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The Contemporary Novel


The Contemporary Novel

Circumstances have made me think a good deal at different times about
the business of writing novels, and what it means, and is, and may be;
and I was a professional critic of novels long before I wrote them. I
have been writing novels, or writing about novels, for the last twenty
years. It seems only yesterday that I wrote a review--the first long and
appreciative review he had--of Mr. Joseph Conrad's "Almayer's Folly" in
the _Saturday Review_. When a man has focussed so much of his life upon
the novel, it is not reasonable to expect him to take too modest or
apologetic a view of it. I consider the novel an important and necessary
thing indeed in that complicated system of uneasy adjustments and
readjustments which is modern civilisation I make very high and wide
claims for it. In many directions I do not think we can get along
without it.

Now this, I know, is not the usually received opinion. There is, I am
aware, the theory that the novel is wholly and solely a means of
relaxation. In spite of manifest facts, that was the dominant view of
the great period that we now in our retrospective way speak of as the
Victorian, and it still survives to this day. It is the man's theory of
the novel rather than the woman's. One may call it the Weary Giant
theory. The reader is represented as a man, burthened, toiling, worn. He
has been in his office from ten to four, with perhaps only two hours'
interval at his club for lunch; or he has been playing golf; or he has
been waiting about and voting in the House; or he has been fishing; or
he has been disputing a point of law; or writing a sermon; or doing one
of a thousand other of the grave important things which constitute the
substance of a prosperous man's life. Now at last comes the little
precious interval of leisure, and the Weary Giant takes up a book.
Perhaps he is vexed: he may have been bunkered, his line may have been
entangled in the trees, his favourite investment may have slumped, or
the judge have had indigestion and been extremely rude to him. He wants
to forget the troublesome realities of life. He wants to be taken out of
himself, to be cheered, consoled, amused--above all, amused. He doesn't
want ideas, he doesn't want facts; above all, he doesn't
want--_Problems_. He wants to dream of the bright, thin, gay excitements
of a phantom world--in which he can be hero--of horses ridden and lace
worn and princesses rescued and won. He wants pictures of funny slums,
and entertaining paupers, and laughable longshoremen, and kindly
impulses making life sweet. He wants romance without its defiance, and
humour without its sting; and the business of the novelist, he holds, is
to supply this cooling refreshment. That is the Weary Giant theory of
the novel. It ruled British criticism up to the period of the Boer
war--and then something happened to quite a lot of us, and it has never
completely recovered its old predominance. Perhaps it will; perhaps
something else may happen to prevent its ever doing so.

Both fiction and criticism to-day are in revolt against that tired
giant, the prosperous Englishman. I cannot think of a single writer of
any distinction to-day, unless it is Mr. W.W. Jacobs, who is content
merely to serve the purpose of those slippered hours. So far from the
weary reader being a decently tired giant, we realise that he is only an
inexpressibly lax, slovenly and under-trained giant, and we are all out
with one accord resolved to exercise his higher ganglia in every
possible way. And so I will say no more of the idea that the novel is
merely a harmless opiate for the vacant hours of prosperous men. As a
matter of fact, it never has been, and by its nature I doubt if it ever
can be.

I do not think that women have ever quite succumbed to the tired giant
attitude in their reading. Women are more serious, not only about life,
but about books. No type or kind of woman is capable of that lounging,
defensive stupidity which is the basis of the tired giant attitude, and
all through the early 'nineties, during which the respectable frivolity
of Great Britain left its most enduring marks upon our literature, there
was a rebel undertow of earnest and aggressive writing and reading,
supported chiefly by women and supplied very largely by women, which
gave the lie to the prevailing trivial estimate of fiction. Among
readers, women and girls and young men at least will insist upon having
their novels significant and real, and it is to these perpetually
renewed elements in the public that the novelist must look for his
continuing emancipation from the wearier and more massive influences at
work in contemporary British life.

