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36. "TOO MANY PARTICULARS" By D.S. Bland (University of Liverpool) Amidst all the discussion that has taken place in the last half century on the nature of the novel the role and technique of background description have been somewhat neglected. Background description is frequently dismissed as an irrelevance, as, for example, by Robert Liddell in his Treatise on the Novel (1947). He is particularly hard on the description of houses and interiors, but this is not unexpected in an admirer of Jane Austen, who, in one of her letters of advice to Anne, writes: "You describe a sweet place. You give too many particulars of right hand and left." In fact, criticism of this aspect of the novelist's art has hardly progressed beyond the position adopted by Jane Austen. Detailed examinations of the relevance of descriptive passages to the totality of the novel are hardly ever to be met with. What is more usual is an out-and-out rejection without examination. Typical of the attacks that have been made is the essay on "Modern Fiction" in The Common Reader (First Series), in which Virginia Woolf censures Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy: If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word, materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring, Bennett she sees as someone who, with a "magnificent apparatus for catching life," comes down "just an inch or two on the wrong side." Of much of his work this is true, but it can hardly be maintained of his best. In Clayhanger and Anna _of the Five Towns we must be made to see the setting in order that the pressure of environment on character (which is largely what these novels are about) can be adequately felt. Thus, Anna's cherishing of the memory of Willy Price, while acquiescing in her marriage to Henry Mynors, can be understood as Bennett wishes us to understand it only if we see it against the background of kiln and kitchen. Anna is indeed of the Five Towns. An analysis of a passage in The Old Wives' Tale will serve both as a refutation of Virginia Woolf s attack and as an example of the sort of examination which I would like to see applied to passages of interior description in the novel. In saying this I find I have unconsciously echoed what Henry James said in his TLS article on "The Younger Generation" in 1914. But having acknowledged that Bennett "has put down upon the table, in dense unconfused array, every fact required to make the life of the Five Towns press upon us," he goes on to make his usual point about "interest." "Yes, yes; but is this all? These are the circumstances of the interest...but where is the interest itself, where and what its centre and how are we to measure it in relation to that?" If the attack on the fictional description of environment has any actual point of departure, it is probably in this attitude of James, since it is one to which he gives expression more than once in his criticism. 37. The room was fairly spacious. It had been the girls' retreat and fortress since their earliest years. Its features seemed as natural to them as the features of a cave to a cave dweller.... There was only one bed, the bedstead being of painted iron; they never interfered with each other in that bed, sleeping with a detachment as perfect as if they had slept on opposite sides of St. Luke's Square; yet if Constance had one night lain down on the half near the window, the secret nature of the universe would have seemed to be altered.... The sash of the window would not work quite properly, owing to a slight subsidence in the wall, and even when the window was fastened there was always a narrow slit to the left hand between the window and its frame; through this slit came draughts, and thus very keen frosts were remembered by the nights...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 36-38
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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