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A Hero of Our Own Times

In 1939 V.S. Pritchett set about reading many novels in the hope of discovering what was wrong with the one he was trying to write. He didn’t regard himself as a critic, but as an ordinary reader with a private ax to grind. Taking notes on his reading, he started publishing pieces in the New Statesman. Paper was scarce, so he had to restrict himself to short essays of about 1800 words, an exigency from which he developed the laconic and allusive style he continues to practice in the more spacious conditions of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

A Man of Letters is a selection of Pritchett’s essays and reviews. Most of them have been rescued from books long out of print, starting with In My Good Books (1942). Five essays, on Richardson, Scott, George Eliot, Arnold Bennett, and the forgotten Thomas Day—author of Sandford and Merton (1783–1789)—are taken from The Living Novel (1946). Essays on Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster, Trollope, Robert Musil, Edith Wharton, R.S. Surtees, and Nathanael West come from The Working Novelist (1965). Three essays, on George Sand, Eça de Queiroz, and Machado de Assis, are taken from The Myth Makers (1979); two, on Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh, from The Tale Bearers (1980). From recent work, Pritchett has chosen essays on Pushkin, Byron, Cruikshank’s drawings, Virginia Woolf’s last letters, Cyril Connolly, Proust, Camus, Henry James’s letters, Pissarro, and Nabokov. There are twenty-two essays on English writers, mostly novelists, six on Americans, and eighteen on European writers and artists.

If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing,” Pritchett remarks in a brief preface. He uses the same capitalized phrase about Cyril Connolly and, in The Tale Bearers, about Edmund Wilson, “the old-style man of letters.” Old-style or not, a man of letters is a writer who makes his living by writing regularly for “the periodicals that have survived.” Such a writer persists in caring for literature, even at a time much given to TV and film. He makes “a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture,” and embodies them in his own novels, short stories, biographies, travel books, and criticism. The phrase, as Pritchett uses it, doesn’t seem to describe such writers as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Graham Greene, W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, and John Updike, who haven’t depended for a living upon their frequent appearances in periodicals.

Pritchett’s references to the tradition of the man of letters are always rueful: he implies that he is the last of his tribe. I assume he has in mind the apparently easy conditions under which Henry James wrote for The North American Review and The Nation, George Eliot for The Westminster Review, Leslie Stephen for The Cornhill, Mill for The Fortnightly Review, Bagehot for the National Review, Emerson for The Dial. They had all the space in the world, and apparently all the time, rival diversions being few.

In The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) John Gross offered, as reasons for the fall, the predominance of science and the social sciences in the definition of what passes as truth, and the fact that literature now counts for less even among literate people. When such people meet, they are likely to discuss a recent TV program or a current film rather than a novel or a book of poems. A critic “may take a certain pride in being the last amateur in a world of professionals,” as Gross says, but pride is his sole felicity. It is not surprising that critics are trying to give their craft an appearance of scientific rigor, attracting a professional elite with the inducement of philosophic and linguistic nicety.

But there are many other reasons for the decline of a long and once esteemed tradition. The Victorian sages who filled the great monthlies and quarterlies had themes that are now defunct. They were engaged in that “secularization of spirituality” which gave nineteenth-century literature most of its substance and provocation. A religion without benefit of clergy: what such a thing might be, and its consequences for the morality of daily life, law, politics, empire, and trade make half of George Eliot’s story, for instance, the other half being more locally formal and linguistic. The “competitive reforming ethic of an expanding society,” in Pritchett’s phrase, impelled not only Victorian fiction—with its themes of feeling and community, freedom and duty, work, family, land, and the factories—but the high arguments of Arnold, Huxley, Newman, Lord Acton, Bentham, and Mill. The secularization of spirituality is no longer an issue in the advanced West: now that the process is complete, we have to make the best of its completeness and put up with its consequences.