And if the novel is to be recognised as something more than a
relaxation, it has also, I think, to be kept free from the restrictions
imposed upon it by the fierce pedantries of those who would define a
general form for it. Every art nowadays must steer its way between the
rocks of trivial and degrading standards and the whirlpool of arbitrary
and irrational criticism. Whenever criticism of any art becomes
specialised and professional whenever a class of adjudicators is brought
into existence, those adjudicators are apt to become as a class
distrustful of their immediate impressions, and anxious for methods of
comparison between work and work, they begin to emulate the
classifications and exact measurements of a science, and to set up
ideals and rules as data for such classification and measurements. They
develop an alleged sense of technique, which is too often no more than
the attempt to exact a laboriousness of method, or to insist upon
peculiarities of method which impress the professional critic not so
much as being merits as being meritorious. This sort of thing has gone
very far with the critical discussion both of the novel and the play.
You have all heard that impressive dictum that some particular
theatrical display, although moving, interesting, and continually
entertaining from start to finish, was for occult technical reasons "not
a play," and in the same way you are continually having your
appreciation of fiction dashed by the mysterious parallel condemnation,
that the story you like "isn't a novel." The novel has been treated as
though its form was as well-defined as the sonnet. Some year or so ago,
for example, there was a quite serious discussion, which began, I
believe, in a weekly paper devoted to the interests of various
nonconformist religious organisations, about the proper length for a
novel. The critic was to begin his painful duties with a yard measure.
The matter was taken up with profound gravity by the _Westminster
Gazette_, and a considerable number of literary men and women were
circularised and asked to state, in the face of "Tom Jones," "The Vicar
of Wakefield," "The Shabby-Genteel Story," and "Bleak House," just
exactly how long the novel ought to be. Our replies varied according to
the civility of our natures, but the mere attempt to raise the question
shows, I think, how widespread among the editorial, paragraph-writing,
opinion-making sort of people is this notion of prescribing a definite
length and a definite form for the novel. In the newspaper
correspondence that followed, our friend the weary giant made a
transitory appearance again. We were told the novel ought to be long
enough for him to take up after dinner and finish before his whisky at

That was obviously a half-forgotten echo of Edgar Allan Poe's discussion
of the short story. Edgar Allan Poe was very definite upon the point
that the short story should be finished at a sitting. But the novel and
short story are two entirely different things, and the train of
reasoning that made the American master limit the short story to about
an hour of reading as a maximum, does not apply to the longer work. A
short story is, or should be, a simple thing; it aims at producing one
single, vivid effect; it has to seize the attention at the outset, and
never relaxing, gather it together more and more until the climax is
reached. The limits of the human capacity to attend closely therefore
set a limit to it; it must explode and finish before interruption occurs
or fatigue sets in. But the novel I hold to be a discursive thing; it is
not a single interest, but a woven tapestry of interests; one is drawn
on first by this affection and curiosity, and then by that; it is
something to return to, and I do not see that we can possibly set any
limit to its extent. The distinctive value of the novel among written
works of art is in characterisation, and the charm of a well-conceived
character lies, not in knowing its destiny, but in watching its
proceedings. For my own part, I will confess that I find all the novels
of Dickens, long as they are, too short for me. I am sorry they do not
flow into one another more than they do. I wish Micawber and Dick
Swiveller and Sairey Gamp turned up again in other novels than their
own, just as Shakespeare ran the glorious glow of Falstaff through a
group of plays. But Dickens tried this once when he carried on the
Pickwick Club into "Master Humphrey's Clock." That experiment was
unsatisfactory, and he did not attempt anything of the sort again.
Following on the days of Dickens, the novel began to contract, to
subordinate characterisation to story and description to drama;
considerations of a sordid nature, I am told, had to do with that;
something about a guinea and a half and six shillings with which we will
not concern ourselves--but I rejoice to see many signs to-day that that
phase of narrowing and restriction is over, and that there is every
encouragement for a return towards a laxer, more spacious form of
novel-writing. The movement is partly of English origin, a revolt
against those more exacting and cramping conceptions of artistic
perfection to which I will recur in a moment, and a return to the lax
freedom of form, the rambling discursiveness, the right to roam, of the
earlier English novel, of "Tristram Shandy" and of "Tom Jones"; and
partly it comes from abroad, and derives a stimulus from such bold and
original enterprises as that of Monsieur Rolland in his "Jean
Christophe." Its double origin involves a double nature; for while the
English spirit is towards discursiveness and variety, the new French
movement is rather towards exhaustiveness. Mr. Arnold Bennett has
experimented in both forms of amplitude. His superb "Old Wives' Tale,"
wandering from person to person and from scene to scene, is by far the
finest "long novel" that has been written in English in the English
fashion in this generation, and now in "Clayhanger" and its promised
collaterals, he undertakes that complete, minute, abundant presentation
of the growth and modification of one or two individual minds, which is
the essential characteristic of the Continental movement towards the
novel of amplitude. While the "Old Wives' Tale" is discursive,
"Clayhanger" is exhaustive; he gives us both types of the new movement
in perfection.

