One is so used to hearing of the virtues of storytelling and the transformative power of fiction that it comes as a surprise to open a collection of essays entitled On the Novel and Journalism and read: “For art of any kind I have never cared…For literature, as such, I care hardly at all.” Why, one wonders, is the eminent critic Christopher Ricks offering us such a lavishly annotated edition of this man’s work?

James Fitzjames Stephen was born in 1829 into a family of distinguished English lawyers, historians, and reformers. His grandfather was a leading figure in the antislavery movement, and his father drafted the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which outlawed slavery in most of the British Empire. His younger brother, Leslie Stephen, was an eminent humanist and critic and the father of Virginia Woolf. James Fitzjames’s career, however, was primarily in law. Called to the bar in 1854, he published A General View of the Criminal Law of England in 1863; during his two and a half years in India he was responsible for the Indian Evidence Act (1872), which, among other reforms, eliminated inequalities of caste and religion when it came to standards of evidence. After returning to England he sought to have the principles of his Indian legislation included in English law and was made a high court judge in 1879. Oxford University Press is currently preparing an eleven-volume selection of his writings, of which this is the sixth.

So the essays in On the Novel and Journalism are not written from the perspective of someone whose main focus was literature or journalism. Rather, Stephen was deeply involved in the contemporary life of England as it emerged in courts of law, precisely the life that novels and newspapers were describing. Between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-eight, while he was working as a lawyer, Stephen wrote hundreds of book reviews and essays, mostly but not exclusively for the newly established Saturday Review. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first in this volume is entitled “The Relation of Novels to Life” (1855).

At once it’s clear that the young Stephen read widely. Scott, Stowe, Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Carlyle, Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, Bulwer-Lytton, and Gaskell are all cited, but also Eugène Sue and George Sand. Stephen read French and in other essays discusses Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Hugo, Prévost, Dumas, and Rousseau. It’s equally clear that he enjoys his reading, appreciating and swiftly characterizing each author’s stylistic achievements. “Mr Dickens…constantly gives expression, almost personality, to inanimate objects. He invests the most ordinary affairs of life with a certain charm and poetry.” The novels of “Miss Austen…convey an impression of reality altogether extraordinary”; she “culls out and pieces together a succession of small incidents, so contrived as to develop, step by step, the characters of the persons represented.”

Nevertheless Stephen is always reading, as it were, against the text, like a prosecuting attorney scrutinizing a defendant’s testimony. “Each incident,” he continues of Austen, “taken by itself, is so exquisitely natural, and so carefully introduced, that it requires considerable attention to detect the improbability of the story,” something he then proceeds forensically to do, but as if admiring the challenge Austen had set him. Likewise the prominence Dickens gives to detail is at once admired for its creativity but declared “entirely factitious,” one of the many ways in which novels distort reality. Other distortions are the suppression of vast areas of experience (particularly work life), the undue prominence given to romantic love (“of course, every one is in love in a novel”), the alteration of historical facts, the overdefinition of character, the romanticization of crime and vice, and the evidently contrived plots.

Do such distortions matter? Stephen’s approach always has the reader, indeed society, as much in mind as the text. By the mid-1850s the novel had become the dominant form of entertainment. Prices had fallen, sales were up. “The majority of those who read for amusement, read novels…. In one shape or another they enter into the education of us all.” Young adults in particular looked to novels for “commentaries upon the life which is just opening up before [them].” Stephen grants that the novel “enlarges our experience” by providing materials that prompt “self-examination.” People cannot read Thackeray, he elaborates, “without acquiring a consciousness of a multitude of small vanities and hypocrisies which would otherwise have escaped their attention.”

However, “novels operate most strongly,” Stephen goes on, “by producing emotion.” Indeed they do this more effectively, at least as far as the general reading public is concerned, than works of history or documentary accounts. He mentions Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dickens’s “luscious death-bed scenes.” “Habitual emotion,” he agrees, “whatever may be the exciting cause, produces some moral effects.” But this does not mean we can draw a straight analogy between the transformative consequences of, say, seeing a man “flogged to death” or attending a young person wasting away with illness and reading about such events in a novel. Aside from the different intensity of impressions arising from reading and firsthand experience, one would want to distinguish, Stephen reflects, between “a person who went to see a man die because he liked it” and “one who saw such a sight because he could not help it.” Novel readers, he implies, are regularly choosing, indeed paying for their pathos. And authors are all too willing to supply it. Dickens “gloats over [Little Nell’s] death as if it delighted him…touches, tastes, smells, and handles [it] as if it was some savoury dainty which could not be too fully appreciated.” Readers are complicit. Reality is more solemn. Stephen would have been aware that his grandfather’s life had been profoundly changed when, in Barbados, he witnessed the trial of two slaves unjustly sentenced to death by burning.


