The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940 by Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek, eds., Reviewed by Laurence Davies

The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880-1940
Eds. Patrick Parrinder and Andrzej Gasiorek
(Oxford, 2010), xxv + 633 pp.
Reviewed by Laurence Davies on 2012-01-27.

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This is the first to appear of what will be a twelve-volume series under the general editorship of Patrick Parrinder. Another volume, The Nineteenth-Century Novel 1820-1880, has just appeared, and three more cover one part or another of the long nineteenth century: English and British Fiction 1750-1820, The American Novel from its beginnings to 1870, and The American Novel 1870-1940. Many readers of Review 19 will also be curious about the other seven volumes. In numerical order, the series opens with Prose Fiction in English from the Origins of Print to 1750 and ends with The Novel in Africa and the Atlantic World since 1950 (to be edited by Simon Gikandi, a perfect choice) and The Novel in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, also since 1950. Thus, given world enough and time, an imaginary reader of the whole series might start in London during the late fifteenth century and finish with a prospect of the globe, or to put it linguistically, move from the vernacular of southeastern England to the exuberant and inventive varieties of English now being heard and read from Singapore to Port of Spain and Nunavut to Invercargill. Yet William Caxton, the first of English publishers, was himself delightedly open to the world outside; he had lived in Cologne and Bruges and translated many of the books he printed. In the same spirit, this twenty-first century project sets out to avoid the national chauvinism and Anglophone triumphalism that have at times cramped or distorted literary histories of the USA and Britain.

It is unprofitable (though not impossible) to think of any book, let alone a novel, as existing in pure isolation. The Oxford History of the Novel in English studies fiction as a constantly renewing network rather than a labyrinth or a gallery of monuments. This principle of interconnectedness involves more than literary influence across language, time, and place. To quote Parrinder's Preface to the edition as a whole, it also includes "the processes of production, distribution, and reception" (xiii). Besides covering a whole spectrum of authors, authorial alliances, and subgenres, then, Parrinder's mention of "processes" suggests that the Oxford History will benefit from recent work on editorial theory and the history of the book. Thus the series shares the cultural pluralism, openness to popular forms, and awareness of material culture that characterize the 8-volume Cambridge History of American Literature (1986-2004, under the general editorship of Sacvan Bercovitch), and something of the planetary and multilingual reach of Princeton's The Novel (2006), two massive volumes edited by Franco Moretti.

While being suitably astonished and delighted by the scope and energy of such projects, we might still remember, if only to honor our scholarly predecessors, that literary history as an inclusive rather than exclusive practise is not entirely new. When he wrote his 10-volume History of the English Novel (1924-1939), Ernest A. Baker took it as a matter of course that he should acknowledge the significance of Aphra Behn (whose novels he had previously edited) in Volume 3, devote a chapter to Fanny Burney in Volume 5, also in Volume 5 discuss a wide range of Gothic authors including an American, Charles Brockden Brown, and draw on a wide and deep knowledge of foreign-language sources throughout. More often than we may care to admit, the fate of books depends not on discovery but rediscovery, rehabilitation, or reframing. Hence the inspired title of the 1997 conference of the Space Between society, which promotes the study of literature and culture between 1914 and 1945 with ecumenical evenhandedness: "Bang, Boom, Bust and Bang (Again)". This new volume resonates with bangs. A debut volume for a series needs to serve as a template for the whole, though the very vastness of the enterprise is bound to require some flexibility. It also requires the General Editor and the volume editors to make hard decisions about when and how to harmonize the whole. This was not so difficult in the past. Though encouraged and advised by friends and colleagues, Baker wrote his History singlehandedly, and each of the contributors to the Oxford History of English Literature (among them C. S. Lewis, Ian Jack, and J. I. M. Stewart) had a volume to himself. While older histories offer the pleasures of consistency and the grain of a solo voice, the new series promises other pleasures: heterogeneity and, whether in discord or in harmony, the sound of many voices. The editors of this first-to-appear volume contribute a joint Introduction and one essay each; of the other essays, one is the work of joint authors, and each of the other 33 comes from a different individual.

The choice of scholars is exciting and in itself a sign of editorial wisdom. Every prospective reader will have a personal list of must-reads, so I name names here to illustrate the range of topics as much as to cite authors whose presence on the roster quickened this reviewer's pulse. By way of example, then, there is Max Saunders on Conrad, Ford, and James; Jane Aaron on twentieth century Welsh fiction; Roger Luckhurst on science fiction and fantasy, Elizabeth Maslen on women's novels between the wars; David Punter on the Gothic and supernatural; Bonnie Kime Scot on Virginia Woolf and consciousness; Nicholas Daly on adventure novels and thrillers; and Clare Hanson on short stories and novellas. No one person could or should cover an array as broad yet rich in detail as this.