I name "Jean Christophe" as a sort of archetype in this connection,
because it is just at present very much in our thoughts by reason of the
admirable translation Mr. Cannan is giving us; but there is a greater
predecessor to this comprehensive and spectacular treatment of a single
mind and its impressions and ideas, or of one or two associated minds,
that comes to us now _via_ Mr. Bennett and Mr. Cannan from France. The
great original of all this work is that colossal last unfinished book of
Flaubert, "Bouvard et P�cuchet." Flaubert, the bulk of whose life was
spent upon the most austere and restrained fiction--Turgenev was not
more austere and restrained--broke out at last into this gay, sad
miracle of intellectual abundance. It is not extensively read in this
country; it is not yet, I believe, translated into English; but there it
is--and if it is new to the reader I make him this present of the secret
of a book that is a precious wilderness of wonderful reading. But if
Flaubert is really the Continental emancipator of the novel from the
restrictions of form, the master to whom we of the English persuasion,
we of the discursive school, must for ever recur is he, whom I will
maintain against all comers to be the subtlest and greatest _artist_--I
lay stress upon that word artist--that Great Britain has ever produced
in all that is essentially the novel, Laurence Sterne....

The confusion between the standards of a short story and the standards
of the novel which leads at last to these--what shall I call
them?--_Westminster Gazettisms?_--about the correct length to which the
novelist should aspire, leads also to all kinds of absurd condemnations
and exactions upon matters of method and style. The underlying fallacy
is always this: the assumption that the novel, like the story, aims at a
single, concentrated impression. From that comes a fertile growth of
error. Constantly one finds in the reviews of works of fiction the
complaint that this, that or the other thing in a novel is irrelevant.
Now it is the easiest thing, and most fatal thing, to become irrelevant
in a short story. A short story should go to its point as a man flies
from a pursuing tiger: he pauses not for the daisies in his path, or to
note the pretty moss on the tree he climbs for safety. But the novel by
comparison is like breakfasting in the open air on a summer morning;
nothing is irrelevant if the waiter's mood is happy, and the tapping of
the thrush upon the garden path, or the petal of apple-blossom that
floats down into my coffee, is as relevant as the egg I open or the
bread and butter I bite. And all sorts of things that inevitably mar the
tense illusion which is the aim of the short story--the introduction,
for example, of the author's personality--any comment that seems to
admit that, after all, fiction is fiction, a change in manner between
part and part, burlesque, parody, invective, all such thing's are not
necessarily wrong in the novel. Of course, all these things may fail in
their effect; they may jar, hinder, irritate, and all are difficult to
do well; but it is no artistic merit to evade a difficulty any more than
it is a merit in a hunter to refuse even the highest of fences. Nearly
all the novels that have, by the lapse of time, reached an assured
position of recognised greatness, are not only saturated in the
personality of the author, but have in addition quite unaffected
personal outbreaks. The least successful instance the one that is made
the text against all such first-personal interventions, is, of course,
Thackeray. But I think the trouble with Thackeray is not that he makes
first-personal interventions, but that he does so with a curious touch
of dishonesty. I agree with the late Mrs. Craigie that there was
something profoundly vulgar about Thackeray. It was a sham thoughtful,
sham man-of-the-world pose he assumed; it is an aggressive, conscious,
challenging person astride before a fire, and a little distended by
dinner and a sense of social and literary precedences, who uses the
first person in Thackeray's novels. It isn't the real Thackeray; it
isn't a frank man who looks you in the eyes and bares his soul and
demands your sympathy. That is a criticism of Thackeray, but it isn't a
condemnation of intervention.

I admit that for a novelist to come in person in this way before his
readers involves grave risks; but when it is done without affectations,
starkly as a man comes in out of the darkness to tell of perplexing
things without--as, for instance, Mr. Joseph Conrad does for all
practical purposes in his "Lord Jim"--then it gives a sort of depth, a
sort of subjective reality, that no such cold, almost affectedly
ironical detachment as that which distinguishes the work of Mr. John
Galsworthy, for example, can ever attain. And in some cases the whole
art and delight of a novel may lie in the author's personal
interventions; let such novels as "Elizabeth and her German Garden," and
the same writer's "Elizabeth in R�gen," bear witness.

