What 19th Century Novels Have to Say About the Written Word

Although Henry James may have had a point when he called the 19th century novel “a loose and baggy monster,” he was not completely accurate. 19th century novels are large but not monstrous, descriptive and free-flowing, but not exactly baggy. Interestingly, the authors of 19th century novels meet this challenge with their own claims of why reading and writing are intensely formative and valuable experiences. Even though they are not exclusively referring to 19th century novels in these claims, they certainly include those novels in their appraisal of the worth of reading and writing. Out of the 19th century novels I read recently, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, Hard Times by Charles Dickens, Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, and Middlemarch by George Eliot best reveal the way that 19th century novelists treated the written word.

The first quote is from Northanger Abbey. Austen reveals the behavior of many 19th century novelists to be contributing to public sentiment against the novel. She emphasizes the irony of this fact and separates herself from the pack of other novelists by saying “I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novelwriters” (Austen 58). This habit, she points out, is for novelists to “[join] with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works,” by which she means novels (Austen 58). It is as if writers are ashamed of being novelists, because even on the rare occasion that their heroines pick up a novel, they are “sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust” (Austen 58).

Jane Austen’s quote demonstrates that the prevailing attitude of the time, even among novelists themselves, was that the novel was in the realm of feelings and opinions, and thus not as important as nonfiction. She clearly rejects this with her statement and shows that there is another way to see novels, as works of great value to anyone in developing their imagination and making their reality as exciting as a storybook. Catherine Morland, the novel’s heroine, joyfully takes up the habit of novel-reading, and although her fantasizing leads her into trouble, Austen does not suggest that the novel itself was the problem. Instead, Catherine’s method of understanding the purpose of the novels was flawed, because she failed to distinguish fantasy from reality and to get at the heart of what the novels she was reading were about.

Charles Dickens was clearly not one of those novelists that are embarrassed by the novel. Through exaggeration and taking up the opposing side’s argument against novels, he reveals the folly of his opponents. In Hard Times, Gradgrind’s horror at those who are using the library mostly comes from the fact that “these readers persisted in wondering” (Dickens 42). He goes on to explain that “They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women” (Dickens 42). It is clear that what makes reading so unattractive to Gradgrind is that it promotes empathy, causing readers to think of their purpose in the world, which has nothing to do with the realm of fact, but which has value nonetheless. They wanted to read about people just like themselves because novels gave them the sense that their own lives were worthwhile. It is obvious that the quote is referring to novels because Gradgrind would not have the same sense of horror if the readers were reading nonfiction, a practice he encouraged in his own children. Similarly to Austen’s work, readers used novels to understand their own lives.

The third quote is from Mary Barton and is about Mr. Carson’s transformation from a vengeful father to a forgiving neighbor. It is said that Mr. Carson “fell to the narrative now afresh, with all the interest of a little child. He began at the beginning, and read on almost greedily, understanding for the first time the full meaning of the story” (Gaskell 320). Gaskell makes it apparent that it is not just the book that is important, it is also the attitude the reader takes toward writing. This is similar to Austen’s revelation that Catherine’s attitude toward novels must be corrected. Mr. Carson is not able to understand the story until it has some bearing on his life. Then, reading illuminates his life and helps him decide what action he should take next. Just like in Dickens’ quote, empathy becomes the result of reading. This is a strong argument for the importance of reading and stories to the everyday person as well as the 19th century novelist.

The final quote is from Middlemarch and is about how writing preserves the “whispering-gallery” of the past for readers of the present and future (Eliot 256). Writing and reading provides insight into the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and interests of people in the past in a way that learning from a lecture or from just plain gossip cannot. Even if the writing “[lies] face down-most for ages on a forsaken beach, or [rests] quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests, it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago” (Eliot 256). Eliot’s novel itself has two layers of revelation. It reveals the opinions of the time she was writing about, as well as her own opinions as a 19th century writer. The combination gives readers insight into two time periods. In this way, the novel can be a preserver of history.

As is shown by these quotes, 19th century novels are more than just “loose and baggy monster[s].” They have value, even if that is affected by how they are read. Furthermore, these novels promote empathy, foster imagination and depth of person, and preserve history for future generations. In the end, the 19th century novelists show that by reading and writing their novels, readers will benefit in more ways than they could imagine.

Works Cited (MLA Style)

  • Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 2nd ed., edited by Claire Grogan, Broadview Press Ltd., 2002.
  • Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 3rd ed., edited by Fred Kaplan and Sylvère Monod, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 2nd ed., edited by Bert G. Hornback, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton, edited by Thomas Recchio, W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

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