From Fielding to Jane Austen

Henry Fielding, born 1707, died 1754 Tobias George Smollett, born 1721, died 1771. Laurence Sterne, born 1713, died 1768. Oliver Goldsmith, born 1728, died 1774. Jane Austen, born 1775, died 1817.

A great period in the history of English fiction closes with Fielding and Smollett. They had created the novel of masculine realism, as Richardson had created the novel of sentiment, and each of these forms of fiction was to prove enduring. The latter half of the eighteenth century produced no novelist who could contest their primacy. It did, however, produce an immense crop of fiction, much of it wholly feeble; some of it execrable, both in style and matter; and a part of it really noteworthy because it marked the birth of the romantic spirit.

The new tendency towards romance began with four books which appeared between the years 1761 and 1770,viz., Macpherson's "Ossian" (1761-63), Horace Walpole's "Castle of Otranto" (1764), Bishop Percy's "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry" (1765) and Chatterton's "Poems" (I770). The influence of Macpherson, Percy, and Chatterton upon English poetry was decisive and far-reaching. The influence of Walpole upon the development of fiction was scarcely less remarkable.

Walpole, cynic, coxcomb, and dilettante as he was, nevertheless had a real literary gift, in spite of the fact that he avoided literary men, and thought that poets were like birds, who sang best when they were half starved. His conduct to Chatterton is well known, and admits of no excuse. Instead of recognising "The Marvellous Boy" as a fellow-craftsman, working toward the same end, he denounced him as a forger, telling him that "all the house of forgery are relations," and that he who forges poems is in danger of forging promissory notes. It is eminently characteristic of Walpole that he detests men of letters because "they are always in earnest, and think their profession serious, and reverence learning." Throughout his long life, spent in comfort secured by a State pension of £ 2,000 per annum, which he had done nothing whatever to merit, it is not known that he stretched out a kindly hand to any one of the great writers who were making the century famous. Dr. Johnson, working at literature at fifteen pence a day, and writing his fine fiction "Rasselas" in order to pay for the funeral of his mother; Goldsmith, producing his immortal "Vicar of Wakefield" under cruel conditions of precarious fortune; Chatterton, writing a poem of several hundred lines for ten and sixpence, and receiving the same remuneration for sixteen songs, had nothing to expect from Walpole, who owned no kinship with them, and in his heart despised them. Yet Walpole, under all the cold polish of the cyn.c and the affectations of the fop, had a genuine sense of literature, and may claim to have invented the romantic novel.

Curiously enough, he who rebuked Chatterton for representing that his poems were the work of the monk Rowley, recovered from the muniment chest of St. Mary's, Redcliff, BristoI, adopted the same method in publishing his fiction, and gave ground for the bitter imprecation of the disappointed boy:

Walpole, I thought not I should ever see
So mean a heart as thine hath proved to be;
Thou, who in luxury nurst, beholdst with scorn
The boy, who friendless, fatherless, forlorn
Asks thy high favour. Thou mayst call me cheat
Say, didst thou never practice such deceit
Who wrote "Otranto"?

The full title of Walpole's book is "The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story; translated by William Marshall, Gent., from the original Italian of Onuphrio, Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas, Otranto." It abounds in absurdities, such as helmets that fall without visible agency, portraits which emit sighs, and blood that falls from the nose of a statue; yet it is remarkable for a powerful, if crude, imagination. The element of the supernatural is never managed with the plausibility of Defoe; Walpole's object is merely to create terror by devices which may be called mechanical. Yet there can be no doubt that terror is created, and beneath all the absurdities of the book there is a genuine spirit of mediaeval romance which was to find many imitators and interpreters.

For the remarkable thing about Walpole's story is not in the attempt he makes to represent the supernatural, but in his effort to reproduce the spirit of mediaevalism. If there was one thing about which Walpole was in earnest, it was his genuine admiration for mediaevalism. His villa at Strawberry Hill was a pasteboard imitation of a Gothic castle, which he himself described as a bauble" set in enamelled meadows in filigree hedges." He was an eager collector of armour, china, old pictures, carvings, and so forth, in a day when the taste for connoisseurship was scarcely born. His book is a reflection of these tastes, which excited only contempt among his contemporaries. To them he appeared a trifler; yet he was not trivial. It was his singular destiny to create a new taste in the public corresponding to his own, to turn the attention of men of letters from the commonplace life of the eighteenth century to the varied and wonderful life of the fifteenth century, and the romances of Scott, the poetry of Coleridge, and the Oxford Movement of Newman may all be traced to the influence of Walpole.