Now, all this time I have been hacking away at certain hampering and
limiting beliefs about the novel, letting it loose, as it were, in form
and purpose; I have still to say just what I think the novel is, and
where, if anywhere, its boundary-line ought to be drawn. It is by no
means an easy task to define the novel. It is not a thing premeditated.
It is a thing that has grown up into modern life, and taken upon itself
uses and produced results that could not have been foreseen by its
originators. Few of the important things in the collective life of man
started out to be what they are. Consider, for example, all the
unexpected aesthetic values, the inspiration and variety of emotional
result which arises out of the cross-shaped plan of the Gothic
cathedral, and the undesigned delight and wonder of white marble that
has ensued, as I have been told, through the ageing and whitening of the
realistically coloured statuary of the Greeks and Romans. Much of the
charm of the old furniture and needlework, again, upon which the present
time sets so much store, lies in acquired and unpremeditated qualities.
And no doubt the novel grew up out of simple story-telling, and the
universal desire of children, old and young alike, for a story. It is
only slowly that we have developed the distinction of the novel from the
romance, as being a story of human beings, absolutely credible and
conceivable as distinguished from human beings frankly endowed with the
glamour, the wonder, the brightness, of a less exacting and more vividly
eventful world. The novel is a story that demands, or professes to
demand, no make-believe. The novelist undertakes to present you people
and things as real as any that you can meet in an omnibus. And I suppose
it is conceivable that a novel might exist which was just purely a story
of that kind and nothing more. It might amuse you as one is amused by
looking out of a window into a street, or listening to a piece of
agreeable music, and that might be the limit of its effect. But almost
always the novel is something more than that, and produces more effect
than that. The novel has inseparable moral consequences. It leaves
impressions, not simply of things seen, but of acts judged and made
attractive or unattractive. They may prove very slight moral
consequences, and very shallow moral impressions in the long run, but
there they are, none the less, its inevitable accompaniments. It is
unavoidable that this should be so. Even if the novelist attempts or
affects to be impartial, he still cannot prevent his characters setting
examples; he still cannot avoid, as people say, putting ideas into his
readers' heads. The greater his skill, the more convincing his treatment
the more vivid his power of suggestion. And it is equally impossible for
him not to betray his sense that the proceedings of this person are
rather jolly and admirable, and of that, rather ugly and detestable. I
suppose Mr. Bennett, for example, would say that he should not do so;
but it is as manifest to any disinterested observer that he greatly
loves and admires his Card, as that Richardson admired his Sir Charles
Grandison, or that Mrs. Humphry Ward considers her Marcella a very fine
and estimable young woman. And I think it is just in this, that the
novel is not simply a fictitious record of conduct, but also a study and
judgment of conduct, and through that of the ideas that lead to conduct,
that the real and increasing value--or perhaps to avoid controversy I
had better say the real and increasing importance--of the novel and of
the novelist in modern life comes in.

