[This is an adapted version of an assignment written for a course on the nineteenth-century novel]
In his essay ‘The Art of Fiction’, Walter Besant (2001 ) argues that the novel is a fine art, on the same technical level as other arts such as poetry, music, painting and sculpture, though in some respects superior in that its subject matter is the whole of humanity. He argues that the novel instils in the reader empathy for others, and is therefore a civilising force. As part of his argument, Besant sets up a criterion of artistic quality for the novel based on its moral orientation: the novel ‘almost always’ begins with a moral purpose, to the extent that this could be characterised as ‘practically a law of English fiction’ (2001, p.67).
It follows that where a novel does not begin with a moral purpose, it conveys a sense of ‘debasement’ to the reader, in which case the author cannot be considered an artist. However, Besant discounts didacticism, in the form of the old-fashioned ‘preaching novel’ propagandising on behalf of a theological perspective. As well as the moral imperative, the novel can also be characterised in terms of craftsmanship: poor style distracts from the artistic effect, but this has to be balanced so that style does not predominate to the detriment of the fictional world, style being subject to transitory fashions. An understanding of these laws, as Besant considered them, would improve the quality of many of the inferior novels that were so common.
Besant’s talk sparked a debate on the function of the novel, with a number of contributions. Foremost among these was Henry James’s article with the same title (2001b ). He does not see the novel having a moral purpose, and considers Besant’s recipe for the novel as an artistic product to be prescriptive. James argues that the novelist is free to approach the task with complete freedom, the only obligation being that the novel should be ‘interesting’ and ‘a personal impression of life’ (2001b, p73); it is only the execution that should be subject to criticism (2001, p.78).
Delia Da Sousa Correa interprets this as James claiming that he saw no place for moral aspects in fiction (2001, p142). However, James was not arguing for unengaged aestheticism: Amanda Claybaugh notes that the two novels James wrote after this essay – The Bostonians and Princess Casamassima – dealt with social reform, thus having a moral dimension (2006, p.139). But Correa also notes that James’s emphasis on creativity and imagination challenges both simplistic notions of reflective realism and the novel as vehicle for moral values (2001, p.141).
Other writers had views on the moral aspect of the novel. Robert Louis Stevenson (2001 , pp.93ff) argues that art cannot compete with life and is only a pale imitation of it, supplying ‘phantom reproductions of experience’ (2001, p96). It extracts details from the broad sweep of life and makes something ‘typical’ of them. He therefore sees the novel as more of an entertainment than having a higher purpose. Émile Zola on the other hand finds a moral purpose in Naturalism, as Naturalists are ‘experimental moralists’, showing ‘the mechanism of the useful and the useless’ for the social good (Zola, 1893, p.31).
According to James Eli Adams, Henry James credited Besant’s essay as the beginning of criticism of the Victorian novel (2012, p.62). However, Adams points out that this discounted previous critical debate on the status of the novel, though much of the debate took place within reviews (2012, p.62); George Eliot’s review ‘The Natural History of German Life’ is a case in point (2001 ); Claybaugh points out that Besant emphasises the novel’s ‘conscious moral purpose’ ‘in much the same terms as George Eliot did thirty years before’ (2006, p.138). Eliot sees her treatment of her characters in Middlemarch (1994 ), as involving issues of morality and fair dealing. These may be summed up by the term ‘social sympathies’ that she uses in her 1856 review (2001, p.30). Without psychological depth, she argues, the result is unrealistic, and lacks moral force.
James’s review of Middlemarch (2001a ) reaches the paradoxical verdict that it is ‘at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels,’ referring to the choice between a balanced whole and ‘a mere chain of episodes’. He concludes that it is ‘a treasure-house of details’ but ‘an indifferent whole’ (2001a, p.79). Eliot would surely have considered that perceived weakness to be its strength. Middlemarch is socially integrated, a web of mutual influences and balances, as indicated by Eliot’s repeated use of the web metaphor. Thus ‘Lydgate fell to spinning that web from his inward self … As for Rosamond ... she too was spinning industriously at the mutual web’ (p346). The web is typical of Eliot’s ambiguous approach to mutual influence, which can convey influence and sympathy yet also be seen as a means of entrapment. The latter is invariably due to personal weakness, and it is through social interaction that character is expressed, and can change. Lydgate is disdainful of provincial life, ‘his conceit was of the arrogant sort’ (p149), but he thereby shows himself to be one whose ‘distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness’ (p.150).
