ON THE TITLES OF MODERN NOVELS (1797)
. . . in education, it was some years ago an established maxim, that 'Novels were bad things for young people.' The name novel was at this time given to productions very different from those which it at present comprehends. The objections to stories of intrigues, improbable adventures, and all the trash of a circulating library, are undoubtedly just; but surely it is not wise to extend the same censure to a class of books, which, though they bear the name of novels, have nothing in common with those pernicious productions. Is it not an inaccuracy in language to class the moral works of Fielding, and Richardson, and Moore, and Burney, &c. &c. and wretched performances, which disgrace our public libraries, under the same general denomination of novels?
Those who are not guided merely by names judge for themselves of the merit of a book, whether it be called a novel, a history, or a sermon; but there are many who think it virtuous to abstain from novel reading. No matter how much good sense, wit, reasoning, or morality, a work may claim which bears this proscribed title, and who repeat, with self-complacent emphasis, 'I never read novels. I dare say the book may have a vast deal of merit; but it's a novel, and I make it a rule never to read novels.' With the same sagacious antipathy, they consider the whole race of novel-writers. If you were to ask one of these liberal critics, whether they did not think Dr. [Thomas] Moore a fine writer? they would probably answer your question by another question: Is not he a novel-writer?
Those who know how far it is in the power of the weak to work upon the strongest minds, those who know how much the self-approbation of individuals is at the mercy of combined numbers, will not be surprised, that this absurd prejudice has operated to deter men of superior abilities from this species of writing, merely by the dread of an opprobrious epithet. Women, who are far more dependent upon the opinion of others than men either are, or ought to be, have doubtless been still more restrained from the exertion of their talents by this harsh, indiscriminate prejudice against the writer of a novel. A woman who has sense enough to make a fair estimate of her own interests and happiness, will be prudently inclined to sacrifice the hope of fame, to avoid the possibility of odium.
To obviate these difficulties, we must evade, without attempting to conquer the prepossessions of those who will not, or who cannot, reason. Instead of wearying ourselves with attempting to demonstrate to those who have the novellophobia, that their antipathy is not rational, we had better change the name which excites their horror.
The ingenious critic, who had reviewed Camilla, in the Monthly Review for October, 1796, hints at a classification of novels into the humourous the pathetic &I#150; and the romantic. There are many more varieties, and a few more distinct species; the historic romance, in which there is a mixture of truth and fable, of novel and history, is a distinct species. We need not, at present, investigate the merits of these compositions; but we may remark that their ambiguous pretensions seem to arise from some faint hope, that, by their mixture of historical names and facts, they may escape the ignominy of being classed amongst mere novels.
The hobgoblin-romance, is a name, which might, perhaps properly distinguish those terrible stories with which the public have lately been entertained, where we have sorcerers, and magical delusions, and skeletons, and apparitions of all sorts and sizes, and midnight voices, and petits talons, and echoing footsteps, and haunted castles, and long passages, that lead to nothing. The innumerable imitations of writers of genius, who have succeeded in the terrible, are fair game for ridicule; but we do not mean to exclude some German romances the fragment of Sir Bertram, was, perhaps, in England the first and best in this style some parts of Mrs Radcliffe's romances, and the late romance called the Monk [by M.G. Lewis], which stands high upon this list.
We only hope that the high stimulus of terror may not be used so much as to exhaust the sensibility of the public mind; and that this 'second childishness' of taste will no longer be indulged by writers of superior talents, who would probably excel in a much higher style of composition.
The highest species of romance is surely that which, at once, exhibits just views of human nature and of real life, which mingles reasoning and philosophy, with strokes of humour, that play upon the fancy, and with pathos, which touches the heart. Who can with-hold applause from [Moore's] Zelucco, which Gibbon justly calls, 'the first philosophical romance of the present age?' . . .
[SOURCE: Monthly Magazine, 4 (November 1797), p. 3478. Signed 'E.']
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