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From English Literature: An Introduction (Pages 98-99)

THE ROMANTIC NOVEL: AUSTEN, SCOTT, AND OTHERS

At the turn of the century the Gothic mode, with its alternations between evocation of terror and appeal to sensibility, reached a peak of popularity with novels such as Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) and Matthew Gregory Lewis' sensational The Monk (1796). These writers dealt with the supernatural and with human psychology far less adequately than did the poets, however, and appear to modern readers all the more shallow when compared with the great novelist Jane Austen. Her Northanger Abbey (begun in 1797; published posthumously, 1817) satirizes the Gothic novel, among other things, with complex irony; Sense and Sensibility (begun 1797; published 1811) mocks the contemporary cult of sensibility, while also displaying sympathetic understanding of the genuine sensitivities to which it appealed; Pride and Prejudice (begun 1796; published 1813) shows how sanity and intelligence can break through the opacities of social custom. The limitation suggested by her narrow range of settings and characters is illusory; working within these chosen limits, she observed and described very closely the subtleties of personal relationships, while also appealing to a sense of principle which, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, she believed to be threatened in a fragmenting and increasingly cosmopolitan society. These qualities come to full fruition in Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1817). A master of dialogue, she wrote with economy, hardly wasting a word.

The underlying debate concerning the nature of society is reflected also in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. After his earlier success as a poet in such narrative historical romances as The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and The Lady of the Lake (1810), he turned to prose and wrote more than 20 novels, several of which concerned heroes who were growing up, as he and his contemporaries had done, in a time of revolutionary turmoil. In the best, such as Waverley (1814), Old Mortality (1816), and The Heart of Midlothian (1818), he reconstructs the recent past of his country, Scotland, from still surviving elements. His stress on the values of gallantry, fortitude, and human kindness, along with his picture of an older society in which all human beings have a recognized standing and dignity, appealed to an England in which class divisions were exacerbated by the new industrialism. His historical romances were to inspire many followers in the emerging new nations of Europe. Thomas Love Peacock's seven novels, by contrast, are conversation pieces in which many of the pretensions of the day are laid bare in the course of witty, animated, and genial talk. Nightmare Abbey (1818) explores the extravagances of contemporary intellectualism and poetry; the more serious side of his satire is shown in such passages as Mr. Cranium's lecture on phrenology in Headlong Hall (1816). The Gothic mode was developed interestingly by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (the daughter of William Godwin), whose Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) explores the horrific possibilities of new scientific discoveries, and Charles Robert Maturin, whose Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) has, with all its absurdity, a striking intensity. Among lesser novelists may be mentioned Maria Edgeworth, whose realistic didactic novels of the Irish scene inspired Scott; Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, a Scot with her own vein of racy humour; John Galt, whose Annals of the Parish (1821) is a minor classic; and James Hogg, remembered for his remarkable Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), a powerful story of Calvinism and the supernatural.



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