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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83

Besant on the Novel

Besant on the Novel.

Mr. Besant's lecture on the art of novel writing leads us to some reflections on the history of the English novel.

Its beginnings are traceable in France and Spain. "Don Quixote" among novels is as "Don Giovanni" among operas. In England we may start from "Robinson Crusoe." From this we bound to "Gulliver's Travels," and thence on to Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, in indicating those novels which are read at all in the present day. The "Castle of Otranto" was the obvious suggestion of Mrs. Radcliffe's once popular tales of mystery. They were outdone by Mrs. Shelley's horrible "Frankenstein," and we suppose there are traces of Mrs. Radcliffe in Poe and Bulwer.

We lately found Miss Burney's "Evelina" fresh reading on a dip into it. Godwin's "Caleb Williams" has not passed out of circulation. Miss Austen keeps her lame pristine with "Pride and Prejudice," "Sense and Sensibility," and "Emma." Lister's "Granby," and Ward's "Tremaine" are very occasionally taken up. They were precursors of Disraeli's "Vivian Grey," and more particularly of Bulwer's "Pelham." Miss Inch bald's "Simple Story" is a pretty thing. Nor can we forget "The Vicar of Wakefield."

But the modern novel begins with "Waverley." Scott is the fountain. A current from him appears in Dickens, with a far stronger one from Smollett. Thackeray has more of Fielding, with dashes of Balzac and Richardson. We cannot discern so much Balzac in him as he professes to have drawn.

Of the great French masters Dumas is more read in England than all the other Gallic novelists put together, except Jules Verne. However, we ought to put it the other way, and say Verne is more read than Dumas and all the rest put together. We will never forget the delightful novelty of broaching "Round page 63 the World in Eighty Days," and "Five Weeks in a Balloon." There is only one popular translation of a novel by Balzac—"Eugenie Grandet." Eugene Sue's "Mysteries of Paris" and "Wandering Jew" maintain an English circulation. Not more than two or three of George Sand's novels do so. English novelists have any amount of impunity in tapping the French reservoirs. Daudet, though, is a good deal read in English. Zola and Gaboriau advance in English circulation. Ohnet's "Ironmaster" has found its way across Channel.

A vein from Scott was worked out by G. P. R. James. Others have been industriously exploitered by Ainsworth and James Grant. Mrs. Bray was a moonbeam of the Romantic School, and it has been found worth while, recently, to reprint her novels.

Bulwer was German, French, and English, a catholic genius. We can see his pickings from Scott, Fielding, Dickens, Balzac, Ainsworth, Goethe, Kotzebue, and everyone. This was the secret of the level he maintained in never getting written out. The contrast with Dickens is marked. Dickens, an observer, is not assimilative in regard to literary matter. Research did not aid his powers. A career of difficulty and poverty would have kept him at the high level. We see him rising up to "David Copperfield," and then sinking.

Dickens is traceable in Ainsworth, Marryat, Lever, Reade, Trollope and George Eliot, more or less. But we may as well say that every subsequent English novelist has some imprint from him. The Novel, as an abstract, may be looked upon as one thing from one mind. It is a snowball, but it mysteriously melts.

In disposing of our batch of old novels, we have a word for "Ten Thousand a Year," which is as smart as anything. It is worthy of Dickens, but Albert Smith never was. Shirley Brooks took a line which was worked more amply by Trollope. Mark Lemon was not noteworthy. Jerrold's talent was peculiar, acrid and vigorous. Nobody reads him now.

The women novelists have made a prodigious mark in the last twenty years. Mrs. Trollope, Antony's mother, has dropped into oblivion, with her 114 novels, all written after she was 50 years old. Miss Edgeworth is a name, and nothing more. George Eliot towers above all, ranking with Scott and Dickens. The Brontes are little read.

Miss Braddon has marvellously kept up her prestige. She is inexhaustible. "Ishmael" is the best of her progeny. Mrs. Wood has slacked off. We don't read Mrs. Riddell nowadays, Rhoda Broughton maintains her standing. "Ouida" is unique, and nauseous to our palate as phosphorus. Miss Yonge still trickles with the pen of innocent debility, and so does Mrs. Craik. Miss Sewell and Miss Kavanagh were of the same school, Mrs. page 64 Oliphant, a woman of terrible fecundity, is almost as masculine as Trollope or Payn.

Shakspeare destroyed all his scaffolding. So did Dickens and Thackeray. Scott obtruded it somewhat. He is the only first class novelist we can call to mind who has done so. Who can tell anything of the genesis of "Don Quixote," "Gil Blas," or any masterpiece? Second class writers are always fond of displaying their scaffolding. Payn is beginning at it. Reade had no occasion to preserve a quarter of his materias, except for the fear that people would not know how hard he had worked.

We relish Trollope's recipe for producing novels between five a.m. and eight a.m. This is the secret of writing a "Prime Minister" or a "Is He Popenjoy?" Scott worked in the same hours, but never on Trollope's procrustean system. It just produces a Trollope. But his earliest and best work was done on the more free and easy plan, which is indispensable for running out the pure lees.

Wilkie Collins cannot be overlooked, though it is a cruel fate which prescribed that the inventor of a "Woman In White must deteriorate in his cocooning. Yates, Le Fanu, and several others, have chiefly followed Collins as a model. The malign and sinister power of the author of "Guy Livingstone" is dead with him. Blackmore's "Lorna Doone" is almost in the first flight of the novels of the century. Black is a mechanical novelist in light comedy, and keeps nicely on a candied line. He is as full of cobweb as a spider. Or we may call him a nice lace-maker. We cannot stomach George Macdonald. It is the John Halifax business spun out. Give us the tune that goes manly, and for this you sometimes have to go to the women.

The best two novels of the past two years were "Democracy" and "The Breadwinners." They were both anonymous. We would not be surprised to hear that they were both by the same lady. A lady is the author of "The Leavenworth Case," which has only been eclipsed by "Called Back." We take it, however, that Crawford's talent is superior to that of Fargus or Anstey. We had almost forgotten to place Robinson, Murray, and Gibbon, in the chronicle of glory. But it will not do to lump with them our lecturer, Besant.

The craving for powerful novels is as strong as earth-hunger. Plenty of room for another Dickens. Perhaps the nearest approach to him, among contemporaries, is that racy sea-novelist, Russell. As we close this article many names crowd upon us. Cooper, Mayne Reid, and Aimard should be mentioned. Who was it that said "When a new book comes out, I take up an old one?" But we cannot sing the old songs. What is wanted is the old spirit in new work.