The English University Novel

The English University Novel

The English University Novel

The English University Novel

Excerpt

Before the publication in 1823 of John Gibson Lockhart Reginald Dalton: A Story of English University Life there was no such thing, strictly speaking, as a university novel. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the novels about Oxford and Cambridge were so numerous that they clearly represent a striking literary phenomenon. And they are still being written in surprising numbers. Not all have been good novels; some have been very bad; a few have been downright scandalous. The theme of university life has not always been a tractable one for fiction, tending frequently to seduce well-meaning authors into stories of mere juvenile rough and tumble. But it has produced some extraordinary comedy, and some distinguished novels. George Saintsbury, writing on Novels of University Life in Macmillan's Magazine, in 1898, saw the possibilities of the subject, though he could not yet have seen its most notable products: ". . . there can be, or should be," he observed, "few passages in life with greater capabilities than that when a man is for the first time almost his own master, for the first time wholly arbiter of whatsoever sports and whatsoever studies he shall pursue, and when he is subjected to local, historical and other influences, sensual and supra-sensual, such as might not only 'draw three souls out of a weaver,' but infuse something like a soul even into the stupidest and most graceless of boys." The purpose of what follows is to show how the capabilities were explored in the novel, how the fictional representation of English university life was developed from an initial stage of crudeness and vulgarity, through a middle period in which humor and the doctrines of university reform were strangely mingled, to the final achievement of a serious and mature statement of the very nature of university education. The statement admittedly came late, and was preceded by much that . . .

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