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28. WALTER BESANT ON THE ART OF THE NOVEI, BY ERNEST BOLL (University of Pennsylvania) The development of Walter Besant to his full power as a novelist was certainly delayed and perhaps thwarted by his partnership with James Rice, What is possibly the best of the novels written by the team, The Chaplain of the Fleet (1881), came at the end of the partnership, when Rice was disabled by cancer. Besant, who was not selfish or ambiguous in his statements, referred to it as "the first of my eighteenth century novels.1' I prefer the novels Besant did alone. They generate plenty of action and strong emotions. They explore the lower levels of London life, sensibly describe some of the social problems the last two decades of the century recognized and show characters solving them. They recreate an exciting eighteenth century London that is magically seen from within its own time, and sound echoes of Dickensian mannerisms with spontaneous animation. All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882), The Revolt of Man (1882), Children of Gibeon~7Î886). The Rebel Queen (1893),"and No 0_t,her"'Way (l902)""deserve attentive reading. The merits of his novels Besant shares v.dth many other writers of his time, and the endurance of their appeal is subject to doubt» But his ideas on the art of the English novel are second to Fielding's only in time for their sound and enduring sense. They support the truism that the most reliable philosopher on the art of the English novel will always be a practitioner . The best introduction to Besant's ideas on the novel is his Autobiography. which was posthumously published in 1902, It discloses a number of parallels with the greatest master of the English novel in the nineteenth century, Besant was born (in 1836, in the Portsea section of Portsmouth, to which Landport had a suburban attachment, He later moved to London and became passionately concerned with every detail of its visible present and historical past. His personality repeated fundamental Dickensian traits: intellectual emancipation, a positive love for life, an active resistance to joy-suppressing evangelicalism, opposition to caste-v.'orship, concern for discovering and publishing distresses of the working classes to provoke readers to humane action, practical helpfulness to writers whose art no longer, or had never, won commercial retu_-no, pride in authorship, conscientious humility as an artist toward his art, and a deep wish to give pleasure as well as moral heartening to his readers» Two of his five confessed models for the development of his style had helped Dickens form his own: Goldsmith and Irving» Dickens, Balzac, and Sand were other influences Besant acknowledged. Besant's first aim as a stylist was to be instantly lucid. "No one," he admitted, "would believe the trouble I had in making the pen a servant instead of a master, in other words, in forcing the brain to concentrate." In the tenth chapter he declares his simple conviction "that the first and most important thing is to have a clear story with strong characters." In the next chapter he tells us that he began planning a novel by choosing the central theme: "a plain, clear, and intelligible motif - one which all the 29. world can understand." Round this he collected people who would be interesting to his readers, characters whose actions, conversation, and motives would tell the story. Analysis of character he dismissed as mere laborious talk. "If my people do not reveal themselves by their, acts and words, then I have failedJ' For that is how characters ought to be revealed in a novel,- a representation of life. The occasions on which Besant used summarized thought-flow and silent soliloquy to fill in the gaps that overt action and spoken words could not supply are infrequent. Through the actions, conversations, and motives that told the story, the reader would receive views of life, pictures of life, and illustrations of life. Besant organized his materials, he said, into a sequence of situations that would yield dramatic effects; their development was guided by his sense of proportion. He compared his way of starting and continuing a novel to the constructing and finishing of...


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pp. 28-35
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