The greatest of Walpole's imitators were Mrs. Radcliffe, Maturin, and Beckford. Mrs. Radcliffe, in her famous "Mysteries of Udolpho" (1794), has carried the art of creating terror to a point never reached by Walpole. There is the same kind of mechanism, mysterious vaults, pictures, panels, and trapdoors; but there is a new element--the creation of mysterious persons, stained with unknown crimes and vices, who inspire fear by something supernatural or profoundly melancholy in their aspect. "There was something in his physiognomy extremely singular, and that cannot easily be defined. It bore the traces of many passions, which seemed to have fixed the features they no longer animated." We can readily discern the genesis of Byron's "Lara" in such a description, and of many another mysterious personage in melodramatic fiction. There is also in all Mrs. Radcliffe's romances a singular sensitiveness to the larger aspects of nature, which, perhaps, was due to the reading of "Ossian." Few writers have utilised the gloom of impenetrable forests, the suggestions of wild sunsets or melancholy dawns, the terror or magnificence of tempests, with more effect.

Maturin pursues the same method, but he relies less on violent mechanism to produce the sense of terror; he suggests terror rather than describes it. It is he who has created the truly great figure of Melmoth, which fascinated the imagination of so great a writer as Balzac--Melmoth, the man who has putchased immortality at a price so terrible that its secret is incommunicable.

Beckford's name lives in fiction by his one romance of "Vathek" (1786). It opens with a passage which will strike the modern reader as absurd:

Vathek's figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions, and making his palace desolate, he but rarely gave way to his anger.
Nevertheless, the book rises at times to grandeur, though it scarcely deserves the praise that has been awarded it, as "the finest Oriental tale written by an Englishman." Some of its descriptions are intrinsically impressive--as, for instance, the description of Vathek's tower (Beckford's own passion for building towers amounted to a mania):
His pride arrived at its height when, having ascended for the first time the eleven thousand stairs of his tower, he cast his eyes below and beheld men not larger than pismires mountains than shells, and cities than beehives. The idea which such an elevation inspired of his own grandeur completely bewildered him; he was almost ready to adore himself, till, lifting his eyes upward, he saw the stars as high above him as they appeared when he stood on the surface of the earth.
The close of the book, with its famous description of the Hall of Eblis, reaches something nearly akin to sublimity:
They reached, at length, a hall of great extent, and covered with a lofty dome, around which appeared fifty portals of bronze, secured with as many fastenings of iron; a funereal gloom prevailed over the whole scene; here, upon two beds of incorruptible cedar, lay recumbent the fleshless forms of the pre-Adamite kings, who had been monarchs of the whole earth . . . each holding his right hand motionless on his heart; at their feet were inscribed the events of their several reigns, their power, their pride, and their crimes.

The sense of terror inspired by such a scene as this is very different from that inspired by the gross machinery of Walpole's "Castle of Otranto "; it is legitimate, as his was illegitimate; it is intellectually impressive, as his was intellectually absurd.

The success of this new form of fiction was immense. It seemed as though the vital and strenuous work of the earlier novelists was entirely forgotten. The public taste grew by what it fed on, and numberless romances appeared, in which no attempt was made to paint any single aspect of human life with fidelity or truth. The more horrible and blood-curdling the tale, and the more abnormal and monstrous the actors in it, the more certain was the author of success. Yet it must be remembered that, however crudely and coarsely this new romantic spirit expressed itself, it possessed the secret of a genuine literary impulse. "Monk" Lewis--so called from the immense success of his story "The Monk" (1795)--deals in crude horror with a hand much less scrupulous than Mrs. Radcliffe's; but he also contrives to resuscitate the spirit of feudalism, and it was this element in his work which arrested the attention of Scott. In later literature Hawthorne, Poe, and Stevenson have been practitioners in the same school as Maturin. Mrs. Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Shelley's own boyish romance of "Zastrozzi" belong to the same movement. Yet upon the whole it must be said that the novel of terror has enjoyed but a precarious success in English literature. Now and then a writer of great genius has been able to handle his theme with supreme art, as in the "Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde" and the "Thrawn Janet" of Stevenson; but as a rule the writer of the novel of terror fails through extravagance of conception or puerility of invention. The best fruit of the movement is not found in prose literature at all, but in poetry, and particularly in "Christabel" and "The Ancient Mariner" of Coleridge.