In stressing the inclusiveness of this enterprise, I don't mean to imply that literary history always returns to the same place, or always oscillates between enshrining the best and celebrating a broader sample. The movement of ideas and interests spirals in and out like Yeats's gyres. This volume presents the political, cultural, and technological histories of a sixty-year period (or periods? the question is moot) while reflecting its own moment and the current state of critical opinion. In 1968, John A. Lester, Jr, in his then influential (and still valuable) Journey through Despair, 1880-1914: Transformations in British Literary Culture, squeezed into a couple of lines what is now considered one of the central attractions of late nineteenth fiction: "I assume that a footnote is adequate, for all the spate of literature which the response produced, to observe that the passion for romance in literature of the turn of the century is largely a recoil from drab realism" (112, n. 25). In the present volume, much more than a footnote is given to the oeuvre of Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, and the "scientific romances" of H. G. Wells. The volume thus shows how much has changed, and not only in the value we attach to fiction free of realist conventions; in some modern readings (though not all those presented here), these authors purvey more angst than escapism, and literary life in the Eighties and Nineties could as well be called a Journey through Panic. In an alternative reading, proposed by Nicholas Daly, "the so-called 'revival' of romance and adventure fiction" was actually a return to an older tradition that had "temporarily been eclipsed by the dominance of the domestic novel" (228).

In other ways as well, this collection of essays speaks to a contemporary world of cultural and political realignments and geographical remappings, especially those initiated by historians such as Linda Colley and literary scholars such as Cairns Craig (an indispensable presence in the current volume), who have rethought the Anglo-Celtic Archipelago's histories of Union and dis-Union. The exploration of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish fiction (and, endearingly, their counterparts in English "regional" fiction) uncovers another range of noteworthy writers who, however contentiously, were acknowledged in their own countries rather than outside them and in many cases have remained beyond the pale of "English Literature" to this day. In Scotland, for example, we have Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, and Ellen Wilkinson; in Ireland, Standish O'Grady, Michael McLaverty, and Kate O'Brien; in provincial England, Winifred Holtby, Mary Butts, and Mary Webb; and in Wales, three kinds of authors: those who wrote in Welsh such as Kate Roberts and Saunders Lewis, those who wrote in the idioms and rhythms of South Wales English such as Gwyn Thomas, and Caradoc Evans, who invented his own provocative creole, an English that reads like an inexorably literal translation from the Welsh. Again, the walls that keep the genres or subgenres isolated from another, and the floors and ceilings that demarcate their standing in the house of fiction, are treated as fragile or illusory. Discussing the categorical separations between science fiction and fantasy that began to emerge only in the 1920s, Roger Luckhurst writes: "These generic distinctions are helpful, provided they are seen as historically, aesthetically, and intellectually intertwined. Indeed, their relationship might be best figured as that of different refractions through the same prism of late Victorian and Edwardian modernity" (243). There are many such prisms of place and moment in this volume's repertoire and many such refractions: the girls' school adventures of Angela Brazil, the children's fantasies of E. Nesbit, the ghost stories of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood, the detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham, the thrillers of John Buchan, Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household, and the left-wing romances of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

Literary history is rife with tales of rejection and expulsion: in the nineteenth century, for instance, we have the "Scottish" reviewers slighting the Romantics, Robert Buchanan raging against the "Fleshly School of Poetry," and George Eliot deriding "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." The controversies of the 1880s about fiction as an art, the rival merits of realism and romance, and the rendering of "experience" and "observation" were kindlier affairs, throughout which the main contestants-- Walter Besant, Stevenson, and James-- were scrupulously courteous. The present volume gives us remarks on these debates by Max Saunders, Simon J. James, Nicholas Daly, Cairns Craig, and Jesse Matz, each from a different angle. (In 1904, by the way, when Conrad praised James as "the historian of fine consciences" [qtd. 58], he would have meant conscience in the French sense of consciousness as well as in its English sense.) The arguments put forward in the 1880s persisted far into the twentieth century, often couched in a sterner spirit. Woolf sidelined Bennett, Galsworthy, and Wells as mere button counters; F. R. and Q. D. Leavis frowned on Woolf and the Bloomsbury set in general as over-privileged and disengaged from life. Yet while Woolf and the Leavises occupied different fortresses, they held some attitudes in common: a disdain for the "middlebrow," an indifference to genre fiction (some historical novels excepted), and a conviction that the novel at its best was deeply serious, not least in its freedom from the vulgar and the meretricious. Their criteria for recognizing seriousness differed markedly and, despite the severity of their opinions, all three spoke up for certain less-known authors (see for instance Queenie Leavis's eclectic tastes). Moreover, a novelist with a fine but devastating wit who takes issue with the literary status quo, and who discovers a new set of ancestors even as she leaves posterity a new vision of the novel, is following an agenda different from that of critics (and I do not mean that word disparagingly) intent on purging the caterpillars of the literary commonwealth. Nevertheless, the insistence of all three on making discriminations, in both critical and creative terms an admirable and necessary task, had long term consequences for the forming and unforming of canons (as in battles over the curriculum in Australian English departments of the 50s and 60s. Opening up the canon can all too easily replace one master narrative with another. To judge by its first volume, the Oxford History is more hospitable.

