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DAVID DAICHES
The Victorian Novel: Charles Dickens' World

From, David Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature, v. 4: The Romantics to the present day, ch. 26 

IN PRINT

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House  


Page 2

He wanted to be close to what he was reading about, to have as little suspension of disbelief as possible, to pretend, indeed, that literature was journalism, that fiction was history. Of course, the novelists fooled them-at least the great ones did. The ordinary reader may have had the illusion that what he was reading was a kind of journalism, a transcript of life as it was happening around him without the modifying effect of literary form and imagination. In fact, the great Victorian novelists often created complexes of symbolic meaning that reached far deeper than the superficial pattern of social action suggested to the casual reader; the novels of Dickens, for example, are full of symbolic images and situations suggesting such notions as the desperate isolation of the individual (the grotesque and the eccentric in Dickens' characters become almost the norm, suggesting that life is atomistic and irrational and that patterns of communication can never be real). But it has been left for modern criticism to investigate this aspect of Victorian fiction. The great majority of borrowers from Mudie's libraries and readers of serialized novels in magazines wanted to read about life as they thought they knew it. The impulse that makes modern television viewers so devoted to plays of ordinary life, dealing with people like themselves with whom they can identify themselves, but liberated by plot from the dullness of life as they actually live it-this impulse helped to create the English novel and to sustain it during its brilliant nineteenth-century career. That this indicates a gap between the demands of art and the expectations of its audience need not surprise us; such a gap is a commonplace in literary history. The best Victorian novels transcended the requirements of its audience and can be read by later generations for different and perhaps profounder reasons. But the same can be said of the best Elizabethan drama. The requirements and expectations of a given audience can help to explain the rise and flourishing of a given literary form, but cannot explain its true nature or value, except with reference to ephemeral works produced by hack writers merely to satisfy the contemporary demand.

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