It is no new discovery that the novel, like the drama, is a powerful
instrument of moral suggestion. This has been understood in England ever
since there has been such a thing as a novel in England. This has been
recognised equally by novelists, novel-readers, and the people who
wouldn't read novels under any condition whatever. Richardson wrote
deliberately for edification, and "Tom Jones" is a powerful and
effective appeal for a charitable, and even indulgent, attitude towards
loose-living men. But excepting Fielding and one or two other of those
partial exceptions that always occur in the case of critical
generalisations, there is a definable difference between the novel of
the past and what I may call the modern novel. It is a difference that
is reflected upon the novel from a difference in the general way of
thinking. It lies in the fact that formerly there was a feeling of
certitude about moral values and standards of conduct that is altogether
absent to-day. It wasn't so much that men were agreed upon these
things--about these things there have always been enormous divergences
of opinion--as that men were emphatic, cocksure, and unteachable about
whatever they did happen to believe to a degree that no longer obtains.
This is the Balfourian age, and even religion seeks to establish itself
on doubt. There were, perhaps, just as many differences in the past as
there are now, but the outlines were harder--they were, indeed, so hard
as to be almost, to our sense, savage. You might be a Roman Catholic,
and in that case you did not want to hear about Protestants, Turks,
Infidels, except in tones of horror and hatred. You knew exactly what
was good and what was evil. Your priest informed you upon these points,
and all you needed in any novel you read was a confirmation, implicit or
explicit, of these vivid, rather than charming, prejudices. If you were
a Protestant you were equally clear and unshakable. Your sect, whichever
sect you belonged to, knew the whole of truth and included all the nice
people. It had nothing to learn in the world, and it wanted to learn
nothing outside its sectarian convictions. The unbelievers you know,
were just as bad, and said their creeds with an equal fury--merely
interpolating _nots_. People of every sort--Catholic, Protestant,
Infidel, or what not--were equally clear that good was good and bad was
bad, that the world was made up of good characters whom you had to love,
help and admire, and of bad characters to whom one might, in the
interests of goodness, even lie, and whom one had to foil, defeat and
triumph over shamelessly at every opportunity. That was the quality of
the times. The novel reflected this quality of assurance, and its utmost
charity was to unmask an apparent villain and show that he or she was
really profoundly and correctly good, or to unmask an apparent saint
and show the hypocrite. There was no such penetrating and pervading
element of doubt and curiosity--and charity, about the rightfulness and
beauty of conduct, such as one meets on every hand to-day.

The novel-reader of the past, therefore, like the novel-reader of the
more provincial parts of England to-day, judged a novel by the
convictions that had been built up in him by his training and his priest
or his pastor. If it agreed with these convictions he approved; if it
did not agree he disapproved--often with great energy. The novel, where
it was not unconditionally banned altogether as a thing disturbing and
unnecessary, was regarded as a thing subordinated to the teaching of the
priest or pastor, or whatever director and dogma was followed. Its
modest moral confirmations began when authority had completed its
direction. The novel was good--if it seemed to harmonise with the graver
exercises conducted by Mr. Chadband--and it was bad and outcast if Mr.
Chadband said so. And it is over the bodies of discredited and
disgruntled Chadbands that the novel escapes from its servitude and

Now the conflict of authority against criticism is one of the eternal
conflicts of humanity. It is the conflict of organisation against
initiative, of discipline against freedom. It was the conflict of the
priest against the prophet in ancient Judaea, of the Pharisee against
the Nazarene, of the Realist against the Nominalist, of the Church
against the Franciscan and the Lollard, of the Respectable Person
against the Artist, of the hedge-clippers of mankind against the
shooting buds. And to-day, while we live in a period of tightening and
extending social organisation, we live also in a period of adventurous
and insurgent thought, in an intellectual spring unprecedented in the
world's history. There is an enormous criticism going on of the faiths
upon which men's lives and associations are based, and of every standard
and rule of conduct. And it is inevitable that the novel, just in the
measure of its sincerity and ability, should reflect and co-operate in
the atmosphere and uncertainties and changing variety of this seething
and creative time.

And I do not mean merely that the novel is unavoidably charged with the
representation of this wide and wonderful conflict. It is a necessary
part of the conflict. The essential characteristic of this great
intellectual revolution amidst which we are living to-day, that
revolution of which the revival and restatement of nominalism under the
name of pragmatism is the philosophical aspect, consists in the
reassertion of the importance of the individual instance as against the
generalisation. All our social, political, moral problems are being
approached in a new spirit, in an inquiring and experimental spirit,
which has small respect for abstract principles and deductive rules. We
perceive more and more clearly, for example, that the study of social
organisation is an empty and unprofitable study until we approach it as
a study of the association and inter-reaction of individualised human
beings inspired by diversified motives, ruled by traditions, and swayed
by the suggestions of a complex intellectual atmosphere. And all our
conceptions of the relationships between man and man, and of justice and
rightfulness and social desirableness, remain something misfitting and
inappropriate, something uncomfortable and potentially injurious, as if
we were trying to wear sharp-edged clothes made for a giant out of tin,
until we bring them to the test and measure of realised individualities.

And this is where the value and opportunity of the modern novel comes
in. So far as I can see, it is the only medium through which we can
discuss the great majority of the problems which are being raised in
such bristling multitude by our contemporary social development Nearly
every one of those problems has at its core a psychological problem, and
not merely a psychological problem, but one in which the idea of
individuality is an essential factor. Dealing with most of these
questions by a rule or a generalisation is like putting a cordon round a
jungle full of the most diversified sort of game. The hunting only
begins when you leave the cordon behind you and push into the thickets.

