains mysterious, but those who essay to conjecture the end of that unfinished story have at last the surety that its end, full worked out in all its details, had been in its author's mind before he set pen to paper. His imagination was as diligent and as disciplined as his pen, Dickens' practice in this matter could not be better put than in his own words, when he describes himself as “in the first stage of a new book, which consists in going round and round the idea, as you see a bird in his cage go about and about his sugar before he touches it.” That his plots are always highly elaborated is the fruit of this preliminary disciplined exercise of thought. The method is familiar to many novelists now; Dickens was the first to put it into practice. In the second place he made a new departure by his frankly admitted didacticism and by the skill with which in all but two or three of his books—Bleak House, perhaps, and Little Dorrit—he squared his purpose with his art. Lastly he made the discovery which has made him immortal. In him for the first time the English novel produced an author who dug down into the masses of the people for his subjects; apprehended them in all their inexhaustible character and humour and pathos, and reproduced them with a lively and loving artistic skill.
Dickens has, of course, serious faults. In particular, readers emancipated by lapse of time from the enslavement of the first enthusiasm, have quarrelled with the mawkishness and sentimentality of his pathos, and with the exaggeration of his studies of character. It has been said of him, as it has of Thackeray, that he could not draw a “good woman” and that Agnes Copperfield, like Amelia Sedley, is a very doll-like type of person. To critics of this kind it may be retorted that though “good” and “bad” are categories relevant to melodrama, they apply very ill to serious fiction, and that indeed to the characters of any of the novelists—the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell or the like—who lay bare character with fullness and intimacy, they could not well be applied at all. The faultiness of them in Dickens is less than in Thackeray, for in Dickens they are only incident to the scheme, which lies in the hero (his heroes are excellent) and in the grotesque characters, whereas in his rival they are in the theme itself. For his pathos, not even his warmest admirer could perhaps offer a satisfactory case. The charge of exaggeration however is another matter. To the person who complains that he has never met Dick Swiveller or Micawber or Mrs. Gamp the answer is simply Turner's to the sceptical critic of his sunset, “Don't you wish you could?” To the other, who objects more plausibly to Dickens's habit of attaching to each of his characters some label which is either so much flaunted all through that you cannot see the character at all or else mysteriously and unaccountably disappears when the story begins to grip the author, Dickens has himself offered an amusing and convincing defence. In the preface to Pickwick he answers those who criticised the novel on the ground that Pickwick began by being purely ludicrous and developed into a serious and sympathetic individuality, by pointing to the analogous process which commonly takes place in actual human relationships. You begin a new acquaintanceship with perhaps not very charitable prepossessions; these later a deeper and better knowledge removes, and where you have before seen an idiosyncrasy you come to love a character. It is ingenious and it helps to explain Mrs. Nickleby, the Pecksniff daughters, and many another. Whether it is true or not (and it does not explain the faultiness of such pictures as Carker and his kind) there can be no doubt that this trick in Dickens of beginning with a salient impression and working outward to a fuller conception of character is part at least of the reason of his enormous hold upon his readers. No man leads you into the mazes of his invention so easily and with such a persuasive hand.
The great novelists who were writing contemporarily with him—the Brontes, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot—it is impossible to deal with here, except to say that the last is indisputably, because of her inability to fuse completely art and ethics, inferior to Mrs. Gaskell or to either of the Bronte sisters. Nor of the later Victorians who added fresh variety to the national style can the greatest, Meredith, be more than mentioned for the exquisiteness of his comic spirit and the brave gallery of English men and women he has given us in what is, perhaps, fundamentally the most English thing in fiction since Fielding wrote. For our purpose Mr. Hardy, though he is a less brilliant artist, is more to the point. His novels brought into England the contemporary pessimism of Schopenhaur and the Russians, and found a home for it among the English peasantry. Convinced that in the upper classes character could be studied and portrayed only subjectively because of the artificiality of a society which prevented its outlet in action, he turned to the peasantry because with them conduct is the direct expression of the inner life. Character could be shown working, therefore, not subjectively but in the act, if you chose a peasant subject. His philosophy, expressed in this medium, is sombre. In his novels you can trace a gradual realization of the defects of natural laws and the quandary men are put to by their operation. Chance, an irritating and trifling series of coincidences, plays the part of fate. Nature seems to enter with the hopelessness of man's mood. Finally the novelist turns against life itself. “Birth,” he says, speaking of Tess, “seemed to her an ordeal of degrading personal compulsion whose gratuitousness nothing in the result seemed to justify and at best could only palliate.” It is strange to find pessimism in a romantic setting; strange, too, to find a paganism which is so little capable of light or joy.
The characteristic form of English fiction, that in which the requisite illusion of the complexity and variety of life is rendered by discursiveness, by an author's licence to digress, to double back on himself, to start may be in the middle of a story and work subsequently to the beginning and the end; in short by his power to do whatever is most expressive of his individuality, found a rival in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century in the French Naturalistic or Realist school, in which the illusion of life is got by a studied and sober veracity of statement, and by the minute accumulation of detail. To the French Naturalists a novel approached in importance the work of a man of science, and they believed it ought to be based on documentary evidence, as a scientific work would be. Above all it ought not to allow itself to be coloured by the least gloss of imagination or idealism; it ought never to shrink from a confrontation of the naked fact. On the contrary it was its business to carry it to the dissecting table and there minutely examine everything that lay beneath its surface.
The school first became an English possession in the early translations of the work of Zola; its methods were transplanted into English fiction by Mr. George Moore. From his novels, both in passages of direct statement and in the light of his practice, it is possible to gather together the materials of a manifesto of the English Naturalistic school. The naturalists complained that English fiction lacked construction in the strictest sense; they found in the English novel a remarkable absence of organic wholeness; it did not fulfil their first and broadest canon of subject-matter—by which a novel has to deal in the first place with a single and rhythmical series of events; it was too discursive. They made this charge against English fiction; they also retorted the charge brought by native writers and their readers against the French of foulness, sordidness and pessimism in their view of life. “We do not,” says a novelist in one of Mr. Moore's books, “we do not always choose what you call unpleasant subjects, but we do try to get to the roots of things; and the basis of life being material and not spiritual, the analyst sooner or later finds himself invariably handling what this sentimental age calls coarse.” “The novel,” says the same character, “if it be anything is contemporary history, an exact and complete reproduction of the social surroundings of the age we live in.” That succinctly is the naturalistic theory of the novel as a work of science—that as the history of a nation lies hidden often in social wrongs and in domestic grief as much as in the movements of parties or dynasties, the novelist must do for the former what the historian does for the latter. It is his business in the scheme of knowledge of his time.
But the naturalists believed quite as profoundly in the novel as a work of art. They claimed for their careful pictures of the grey and sad and sordid an artistic worth, varying in proportion to the intensity of the emotion in which the picture was composed and according to the picture's truth, but in its essence just as real and permanent as the artistic worth of romance. “Seen from afar,” writes Mr. Moore, “all things in nature are of equal worth; and the meanest things, when viewed with the eyes of God, are raised to heights of tragic awe which conventionality would limit to the deaths of kings and patriots.” On such a lofty theory they built their treatment and their style. It is a mistake to suppose that the realist school deliberately cultivates the sordid or shocking. Examine in this connection Mr. Moore's Mummer's Wife, our greatest English realist novel, and for the matter of that one of the supreme things in English fiction, and you will see that the scrupulous fidelity of the author's method, though it denies him those concessions to a sentimentalist or romantic view of life which are the common implements of fiction, denies him no less the extremities of horror or loathsomeness. The heroine sinks into the miserable squalor of a dipsomaniac and dies from a drunkard's disease, but her end is shown as the ineluctable consequence of her life, its early greyness and monotony, the sudden shock of a new and strange environment and the resultant weakness of will which a morbid excitability inevitably brought about. The novel, that is to say, deals with a “rhythmical series of events and follows them to their conclusion”; it gets at the roots of things; it tells us of something which we know to be true in life whether we care to read it in fiction or not. There is nothing in it of sordidness for sordidness' sake nor have the realists any philosophy of an unhappy ending. In this case the ending is unhappy because the sequence of events admitted of no other solution; in others the ending is happy or merely neutral as the preceding story decides. If what one may call neutral endings predominate, it is because they also—notoriously—predominate in life. But the question of unhappiness or its opposite has nothing whatever to do with the larger matter of beauty; it is the triumph of the realists that at their best they discovered a new beauty in things, the loveliness that lies in obscure places, the splendour of sordidness, humility, and pain. They have taught us that beauty, like the Spirit, blows where it lists and we know from them that the antithesis between realism and idealism is only on their lower levels; at their summits they unite and are one. No true realist but is an idealist too.
Most of what is best in English fiction since has been directly occasioned by their work; Gissing and Mr. Arnold Bennett may be mentioned as two authors who are fundamentally realist in their conception of the art of the novel, and the realist ideal partakes in a greater or less degree in the work of nearly all our eminent novelists to-day. But realism is not and cannot be interesting to the great public; it portrays people as they are, not as they would like to be, and where they are, not where they would like to be. It gives no background for day-dreaming. Now literature (to repeat what has been than more once stated earlier in this book) is a way of escape from life as well as an echo or mirror of it, and the novel as the form of literature which more than any other men read for pleasure, is the main avenue for this escape. So that alongside this invasion of realism it is not strange that there grew a revival in romance.
The main agent of it, Robert Louis Stevenson, had the romantic strain in him intensified by the conditions under which he worked; a weak and anaemic man, he loved bloodshed as a cripple loves athletics—passionately and with the intimate enthusiasm of make-believe which an imaginative man can bring to bear on the contemplation of what can never be his. His natural attraction for “redness and juice” in life was seconded by a delightful and fantastic sense of the boundless possibilities of romance in every-day things. To a realist a hansom-cab driver is a man who makes twenty-five shillings a week, lives in a back street in Pimlico, has a wife who drinks and children who grow up with an alcoholic taint; the realist will compare his lot with other cab-drivers, and find what part of his life is the product of the cab-driving environment, and on that basis he will write his book. To Stevenson and to the romanticist generally, a hansom cab-driver is a mystery behind whose apparent commonplaceness lie magic possibilities beyond all telling; not one but may be the agent of the Prince of Bohemia, ready to drive you off to some mad and magic adventure in a street which is just as commonplace to the outward eye as the cab-driver himself, but which implicates by its very deceitful commonness whole volumes of romance. The novel-reader to whom Demos was the repetition of what he had seen and known, and what had planted sickness in his soul, found the New Arabian Nights a refreshing miracle. Stevenson had discovered that modern London had its possibilities of romance. To these two elements of his romantic equipment must be added a third—travel. Defoe never left England, and other early romanticists less gifted with invention than he wrote from the mind's eye and from books. To Stevenson, and to his successor Mr. Kipling, whose “discovery” of India is one of the salient facts of modern English letters, and to Mr. Conrad belongs the credit of teaching novelists to draw on experience for the scenes they seek to present. A fourth element in the equipment of modern romanticism—that which draws its effects from the “miracles” of modern science, has been added since by Mr. H. G. Wells, in whose latest work the realistic and romantic schools seem to have united.