One of the consequences is that even if we think we know what Pritchett means by “the reflective values of a humane culture,” we can’t say what force is to be given to the phrase, its pondered adjectives and nouns. We might agree about “reflective,” but not about “values”—are they merely interests enforced by casuistry? It is difficult to refer to culture, unless we insist upon taking it to mean high culture or pop culture: it is easy to talk about cultures, and to show an interest, entirely descriptive and indiscriminate, in their diversity. Discussion of popular culture from Adorno to Barthes and Raymond Williams hasn’t helped anyone to know how a critical intelligence should act upon its constituents. There is no merit in brushing popular interests aside, as F.R. Leavis did, regarding them as exemplified by package-deal vacations and fish and chips in Majorca. Not that the answer is to capitulate to the Eurovision Song Contest merely because it is inescapably there. Meanwhile, what meaning can we attach to “humane”?

Pritchett hasn’t taken up this issue in any direct or theoretic sense. He is a man of principles, and especially of such principles as he deems self-evident. A print man, he has spent many years with those novels which have been judged superior to the common run of fiction. He is ready to discriminate between one novel and another, and to show what he regards as causes of their success or failure, but his judgments don’t issue from an elaborately articulated theory of fiction. He hopes that there is still an esteemed tradition, however vaguely maintained, that guarantees the force of decent instincts that don’t need to be justified. We read novels, he believes, “in order to clarify our minds about human character, in order to pass judgment on the effect of character on the world outside itself, and to estimate the ideas people have lived by.” He says of Ford Madox Ford’s theories that in the end they “become devices for postponing the novelist’s task: which is to settle and confront.” In an essay on Lermontov he maintains that “the detailed realism of the modern novel tells us far too much, without defining the little that it is absolutely essential to know.”

Presumably that little, in human character, is what is to be confronted and settled. Character, for Pritchett, is the fundamental value of fiction: plot is the disclosure of character in the posited conditions which most completely make for disclosure. Events which seem to be independently stirring are a nuisance. An idea may well be interesting, but the question is, as Pritchett puts it in The Myth Makers, can the artist make the idea walk, “can he place it in a street, a room?” Pritchett agrees with Forster’s remark—he quotes it in The Tale Bearers—that “arguments are only fascinating when they are of the nature of gestures and illustrate the people who produce them.”

In his fiction—think of “Handsome Is As Handsome Does”—Pritchett assumes that people can be known, that such knowledge is not specious, and that readers can be brought to know people by construing their signs. We recognize the telling detail because we have been schooled to understand people in their actions and gestures. I don’t think it would perturb him to acknowledge that these interpretations are cultural rather than natural. They are not disabled by that consideration. Continuity is a value, and recognition of its forms a joy. Pritchett thinks it an indication of Scott’s strength that “he understands…what all ordinary, simple, observant men know about one another: the marks of their trade, their town, their family.” In The Myth Makers the first things to be said about Solzhenitsyn are that as a novelist he is “in the tradition of the nineteenth century Russian novel as it appears in the prophet-preacher writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, now one, now the other,” and that as a polemical writer he is “in the tradition of Belinsky and Herzen.”

Descriptive comparison is Pritchett’s method of indicating the mutual bearing of continuity and change, the type and the individual. He likes to establish resemblance, and then to qualify it with clarifying nuances. Some of his most assured and far-reaching criticism is comparative, bringing together Trollope and Disraeli, Lermontov and Constant, Borges and Mérimée, not to sink their differences but to disclose the life they hold in common while they hold it differently. In the essay on Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Own Times Pritchett most convincingly recovers the type, the Byronic hero, by distinguishing two versons if it, Lermontov’s Pechorin and Constant’s Adolphe:

Adolphe also is the imaginative man who loves from the head and then revenges himself secretively and cruelly upon the strong-minded woman who is devouring him and with whom he is afraid to break: Pechorin, more histrionic and less sensitive (more Byronic, in short), loves from the head also but takes special care to avoid strong-minded women. He possesses, but is not possessed. He prefers the weak and yielding who respond at once to cruelty and whom he can abandon quickly. Faced with the strong-minded, Pechorin becomes a man of action and makes his getaway. Readers of A Hero of Our Own Times will remember how Pechorin dealt with the determined duplicity of Taman, the smuggler’s girl, when she took him out in her boat on a moonlight night. He threw her into the sea. What would not Adolphe have given for such decisiveness? What would he not have given for that Byronic ruthlessness in action, who knew only the cool vacillations of the mind? Of the two characters, Pechorin’s is the more arrested and adolescent. He has not Adolphe’s sensibility to the tragedy of the imagination. He does not suffer.

