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Juliet and Rowland McMaster. The Novel from Sterne to James: Essays on the Relation of Literature to Life. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981. 218 pp. $26.50. This book is a collection of essays that the McMasters have written, separately, over a good many years. The earliest dates back to 1958, and only three of the eleven essays were written for this volume. As one might expect with such a diversified production, the title promises more unity and focus than the book actually delivers. There are useful cross-references from one essay and author to another, there are allusions to the precedent of Don Quixote, and there is a persistent concern with the way aesthetic design falsifies the moral truth of perception and conduct. But for the most part, the essays simply consider different novelists from different points of view: one essay on Sterne, one on Austen, one on Trollope, three on Dickens, two on Thackeray, two on James, and, perhaps of most interest to readers of this journal, one essay comparing James and Thackeray. The essay on Sterne gracefully rehearses some of the paradoxes and problems of Tristram Shandy, noting that Tristram himself has greater success than his father or uncle in bridging "the gap that separates artistic creation from reality" (p. 12). Sterne's novel is placed, unsurprisingly, in the genre of Menippean satire, and a recent example is noted, Michael Ayrton's Tittivulus, in which a fiend keeps a paragraph from Henry James as a pet and tries to breed it with a parenthetic clause from Emerson. The essay on "acting by design" in Austen makes some interesting comparisons between Pride and Prejudice and The Portrait of a Lady in the course of showing the failure of the "aesthetic stance" (p. 26) in Elizabeth Bennett and other characters. "The Curse of Words in He Knew He Was Right" argues that Trollope has expanded this critique of the merely literary still more widely to a "sombre exploration of mismatching between language and truth (p. 195). James is noted in passing here as well. Two of the three essays on Dickens are more synoptic, examining the way many of his novels transform the popular literature of "grisly sensationalism" (p. 37) into a more searching vision, comic and symbolic, and the way his novels hold up to ridicule the Romantic ideals of natural primitivism and civilized elegance. An essay on Great Expectations takes a stern look at Pip's illusions, however fancifully displayed by Dickens, and applauds his acquisition of an "educated heart" (p. 85). With Dickens' exuberant and excessive narrative art, the McMasters' concern with "the dangerous prevalence of imagination," in Dr. Johnson's phrase, produces the least satisfactory results. In the essays on Thackeray, the McMasters' critical attitude finds its most appropriate object, as one might expect of the author of Thackeray: The Major Novels and the author of two essays on Thackeray published originally in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Juliet McMaster, in the longest of the eleven essays, analyzes the importance of "things" in Thackeray's fiction, the small objects and artifacts, revealing and falsifying, that function as repositories of the past. She takes this aspect of Thackeray's narrative, already noted in some of its dimensions by Barbara Hardy, and explores it with a wide range of examples and a finely nuanced sense of the way these objects convey and betray social and psychological meaning. Rowland McMaster describes the "Pygmalion motif" in The Newcomes, actually an ironic inversion of Ovid's happy fable of HENRY JAMES REVIEW 75 FALL, 1982 the artist, in which Colonel Newcome tries to mold his son Clive according to his own failed romantic aspirations. With some attention to the serial publication and the chapter headletters, McMaster notes how this pattern of destructive artistry develops in other characters and relationships and how another pattern, "stylization of behaviour according to conventional fancies" (p. 144), runs parallel to it. It is from this Thackerayan standpoint, at the physical and intellectual center of The Novel from Sterne to James, that the McMasters look out on the Jamesian territory ahead. There is much to be said for their suggestion that "we abandon . . . the perfunctory habit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 75-77
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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