Granted that the importance of novels “must be considered very great,” and that this largely depends on their supposed representation of reality, the issue of responsibility looms. But the novelist, Stephen observes, is hard to pin down. If held to task “he can always plead that he is writing a novel, and not a political treatise.” In short, it is never clear what kind of seriousness the reader is to expect. This state of affairs is exacerbated by what Stephen identifies as a recent trend: authors “using novels to ventilate opinions.” Not that “opinions and states of mind” are not legitimate subjects of representation, but there are “dangers of partiality, of dishonesty, of false morality on the part of authors.” In particular, many novels push “social or political argumenta ad misericordiam”; that is, they arouse pity to sway debates that should be decided on evidence and logic. Gaskell’s Mary Barton is cited: the well-known miseries of Manchester’s poor, Stephen agrees, are certainly a “fact worth representing,” but “that fact has little or nothing to do with either the cause or the remedy of their wretchedness.” The novel is “excellent,” but its “utter uselessness, politically speaking,” must be acknowledged.

Ricks presents the essays selected in chronological order of their publication, which has the advantage of showing the development and deepening of Stephen’s criticisms. A few lines of background are provided for most pieces, along with precious notes and glosses. It is astonishing, for example, to realize how often this man who cared hardly at all for literature (“as such”) uses turns of phrase that echo a wide range of literary texts from the past. In making us aware of this, Ricks inevitably alters our response to Stephen’s arguments: he cannot simply be dismissed as a philistine; indeed, the last articles in the book offer fierce criticism of Matthew Arnold for his claim that Britain was a nation of philistines.

The second essay, “Woods v. Russell” (1856), turns to journalism. During the Crimean War, Nicholas Woods was the correspondent for The Morning Herald and William Russell the correspondent for The Times. Both had contributed to the view that the British campaign in the Crimea resembled an “army of lions commanded by asses.” This had won them notoriety and popularity. Stephen takes advantage of the publication of collections of the two men’s war dispatches to analyze the evidence they offered for their criticisms. Meticulously cross-referencing their accounts, he shows how frequently they contradict each other over the most elementary facts, while on other occasions one man has clearly plagiarized the other. As with the novel, Stephen complains, newspapers enjoy great political influence, without demonstrating the sort of responsibility and impartiality that might legitimize it: “Statements of the most vehement kind are made upon any or no authority” and presented in a “showy, noisy, clever, and picturesque” style that in one case has a dead dog being described as a “decayed specimen of canine mortality.”

“A newspaper,” Stephen reminds us in a later essay, “is essentially and pre-eminently a mercantile speculation.” The power it boasts to intervene in cases of injustice is limited by its need to sustain the interest of its readers. Journalists, like novelists, labor under an obligation to be entertaining. They play to “the impatience which every one feels of being governed in a prosaic way,” thus reinforcing opinions readers already have. In a more general piece, “The History of British Journalism,” he suggests that it is “of the utmost importance that the comments of journalists should be checked,” not merely to avoid “the circulation of erroneous opinions” but to provide those in authority with the information required to govern properly (always Stephen’s central concern). Unfortunately, seriousness doesn’t pay. He quotes a report showing that none of the more reliable dailies are among the nation’s most profitable papers.


The article “Newspaper English” describes how journalists of “slight education, a fluent pen, and…natural shrewdness, [are] sent off…to describe a [naval] review at Spithead on Monday…a fête at the Crystal Palace on Wednesday, an agricultural meeting on Thursday…and an execution on Saturday,” in the “profoundest ignorance” of the things they are reporting on. To hide their inadequacy they deploy a spurious, pseudotechnical vocabulary:

One of the indispensable requisites of this style of writing is a lax phraseology—something which commits the person who uses it to as few facts, and therefore lays him open to as few contradictions, as possible.

Though apparently harmless and even, looked at one way, “a great art,” such an approach, Stephen laments, eventually “induces vagueness and inaccuracy of thought,” which then turns up in public life. He quotes a jury verdict that he suspects was contaminated by such newspaperspeak. On the other hand, when setting himself the task of examining the supposedly scabrous Sunday papers (targeted, Ricks reminds us, by the Lord’s Day Observance Society), Stephen finds them the victim of “unjust prejudice.” He is impressed by their concision and decorum. Those who publish criticisms of them on Monday, he observes, clearly wrote their articles on Sunday.

