The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 22. Mark Rutherford
The influence of Wilkie Collins was widespread and various; upon Dickens, it was large and reciprocal; the convivial Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins are full of discussions of intrigues and plots. Collins set a standard of orderly and well-knit narrative at a time when both the example of the masters of fiction and the methods of publication, whether in parts or by instalments in magazines, tended to chaotic construction. Writers such as James Payn, Miss Braddon and Sir Walter Besant have this skill in composition and combine with it miscellaneous gifts of humour, observation and power to hold attention. But, in the case of these writers, however talented they may be, we are conscious that the impulse which began about 1848 is exhausted. Fiction becomes more and more competent in workmanship, while its themes, characters, scenes and standards become conventionalised. One writer, however, is untouched by these processes—Mark Rutherford (William Hale White). He delineated a noteworthy phase of English life, that of provincial dissent, at the moment when its younger educated ministers became aware of the shaken bases of the beliefs accepted by their congregations. The perplexity and misery of the sincere and thoughtful pastor’s situation are revealed with subtle insight and with the poignancy of actual experience in the Mark Rutherford books and in The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane (1887). The undercurrent of sadness which runs through his pages has, however, a still deeper cause, namely the constant baffling of the mind in the pursuit of absolute truth. Rutherford—himself an authoritative interpreter of Spinoza—commends the avoidance of metaphysical enquiry to those who value peace of mind. Thought, deeply pondered, emotional sincerity, vivid descriptive power and critical restraint distinguish the prose of this singular writer. Apart from him, the lesser novelists show few signs of originality until the influence of continental realism comes, belated, to England through later writers of the first rank.