A Companion to the Victorian Novel

By William Baker; Kenneth Womack | Go to book overview

The Victorian Novel Emerges, 1800–1840

Ian Duncan

Looking back from the brink of World War I, the great critic George Saintsbury viewed the Victorian novel as one of the splendors of English literature, comparable with the Elizabethan-Jacobean drama or Romantic poetry. Yet more admirable than the Victorians themselves, Saintsbury implies, are the novelists of an earlier generation:

Scott, like Miss Austen, at once opened an immense new field to the novelist, and showed how that field was to be cultivated. The complement-contrast of the pair can need emphasizing only to those on whom no emphasis would be likely to impress it: but it may not be quite so evident at once that between them they cover almost the entire possible ground of prose fiction. (210)

“Scott and Miss Austen” constitute a virtual, archetypal totality, larger than their individual achievements in domestic realism or historical romance—larger, perhaps, than the achievement of anyone who came later. Together they form the “complementary antithesis” that was needed to bring the novel to its dialectical completion. They won the empire that the Victorians merely colonized.

Most modern histories of British fiction, from F. R. Leavis to Nancy Armstrong, have collapsed Saintsbury’s “complementary antithesis” in favor of

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