In the meantime other influences were at work on the development of the English novel. While Fielding painted life with uncompromising realism, and Mrs. Radcliffe created romances which had no relation to life, there were others who had begun to see that fiction afforded an excellent vehicle for the expression of theories and ideas. The nascent influence of the French Revolution began to be felt. Rousseau had sown the mind of Europe with the seed of new truth and untruth; he had accused the whole social order; he had counselled a return to nature, by which he meant that man in his natural condition was a much worthier creature than he appeared under the artificial conditions of an elaborate social system. Rousseau had also utilised prose fiction for the expression of his doubtful gospel, and his example was contagious. A considerable list might be prepared of late eighteenth-century novels in which some portion of the revolutionary teaching of Rousseau is expressed but the greatest exponent of these ideas is unquestionably William Godwin (17561836). Just as some of our most popular modern writers have achieved fame by the interpretation of the religious doubts or social theories which were in the air, so Godwin deliberately used fiction for the interpretation of what was essentially a new political gospel. Godwin's creed was that the extension of liberty meant the decay of vice; that the vices of men were not inherent, but were the result of bad institutions; that among the bad institutions which produced human misery, and prevented human perfectibility, were the throne, the church, the army, and the law; and that therefore these institutions should be abolished. With these theories we are not concerned, but the remarkable thing is that Godwin should have sought to express them in fiction. His " Adventures of Caleb Williams " is a fine novel, which has escaped oblivion by its real art; and if it still merits attention, it is not because of its philosophy, but because of its art. Novelists who write with a purpose may still consult Godwin with advantage, for no writer of fiction affords a better example of how to combine a serious aim with that genuine power of characterisation without which the novel with a purpose is nothing better than a ponderous tract.

But, after all, the real aim of the novel should be the interpretation of life; and to this plain work of interpreting life, without bias of creed, whether religious or political, the novel was bound to return. Miss Burney's famous novel "Evelina" (1778) marks this return. She brought to her task a mind of singular vivacity, an eye characterised by a power of acutest observation, and a heart capable of the intensest feeling. The claim has been made for her that she invented the novel of domestic satire, and it is a just claim. Yet it is rather as a forerunner of a yet greater woman of genius, whose supreme power lay in domestic satire, that Miss Burney is remembered. Jane Austen, born in 1775, at Steventon, is one of the true immortals of English literature, yet she found no easy road to fame. Few novelists have written three great novels without the prospect of publishing one of them, yet this was Jane Austen's fate. And when we remember that all the great names we have already mentioned are the names of persons moving more or less in a large world, cheered by the praise or stimulated by the opposition of their contemporaries, and drawing their knowledge of life from ample sources, perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic of Jane Austen's life is its singular isolation.

Jane Austen had no literary adviser, and indeed knew no one even remotely connected with the world of letters. She read "The Spectator," but did not like it, and thought it coarse. For Cowper and Crabbe she had an abiding love, and this is not surprising, since we find so much in her own nature akin to theirs.

Not that she had any of Cowper's melancholy--a person of more cheerful vivacity never breathed. But she had Cowper's happy faculty of discovering delight in simple and common things, and she gathered with unfailing diligence "the harvest of a quiet eye." She had a touch also of Crabbe's unflinching realism, but without his pathos and compassion. She strikes no deep chords, moves us with no deep passion, thrills us with no great thoughts or poignant emotions. But neither Crabbe nor Cowper, nor any one else, we might almost add, could paint still life with a precision and charm such as hers. Her highest claim as an artist is that she inaugurated the novel of still life.

In a day when people wept over the mock pathos of Sterne, and were thrilled with the sensationalism of Mrs. Radcliffe, it needed an unusual degree of courage, of resolute self-poise, and of detachment of mind to accomplish this task, and for the development of these qualities solitude was necessary. And, to the discerning, there is genuine dignity and pathos in the picture of this quiet, cheerful, clear-eyed woman, far away from the great interests of life, sitting down to write books which no publisher was to venture on for years, and yet so absolutely assured of the rightness of her method, and so full of the quiet enjoyment of her own work, that her patience is never wearied, her temper never soured, her brightness never dulled. She wrought for pure love of her work, and without thinking much about it. She wrote at her little desk by the sunny window, carefully covering up her papers when a stranger entered, and breathing no word to any one outside the family circle of the nature of her pursuits. Sometimes she wrote amid the chatter of conversation, and found it no detriment. She wrote on, unconscious of her own genius, and content that no one should recognise her as an unusual person. Before her, as she sat at her desk, all the little world she knew lived and moved, and it was all the world she wanted. She was content to love and be loved, and did not ask for praise. Perhaps public praise would have spoiled her; it was best that so delicate a gift as hers should mature itself in silence and seclusion. Literature was not her life, but her pastime; had the making of books been the real bread-winning purpose of her life we should still have had a great writer, but not the Jane Austen we know. One can fancy that such books as hers could only grow by slow processes of crystallisation, in the stillest of atmospheres, and that any enlargement of life which might have come from contact with a tumultuous world would also have meant the arrest of her genius and the deterioration of her style. But, however this may be, there can be no doubt of the greatness of her work, though it is a kind of work too true and delicate ever to be appreciated at its real worth by minds destitute of critical discrimination.

Williams James Dawson. "From Fielding to Jane Austen." Chapter III of Makers of English Fiction. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1905.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.