Novel Writing (1797)

Letter to the Editor, Monthly Magazine 4 (September 1797), 180-81. 


"On Novel Writing."



        I was led into a train of reflections, a few days since, from perusing a paper in Dr. Johnson's Rambler, respecting works of fiction, in which he sanctions an opinion, which appears mohave been generally received: that in narratives where historical veracity has no place, the most perfect models of virtue ought only tone exhibited. The arguments adduced in support of this notion, are those which regard the prevalence of example, the respect due to the innocence of youth, and the moral advantages which may be expected to result from engaging the affections on the side of virtue.

    Notwithstanding the authority of so respectable a moralist, I am, I confess, inclined to suspect this reasoning to be fallacious. The greater proportion of modern novelists, from the incomparable Richardson, down to the humble purveyors for the circulating libraries, appear to have aimed at proceeding upon this principle: to calculate the effects produced by their labours upon the morals and manners of the age, might, perhaps, be an unpleasant and an invidious task. In the exquisite novel of Clarissa, impressed by its various excellencies, and carried away by the magic powers of a sovereign genius, we almost lose sight of the false and pernicious principles, the violations of truth and nature, the absurd superstitions and ludicrous prejudices with which, notwithstanding the author's rectitude of intention, it abounds. The character of Clarissa, a beautiful superstructure upon a false and airy foundation, can never be regarded as an ideal being, placed in circumstances equally ideal, far removed from common life and human feelings. 

    There has been much declamation respecting the beauty of truth, and yet we are continually supposing it necessary to veil her simple and majestic charms, to adorn her with the robe of falsehood, and, in her stead, solicitously to impose upon the minds of youth, a semblance, a deceptive appearance, a magic lantern of shadows, which can answer little other purpose than to amuse the imagination, and to bewilder and mislead the judgment. In fitting beings for human society, why should we seek to deceive them, by illusive representations of life? -- Why should we not rather paint it as it really exists, mingled with imperfection, and discolored by passion? "Familiar histories (justly observes Dr. Johnson) may be made of greater use than the solemnities of protected morality. -- When an adventurer is made to act in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man, young spectators fix their eyes upon him with attention, and hope, by observing his behavior, to regulate their own practice when they shall be engaged in the like part." "But vice (it is added) should always disgust wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems; nor should any grace or excellence be so united with it, as to reconcile it with the mind." Would such delineations be consistent with truth and fact? Human nature seems to be at an equal distance from the humiliating descriptions of certain ascetic moralities, and the exaggerated eulogiums of enthusiasts. Gradations, almost imperceptible, of light and shade, must mingle in every true portrait of the human mind. Few persons are either wholly or disinterestedly virtuous or vicious; he who judges of mankind in masses, and praises or censures without discrimination, will foster innumerable prejudices, and be betrayed into perpetual mistakes: upon the most superficial appearances, he will yield himself up to excessive admiration and boundless confidence, or indulge in the bitterness of invective, and the acrimony of contempt. The consequences of judgments so erroneous, are too obvious to be insisted upon, or to require pointing out. "If the world be promiscuously described (says my author) I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account, or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind, as upon a mirror, which impartially shows all that presents itself." Were we about to travel, or to settle in a new country, should we conceive it useless to acquire previous information of the difficulties to which we might be exposed, the accommodations which might be procured, the disposition of the inhabitants, their laws, their usages, [181] and their manners? Should we think it wise to reject the advantages which might be derived from availing ourselves of the experience of our predecessors, and to rush, at once, without knowledge or precaution, on untried situations, and hazards, equally unexpected as explored. If the persons to whom we applied for information, far from representing circumstances as they really existed, should seek to beguile our imaginations, and amuse themselves by fanciful and Utopian description of the country and its inhabitants; what opinions, when we discovered the deception, must we form of their kindness and integrity, and what effects would be likely to ensue to ourselves? This statement needs no application.

    The business of familiar narrative should be to describe life and manners in real or probable situations, to delineate the human mind in its endless varieties, to develope [sic] the heart, to paint the passion, to trace the springs of actions, to interest the imagination, exercise the affections, and awaken the powers of the mind. A good novel ought to be subservient to the purposes of truth and philosophy: such are the novels of Fielding and Smollet.

    The beauty of romance consists principally in the display of a picturesque fancy; and the creative powers of a fertile and inventive genius. The excellence of a novel is of a distinct nature, and must be the result of an attentive observance of mankind, acute discernment, exquisite moral sensibility, and an intimate acquaintance with human passions and powers. A luxuriant and poetic style of composition accords with the legends of romance. The language of the novelist should be simple, unaffected, perspicuous, yet energetic, touching, and impressive. It is not necessary that we should be able to deduce from a novel, a formal and didactic moral; it is sufficient if it has a tendency to raise the mind by elevated sentiments, to warm the heart with generous affections, to enlarge our views, or to increase our stock of useful knowledge. A more effectual lesson might perhaps be deduced from tracing the pernicious consequences of an erroneous judgment, a wrong step, an imprudent action, and indulged and intemperate affection, a bad habit, in a character in other respects amiable and virtuous, than in painting chimerical perfection and visionary excellence, which rarely, if ever, existed. How deep is our regret, how touching our sympathy, how generous our sorrow, while we contemplate the noble mind blasted by the ravages of passion, or withered by the canker of prejudice! Such examples afford an affecting and humiliating lesson of human frailty, they teach us to soften the asperity of censure, to appreciate the motives and actions of our fellow-beings with candor, to disgust ourselves, and to watch with diffidence lest we should, even by the excess of our most amiable and laudable qualities, be precipitated into folly, or betrayed into vice. It is such examples that are the most calculated to be useful; they affect every heart, they are consistent with truth, for they do not calumniate the species. Our sympathy is faint with beings whose virtues, or whose crimes, are out of the sphere of our activity. "A God, an animal, a plant (says Lavater) are not companions for man; nor are the faultless." Among novelists of the present day, the author of Caleb Williams1 has afforded the best illustration of what I mean to inculcate. The developement [sic] and struggles of the passions, in the character of Ferdinando Faulkland, is perhaps the most masterly performance of its kind. By the predominance of one strong, habitual, and fostered prejudice, the finest qualities are perverted, and the most fatal calamities involved. "He imbibed the poison of chivalry with his earliest youth -- he was the fool of honor and fame: a man, whom, in the pursuit of reputation, nothing could divert; who would have purchased the character of a true, a gallant, and undaunted hero, at the expense of worlds; and who thought every calamity nominal, but a stain upon his honor."

    Fictitious histories, in the hands of persons of talents and observation, might be made productive of incalculable benefit; by interesting curiosity, and addressing the common sympathies of our nature, they pervade all ranks; and, judiciously conducted, would become a powerful and effective engine of truth and reform.

                                                            M. H.



1 Reference is to Hays's friend, William Godwin, and his important novel, Things as they are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794).