In spite of the abundant humor in both Thackeray and Dickens, the novel with them had become a very serious form, the vehicle of important moral and social truths. In the hands of its more notable masters, serious it has remained. The prevalence of the scientific point of view, so marked since the promulgation of the theories of Charles Darwin, has left distinct traces on the history of fiction. The philosophical and scientific learning of George Eliot appears in her work in the emphasis on the reign of law in the character of the individual, and, although she too possesses a rich vein of humor, the charming playfulness in which her immediate predecessors permitted themselves to indulge is replaced by an almost portentous realization of the responsibilities of art and life. In Thomas Hardy, too, the scientific influence is plainly felt, the overwhelming power of environment and circumstance being presented with a force so crushing as to leave the reader depressed with a sense of the helplessness of the individual, without any compensating faith in a benevolence controlling the external forces which overwhelm him. Yet these writers display profound psychological insight, and make distinguished contributions to the progress of the art of fiction in its advance toward a more and more complete and penetrating portrayal of the whole of human life.

Less somber in tone, but no less brilliant in workmanship, are the novels of George Meredith. Hampered in regard to the greater public by a style at once dazzling and obscure, Meredith has been acclaimed by his fellow craftsmen as a great master. Beginning partly under the influence of Dickens, Meredith gained for himself at length a peculiar and distinguished position as perhaps the most intellectual of the English novelists, or, at least, the novelist who concerns himself most with the intellectual processes of his character. Yet he is far from impoverished on the emotional side, and there are few scenes in fiction more poignant in their tragedy than that which closes “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.”

Besides the influence of modern science, English fiction has latterly been much affected by foreign models, especially French and Russian. The tracing of these streams, however, would bring us to the consideration of men still writing, and involve us in a mass of production which cannot be characterized here, and on which we cannot hope to have as yet a proper perspective. The great amount of distinguished writing in the field of the English novel which has been revealed even in this rapid survey of its history will have suggested to the reader why it was found hopeless to try to represent it in The Harvard Classics. But these writers are easy of access, and this is the side of literature which the modern reader is least apt to ignore. Yet it is also the side which is most likely to be read carelessly, without consideration of purpose or method; so that it may now be worth while to try to come to some understanding as to its aim and the conditions of its excellence.


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