The history of the British novel is a great topic that must periodically be reconsidered, particularly now when we are so much more sophisticated than those provincials who wrote the novels as well as those belletrists whose accounts of those novels have become hopelessly passé. Looking back, we have to smile at Edward Wagenknecht’s Cavalcade of the English Novel (1943), the 30th and last chapter of which is devoted to that giant, Walter de la Mare, author of Memoirs of a Midget. Surely a thoughtful and contemporary approach would be productive, as expounded by many academic authorities and published under the aegis of a university noted for its distinguished professors and its riots.
And indeed we do find in this history of the British novel many useful pages. The best chapters, I think, are Robert M. Polhemus’s on Lewis Carroll and Michael Seidel’s on James Joyce. Professor Polhemus has a charm and energy that are uniquely kinetic—though those qualities may be misplaced here, since Carroll didn’t write any novels. Professor Seidel has also written an inspired response to great writing that emphasizes “langwedge” with a success not easily found elsewhere in this volume. Delightful commentaries such as these make us want to read, but too much of this history makes me want to take a long walk.
Because there is too much modish theory and tendentious revisionism, there is too little literary history and not enough novels. George McCartney, who has written elsewhere with authority on Evelyn Waugh, does so here once again in a most instructive way. But a glance at Brideshead Revisited provokes an awareness that quite a bit is missing not so much from his account of Waugh as from this history of the British novel. When, for instance, in chapter two of that memorable work, the narrator remembers being invited to dinner by Anthony Blanche, the complex come-on is put this way: “We will drink Rhine wine and imagine ourselves… where? Not on a j-j-jaunt with J-J-Jorrocks, anyway. But first we will have our aperitif.” Well, of course. That outrageous poof, Anthony Blanche, hints at Oscar Wilde’s witty depreciation of the English cult of foxhunting: “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” But the cultural divide between Blanche and Wilde and the Higher Sodomy and aestheticism of Oxford, on the one hand, and the traditional rough-and-tumble of manly pursuits and blood sports on the other, evoked by a narrator in uniform during a world war, is expressed in this British novel through an allusion to—a British novel. Waugh and the fictional Blanche and the narrator all expected recognition of R.S. Surtees’s The Jaunts and Jollities of that Renowned Sporting Citizen, Mr. John Jorrocks, of St. Botolph Lane and Great Coram Street, usually known as Jorrocks’ Jaunts and Jollities (1831). But that is not the only reason why I was rather disappointed to find Robert Smith Surtees omitted entirely from this history of the British novel.
And such was not my only disappointment, I must say. Even George McCartney treats Wyndham Lewis as a mere influence on Waugh and not as a puissant creator in his own right. Elsewhere Lewis’s Apes of God (1930) is barely noticed, and there is no mention of those outstanding British novels Tarr, The Revenge for Love, and Self-Condemned, to name but three. The chance is muffed to put Lewis—peer and enemy of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence—in perspective. Martin Seymour-Smith, in his Who’s Who in Twentieth-Century Literature (1976), put it this way: “Lewis is without question the greatest English-language writer of the century and one of the greatest in world literature.” That maybe overstating the case a bit, but not by much. Anyway, if the greatest British novelist of the century isn’t Waugh or Lewis, then perhaps he must be Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who is, needless to say, also neglected.
But there’s no need to be so modern. Those word-soaked geniuses, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, were keenly aware of the verbal brilliance of Thomas Nashe, a “novelist” and pamphleteer before Shakespeare hit his stride. But—you guessed it—Nashe isn’t mentioned in these pages, either. Agatha Christie, the best-selling writer in world history, isn’t mentioned. Neither is John Buchan. But I suppose by now it must be clear that we should attune ourselves to what The Columbia History of the British Novel is telling us, rather than enumerate all of its shortcomings.
A quick impression goes something like this: the British novel from its beginnings has been obsessed by feminist stridency, Stalinist politics, and a homosexual agenda. That is why theoretical appeal to the writings of contemporary feminist theorists, Stalinists, and homosexuals is authoritative, because the disinterested thoughts of feminists, Stalinists, and homosexuals are directly attuned to the contexts of authors who have been dead for a century or two. Gothic novels are about homosexual panic; Jane Austen’s lucidity and comprehension are an illusion; repression and conformity produced bad fiction in the 1950’s.
If it was rather silly of Wagenknecht to give one chapter of 30 to Walter de la Mare in his history of the British novel, what are we to say of Professor Richetti, who has delegated one chapter of 39 to Doris Lessing and her memoirs of a munchkin? Perhaps we should simply ascribe that blunder to affirmative action, since it has nothing, like remarkably much in this book, to do with writing.
Still, there is much to learn from The Columbia History of the British Novel. You learn, for example, that no matter how meager your bibliography is, you should always include a citation of the editor or associate editors, if at all possible. You learn, too, that anything that gets you out of the house is good for you. A long walk promotes health, neighborliness, and improved knowledge of local architecture and trees. And finally you learn to tell your children not to major in the humanities, but to reserve the pleasures of reading for private life. Accounting, business administration, premed—that’s the ticket.
[The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John Richetti (New York: Columbia University Press) 1064 pp., $69.95]