On Novel Writing - PA Criticism Archive

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THERE is no period in the history of any nation, at all advanced in literature, in which fictitious narratives have not made a large part of the reading in which men have most delighted. They have been grafted on the actions of their heroes, interwoven with their mythology, moulded on the manners of the age, and, in return, have influenced not a little the manners of the next generation, by the principles they have inculcated, and the sensibilities they have exercised. A spirit of adventure, a high sense of honour, of martial glory, refined and romantic, sentimental delicacy, or all the enthusiasm of humanity, have been, in their turns, inspired by this powerful engine, which takes so strong a hold on the fancy and the passions of young readers. Accompanied with the embellishments of poetry, they produce the epic; concentrating the incidents, and exchanging story for action, they become dra-


matic; allied with some great moral or political end, didactic, as in the Telemachus of Fenelon, and the Belisarius of Marmontel. They are often the vehicles of satire, as in the Candid and Baboue of Voltaire, and the Gulliver of Swift. They take a tincture from the learning and politics of the times, and are often successfully employed to attack or to recommend the prevailing systems of the day. We have seen liberty and equality recommended by one performance, and ridiculed in another. When the range of this kind of writing is so extensive, and its efficacy so great, it is evidently entitled to hold no mean rank among the productions of genius; and, in truth, there is hardly any department of literature in which we shall meet with more fine writing than in the best productions of this kind. It is not easy, therefore, to say, why the poet should have so high a place allotted him in the temple of Fame, and the romance writer so low a one, as the general voice assigns him; for his dignity has by no means been measured by the pleasure he affords to his readers; yet the invention of a story, the choice of proper incidents, the modelling of a plan, the exhibition of character, the gradual unfolding of a plot, occasional beauties of description, and, above all, the power exercised over the reader's heart, by filling it with the emotions of love, pity, joy, anguish, transport, or indignation, together with the grave and affecting moral resulting from the whole, imply talents of the highest order, and ought to command our warmest praise. There is no walk in which taste and genius have more distinguished themselves, or in which virtuous and noble sentiments have been displayed with greater lustre, than in the splendid fictions, or pathetic tales, with which France, Germany, Switzerland, and England have adorned their literature. A history of romance, under all its forms, would be highly valuable, if given by a man of taste, and of ample reading. But there are some periods which form a new era in this kind of writing, and those productions particularly deserve our attention, which stand at the head of a class, and have diverted the taste of the public into some new channel. Of this kind are the writings of Richardson. He may, in a great measure, be said to be the father of the modern novel of the serious or pathetic kind, and he was also original in the epistolary mode by which he carried on the story.

Should we search among the treasures of ancient literature for fictions similar to the modern novel, we should find none more nearly resembling it than "Theagenes and Chariclea," the work of Heliodorus, a christian bishop of Trieca, in Thessaly. Though his romance was unexceptionably pure and virtuous, he was required either to burn his book or resign his bishopric; upon which, with the heroism of an author, he chose the latter.

But after Europe had sunk into barbarism, a taste was again to be formed; and a taste for the natural, the graceful, and the simply-pathetic is generally the last step in the progress of civilization.

We know the character of the romances of chivalry....Amadis de Gaul at their head, with whose merits the English reader has lately been made acquainted, in an elegant abridged version. [2]  They were truly historical, but they heightened the traditionary adventures of heroes with marvellous tales of giants, enchantments, and other supernatural contrivances. But we must not suppose that even these fictions were always regarded, as we now regard them, as the mere play of fancy: "le vrai seul est aimable"  [3]  was always so far a maxim, that no work of fancy can greatly succeed, which is not founded on popular belief: but what is truth? In ancient times, talismans, and sympathetic powders, and all-healing charms, were generally credited.

Much love adventure was admitted into these narratives, but not always of the purest or most delicate


kind. Poetry was often made the vehicle, especially in Italy: Orlando Furioso [4]  is a chivalrous romance in verse.

As the spirit of warlike adventure subsided, these fictions softened, by degrees, into the languishing and amorous tales of the French school....into Clelias and Cassandras. [5]  I might, indeed, have mentioned, before these, a romance of a peculiar kind, the Astrea of d' Urfé, which all France read with eagerness, when first published. It is a pastoral romance, and its celebrity was owing to its abounding with allusions to the amours of the court of Henry the fourth.

The principle of these romances was high honour, impregnable chastity, a constancy unshaken by time or accident, and a species of love so exalted and refined, that it bore but little resemblance to a natural passion. In the story, they approached a step nearer to nature; the adventures were marvellous, but not impossible. Their personages were all remote from common life, and taken from ancient history, but without the least resemblance to the heroes whose names they bore. The manners, therefore, and the passions, referred to an ideal world, the creation of the writer; but the situations were often striking, and the sentiments always chaste and noble. They would have reigned longer, had they been less tedious. Boileau ridiculed these, as Cervantes had done the others, and their knell was rung: people were ready to wonder they had ever admired them.