The hospitality is not random. Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Ford, James, and Lawrence take pride of place, with a strong showing by Hardy, Moore, Bennett, Wilde, Mansfield, Richardson, Forster, and, as noted earlier, Stevenson and Wells. But this book is not like Milton's Pandemonium, where the lesser demons become almost invisible and totally inaudible. Even among these names, some (like Dorothy Richardson) still aren't familiar enough, some (like Wells) have often had trouble getting past the doorkeepers, and in recent years some (like Lawrence) have run afoul of the bouncers. All the same, seeing these writers juxtaposed with the still less familiar, the unconsidered, and the critically disreputable is piquant and enlightening. It rewards one's curiosity. To read Hall Caine or Marie Corelli, for example, is to have a better sense of why the early Modernists so much distrusted plot. To consider the fictions of anarchy and terror so popular in the 1880s and 90s is to realize how much of Conrad's irony is directed not only against futile conspirators but against those who thought such conspirators far more dangerous than they were. To set Lawrence beside John Cowper Powys, as Fiona Becket does in her inspired chapter on "D. H. Lawrence and Metaphysical Fiction," is both to show Lawrence in an unexpected and illuminating context and to revive the memory of a neglected author of formidable ambition and achievement. To consider Wilde and Henry James along with M. R. James, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, and Daphne du Maurier, as David Punter does in his incisive and stimulating chapter on "Gothic and Supernatural Fiction," is to acknowledge that reading them all in light of a single esthetic, such as one drawn from a materialist version of realism or on a narrow conception of the avant garde, is simply inadequate.

Because the volume is organized by genre, theme, and context as much as by the presentation of major authors, a reader primarily interested in the nineteenth century will often need to consult the indexes. Wells shows up in Simon J. James's chapter on realism, Parrinder's on metropolitan fiction, Luckhurst's on science fiction, and Chris Baldick's admirable discussion of "Political Novels and Utopian Romances." Although it teems with fresh observations and ideas, Saunders' chapter on James, Conrad, and Ford is not the only word on these authors. The chapter by David Trotter and Andrew Shail on "The Cinema and the Novel," the most theoretically daring in the book, offers many insights into Conrad's handling of narrative. Ford makes an unexpected appearance in a chapter on "English Regional Fiction and National Culture," and as noted above, Punter's chapter on the uncanny assigns a major role to James. Several chapters grouped in later sections of the volume such as "The English Detective Story," "The Novel and the Empire," and "Impressionism, Naturalism, and Aestheticism," also have much to say about the 1880s and 90s.

Nevertheless, the section on "The Novel 1880-1914" would be a good place to begin, with essays on "English Novelists and Foreign Novels" (especially those of Balzac, Flaubert, Dostovesky and Proust), "Realism and the Fiction of Modern Life," "Metropolitan Fiction: Slums, Suburbs, and Tales of Mean Streets," "Provincial Fiction and the Decline of 'Puritan England,'" "New Women and the New Fiction," "Masters of Male Romance," "Scottish, Irish, and Welsh Fiction," and "Bestselling Fiction." As many of these titles imply, the sense of place and region is powerful here. So too is a sense of mutability, actual and impending. Dealing--in an essay on bestsellers-- with authors as various as Kipling, Barrie, Mrs B. M. Croker, E. Nesbit, and Nat Gould, Clive Bloom argues that the First World War "was not so much the catalyst for change as the accelerator" (190). Angelique Richardson's chapter on the New Woman likewise radiates this sense of change. One of the most valuable features of this whole collection, and a guiding principle of the whole series (xiv), is that it treats the short story as one end of a continuum, stretching via the novella to the full scale novel, and beyond that, the sequence of linked novels. The most radical New Woman writing, Richardson argues, is to be found not in full-scale novels but in the short stories from the 1890s by "George Egerton" (Mary Chavelita Dunne) and others whose experiments anticipated modernism. "Women," writes Richardson, "were the first subjects of modernism. They framed its contradictions, experiencing consciousness as simultaneity, flux, and process" (147).

