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The Columbia History of the British Novel.

What do Pamela, Shamela, and Evelina have in common? Who is Coningsby? Where is The Moonstone? When does one need A Room of One's Own? Why is it that Oranges are Not the Only Fruit? And just how good is the British novel?

These are just a few of the questions answered in The Columbia History of the British Novel.

It wouldn't normally seem appropriate or fair to begin a review of an academic work with a quotation from the dust-jacket. But in this case the retreat to the blurb is caused by the absence of policy-statements in the text. It seems reasonable to wonder why the volume was compiled, how the contributors were chosen, and what the editorial guidelines were. Prospective purchasers will certainly want to know what audience the editors were envisaging. But there is no Preface to this volume and the Introduction doesn't give much away. Who did the editors have in mind? The rather desperate sprightliness of the comments on the jacket suggests a last-minute appeal to lay readers. If, improbably, any such persons are reading this review, they must be warned. Don't buy; it's not for you.

It's true that some of the contributors include material suitable for beginners. We're informed that the ending of Gulliver's Travels was 'far from optimistic', that Jane Austen wrote six novels, that 'Mid-eighteenth-century England lay uneasily between a long cultural past and the future we now inhabit as our present world'. We're told Oscar Wilde's comment on the death of Little Nell. But such gestures aren't typical. The Introduction does say that this history was 'collectively written by many contributors', but the force of the adverb is far from clear. Did the contributors help to devise the overall structure? Were they given carte blanche for their individual essays? Some of them seem to have envisaged an audience of beginners; others move straight to critical or theoretical refinements. This is a very uneven collection.

There are thirty-nine chapters, of which at least three-quarters are based on one or more particular writers. On the whole, novelists traditionally accounted 'major' - Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Austen, Dickens and so on - tend to have chapters to themselves. There are more generalized essays on, for example, 'Amatory Fiction' in the post-Restoration period, the Gothic Novel, 'Romantic Women's Fiction, 1790-1830', 'Imperialism to Postcolonialism', and the Contemporary Novel. The principle behind this mixed mode of coverage is never made clear. The effect seems waywardly eclectic in that two emphases are particularly prominent. One is on political 'history': there is reference to Robert Walpole, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the Reform Acts ... And why not? But equally, why is there so little about social, medical, religious, or intellectual history?

The second emphasis is on the role of women. Since the enormous majority of novels ever written feature both male and female characters there is plenty to be said about gender. It is repeatedly pointed out that novelists tend to deal in the stereotyping sponsored by a patriarchal society. On the other hand, some of them may contrive to question and subvert such stereotyping. Then again, some whose approach seems subversive, or potentially subversive, ultimately accept the constructions of the 'hegemonic ideology'. But these may be counterbalanced by others whose apparently submissive approach to such questions conceals contestation. Such is the carousel and so it goes round. It is kept in motion partly by allusion to numerous novels so little known, even to specialists, as to require plot summary. Much of this material comes across as trivial or tedious; indeed, there is little attempt to defend it on literary grounds. It functions as a tendency, a context, a hinterland. Again the objection isn't to the emphasis concerned but to its exclusivity. Why is there so little about other kinds of hinterland - for example the contexts, dramatic, literary, or journalistic, from which emerged the novels of Defoe, Fielding, or Dickens? Where or what was editorial policy in this area? The great limitation of this Columbia History is that it seems to be little more than an anthology of unrelated essays.

The list of contributors, however, is impressive. It includes, for example, Gillian Beer, George Levine, G. S. Rousseau, and G. A. Starr. If the enterprise as a whole is flawed the parts should still be exciting. To be fair, some of them are; but even at this level the collection generally disappoints. So often the writer seems uncertain where to pitch the essay. Should it be an appetiser, a survey, a sounding, an original contribution to scholarship? Surely in a work of this kind the typical aims should be to make the subject sound intriguing to a potential student, to provide some preliminary bearings and to suggest further lines of approach. Such objectives aren't achieved often enough. Kucich and Levine, for example, discourse too much at large on Dickens and Hardy, respectively, to be helpfully intelligible to the comparative beginner: novel after novel is invoked. Curiously, two very successful essays concern writers notoriously difficult to 'introduce'. N. John Hall charts the enormous territory of Trollope's fiction with clarity and economy, yet finds space to make interesting points about his imaginative tendencies and his writing habits. John Allan Stevenson structures his essay on Sterne round three brief quotations, but contrives to address and begin to elucidate most of the fundamental problems posed by Tristram Shandy. Both critics are enjoyable to read and make their subject sound enjoyable. For these and a number of other particular essays the Columbia History is worth exploring.

MICHAEL IRWIN University of Kent
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Author:Irwin, Michael
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1996
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