Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 1. The reaction against Romanticism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 1. The reaction against Romanticism

OF the four eminent novelists whose names are placed at the head of this chapter, the first three are representative rather of a period than of any school, properly so called, of English prose fiction; while the fourth, whose works, in a sense, complete the cycle of imaginative literature here brought under review, stands, in purpose and in method, as, to some extent, she does in point of time, away from the rest. Yet, the novels of all of them, as well as those of many authors of lesser note who were their contemporaries, had certain notable features in common which were more or less new to English fiction, and which warrant a consideration, side by side, of writers between whom, singly and severally, there was a great and unmistakable diversity of genius.

With Disraeli and Kingsley as, in a measure, with Bulwer Lytton in certain of his works, and with one or two other writers before them, the English historical novel, which had reached the height of its glories in Scott, and, through him, had come to be imitated in almost every other modern literature, changed into the political (though both Disraeli and Kingsley, the one in passing and the other with conspicuous success, also essayed the older kind of fiction). At the same time, they, and the two women writers whose names are here associated with theirs, were led to give attention to a number of social questions of pressing political significance. Simultaneously and, in part, as a natural result of the expansion of the choice of themes, the new kind of novel, even more distinctly than the historical novel before it, supplemented and enlarged the range of subject on which earlier English fiction, culminating in Richardson, had concentrated its efforts. The treatment, in artistic form, of the experiences of individual men and women, and of the reaction of these experiences upon their thoughts and feelings, had intimately connected English fiction with the philosophy of Rousseau, and with its unparalleled influence upon his generation. Now, the novelist went on to deal with the life and doings, and the intellectual and moral condition, of whole classes of men and women; till, at last, in the stories of George Eliot above all, it became difficult to decide whether the interest of the reader was more widely and effectively challenged by the leading figures in front of the scene or by those which made up the surroundings, constituted the atmosphere, or—to use a word for which we have no satisfactory English equivalent—formed the milieu of the action.

From the point of view of literary history, these changes, to which the application of the comparative method would find it easy to suggest analogies, connect themselves with the inevitable reaction against the tendencies of the romantic school, which, for some time, had been approaching superannuation. The rights of individual fancy, taste, opinion and belief to go each its own way and pursue each its own subjective course of development had prevailed, with readers of novels, so far as to allow their heroes and heroines the prerogative of an interest enhanced by the very fact of their isolation. The effects of this and other cognate characteristics of the romanticism which had long held the field had begun to show themselves in imaginative literature at large by an increased monotony, by occasional self-satire, by the weakening of poetic forms and by the predominance of lyric over dramatic or epic treatment of literacy themes.

Against all this, a reaction, in any case, must have arisen in every branch of English literature, and, most of all, in that which, more than any other, had come to supply the intellectual and imaginative sentiment of the largest body of readers. But there were forces at work in the life of the nation which were certain to co-operate with this reaction, and to impart to it a force beyond that of a literary movement pure and simple, which spends its strength till superseded in its turn.

The literature of English fiction in the period with which these chapters are chiefly concerned, and the beginning of which may be dated from that of the fourth decade of the century, was, in the first place, more and more intent upon dealing with things as they actually were. This realism corresponded to the political and social changes which had given the nation, as a whole, wider and readier opportunities of observing the different parts of its own organism and, thus, of better understanding and appreciating the various aspects and interests of its own life. In the course of the period beginning with the death of George IV (1830), and the passing of the Reform bill (1832), and, even more distinctly, from the accession of queen Victoria (1837) onwards, society, whatever its habits or desires, was no longer able to fence itself round, within limits mainly determined by personal descent and connection with landed property. There was a great movement upwards, as there had been in the Tudor days; and, while the metropolis, with its predominant commercial interest, was becoming, far more than it had hitherto been, the real capital of the country, other large towns, more especially in the manufacturing districts of the north, were growing into what only one or two of them had been before, real centres of popular life. Much to their own benefit, though not necessarily, in the same degree, to that of other classes, the court, nobility and wealthier gentry were living under a new light of publicity—a publicity increased by the twofold growth of locomotive facilities and of the public press—and institutions which, for many a generation, had been mainly appropriated to the use of the privileged classes, the universities in especial, were more freely opening their doors. The great professions, including that of the church, were, at the same time, being popularised; and, though the Reform bill had not brought to the popular chamber a representative body of pure radicals of the type of Felix Holt, it was becoming an assembly through whose proceedings and their motive causes a good deal of daylight was allowed to shine.

All this, unmistakably, facilitated the process by which the English novel of the generation which entered into its prime in 1830, or thereabouts, devoted itself very largely to a critical examination of the various classes comprising the nation—however ingeniously this criticism might be interwoven with the narrative of the fictitious experiences of imaginary personages. As a matter of course, it often turned into satire; but its primary purpose was to exhibit, or, at all events, to seem to exhibit an actually existing state of things, in lieu of the old romantic pictures either of the present or of the (still more easily misrepresented) past.