Since it has so much to say about fiction and the marketplace in the first two decades of the volume's reach, an alternative starting place would be the first section, "The Fiction Industry 1880-1940." It has chapters on "The Production of the Novel," "Novelists, Literary Property, and Copyright," and "Libraries, Reading Patterns, and Censorship." Sometimes happily embracing new developments and sometimes recoiling against them, the artistic inventiveness of those sixty years had to reckon with technical advances, upheavals in the publishing business (including a proliferation of genre markets and a more aggressive approach to publicity), the professionalization of authorship, readerships changing thanks to nearly universal literacy, the hunger of the public (not least, as suburban train and streetcar networks grew, the new commuting public) for magazine stories and newspaper serials, and numerous other shifts in the social and economic contexts of the very act of reading. The three chapters cited above cover topics such as dramatic changes in the pricing and physical appearance of books, new printing machinery such as the linotype, and the decline of the old and very powerful circulating libraries that accompanied the collapse of interest in the bulky and expensive three-decker. By 1895, when The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed, Miss Prism with her "manuscript of a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality" would never have found a publisher.

Given a work as vast and variegated as this, to regret the omission or insufficient treatment of individual authors would be pointless: as the volume editors say, this is a literary history, not a bibliography. In the opening section, however, which sets out to give a comprehensive picture of writing, publishing, and reading in the period, the three excellent and very helpful chapters it contains might have been complemented by a fourth -- in three or four parts-- called, perhaps, "The Making and Breaking of Reputations." Its first part would deal with the rise of the literary agent, a development loathed by the more traditional publishers but welcomed by many authors. Agents had a double effect on the market. By obtaining better terms for popular writers, they could use their own share of the royalties to help support less commercially viable authors. J. B. Pinker, for instance, could afford to keep Conrad afloat thanks to a substantial income from authors like the Williamsons (Mr. and Mrs.), who could produce several eminently saleable books a year for their niche market -- in their case, that sub-est of subgenres, the bicycling romance. The second part would deal with literary advisers and publisher's readers (roughly the equivalent of editors in the US) such as Edward Garnett, the nurturer of so many writers; he not only helped them negotiate contracts and publicity, but also wrote page after page of detailed comments on their manuscripts. Garnett is the best-known example, and he does appear here briefly as mentor to Lawrence [339, 345] and other working-class writers [533]-- and, one might add, to women writers and writers from revolutionary Ireland. But much more could be said about this English Maxwell Perkins, for example about his love of Russian fiction (shared with his wife, Constance) or his advocacy of poets and fiction writers from Australia and the USA such as Barbara Baynton, Henry Lawson, and Stephen Crane. Besides Garnett, others who likewise nurtured writers include David Storrar Meldrum at Blackwood's, J. Eveleigh Nash at Constable's, John Buchan at Nelson's, and E. V. Lucas at Methuen's. The third part of this imaginary chapter would deal with reviewers and their influence for good or ill. And it would be tempting to add a fourth about authors who excelled at self-publicity. The second edition of Marie Corelli's wildly successful A Romance of Two Worlds (1886) has a substantial appendix of testimonials from people (among them clerks in holy orders) who claim to have been transformed or even saved from suicide by reading the first edition; using a quite different strategy, Edgar Wallace put up placards and posters all over London offering a lavish reward for anyone who could explain the mysterious assassination of the Home Secretary in Wallace's novel The Four Just Men (1905).

The title of this volume has more than one resonance. "British and Irish" is a concise solution to the stubborn problem of identities -- a response, if you like, to Heaney's lines: "... be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen" (The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, 1982). The span of years, 1880-1940, is unorthodox and challenging. Reinvention is appropriate to the volume itself, its concept and composition, as well as to the six decades of literary tumult it examines. Far more than in a survey progressing author by author and movement by movement, each neatly described and neatly contained, this literary history offers multiple points of entry and multiple connections. As suggested earlier, it is not alone in doing so, but it succeeds particularly well thanks to editors who clearly know when to intervene and when to let their contributors go where they will, a style of editing not masterful but masterly.

Laurence Davies is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow.

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