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Plea for a New Type of Novel

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

This winter, being all by myself in the country, I find I have read more novels than for many years past—and a strange collection they make. There is Mauriac’s “Un Nceud de Viperes,” Roger Martin du Gard’s “Les Thibaults,” Norah Hoult’s “Apartments to Let,” Ivan Bunin’s adorable book, “Istoki Dney”—in English, “The Well of Days”—Lawrence’s “The Virgin and the Gypsy,” then back to “Tristram Shandy” by way of relief, then off to Francis Hackett’s “That Nice Young Couple,” not to speak of half a dozen detective stories. To one who has been long at teaching bent it has been a delightful orgy —reading in what country and what century one pleases.

But the critical habit is strong, and as I read these six or seven novels I could not help remembering that whenever I have lectured on the Art of Writing I have always begun by appealing for a strong sense of character. “Once you get that,” I have always heard myself saying, “everything will follow.” Yet among these novels are several in which the writer has clearly had a strong sense of character, and everything else has not followed. And it has not followed because, as it seems to me, the writer has followed too loyally the unnatural fashion of wishing to present character naturally—the fashion in literature that goes by the odd name, odd since fashion can never be anything but artificial, of Naturalism.

Is there no way of escaping this satisfaction with the mere recognisable presentation of a fact? It is becoming tedious. And it has prevented the novel from developing a quality of its own—a quality that will not, that is to say, be the quality of a social document. If character is indeed the beginning from which everything will flow, it may be feasible to correct—at any rate, to examine—the tyranny at its source.

Not that the novel which is a social document is not an interesting novel—that novel which, in England, Thackeray really popularised and Galsworthy perfected; but its limitations are painfully obvious. We have never really broken away from the tyranny of its success despite the example of people like Dostoevski and Chekhov (and even people like Sarah Orne Jewett in America), in whose hands the novel and the short-story, while never losing a sense of character, broke completely away from fiction as a criticism of society; despite the occurrence, too, in England, of such romantics, rare in every sense of the word, as Emily Bronte or Laurence Sterne. It is a good novel, this novel of the presenta-tion of actuality, but it is only the beginnings of the novel, and it is time we moved away from it to a greater freedom and to more significant effects than we are able to achieve while copying our predecessors.

I should not like to be misunderstood here. A sense of character is indispensable—otherwise one gets mere fantasy, prose-poetry, colour without vigour; and a sense of character, accordingly, the romantic novelists, for example, always have had. Nor do I think that anything the future novel will accomplish is going to lessen the significance, say, of the pity and humanity in “Vanity Fair” or “David Copper-field.” But to every age its own Zeitgeist, its own personal attitude, its own idea of what is important or lovely. A time comes in every literature when old effects can be no longer effective. As the moon and the nightingale and the evening star passed out with Georgian poetry, so the blowsy landlady, the smells of 1’assomoir, the sentimental prostitute, the young journalist striving towards Art, all these too-familiar characters of middle-class drawing-rooms and low-class kitchens—children all of Fielding and Dickens and Smollett and George Eliot and John Galsworthy—must either pass away with the final perfection of the social novel, or be treated in some entirely different way.


It is the greatest pity of the world that the novel began in the eighteenth century. The press-reporter Defoe laid his stodgy hand on fiction and his fingerprints are still all over it. The homocentric attitude to life was a good attitude but it laid a, too severe curb on the imagination. They liked nature but before nature, art—to misquote Landor. They would allow nature to be dressed-up, but only according to the aged theory of “decorum”—ut pictura sic poesis. One might compose nature to dignified forms, but one could never transmute her. Their formal gardens remain to testify to their idea of the freedom of the artist. Sometimes they sought a release, but so unprepared were their minds for release that nothing but extravagance resulted—”Otranto,” “Vathek,” “Udolpho,” “The Monk.” It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the idea of character which became rooted in the English novel should be a literal one. And that the criterion of judgment should be a moral criterion: which is very different indeed to a, spiritual criterion.

