In recent years the most influential critical approach to fiction in this country has been that of Scrutiny and F. R. Leavis. Briefly, this approach grew out of the rejection by Wilson Knight and the contributors to Scrutiny of A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearian criticism. Bradley’s emphasis on ‘character’ in Shakespearian tragedy was seen to have failed to take account of the ‘spatial’ totality of the plays, their existence as coherent linguistic and metaphoric structures. The search for this spatial totality was extended to the novel, and the famous series of essays in Scrutiny entitled ‘The Novel as Dramatic Poem’ expressed this desire to see a novel as a total ‘structure’. In The Great Tradition, probably the most influential of books on the novel in England, Leavis extends the notion of spatial totality to an approach in terms of the totality of the writer’s moral vision given concreteness through the form of the novel. He revised the phrase ‘moral fable’ and gave it a larger and more flexible meaning. His great tradition was the line of novelists whose spatial coherence was shaped by a moral coherence: this in turn was given validity through a fine discrimination and a life affirming energy.
Thus W. J. Harvey’s recent book Character and the Novel has become a major starting point for discussion of the novel in England, for reasons other than its intrinsic merit. He offers a direct challenge to the position formulated by Leavis and Scrutiny, to both the idea of ‘fable’ and to the narrowing features of the word ‘moral’. More positively, he reasserts the primary importance of mimesis, of the novel’s function as an imitation of life, rather than as an affirmation of it.
The second way in which Harvey’s book is important is that his particular definition of mimesis relates to a developing ideology in English literary criticism, most elegantly represented by Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, and which we might call neo-liberalism. At the outset Harvey draws a contrast between the assumptions which lie behind ‘the central, classic tradition of modern fiction’footnote1 (the ‘realistic novel’) and the theory which sees art as valuable ‘because it has to do with order, and creates little worlds of its own possessing internal harmony, in the bosom of this disordered planet’,footnote2 ‘The novel’, Harvey says, ‘is the distinct art form of liberalism’ and he defines liberalism as a commitment to the ‘manifold and discrete’ rather than to a ‘monistic’ ordering of experience (such as you get with Christianity and Marxism). The novel is the product of negative capability rather than the egotistical sublime: ‘Tolerance, scepticism, respect for the autonomy of others are its watchwords.’footnote3 Behind such a doctrine of art, of course, there lies a doctrine of life, one which is perhaps most conveniently, if schematically stated by Iris Murdoch: ‘Reality is not a given whole. An understanding of this, a respect for the contingent, is essential to imagination, as opposed to fantasy. Our sense of form, which is an aspect of our desire for consolation, can be a danger to our sense of reality as a rich receding background. Against the consolations of form, the clean, crystalline work, the simplified fantasy myth, we must pit the destructive power of the now so unfashionable naturalistic idea of character. Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens a way for the imagination.’footnote4 Indeed, Murdoch’s claim for the 19thcentury novel is precisely that it provided the ‘liberal’ answer to ‘romanticism’ which liberal philosophy failed to do.footnote5
Although Harvey doesn’t make a claim quite as extraordinary as this, his definition of mimesis is clearly and explicitly related to the liberal concepts elucidated in Iris Murdoch’s essays; there is, above all, a very firm commitment to the centrality of character in any formal discussion. And the concept of character is openly a 19th-century one. ‘The novelist’, Harvey writes, ‘must acknowledge, if he is to create a faithful imitation of mankind, that most human beings will always elude or overflow the categories of any human ideology’.footnote6 At the end of his
The autonomy of form is something which James arrived at towards the end of a career which had begun with a firm belief in the autonomy of self. Two quotations will show this. The first is from Wasbington Square (1880). Sloper is telling Mrs Almond that Catherine is not going to break her engagement to Townsend as the result of her father’s pressure: