Jane Austen
Jane Austen; drawing by David Levine

The special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying; and the main reason for this is that the most intelligent novelists and readers are always conscious of the gap, consisting of absurdity, that grows between the world as it seems to be and the world proposed in novels. Of course, only the novelists and their more intelligent readers ever say that the novel is dying; the public for popular novels is happy enough with the familiar sights and landmarks of what Scott, looking at the English novel of the late eighteenth century, called “the land of fiction.” This is a place in which all its accomplished in terms of unvarying myth and convention; its “adventures” have to do, in Scott’s words, “not with those of real life, but with each other.” We are always—and by “we” I mean those of us who scorn to have dealings with the merely popular—we are always emigrating from the land of fiction. We object precisely to its absurdity; if that’s a novel, we say, I’m going to write an anti-novel. Then the anti-novel—Joseph Andrews, Love and Freindship I regard as anti-novels avant la lettre—points the way to a new novel, a new convention; once again strong minds are revolted by arbitrariness and absurdity. Again they proclaim the imminent death of the novel, the one genre without which modern literature is unimaginable.

This, or something like it, has been going on from the beginning. If we mean anything at all when we speak of greatness in fiction we have to admit that Clarissa Harlowe, that absurd overwhelming book, has the quality, even if we won’t consider re-reading it to check; yet the thought of a great many other people writing novels like Richardson’s really was unbearable, and Fielding, who disliked Richardson’s ethics as much as his epistolary form, turned himself into “the first great novelist” by means of reaction and parody. If you believe in The Great Tradition, your first great novelist is Jane Austen, but as I say there is a similarity in the ways she and Fielding started—with a rejection of the laws of the land of fiction. It is also very fitting that the novel had hardly got going when Sterne anatomized it in all its absurdity, so that if we want to study the modern novel in any kind of historical dimension we have to understand him as well as the other big eighteenth-century names—we have, that is, to recognize that the absurdity of the land of fiction was well understood from the moment it was first discovered. In fact the great men, having read and re-read Cervantes, took this for granted.

But all this is mere superficial glozing. To talk interesting sense about fiction and reality is one of the most difficult tasks a critic can set himself, and it isn’t surprising that with a few honorable exceptions the bulk of commentary on the eighteenth-century novelists is superficial; often it has little to do with fiction, and should be called social history or gossip. Since these men were all writers before they were novelists, and mostly very prolific in other forms—journalism, history, travel books, sermons—and since they were most of them striking characters living in a period a lot of people like to read about, there is no shortage of material.

Fielding, for instance, was a prolific playwright, a ready pamphleteer, and a copious journalist. You can read him on “the poison called gin” or on the need to strengthen crime prevention; he is interesting as an opponent of Walpole’s censorship, as a traveler, as a magistrate, even as an urbane essayist, to readers who may have no taste for the rigors of criticism. He made a number of ventures in the newspaper field, and one of these was The True Patriot, a weekly that ran for about six months in 1745-6. Fielding was a convinced Hanoverian, and the main object of this paper was to rouse people against the Jacobite rebels. Reading it in this elaborate facsimile edition one is struck by the tone of the leading articles and some of the news items; the situation may have been dangerous, but the tone, though convinced, remains one of stock Spectatorial irony, even when the theme is the author’s vision of torture by a brutal Jacobite gestapo. The news columns are strong on the riot and debauchery of the dirty Scots invaders, though, as Miss Locke says, Fielding is silent about the “outrages and butchery” inflicted by Cumberland on the defeated Highlanders. She is sure, however, that he disapproved. On other matters he is more explicit, and although the paper owed its existence to the Forty-five it found room for essays on the law of imprisonment for debt, the dignity of the common hangman, and even literary criticism. Miss Locke’s elaborately annotated edition is both curious and useful, though it will not make much difference to your opinion of Fielding as a novelist. It shows you how he spent a lot of his time, but not, of course, the thousand hours he devoted, as he himself claims, to Tom Jones.


