The Present Age in British Literature

By David Daiches | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
FICTION

1

THE English novel grew up and matured as a patterning of imagined events against a clearly realized social background; it was, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what might be called a public instrument, taking its view of what was significant in human behaviour from the accepted pattern of public belief and arranging its plot in terms of events whose significance would be agreed on by author and reader. Robinson Crusoe, on finding himself alone on his island, did not seek to exploit his loneliness by omphaloskepsis or by meditating on the relation between the individual and the universe: his task was to re-create in this distant isolation the skeleton at least of the civilization he had left behind him--complete with umbrella. For the English novel depended on society, and on public agreement about what, among the multifarious details of daily life, was worth picking out as significant. What was significant was what altered a social relationship--love and marriage, quarrelling and reconciliation, gain or loss of money or of social status. You could, of course, criticize society, but you did so by showing how social convention did not in fact lead to that generally approved practical morality which it professed to foster. You could explore the relation between spontaneity of feeling and social convention, as Jane Austen did, or the relation between gentility and morality, as Thackeray did, or the effect of industrial society on private character, as Dickens did, or investigate the possibilities of self-knowledge and vocation in a context of society at work, as George Eliot did, but in every

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The Present Age in British Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Chapter I- General Background 1
  • Chapter II- Poetry 22
  • Chapter III- Fiction 85
  • Chapter IV- Critical and General Prose 119
  • Chapter V- Drama 148
  • Bibliography 169
  • Index 369
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