Take, for example, the immense cluster of difficulties that arises out
of the increasing complexity of our state. On every hand we are creating
officials, and compared with only a few years ago the private life in a
dozen fresh directions comes into contact with officialdom. But we still
do practically nothing to work out the interesting changes that occur in
this sort of man and that, when you withdraw him as it were from the
common crowd of humanity, put his mind if not his body into uniform and
endow him with powers and functions and rules. It is manifestly a study
of the profoundest public and personal importance. It is manifestly a
study of increasing importance. The process of social and political
organisation that has been going on for the last quarter of a century is
pretty clearly going on now if anything with increasing vigour--and for
the most part the entire dependence of the consequences of the whole
problem upon the reaction between the office on the one hand and the
weak, uncertain, various human beings who take office on the other,
doesn't seem even to be suspected by the energetic, virtuous and more or
less amiable people whose activities in politics and upon the backstairs
of politics bring about these developments. They assume that the sort of
official they need, a combination of god-like virtue and intelligence
with unfailing mechanical obedience, can be made out of just any young
nephew. And I know of no means of persuading people that this is a
rather unjustifiable assumption, and of creating an intelligent
controlling criticism of officials and of assisting conscientious
officials to an effective self-examination, and generally of keeping the
atmosphere of official life sweet and healthy, except the novel. Yet so
far the novel has scarcely begun its attack upon this particular field
of human life, and all the attractive varied play of motive it contains.

Of course we have one supreme and devastating study of the illiterate
minor official in Bumble. That one figure lit up and still lights the
whole problem of Poor Law administration for the English reading
community. It was a translation of well-meant regulations and
pseudo-scientific conceptions of social order into blundering, arrogant,
ill-bred flesh and blood. It was worth a hundred Royal Commissions. You
may make your regulations as you please, said Dickens in effect; this is
one sample of the stuff that will carry them out. But Bumble stands
almost alone. Instead of realising that he is only one aspect of
officialdom, we are all too apt to make him the type of all officials,
and not an urban district council can get into a dispute about its
electric light without being denounced as a Bumbledom by some whirling
enemy or other. The burthen upon Bumble's shoulders is too heavy to be
borne, and we want the contemporary novel to give us a score of other
figures to put beside him, other aspects and reflections upon this great
problem of officialism made flesh. Bumble is a magnificent figure of the
follies and cruelties of ignorance in office--I would have every
candidate for the post of workhouse master pass a severe examination
upon "Oliver Twist"--but it is not only caricature and satire I demand.
We must have not only the fullest treatment of the temptations,
vanities, abuses, and absurdities of office, but all its dreams, its
sense of constructive order, its consolations, its sense of service, and
its nobler satisfactions. You may say that is demanding more insight and
power in our novels and novelists than we can possibly hope to find in
them. So much the worse for us. I stick to my thesis that the
complicated social organisation of to-day cannot get along without the
amount of mutual understanding and mutual explanation such a range of
characterisation in our novels implies. The success of civilisation
amounts ultimately to a success of sympathy and understanding. If people
cannot be brought to an interest in one another greater than they feel
to-day, to curiosities and criticisms far keener, and co-operations far
subtler, than we have now; if class cannot be brought to measure itself
against, and interchange experience and sympathy with class, and
temperament with temperament then we shall never struggle very far
beyond the confused discomforts and uneasiness of to-day, and the
changes and complications of human life will remain as they are now,
very like the crumplings and separations and complications of an immense
avalanche that is sliding down a hill. And in this tremendous work of
human reconciliation and elucidation, it seems to me it is the novel
that must attempt most and achieve most.