Pritchett doesn’t forget that these are characters in fiction, not people one might meet at a party, but he has devised an unpedantic form of discourse in which that knowledge need not always insist upon itself.

Pritchett is very much, and to his advantage, an English writer. He is occasionally sharp with his compatriots, as in regretting the fact “that far too large a portion of educated energy is going into running England as a kind of private joke, an ingenious personal crossword,” a remark he made of Harold Macmillan’s England in 1962 and would hardly make of Mrs. Thatcher’s. But while he has a firmer grasp of French, Spanish, and Russian literature than most other English critics, generally Pritchett takes his bearings from English life, which he sometimes appears to identify with the demonstrable inclination of nature. Writing of E.M. Forster, Pritchett refers to “the brusque and off-hand sanity which is in the central tradition of our comedy.” Pritchett implies that English fiction runs with little fuss from Defoe and Fielding to Forster, Graham Greene, Angus Wilson, and William Golding, its native sources of energy and good sense admirably shared. The Englishness of English fiction is the resilience with which it accepts the evidence of ordinary life. Arnold Bennett was, according to Pritchett, “the connoisseur of the normal, the ordinary and the banal” and if “connoisseur” may not at first seem quite the right word, Pritchett retains it, and lets it play against the conventional assumption that Bennett’s mind is merely the sum of the humdrum things he has observed. The word exemplifies Pritchett’s quietly arresting wit, and it justly keeps Bennett’s mind separate from its contents.

Trollope gets a better press from Pritchett than from Henry James mainly because James couldn’t accept that Trollope’s “complete appreciation of the usual” required such a drastic constriction of human possibility; while Pritchett sees Trollope as a man “who has had to gain acquaintance with normality from an abnormal situation outside it.” Pritchett’s Trollope became a “rather cynical observer of a satisfied world,” but he laboriously acquired its satisfactions, he didn’t inherit them. He “longed merely for the normal,” and therefore was an English novelist with a sufficiently distraught difference to gain Pritchett’s agitated sympathy.

It is also on the strength of English fiction and its sense of community that Pritchett comes to his most succinct emphasis, that “one of the reasons why bad novels are bad is not that the characters do not live, but they do not live with one another.” The case in point is Bennett’s Clayhanger, which passes Pritchett’s test because of the relation, richly misunderstanding, between Edwin and his father. James’s account of Clayhanger doesn’t even mention the relation, but expresses his dismayed sense of Bennett’s dumped and piled materials, artistic form being for Bennett merely a matter of disposal arrangements.

A further comparison of Pritchett and James will enable me to concentrate on a typically challenging essay in A Man of Letters, on George Eliot. I’ll confine myself to what he says of Adam Bede.

Pritchett admires George Eliot as the supreme schoolmistress of English fiction, a characterization to which we are not invited to be superior. When we read her novels, he says, “we notice less the oppression of her lectures and more the spaciousness of her method, the undeterred illumination which her habit of mind brings to human nature. We pass from the romantic shadows into an explicit, a prosaic but a relieving light.” That last phrase is pure Pritchett: it is typical of his respect for clarity and his undazzled gratitude for the relief it brings. When he turns to Adam Bede, he complains that Victorian novelists “were constitutionally unable to write about sexual love.” But I find, in an essay on Sons and Lovers in The Living Novel, that Lawrence “is responsible for the fact that no living writer has any idea of how to write about sexual love.” So perhaps the incapacity is universal.

Pritchett’s account of Adam Bede is much concerned with the two matters that have troubled many readers: George Eliot’s treatment of Hetty Sorrel, and the marriage of Dinah and Adam at the end. Hetty, found guilty of murdering her child by the young squire Arthur Donnithorne, is reprieved at the last minute, and transported to Australia. Adam, who has spent most of the novel yearning for Hetty, finds after all that Dinah was meant for him; and she finds that it is the Divine Will that she should marry him. Henry James thought these arrangements “an evidence of artistic weakness,” an unfortunate consequence of the view “that a story must have marriages and rescues in the nick of time, as a matter of course.”