The literal idea of character may be illustrated by two of its most successful exponents, Dickens and Thackeray, the inheritors of the eighteenth-century mind. With Dickens character is individuated without being individualised—a stereotype of criticism. He labelled his people without making real persons of them. They moved of his will and not of their own individual power. With Thackeray character is individualised, to a certain degree, without being as ductile as it might have been in a later age. There is more variety in his best characters than in the best characters of Dickens—but all the while one knows that there is little room for growth in Becky Sharp or Captain Costigan. They delight us but they do not surprise us. There is poetry in Thackeray of a type, but no mystery. As he begins so will he end. He has a limited number of things to say about his characters, and when that is said they and he are exhausted, After that—put them in as many different lights as he will, they always remain the same little Becky or the same old Dobbin. Dickens, it is as well to note, often surprised his readers—indeed he sometimes astonished them—by the things his characters did; but whenever he surprises us he also shocks us by his dishonesty—as when he makes Martin Chuzzle-wit, junior, turn overnight from a cad into a gentleman, and Martin Chuzzlewit, senior, from a fool into a wise man. It was very nice for his sentimental readers but it appals the critically minded, and for his sins Dickens is therefore now read by adults only for his humour. (And how that would; have annoyed the creator of Little Nell and Paul Dombeyl) An enormous amount of modern fiction derives from these, two. Readers of Miss Norah Hoult’s “Apartments to Let” —the work of an artist of integrity—will feel the connection at once, though probably in her case it is “Apartments to Let,” by “Mr. Britling Sees It Through,” out of “Hard Times.” There is a fine scene in her novel where old Mrs. Peabody, from the boarding house (she was the great granddaughter of Sairey Gamp) visits her daughter Lil and her son-in-law Tom before the arrival of a new little grandchild, which might have been written by Boz himself—and I mean it both as a compliment and a pejorative criticism. But, somehow, it has not the gusto of Boz, and I see that it would be hard to expect the gusto of Boz when you are trying to outboz Boz in an age that is in every way different to his. How can one see in London the colour of Town and Todgers when all the Todgers of London have disappeared? Zola and H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett—not to mention Maupassant and Gautier—knocked most of the gusto out of slummery; and cheap education, cheap houses, electric light, Lyons’ Tea Shops, the internal combustion engine, the cinema, and wireless, finished the job. Fiction hates these machines for producing uniformity; it still hankers after the bizarre; it still tries to do with character what Dickens did with it and Thackeray did with it—to wit, it tries to pretend character is interesting for its own sake. And because the truth is that vital character is getting rarer and rarer, so is vital literature, as a, result.

Compare with Dickens and Thackeray either “Tristram Shandy” or “Wuthering Heights.” Or compare the amazing manner in which Cathy or Heathcliff dilate in the mind with the inflexibility of the people in Charlotte Bronte—who so adored Thackeray—except when, in “Jane Eyre,” her natural genius swept her out of herself. My Uncle Toby, Tristram’s father, the Widow Wadman—they, too, indeed, have their labels as in Dickens, but their labels are not indispensable. Without these wonderful fortifications, or these erudite studies on Noses, much fun would, it is true, be lost —or rather shelved. But any other kind of absurdity would equally well apply, and yet the sense of character remain. The visual image of My Uncle Toby removing the dust from the Widow Wadman’s eye is unforgettable, but it is so only because it has dramatised these characters for us—not defined and limited them as Dickens would. It has projected their very spirits for us in the camera obscura of a, sentry box.

One may well seize on the word “spirits” to define an alternative method of characterisation, which, unhappily, has never found favour with the bulk of English-speaking novelists. One may well call it the spiritual idea of character as opposed to the literal, or physical, or materialist; or call it the essential as opposed to the accidental; the invisible device as opposed to the obvious.


For the naturalistic method, though often ingenious—and really ingenuity is a cheap art—is by comparison obvious. How Sterne does it one cannot tell. Set yourself to outline My Uncle Toby’s character and what a thin account results. There is so much infusion of Sterne’s own impishness, wit, humour, poetry, fantasy, that it would surprise no reader if My Uncle Toby had suddenly by the Fifth Book been disclosed as a woman in disguise, or found emigrating to Chile. Sterne has made no real effort to “keep decorum”—as the classicists would have said. He has kept a firm idea of humanity in large, of his personae in particular, and sent Nature on a holiday withal. His characters are ductile, fluid, and full of surprise. He has taken reality, rolled it up in a ball, and refashioned it to his liking, after the manner of the originals, true, but never slavishly copying them. They don’t have to be at the office at ten—they come there on a broomstick at midnight.