A closer imitation of nature began now to be required: from the earliest times, however, there had been tales built upon real life, a few of them serious, but the greater part comic. The Decamerone of Boccacio, the Cent Nouvelles of the queen of Navarre, contes and fableaux without number, may be considered as novels, though of a lighter texture: they abounded with adventure, generally of the humorous, often of the licentious kind, and, indeed, were mostly founded on amorous intrigues, while the nobler passions were seldom touched. The Roman Comique of Scarron is a regular piece of its kind, and possesses great merit in the humorous way; but the Zaide and the Princesse de Cleves of Madame de la Fayette, are deemed the first that approach the modern novel of the serious kind, the latter especially: they were written in the reign of Louis XIV, greatly admired, and considered as forming a new era in works of invention. Voltaire says they were "the first romances in which were seen natural incidents, and the manners of good company, described with elegance. Before her time, improbable adventures were related in a turgid and affected style." [6]  The novels of Madame la Fayette are certainly beautiful, but a step is still wanting; they no longer speak, indeed, of Alexanders and Brutus's, still less of giants and fairies; but the heroes and heroines are princes and princesses. They are not people of our acquaintance. The scene is perhaps in Spain, or among the Moors: it does not reflect the picture of domestic life, they are not the men and women we daily see about us.

Le Sage, in his Gil Blas, a work of infinite diversion, though of dubious morality, presented us such people; but his portraits were mostly humorous, and his work was rather a series of separate adventures than a chain of events concurring to produce one catastrophe. There was still wanting a mode of writing which should connect the high passions and delicate sentiments of the old romance, with characters moving in our own sphere of life, and brought into action by events of daily occurrence.

In the earlier periods of English history, we had our share of the rude literature of the times, and we were familiar, either in translations or works of our own growth, with


the heroes of chivalry, many of whom belonged to our own country. We had also, in common with our neighbours, the monkish legends, a species of romance abounding with the marvellous, and particularly suited to the taste of a superstitious age. Many of these merit attention as a considerable class of fictions: they have been justly exploded for their falsehood; they should not be preserved for their invention: they are now harmless: they can no longer excite our indignation; let them be permitted still to amuse our fancy.

In the reign of queen Elizabeth, we had the once famous romance, Sidney's Arcadia, of the pastoral heroic kind. It is a book that all have heard of, some few possess, but nobody reads.

From that period, to the middle of the reign of George II, we had tales of various kinds, but scarcely one that is read at present, and, I believe, not any except that ingenious allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, that was known out of England. We had poets and philosophers long before we attained excellence in the lighter kinds of prosaic composition. Harrington's Oceana is political, and will grievously disappoint those who seek amusement in it. The Atalantis of Mrs. Manly lives only in that line of Pope which promises it immortality:

As long as Atalantis shall be read. [7] 

It was, like Astrea, filled with fashionable scandal. Mrs. Behn's novels were licentious: they are also extinct. Till the middle of the last century, theatrical productions and poetry made a greater part of polite reading than novels, which had not attained either elegance or nice discrimination of characters; some maritime or some love adventure were all they aimed at. The ladies' library, described in the Spectator, contains "the Grand Cyrus, with a pin stuck in one of the leaves, and Clelia, which opened of itself in the place that describes two lovers in a bower;" [8]  but there does not occur either there, or, I believe, in any other part of the work, the name of one English novel, the Atalantis excepted. Plays are often mentioned as a favourite and dangerous part of ladies' reading.

The first author who distinguished himself by natural painting was that truly original genius De Foe; and if from any one Richardson caught his peculiar manner of writing, to him it must be traced, whose Robinson Crusoe and Family Instructor, the latter consisting of domestic dialogues, he must have read in his youth. Both were accurate describers, minute and circumstantial, but the minuteness of De Foe was displayed in things, and that of Richardson in persons and sentiments. No one knew, like De Foe, to give to fiction the air of truth, by an accumulation of circumstance, and a natural style of narration, unless, indeed, he were rivalled by Swift, in his Gulliver and John Bull. De Foe wrote also other tales, which I have not seen: they do not appear to have attained much celebrity. Richardson was the man who was born to introduce a new kind of moral painting: he drew equally from nature and from his own thoughts. From the world about him he took incidents, manners, and general character; and from his own imagination he copied that sublime of virtue, which charms us in Clarissa, and that sublime of passion, which subdues us in Clementina. That kind of fictitious writing, of which he has set the example, disclaims all aid from giants or genii. The moated castle gives place to a modern parlour; the princess and her pages to a lady and her domestics, or even to a rustic maid, without birth or fortune; we are not called on to wonder at improbable events, but to be moved by natural passions, and impressed by salutary maxims. The pathos of the story, and the dignity of the sentiments, interest and


charm us; simplicity is warned, vice rebuked; and from the perusal of a fiction we rise better prepared to meet calamity with firmness, and to perform our respective parts on the great theatre of life. It was the high and just praise given by our great critic, Dr. Johnson, to this author, that he had enlarged the knowledge of human nature, and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue. [9]  The novelist has, indeed, all the advantage of the preacher in introducing useful maxims and sentiments of virtue; an advantage which Richardson made large use of; and he has besides the power of impressing them upon the heart, through the best sensibilities of our nature. Richardson prided himself on being a moral and religious writer; and, as Addison did before him, he professed to take under his particular protection that sex which is supposed to be the most open to good or evil impressions, whose inexperience most requires cautionary precepts, and whose sensibilities it is most important to secure against a wrong direction. The manner of this captivating writer was also new.