Stephen is not without his lighter side. A discussion of the technical jargon flaunted in the many popular nautical novels of the time is hilarious: “When, for example, we read that ‘[a ship] was topping the heavy seas as they rose with a long floating cleave, that carried her counter fairly free of the after-run’…&c.&c., we feel as if we were listening to a magical incantation,” a state of mind that then excuses our “easy acquiescence in improbabilities.” An article entitled “Groans of the Britons” reviews the kinds of complaints that letter writers address to the “sympathizing bosom” of their newspapers, usually The Times, declaring them

the most curious illustrations of the intense and disinterested affection which an Englishman feels for himself. That he, the heir of all the ages [a quotation from Tennyson]…should be uncomfortable, strikes him not so much in the light of a personal wrong as in that of a blot on the face of creation.

A fascinating article examining book sales at railway stations marvels at the three hundred passengers who bought the huge volumes of Thomas Macaulay’s History of England, sometimes from boys crying them “up and down the platform,” and wonders why religious books are mostly bought in Wales, often in surprising numbers: 20,000 copies of The Life of Captain Hedley Vicars, an evangelical killed in the Crimean War, “went off in a single day.”

Nevertheless, as the articles accumulate and Stephen’s anthropological eye dissects a wide range of reading experiences, one overriding theme emerges. “If we consider the infinitely elaborate apparatus which we have constructed to satisfy our appetite for amusement,” he concludes the essay on railway newsstands, “we shall be filled with a kind of awe.” Yet the more entertainment is provided, the more it becomes confused with politics. A fiction writer, Stephen reflects, “is almost always a person of more than average sensibility, and these qualities are almost certain to put their possessor more or less in opposition to the established state of things.” Hence novelists collude with newspapers to exaggerate “the failure, the prejudices, and the stupidity of the executive,” in part because this is a popular stance to assume. (“The course which [journalists] take,” Stephen insists, “is, and always will be, determined by the public.”)

But just as one wouldn’t want to instill in readers a “blind admiration” of “the institutions under which they live,” to encourage them to be “discontented with and disaffected to” those institutions “cannot but be a serious evil.” “The rule of truth is the only safe rule.” But can novels be trusted to observe it, given the allowances always made for “the necessities of the story”? (Stephen recalls how Charlotte Brontë regretted having exaggerated the cruelty of the school described in Jane Eyre, thus causing considerable distress to its charitable founders.) “The question at issue,” he finally makes explicit in an article of 1858, is: “Are novels proper vehicles for direct political and social discussions, or is amusement their legitimate object?” The test case for exploring this question could only be the novelist who more than any other enjoyed “unbounded and enthusiastic popularity”: Dickens.

Again and again Stephen seeks to refine his objections to Dickens and, through Dickens, “the cultus of the middle classes” who buy his books. The writer’s “exquisite skill” in sustaining a “flow of spirit and drollery” is never denied, but there is a difference, Stephen insists, between “the skill in the production of literary effects, and skill in the verification and employment of alleged evidence.” If the government is to be so repeatedly brought to the dock, then evidence, or at least a fair representation, is required. Dickens, though, is one of those novelists who “caricature instead of representing the world.” Nor does his popularity altogether depend on his genius, but rather on “the exquisite adaptation of his own turn of mind to the peculiar state of feeling which still prevails in some classes.” Both share a “spirit of revolt against all established rules,” this largely in reaction, Stephen concedes, to the quantities of “cant [that] had been in fashion about the wisdom of our ancestors, the glorious constitution…and other such topics.” (Ricks provides, as an example, Sydney Smith’s deliriously patriotic “Noodle’s Oration” of 1824.)

Essentially, Dickens is accused of milking this irreverent spirit for all it’s worth, each new novel highlighting this or that abuse of power, of which, Stephen claims, the writer has only “his first notions…from the discussions which accompany its removal.” Dickens’s method is to “take a melancholy subject, and rub the reader’s nose in it,” proceeding with a combination of “banter and sentiment”; shallow feelings are deployed in the absence of proper argument to the point that feeling becomes an end in itself, together with a general complacency about “doing good.”

Ricks includes Dickens’s lengthy response to one of these attacks. The novelist picks up on two mistaken assumptions Stephen has made in his criticism and mocks him mercilessly, reiterating his own contempt for government but without seriously addressing the issues Stephen raises. Stephen remains undeterred. With a training in adversarial legal process, he seems to appreciate such spats, regretting, in a later essay on Matthew Arnold, that Arnold’s response to criticisms was “too goodnatured”: “There is no pleasure in hitting a man who will not hit you back again; who says meekly that it is not his nature to ‘dispute on behalf of any opinion…very obstinately.’” Writing about Macaulay, he remarks that “the systematic vigour of his expressions must force his opponents, if they have any power of mind at all, into an attempt to invest their objections to them with something like equal clearness.” He appears, that is, to have a genuine confidence that polemic will lead, if not to truth, then at least in the right direction.