But how Tolstoy does it one can easily see. When Anna Karenina’s husband is about to enter into a solemn discussion as to their strained relations, he suddenly gets up and catches at a moth in the air. “My best reps!” he apologises with a little smile as he resumes his seat. It is a touch of genius. One sees at once the dry, cold, detached mind of the lawyer. But one also sees how, in the hands of a lesser man than Tolstoy, the method can end by being the result. Even in Tolstoy the method becomes wearisome—go back to “War and Peace” if you doubt it.

Here is a magnificent subject for a book—the influence, if any, of the Romantic Movement on the Novel. I believe it was infinitesimal. We talk of the rules of the classical period binding down the writers of the period, and think of the “freedom” of the modern novel by contrast with, let us say, the restraint on Ben Jonson. Actually both classicism and naturalism work under severe restraints and the amount of freedom is about equal in the end for both. With his types, like Volpone, and using to the full the allowances that are part and parcel of every such code as the classical code, Jonson could do things that the naturalist would never dare do. Think of Volpone in the market square aping the mountebank quacks. Or think of the ease with which Racine brings together his characters, the use of confidantes, the use of soliloquy, the ease of the long speech. Your naturalist writer must go to such pains to do anything at all, because it must all be credible according to a stupid reverence for what actually happens—(the “office at ten”)—that by comparison he is far more bound down than the writer working in an admittedly artificial code where all sorts of pretensions and presuppositions are so kindly made by the suspension of disbelief of the audience conniving with him. The modern reader is always conniving against the modern novelist. The only hope for the novel is to turn romantic and pitch “realism,” “naturalism,” and all the rest of it to the four winds.

One wishes for something more subtle and more illuminating. After all, what about it if a lawyer has a dry mind? Is that so very interesting? Mauriac, as an example of an altered attitude to morality, tells of a young lady who said to him apropos of the “Phedre” of Racine: “Que de bruit pour rien! Comme si ce n’etait pas la chose la plus ordinaire du monde d’etre amoureuse de son beau-fils.” I put it on record that, having finished three volumes of “Les Thibaults,” I felt very much inclined to say: “Excellent cinema! But what a fuss about nothing! As if to run away from school and fall in love with your brother’s mistress weren’t the most ordinary thing in the world!”

Surely it is possible to get some spark straight out of the genius and person of a writer that will light up not this or that character at this moment or that, but the whole book, the whole drama of living, by the light of his own love or fire or hate, by sheer gusto, by a sense of fate, fun, atmosphere, tradition — Heaven knows by what incorporeal method; something that will convey not only a feeling—and not necessarily at all any understanding—but a sense of the eternal value, as opposed to the mere temporal interest, of the people he writes of. Mauriac, being a Catholic, tries to do it. Lawrence could do it. Joyce could do it. On a lesser plane the memoirists like Borrow could do it. By a sheer sense of atmosphere Hardy did it for Eustacia Vye in “The Return of the Native.” I open Bunin’s novel that I have been reading, “The Well of Days,” and I come on this passage that seems to me to illuminate the whole world in a flash:

But once, walking in soft winter dusk through the village, I turned absent-mindedly to Alferov’s manor, passed between the snow-heaps to the house, mounted to the porch. In the dark ante-room, especially dark at the top, a pile of red-hot embers in the freshly lighted stove showed red, gloomy, and fantastic as in a black cave, and Tonka, bareheaded, straddling her bare legs, their tibias shining against the light with their smooth skin, was sitting on the floor against its mouth, illumined by its dark flames, holding a poker in her hand, its white-hot end touching the embers; slightly averting from the glowing heat her dark, flaming face, she was dreamily gazing at the embers, at their crimson mounts, frail and translucent, here already dying away under the fine lilac efflorescence, and there still burning with blue-green gas. I banged the door when entering—she did not even turn round.

“Why is it dark here? Is no one at home?” I asked, approaching her.

She threw her face farther back, and without looking at me smiled uneasily and somewhat languidly.

“As if you don’t know!” she said mockingly, and pushed the poker a little further into the stove.

