Magazine article The Spectator

Open to the World?

Magazine article The Spectator

Open to the World?

Article excerpt

One may make a distinction between two types of novel: the self-enclosed and the open. The distinction is not absolute. Such things never are. Genre fiction may merge with what is called the literary novel, for instance. Still the categories I have in mind are useful, or at least interesting. By the selfenclosed novel, I mean one which makes no reference -- or almost no reference -- to anything beyond itself. It belongs to its age of course, but it does not appear to be set in time. Time naturally passes, as it must in a narrative, but there is no suggestion that events in the world of fact beyond the novel might impinge on its characters, influence their behaviour, or affect the course of their lives. The doors of the novel are closed against the winds of the world.

In the open novel, these winds, which are the winds of history, beat upon the characters. Indeed history is itself a character in this kind of novel, even if the author chooses not to introduce real-life historical figures. In, for instance, that fine novel by Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day, the second world war is a character as the Napoleonic Wars are not in Jane Austen's beautifully self-enclosed novels. The treason of which the heroine's lover is guilty would seem less significant if we didn't bring to our reading of the novel our knowledge of the enemy he has chosen to serve -- the enemy whom his lover, Stella, rightly calls 'horrible -- specious, unthinkable, grotesque'.

The open novel was invented more or less by Walter Scott, though it had ancestors in Defoe and Fielding. Especially in the series of great novels set in the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries, Scott demonstrates that, for a man of a certain stamp at a certain time, there is no escaping history. It is history, the world of harsh political fact which, working in conjunction with personal qualities, forms or deforms men's lives. Henry Morton's dilemma in Old Mortality is certainly occasioned by his character, but it is specifically provoked by the temper of the times in which he lives and the bitter animosities with which he is confronted are historical facts.

The wonderful melancholy of Redgauntlet, a mood which suffuses the novel despite its wealth of attractive characters, stirring incidents and rich comedy, is occasioned in part at least by our knowledge that the Jacobite cause is already dead, and that Redgauntlet himself, in his vain conspiracy, is like a man striving to recapture a dream. …

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