When we speak of the Victorian novel we do not mean that there was a conscious school of English novel, with a consciously common style and subject-matter, a school which began creating with the reign of Queen Victoria and which came to an end with the end of that reign. The English are too individualistic for such conformity. However, there can be no denying the fact that the English novel during the second half of the 19th century, with the exception of one or two novelists, shows certain common characteristics. The purpose of the chapter is to deal with those characteristics and also to examine how far they are represented in the novels of Hardy.
Adherence to the Fielding Tradition: Loose Plots
For one thing, the Victorian novel continues to be largely in the Fielding tradition. The plot is generally loose and ill-constructed. The main outline of the Victorian novel is the same. The story consists of a large variety of character and incident clustering round the figure of the hero. These characters and incidents are connected together rather loosely by an intrigue, ending with the ringing of wedding bells. Thackeray follows, on the whole, this convention.
A Mixture of Strength and Weakness
Secondly, the Victorian novel is an extraordinary mixture of strength and weakness. There is too much of false sentiment, flashy melodrama and lifeless characters. There is much that is improbable and artificial in character and incident. Speaking generally, the Victorians fail to construct an organic plot, a plot in which every incident and character forms an integral part of the whole. Thackeray's plots, though much better constructed than those of Dickens, are still loose and theatrical. There is much superfluity even in Vanity Fair and much that is unconvincing and artificial.
Its Entertainment Value
Still, the Victorian novel makes interesting reading. The novelists may not construct a compact plot, but they tell the story so well. They are so entertaining, that children still love to read and enjoy a novel of Dickens or Thackeray. The plot may be improbable, but there is enough of suspense, and the readers' attention is not allowed to flag even for a single moment. They do not like to give it up unfinished.
Its Panoramic Value
The Victorian novelists may miss the heights and depths of human passion, there may be no probing of the human heart and soul, and no psycho-analysis as in the modern novel, but they cast their nets very wide. Novels like Vanity Fair are not, like most modern novels, concentrated wholly on the life and fortunes of a few principal characters: they also provide panoramas of whole societies. Thus in Vanity Fair the action ranges from the city to the town, from London to Brighton, from England to France, Brussels, and other countries of Europe. "A hundred different types and classes, persons and nationalities, jostle each oilier across the shadow screen of our imagination."
Its Immense Variety
The Victorian novelist is a man of varied moods. His range of mood is as wide as his range of subject. Just as he deals with all aspects of society, so also he renders human moods in all their manifold variety. He is not a specialist in any one mood or temper. The novelists of the age cannot be categorised. As David Cecil puts it, "They write equally for the train journey and for all time; they crowd realism and fantasy, thrills and theories, knockabout farce and effects of pure aesthetic beauty; check by jowl on the same page; they are Mr. Galsworthy and Mr. Huxley and Mrs. Woolf, Mrs. Christie and Mr. Woodhouse, all in one. A book like David Copperfield is a sort of vast schoolboy hamper of fiction : with sweets and sandwiches, pots of jam with their greased paper caps, cream and nuts and glossy apples, all packed together in a heterogenous deliciousness."
Imaginative Rendering of Reality
Not only have the Victorian novelists width and range of subject and mood, not only are they entertaining story-tellers, they have also creative imagination in ample measure. Their imagination works on their personal experiences and transforms and transmutes them. Their renderings of the real world are not photographs, but pictures, coloured by their individual idiosyncrasies vivid and vital. Often the picture is fanciful and romantic. At other times, it sticks close to the facts of actual existence, but these facts are always fired and coloured by the writer's individuality. The act of creation is always performed. Dickens is, "the romancer of London streets", and Thackeray, too, transports us to an entirely new world, call it Vanity Fair or Thackeray land, or what you will. His creative imagination works on the selling of his story and transforms it.
Dramatic and Picturesque
This creative imagination is also seen at work on the incidents or the stories of the Victorian writers. They linger long in the memory because they have been made dramatic and picturesque by the imagination of the novelist. We get many such dramatic and picturesque scenes in Hardy. "As a picture is an invention of line and colour, so are these brilliant inventions of scene and action." (David Cecil)
This creative imagination is also seen in the humour of the Victorian novelists. Each of the great Victorian novelist is a humorist, and each is a humorist in a style of his own. They have created a number of immortal figures of fun, each comic in his own different way. They are hundreds of fine jock and witty remarks spread all over The Victorian novel.
The most important expression of this creative imagination is to be seen in the most important part of the novel, i.e., in the characterisation. The Victorians are all able to make their characters live. Their characters may not always be real, there may be much in them that is improbable and false, but they are amazingly and indomitably alive. They are wonderfully energetic and vital. They are ail individuals, living their own existence, and lingering long in the memory once we have formed an acquaintance with them. They act in their own characteristic way; they have their own tricks of speech, their own way of saying and doing thing. A Victorian novel is a crowd of breathing crying, living, laughing people. For example, Vanity Fair has a crowded canvas, crowded with living, breathing individuals.
Lack of High Artistic Standards
The Victorian novel lacks uniformity. It is extremely unequal; it is an extraordinary mixture of strength and weakness. It is teachnically faulty. This is so because it is still in its infancy, it is still considered as a light entertainment, and not a serious work of art and the laws of its being have not yet evolved. In this connection David Cecil observes, "Because it was in its first stage, it was bound to be technically faulty. It had not yet evolved its own laws; it was still bound to the conventions of the comic stage and heroic romance from which it took its origin, with their artificial intrigues and stock situations and forced happy endings. Because it was looked on as light reading its readers did not expect a high standard of craft, nor did they mind if it had occasional lapses; especially as they themselves had no traditions of tastes by which to estimate it." On the other hand, they strongly objected to spending their hours of light reading on themes that were distressing or put intellectual strain on them.
Lack of Liberalism
Then again the Victorian prudery comes in the way of a free and frank treatment of the animal side of life. In this respect the Victorian novel shows a definite decline from the earlier English novel. Any lapse from virtue as that of little Emily in David Copperfield is shrouded in an atmosphere of, "drawing the blinds and lowering the voice." Free and uninhibited treatment of sex is lacking. Becky's relationship with Lord Steyne is left ambiguous for this reason.
For these reasons, the Victorian novelists cannot be ranked wit the very greatest, yet they have greatness in them. they have their imperfections. Their plots are improbable and melodramatic, their endings arc conventional, and their construction is loose. They do not have any high artistic standards. But their merits also arc many. They are very entertaining, they can capture and hold the attention, they have creative imagination, and they have uncomparable gift of humour. And these are qualities which only the great have.