In any event, however heated the battle with Dickens became, there was no question of an attack ad personam. In 1858 Dickens separated from his wife of many years, the mother of their ten children, banishing her from the family home and publishing an ill-advised and defensive letter about their split in The Times. Stephen does not take advantage, even in an essay of 1863 on “common forms” in novels, in which the convenient death of David Copperfield’s foolish first wife, followed by a wiser second marriage, is offered as an example of a now-hackneyed plot formula: “You get an affecting deathbed, two courtships…wounded affection…all by the help of a process which enables the hero to have his cake and eat his cake.” “It is, indeed, a pity,” he ironizes, perhaps looking forward to modern academe, “that technical names should not be invented” for such tropes, “so that their peculiarities might be announced in the advertisements.”

Even when not writing about Dickens, Stephen’s aversion to the Dickensian ethos is implicit. Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is admired for the convincing complexity of its characters and the absence of caricature, sentimentality, or moralizing: “The book has a moral, if the reader knows how to look for it; but it is kept in its proper place, and is suggested by the facts, instead of suggesting them.” Likewise Balzac’s characters are enjoyed for “the extraordinary good faith with which they are drawn,” without “melodramatic starts and fantastic tricks of expression,” while the author is commended for having apparently “studied with considerable depth and acuteness, and with a genuine wish to understand their working, many of the institutions amongst which he found himself placed.” If, when writing about vice and immorality, Balzac does so in the same spirit, he is entitled to the defense “J’écris pour les hommes, non pour les jeunes filles.” An English novel, on the other hand, Stephen regrets, being “in some respect like a sermon,” was addressed to such a wide public that “a large proportion of the most important social and moral subjects must of necessity be tabooed.”

This was one issue on which Dickens very much agreed. In a letter written during his long marital crisis he complained that public “morality” in England prevented a writer from tackling “any of the experiences, trials, perplexities, and confusions inseparable from the making or unmaking of all men!” But taboo subjects were not just a problem for novelists. Stephen remarks:

Most writers are so nervous about the tendencies of their books, and the social penalties of unorthodox opinion are so severe…that philosophy, criticism and science itself too often speak amongst us in ambiguous whispers what ought to be proclaimed from the house tops.

How familiar this last observation sounds. “There are few more instructive branches of literary inquiry,” Stephen begins an article on the essays of Addison and Steele, published 150 years before his time, “than the comparison of the different amusements of different generations.” The wit and elegance of these essayists, he notes, that “feeling of repose and security with regard to all the most important subjects,” are unimaginable in the 1850s, since “the substratum of belief which enabled them [to write as they did] no longer exists.” A modern writer no longer asks of “any line of conduct…whether it is right or wrong, true or false, wise or foolish, but whether it can be so represented as to enlist the reader’s sympathies.”

Reading this collection we are inevitably drawn to compare Stephen’s time with our own, another 150 years on. Indeed, comparison and contrast are the very nature of our riveted engagement with the book: we feel wonderment for a time when the novel dominated public discourse, fascination for the way Stephen can make assumptions that would be taboo today, and for the fact that novelists could not write about things then that are now described ad nauseam. On the one hand, one wishes to rush to defend Dickens (Ricks provides us with Ruskin’s remark that “Dickens’s caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken”); on the other hand, one has to acknowledge that the politicization of the novel (not to mention movies and TV series) that Stephen deplores is now so widely accepted and applauded that it would seem folly even to try to argue against it, unless perhaps by republishing the persuasive essays of a critic from the past.

It would not be difficult to build all kinds of defenses for the novel that Stephen ignores: for example, that each author’s particular perspective on life introduces us to a different world of feeling, which itself is part of reality; that the novels of the past offer us a taste of the ethos of the time, against which we can understand our own time better; or, as Ricks concludes, that the novel, “like all the arts,” exists to pose the questions “What is truth? and What truth is there in this?” But by responding in this way we simply acknowledge what Ricks calls “the valuable invitation that can be extended by a principled calling-in-question.”

Yet the interest of this collection goes far beyond any specific polemic, and if anything the invitation it extends is to think afresh not so much about the novel and journalism but about the entire phenomenon of heated cultural debate. The issues Stephen discusses remain sufficiently pertinent to stimulate our attention, but perhaps because the specific controversies are so distant, we find we can enjoy both sides of the argument and see how much its antagonists had in common, in the way they lay out their cases and in the principles they appeal to. The very eagerness to contest what the other thinks is a manifestation of lively community. Shrewdly framed by Ricks’s introduction and notes, On the Novel and Journalism proves unexpectedly heartening: the much-maligned Victorians offer good company; we need not feel we are alone in our present “culture wars.” Setting Stephen down, I even imagined that 150 years hence someone might read a collection of the writings of some protagonist of our own ill-tempered debates and conclude that we had a great deal more in common than we supposed.