Of all the characters’ in the book’s wide canvas, the one who most embodies a sense of moral purpose is Dorothea, explicitly linked to St Theresa, but living at a time when there is no practical scope for such a figure. In terms of a moral purpose, Dorothea is shown to have limited effect, her aspirations generally ‘intangible and abstract’, her ‘apparently unlimited potential for greatness’ (Nora Tomlinson 2001a, p.246) limited by her situation. As a counterpoint to Dorothea, Rosamond is shown to be aesthetically pleasing but lacking her sister’s moral fibre. Eliot attaches the word ‘heroine’ to Rosamond as an ironic label, as she possesses ‘a great sense of being a romantic heroine, and playing the part prettily’ (p.297) but significantly also uses it when describing the other woman in Lydgate’s life, Laure, who stabbed her husband. Neither matches up to the heroic and selfless aspirations of Dorothea who, with Caleb Garth, forms a moral compass for the rest of the cast. At the same time Dorothea’s social inexperience leads her to misjudge Casaubon’s merits and motives (as Lydgate misjudges Rosamond’s in a different way).
A linking element to the moral dimension of the characters is the world of work as fulfilling both personally and for society. Garth in particular sees work in moral terms, exemplifying Smilesian notions of application and perseverance, with ‘Business’ as the highest calling, irrespective of its rewards or risks. Yet despite his apparent indifference he is rewarded, while Fred Vincy is redeemed by his association with Mary Garth and her father. However, the hypocritical Bulstrode, who gained his wealth by dubious means, has to endure opprobrium, the financially imprudent and weak Lydgate faces ruin when his focus shifts from his medical vocation to accommodating Rosamond’s extravagance, and the blackmailing Raffles meets an unfortunate end. Ladislaw, initially a dilettante, buckles down and eventually achieves political office, contrasting with Mr. Brookes who, content to allow his tenants to live in poverty, is unsuccessful in his parliamentary ambitions. Middlemarch’s characters tend to achieve deserts consonant with their virtues; apart ironically from the kindly cleric Mr. Farebrother, who fails to win Mary’s hand (though he does have professional success). In all these strands Eliot ‘sought to explore the natural laws that determined human behaviour’ (Tomlinson, 2001b, p.272), characters inhabiting a world influenced profoundly by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
Eliot and Besant were not so far apart in their attitudes to the novel’s moral character. The major distinction between them was their respective attitudes to the role of religion in formulating morals. Besant had emphasised ‘deep-seated religion’ as a force for the author that will ‘lend to his work, whether he will or not, a moral purpose’ (Besant, 2000, p.67). This was in contrast to Eliot’s secularism: ‘George Eliot, at least, had discarded the primary religious and epistemological assumptions of her inherited culture, including the convention that a single unitary theory of reality could be established’ (George Levine, 2008, p.32). Not only did Eliot diverge from Besant’s emphasis on religion as an essential component of a moral outlook, but she understood that this had implications for the treatment of her characters. Without a religious underpinning, her criterion for determining the value of actions had to be a humanist one that gauged moral value solely in terms of an action’s effect on others. In contradistinction to James, Eliot and Besant each emphasised the novel’s moral purpose, but from entirely different perspectives.
Adams, J. E. (2012) ‘A History of Criticism of the Victorian Novel’, in David, D (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Besant, W. (2000 ) The Art of Fiction, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Claybaugh, A. (2006) The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World, Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press.
Correa, D. S. (2001) ‘The Art of Fiction: Henry James as Critic’, in Walder, D. (ed.) the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Identities, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, London, John Murray.
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Levine, G. (2008) Realism, Ethics and Secularism: Essays on Victorian Literature and Science, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Stevenson, R. L. (2001 ) ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, in Regan, S. R. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Tomlinson, N. (2001b) ‘Middlemarch as a novel of Vocation and Experiment’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Tomlinson, N. (2001a) ‘Middlemarch: The Social and Historical Context’, in Correa, D. S. (ed.) The Nineteenth-Century Novel: Realisms, London, Routledge and The Open University.
Zola, É. (1893) The Experimental Novel and Other Essays, New York, Cassell.