You may feel disposed to say to all this: We grant the major premises,
but why look to the work of prose fiction as the main instrument in this
necessary process of, so to speak, sympathising humanity together?
Cannot this be done far more effectively through biography and
autobiography, for example? Isn't there the lyric; and, above all, isn't
there the play? Well, so far as the stage goes, I think it is a very
charming and exciting form of human activity, a display of actions and
surprises of the most moving and impressive sort; but beyond the
opportunity it affords for saying startling and thought-provoking
things--opportunities Mr. Shaw, for example, has worked to the utmost
limit--I do not see that the drama does much to enlarge our sympathies
and add to our stock of motive ideas. And regarded as a medium for
startling and thought-provoking things, the stage seems to me an
extremely clumsy and costly affair. One might just as well go about with
a pencil writing up the thought-provoking phrase, whatever it is, on
walls. The drama excites our sympathies intensely, but it seems to me it
is far too objective a medium to widen them appreciably, and it is that
widening, that increase in the range of understanding, at which I think
civilisation is aiming. The case for biography, and more particularly
autobiography, as against the novel, is, I admit, at the first blush
stronger. You may say: Why give us these creatures of a novelist's
imagination, these phantom and fantastic thinkings and doings, when we
may have the stories of real lives, really lived--the intimate record of
actual men and women? To which one answers: "Ah, if one could!" But it
is just because biography does deal with actual lives, actual facts,
because it radiates out to touch continuing interests and sensitive
survivors, that it is so unsatisfactory, so untruthful. Its inseparable
falsehood is the worst of all kinds of falsehood--the falsehood of
omission. Think what an abounding, astonishing, perplexing person
Gladstone must have been in life, and consider Lord Morley's "Life of
Gladstone," cold, dignified--not a life at all, indeed, so much as
embalmed remains; the fire gone, the passions gone, the bowels carefully
removed. All biography has something of that post-mortem coldness and
respect, and as for autobiography--a man may show his soul in a thousand
half-conscious ways, but to turn upon oneself and explain oneself is
given to no one. It is the natural liars and braggarts, your Cellinis
and Casanovas, men with a habit of regarding themselves with a kind of
objective admiration, who do best in autobiography. And, on the other
hand, the novel has neither the intense self-consciousness of
autobiography nor the paralysing responsibilities of the biographer. It
is by comparison irresponsible and free. Because its characters are
figments and phantoms, they can be made entirely transparent. Because
they are fictions, and you know they are fictions, so that they cannot
hold you for an instant so soon as they cease to be true, they have a
power of veracity quite beyond that of actual records. Every novel
carries its own justification and its own condemnation in its success or
failure to convince you that _the thing was so_. Now history, biography,
blue-book and so forth, can hardly ever get beyond the statement that
the superficial fact was so.

You see now the scope of the claim I am making for the novel; it is to
be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of
self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the
factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social
dogmas and ideas. It is to be the home confessional, the initiator of
knowledge, the seed of fruitful self-questioning. Let me be very clear
here. I do not mean for a moment that the novelist is going to set up as
a teacher, as a sort of priest with a pen, who will make men and women
believe and do this and that. The novel is not a new sort of pulpit;
humanity is passing out of the phase when men _sit under_ preachers and
dogmatic influences. But the novelist is going to be the most potent of
artists, because he is going to present conduct, devise beautiful
conduct, discuss conduct analyse conduct, suggest conduct, illuminate it
through and through. He will not teach, but discuss, point out, plead,
and display. And this being my view you will be prepared for the demand
I am now about to make for an absolutely free hand for the novelist in
his choice of topic and incident and in his method of treatment; or
rather, if I may presume to speak for other novelists, I would say it is
not so much a demand we make as an intention we proclaim. We are going
to write, subject only to our limitations, about the whole of human
life. We are going to deal with political questions and religious
questions and social questions. We cannot present people unless we have
this free hand, this unrestricted field. What is the good of telling
stories about people's lives if one may not deal freely with the
religious beliefs and organisations that have controlled or failed to
control them? What is the good of pretending to write about love, and
the loyalties and treacheries and quarrels of men and women, if one must
not glance at those varieties of physical temperament and organic
quality, those deeply passionate needs and distresses from which half
the storms of human life are brewed? We mean to deal with all these
things, and it will need very much more than the disapproval of
provincial librarians, the hostility of a few influential people in
London, the scurrility of one paper, and the deep and obstinate silences
of another, to stop the incoming tide of aggressive novel-writing. We
are going to write about it all. We are going to write about business
and finance and politics and precedence and pretentiousness and decorum
and indecorum, until a thousand pretences and ten thousand impostures
shrivel in the cold, clear air of our elucidations. We are going to
write of wasted opportunities and latent beauties until a thousand new
ways of living open to men and women. We are going to appeal to the
young and the hopeful and the curious, against the established, the
dignified, and defensive. Before we have done, we will have all life
within the scope of the novel.