Donald Bruce, writing about Smollett, is another social history and personality man. He says he is moved by a desire to “do justice to one of out older novelists,” but his chapter on the structure of the novels is called “The Snakes of Iceland” because they have no structure, a commonplace which it is easier to repeat than to refute. Mr. Bruce doesn’t try; he is writing for “the well-informed but not necessarily studious reader who dreads and avoids tedium.” And he does write brightly, so that one is left with a sharper portrait of Smollett than the more academic biographies provide, and a very clear notion of what he felt about medicine, the Romans, duelling, whores, God, politics, and most other matters.

Smollett was a strong character, all right, and his irascibility never prevented him from expressing himself with extreme clarity; so the task of Mr. Bruce was perhaps not too exacting. He defends his subject against the charge of coarseness, but Smollett is coarse; the difference between us and the people who banned him from public libraries fifty years ago is that we like it, and see much merit in it. Roderick Random begins by saying how pleased he is to have knocked another boy’s front teeth out with a stone; he is very much part of the coarse and unjust society he describes, a sexual predator who is, after his bout with the world, consigned to bliss in the arms of his pregnant charmer. Peregrine Pickle and Fathom exploit girls for sex or commerce; but the image of the picaro is imposed on things as Smollett saw they were. Random cures Mrs. Williams of the pox, and hears her authoritative account of the conditions under which the disease spread around London; Smollett wanted whores to be cured, not whipped. In marrying her off to Strap he may be doing no more than tying up the fictional ends, but no other novelist of the time would have done it.

Smollett was poor and learned from childhood, and wrote incessantly, out of his extraordinary experience—Navy doctor, convict, hypochondriac—with the charm and force that educated bad temper can provide. He despised the Romans but had a virtuoso’s knowledge of their literature and customs; he hated foreigners, innkeepers, bad English, and on all these he lavished his intellectual resources with a disenchanted copiousness and strength that remind one rather of Edmund Wilson. In Humphrey Clinker, for example, he does it through the old hypochondriac Bramble; read him on London water and bread (“a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone-ashes…the good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter…”), or on the mingled stench of a fashionable party at Bath. In the Travels through France and Italy he does it, with small difference of tone, in his own person, raging lucidly at ostlers, popery and other foreign fraud and impudence. This is a very engaging book, full of learning, observation, and untrammeled opinion; if Smollett dislikes the Michelangelo Pietà in St. Peter’s, he says so, with reasons.

This is the “long-neglected novelist” to our knowledge of whom Mr. Bruce so agreeably adds, though he has little to say about the novels. He is good on Smollett’s materialism, his interest in the physiological symptoms of fear and lust, his views on the class structure and the corruption of society by luxury, of which he regards homosexuality as a consequence. Mr. Bruce thinks Smollett a much more humane man than Fielding; he deplored duelling, savage punishments for minor offenses, the degrading public performances at Tyburn. He was a Tory radical, loathing the corrupt Whig oligarchy and the acquisitive society, but very tough about a man’s need to save himself by an unillusioned understanding of his individual role in the midst of all this. Because he suspected grandeur and generality he hated neo-classicism, and his novels, though he had his models, are accordingly both idiosyncratic and, in a way, modern. All this Bruce gets across. He has some ingenious but superfluous comparisons with Swift and Johnson, but these hardly spoil a book that is what he wanted to make it, informative but not tedious.