In fact, there are two rescues in the nick of time. Arthur Donnithorne arrives in time to save Hetty from the gallows; and Dinah accepts the decision of the Methodist Conference that women shouldn’t preach out of doors. James thought the book should have ended with Hetty’s execution, “or even with her reprieve,” Adam should have been left to his grief, and Dinah “to the enjoyment of that distinguished celibacy for which she was so well suited.” Leavis thought the arrangements not worth arguing about—they merely testified to “the vaguely realized that draws its confidence from convention.”

Pritchett finds the arrangements shocking. About Hetty:

The drawing of Hetty is neither observation from life nor a true recasting of experience by the imagination; it is a personal fantasy of George Eliot’s. George Eliot was punishing herself and Hetty has to suffer for the “sins” George Eliot had committed, and for which, to her perhaps unconscious dismay, she herself was never punished. We rebel against the black and white view of life and when we compare Adam Bede with Scott’s Heart of Midlothian, to which the former confessedly owes something of its plot, we are depressed by the decline of humanity that has set in since the eighteenth century. Humanity has become humanitarianism, uplift and, in the end, downright cruelty.

This is odd. Adam Bede, published in 1859, records events supposedly of the period 1799–1807. The Heart of Midlothian, published in 1818, tells a story beginning in 1736. The treatment of Hetty is meager evidence, especially if it bears upon George Eliot’s irregular and unpunished relation to George Henry Lewes, to support a cultural charge as serious as Pritchett’s—although what he says about George Eliot’s view of herself is acute. It would be more convincing to argue that Hetty is a light, vain, self-worshipping girl, preoccupied with the length and shade of her eyelashes rather than with anything useful she might do with her life. In Chapter 15 the narrator begins to suspect “that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals,” though she wishes there were. George Eliot could imagine such a girl as Hetty, but couldn’t, I think, care for her. She may have thought that most of the suffering in the world is caused by such kittens. I agree with Pritchett that Hetty’s punishment exceeds her crime, but not that it is symptomatic of a decline of humanity at large in 1859.

Of Adam and Dinah, Pritchett says:

George Eliot told lies about this marriage; or rather, she omitted a vital element from it. She left out the element of sexual jealousy or if she did not leave it out, she did not recognise it, because she cannot admit natural passions in a virtuous character. In that scene where Hetty pushes Dinah away from her in her bedroom, where Hetty is dressing up and dreaming her Bovary-like dreams, the reader sees something that George Eliot appears not to see. We are supposed to see that Hetty is self-willed and this may be true, but see as well that Hetty’s instincts have warned her of her ultimate rival. The failure to record jealousy and the attempt to transmute it so that it becomes the ambiguous of lofty repugnance to sin, springs from the deeper failure to face the nature of passion.

It is curious that every reader who admires Adam Bede wants to change it. In the scene in question, Dinah couldn’t feel sexual jealousy, because she is beyond such an emotion: she is in Abraham’s bosom all the time. She certainly chose the wrong time to read Hetty a sermon, but she accepted her rejection with good grace.

Poor Dinah felt a pang. She was too wise to persist, and only said mildly, “Yes, my dear, you’re tired; I won’t hinder you any longer. Make haste and get into bed. Good-night.”

Hetty’s instincts couldn’t have spotted Dinah as her rival, because her vanity is entirely set upon Arthur, and she cares not at all for Adam. Passion, in Dinah, doesn’t arise, except as her fierce commitment to the Divine Will.

Pritchett’s criticism of Adam Bede is severe, and I don’t find it persuasive, but it is even more valuable now—because more tellingly against the conventional wisdom of literary criticism—than when it was first published forty years ago. It has become more difficult to speak of fiction in Pritchett’s moral terms; mainly because literary theory has settled into the complacent phase of its Pyrrhonism. Pritchett admires Adam Bede, and writes with due warmth of the chapters which describe poor Hetty’s flight in search of her lover, but his sense of justice is affronted by George Eliot’s dispositions. Walter Benjamin once remarked of Karl Kraus that “everything—language and fact—fell for him within the sphere of justice.” I don’t ascribe to Pritchett anything like Kraus’s polemical ferocity; but his critical intelligence, when he reads a novel, is never willing to dissolve considerations of justice—of “cruelty” and “lies”—in ostensibly high-minded adjudications of form and style. Perhaps that is what he means by the humane culture for which he speaks. What he gives, in each essay or review, is his experience of reading a novel in the demanding as well as relieving light of the values he cares about; and he makes us care about them as well.

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