There are three modes of carrying on a story: the narrative, or epic, as it may be called; in this the author himself relates the whole adventure: this is the manner of Cervantes, in his Don Quixote, and of Fielding, in his Tom Jones. It is the most common way. The author, like the muse, is supposed to know every thing; he can reveal the secret springs of actions, and let us into events in his own time and manner. He can be concise or diffuse, according as the different parts of his story require it. He can indulge, as Fielding does, in digressions and reflections, and thus deliver sentiments, and display knowledge, which would not properly belong to any of the characters. But his narration will not be lively, except he frequently drops himself, and runs into dialogue: all good writers, therefore, have thrown as much as possible of the dramatic into their narrative. Mad. d' Arblay has done this so successfully, that we have as clear an idea, not only of the sentiments, but the manner of expression of her different personages, as if we took it from the scenes of a play.

Another mode is that of memoirs, where the hero of the adventure relates his own story. Smollet, in his Roderick Random, and Goldsmith, in his Vicar of Wakefield, have adopted this mode: it confines the author's style, which ought to be, though it is not always, suited to the capacity and education of the imaginary narrator. It has the warmth and interest a person may be supposed to feel in relating his own concerns, and he can more gracefully dwell upon minute circumstances. It has a greater air of truth, and it seems to account for the communication to the public. The author, it is true, knows every thing; but, when the secret recesses of the heart are to be laid open, we can hear no one with so much pleasure as the actor himself. Marivaux, a contemporary of Richardson, has put the history of Marianne into her own mouth, and we are amused to hear her dwell on little touches, which are almost too trivial to be noticed by any body but herself.

But what the hero cannot say, the author cannot tell, nor can it be rendered probable, that a very circumstantial narrative should be given by a person, perhaps at the close of a long life, of conversations that have happened at the beginning of it. The author has always two characters to support, and has to consider how his hero felt during his adventures, and how it is natural he should feel when only relating them; at a period, perhaps, when curiosity is extinct, passions cool, and when, at any rate, the suspenses which kept pace with them are over. This seems, therefore, the least perfect mode of any.

A third way is that of epistola-


ry correspondence, carried on between the persons of the story.... This is the form used by Richardson, and many others after, but by none before him. He seems to have been led to it by some circumstances in his early youth. This method unites the advantages of the other two; it gives the feelings of the moment, as the writers felt them at the moment. It allows a pleasing variety of style, if the author has sufficient command of language to assume it. It makes the work dramatic, since all the characters speak in their own persons. It accounts for chasms in the story, by the probable omission or loss of letters. It is inconsistent with a rapid style, but gives room for the graceful introduction of remarks and sentiments, or almost any kind of digressive matter. But, on the other hand, it is highly incredible; it is the most natural and the least probable way of telling a story. That letters should be written at all times, and upon every occasion in life, that those letters should be preserved, and altogether form a connected story, it requires much art to render probable. It introduces the inconvenience so much felt in dramatic writing, for want of a narrator; the necessity of having an insipid confidant to tell those circumstances to, that an author can introduce in no other way. It obliges a man to tell of himself, what shame or modesty would suffer no man to tell; and when a long conversation is repeated, supposes a memory more exact than is generally found. Artificial as it is, still it enables an author to assume, in a lively manner, the hopes, and fears, and passions, and to imitate the peculiar way of thinking and speaking of his characters, and has been adopted by many, both at home and abroad, especially by the French writers; their language, perhaps, being particularly suited to the epistolary style, and Rousseau himself, in his Nouvelle Heloise, has followed the steps of our countryman.


[1] The Literary Magazine and American Register 2.15 (December 1804): 693-698. The Literary Magazine and American Register was a semi-annual publication edited from 1803-1807 by Charles Brockden Brown. Readers may wish to compare this text with Barbauld's essays "The Life of Samuel Richardson" (1804) and "On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing" (1810). BACK

[2] Amadis de Gaule is an early-sixteenth century romance by Rodríguez de Montalvo" with versions preceeding it by a century or more. Robert Southey's translation into English appeared in 1803. BACK

[3] "the truth alone is beautiful"; Boileau, Epitre IX (1674) 43. BACK

[4] By Ariosto. BACK

[5] Novels by Mme. de Scudéry and La Calprenède respectively. BACK

[6] Voltaire, "Ecrivains, don't plusieurs on illustré le siécle," one of a series of catalogs included in Le Siecle de Louis XIV (1751; London: R. Dodsley, 1752) 2:486. Other editions position these catalogs differently. BACK

[7] Alexander Pope's comment on The New Atalantis (1709) by Delariviere Manley appears in The Rape of the Lock, Canto III, line 165. BACK

[8] Spectator No. 37 (Thursday, April 12, 1711). The novels are by d'Urfé and Mme. de Scudéry. BACK

[9] Rambler 97 (Tuesday, February 19, 1751). BACK

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