“Know wha.t?”

“Come on, stop it… .”

“Stop what?”

“You must know where they are as they’ve gone to you. . . .

“I’ve been taking a walk, I haven’t seen them.” “Tell me about walks. . . .”

I squatted on the floor, looking at her bare legs and her bare black head, already full of inward tremors, but laughing and pretending also to admire the embers and their hot, dark-crimson glow. . . . Then suddenly I sat down beside her, and threw her on the floor, catching her reluctant lips, hot because of the fire. The poker rattled, some sparks flew up from the stove. . . .

When afterwards I jumped out of the porch I looked like a man who had suddenly committed murder, I held my breath and quickly turned round to see whether someone was not coming. But there was no one. Everything was ordinary and quiet. In the village in the accustomed winter darkness, the lights burned in the cottages with an incredible calmness—as if nothing had happened. I looked up— listened—and quickly walked away.

A marvelous book, that! Of course, it is done in the method of the romantic, the fantajsiste, too, and not truly a very English method at all. But never does he lose a true sense of values in his thought of men.


One even becomes so weary of the naturalistic method, the photographic reality, that one wishes literature could learn again from Greek tragedy and dispense with character altogether. One wishes for that exaltation of mood in which the merely familiar drops away completely and the characters achieve a certain timelessness that, like a piece of headless sculpture or a formal pious picture, holds one as a symbol holds the devout. For all differentiation drops away at moments of high tragedy, and Hamlet and Laertes are indistinguishable in the moment of their death. Lear has no character at all, in the naturalistic sense, and Lady Macbeth moves us most deeply when she walks in her sleep. And I think it is all nonsense for Ker to have argued—though profoundly and suggestively (in “Epic and Romance”)—that a desire for character is the mark of the true epic. The greatest kind of literature is, surely, epic and folk-song; and towards these two, literature, and in a way all art, is constantly striving backwards out of the tangle of its own sophistication to a dignity that depends largely on the oneness of man.

In the trend of the modern novel, either to an excessive amount of action, a too minute dissection, or a destructive facetiousness, one can perceive the truth of this. For the movement is in each case away from that dignity. Free a comedy, as Schopenhauer pointed out long ago, from the personalities involved in it, and you get tragedy. Personalities belong, in other words, merely to the handmaid of tragedy. Or to put it in still another way, the more and more one becomes preoccupied with the personalities in a tragedy, the farther and farther will the significance of the tragedy recede. But create a play like the (Edipus, where there is no character-sense whatever, where there is no visible fea,-ture to catch the eye, where the watch-menders of literature have not pulled personality to pieces—and all is as moving as if Nature herself had died.

The analysis of character has gone too far in literature. It is part of the whole breaking down process which goes on in civilisation, ever since, in the effort to assert the dignity of man, the Renaissance tore him from his stable position in the community. Dozens of observers have commented on this disunification of the soul—Berdyaev, Mauriac, Belgion, Yeats, Chesterton, Maritain. To the one it is due to the lost sense of the difference between good and evil; to another it is due to the worship of the dividing brain instead of the unifying heart; to another it is all to be traced to the growth of individualism in politics; others think criticism has outstepped creation. But whatever the cause, everywhere one sees the breaking down process, the watch-menders at their evil work. In literature the subjective novel, as in Joyce, is the most readily distinguishable sign, and for that reason one need hope for nothing from the subjectivists but disintegration without added significance. It is a materialist approach to life and man; and in English thought one readily notes the strong material trend, what with Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Mill, and Spencer. Perhaps I resent the approach because I happen to come from a country mainly Catholic and naturally romantic; and I am excited when I think that beyond the Danube, where they are also orthodox and romantic—or used to, though Bunin is still writing—one finds the same resistance to the literal or material idea of personality.

Perhaps, however, one wishes merely, in the end, not so much for a sense of the sanctity and mystery of man, as for a greater sense of the poetry of life, an acknowledgment that life is a thin ice where one goes with tiptoe, and one’s heart as one goes an impalpable, undefinable, uncontrollable, vain and unstable snow. It is an enormous amount to ask in an age whose pride is not yet broken, whose god is still the He-Man, which still fears the undefined, the unreliable, the dark.


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