That is praise less easily earned, as I was saying, if the critic is really writing literary criticism. Andrew Wright’s book isn’t gossip or social history; he tackles the problems of Fielding’s formal and rhetorical procedures. Einstein once said that “the distance between reality and theory is such that we have to take architectural points of view,” and Fielding was well aware of this, and said a good deal about it, usually in that habitually joky way. He stresses the novelty of what he is doing, goes in for verisimilitude but not for the stock pretenses—Joseph Andrews is offered as a fiction, with a narrator who prods you and corrects your reading and invites you to enjoy yourself; in this mask Fielding calls you to his festivity. The architecture of Tom Jones is a compromise between reality and plot; by such means, says Mr. Wright, Fielding provided “a paradigm of civilization which is above the level of ordinary moral imperatives.” It is not merely the mechanics of the plot, but its power to subordinate intrusive ethical interests, that arouse admiration for Tom Jones. Amelia has an elaborate Virgilian structure, but the ethics get out of hand; the same contrast between the great success and the great failure can be enforced by a study of their linguistic resource. Mr. Wright is a careful investigator, and writes in a pleasant, slightly mannered style. We all know Amelia isn’t as good as Tom Jones, and may have suspected that “an increasingly pained moral sense” has been “at war with the superb but doomed structural mastery”; but it is valuable to have this related to the concept of fiction as festive, to imagery and language, above all, perhaps, to the notion that even in the brief working life of one novelist changes of heart demand new styles of architecture.


Mr. Wright formerly wrote on Jane Austen and moved back to Fielding. Mr. Litz is the author of an admirable book on Joyce, and now moves back to Jane Austen. Reading it, one feels the security of learning mastered by intelligence; this is a very good book indeed, and its implications are such that it has value both as a brief and inclusive study of Jane Austen, and as a contribution to our knowledge of how to discuss fiction.

By the time Jane Austen began to write, the novel was, as Litz puts it, “almost a parody of itself”; plot and character were derivative, and novelists as well as readers assumed, as Scott remarked, that the land of fiction had nothing to do with life. Austen is already dealing with this absurd gap in her juvenilia; the major novelist again begins as a parodist. She was a person of orderly sensibilities and skeptical intelligence; and before she could use it, the novel had to be purged of hysterical “feeling” and absurd plots. This is a job somebody may soon have to do again—the history of the novel suggests that intelligence and skepticism alone can save it from the absurdity which crowds in on it. It is not easy to arrange a skeptical revolt in a period of messy feeling, and as Litz says Austen had to fight her own interior struggle between sense and sensibility. But even in Love and Freindship she “manages to maintain a clear awareness of the normal as well as the literary reaction to each situation, so that we have a double sense of the characters in relation to the laws of the ‘land of fiction’ and in relation to the standards of probable social behavior.” In writing the juvenilia, Litz argues, she acquired the range of style (here accurately characterized) needed for her mature effort; and she also learned how not to do things. In exposing the unrealities of current fiction she prepared herself for the task of “exploring the limits of the imagination while affirming its central role in all moral judgments”; and in carrying out that enormous job she could not but revolutionize narrative fiction. Litz compares her contribution to novel theory with that of Henry James; no one who understands her will ever live easy in the land of fiction.

For a while—in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey—the forms of eighteenth-century fiction linger on, though under criticism. The Watsons, though abandoned, was an attempt to find in fiction a closer analogue to contemporary manners, and it bore fruit in the revitalized handling of narrative conventions in Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s own doubts about that novel—she wondered whether its brightness did not conceal the potentially tragic issues of some of the situations—issued in the penance of Mansfield Park; and that made possible the great novel Emma, which combines the satisfactions of honest fiction with a proper regard for moral imperatives. Litz subtly stresses the modernity of this most achieved of English novels; his analysis earns him the right to conclude that “the general form of Emma reflects the novel’s deepest meaning, reminding us that freedom is dependent upon a recognition of limitations.” Yet Persuasion called for deep architectural changes; it looks forward to the nineteenth-century novel and a society in which “the burdens of personality must be borne alone.”

Mr. Litz handles the Austen cruces with firmness, and where he differs from others he seems to be right, for example about Lady Susan and the canceled chapters of Persuasion. I hope that, having moved back to Austen, he will carry on, and provide a similar measured, intelligent work on Richardson or Fielding. His kind of enquiry into fiction and reality helps us to know what we are doing when we discuss modern novels; it illuminates the historical aspect of our problems and helps to define the boundaries of the place where we don’t want to be, the land of fiction.

This Issue

October 28, 1965