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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 25. Characteristics

Except that toward the end of his life he partly turned from fiction to sober—and not remarkably spirited—history, Crawford can hardly be said to have changed his methods from his earliest novel to his latest. Improvisation was his knack and forte; he wrote much and speedily. His settings he took down, for the most part, from personal observation in the many localities he knew at first hand; his characters, too, are frequently studies from actual persons. In his plots, commonly held his peculiar merit, Crawford cannot be called distinctly original: he employs much of the paraphernalia of melodrama—lost or hidden wills, forgeries, great persons in disguise, sudden legacies, physical violence; moreover, it is almost a formula with him to carry a story by natural motives until about the last third, when melodrama enters to perplex the narrative and to arouse due suspense until the triumphant and satisfying dènouement. And yet so fresh, strong, and veracious is the movement that it nearly obscures these conventional elements. Movement, indeed, not plot in the stricter sense, is Crawford’s chief excellence. He could not tell a story badly, but flowed on without breaking or faltering, managing his material and disposing his characters and scenes without apparent effort, in a style always clear and bright. This lightness of movement is accompanied, perhaps accounted for, by an absence of profound ideas or of any of that rich colour of life which comes only—as in Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy—when fiction is deeply based in a native soil. As to his ideas, Crawford appears to have had few that were unusual, and at least he suspected such ideas as the substance of fiction, about the aims and uses of which he is very explicit in The Novel: What It Is (1893). Novelists he called “public amusers,” who must always write largely about love and in Anglo-Saxon countries must write under the eyes of the ubiquitous young girl. They might therefore as well be reconciled to the exigencies of their business. For his own part he thought problem novels odious, cared nothing for dialect or local colour, believed it a mistake to make a novel too minute a picture of one generation lest another should think it “old-fashioned,” and preferred to regard the novel as a sort of “pocket-theatre”—with ideals, it should be added, much like those of the British and American stage from 1870 to 1890.