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A History of English Prose Fiction by Tuckerman

Every good novel has a purpose


Eliot's "Romola" must always retain a high place in historical fiction. But its author's great creative power led her to bestow more pains on such of the characters as proceeded from her own imagination, than on those whom history provided ready-made. The reader's memory retains a more vivid impression of Tito than it does of Savonarola. Charles Kingsley's "Hypatia" and "Westward Ho!" are among the most prominent of recent historical novels. The latter aimed at describing the time of Elizabeth, but resembles more closely that of Cromwell. John Gibson Lockhart, in "Valerius," and Mr. Wilkie Collins in "Antonina," have studied the life of ancient Rome. James Fenimore Cooper in "The Spy" and "The Pioneers" threw into bold relief the stirring incidents of American colonial and revolutionary times. Nathaniel Hawthorne reproduced the spirit of Puritan New England in "The Scarlet Letter," of which mention has already been made.

[Footnote 211: Horace Smith, Sir T.D. Lauder, and G.P.R. James are well-known historical novelists who have written under the influence of Scott. W. Harrison Ainsworth has made use of historical material in "The Tower of London," and similar writings.]


The novel of purpose may be defined as a work of fiction of which the main object is to teach a lesson or to advocate a principle. Strictly speaking, every good novel

has a purpose, or some well-defined aim, if it be only that of affording entertainment. But the novel of purpose distinctly subordinates the amusement of the reader to his improvement or information. With a few exceptions, such as "The Fool of Quality," this species of fiction is the product of the nineteenth century. It has special difficulties to contend against. To combine a didactic aim with artistic excellence is among the most difficult of literary experiments. If the lesson or principle to be inculcated be given too much prominence, the reader who opens the book for entertainment will shut it very soon in spite of any prospective self-improvement. If narrative interest or artistic beauty be the most striking feature of the work, its serious aim will be unnoticed. The safest plan for the writer of the novel of purpose to pursue, is to openly acknowledge his object, and to place that object before the reader in as attractive a manner as possible. But he cannot expect to attain success unless the principle he advocates be one of general interest and importance. Nor can he expect, when that principle has obtained acceptance, that the work in which it is urged can have any further prominence. He must be content that his object is attained, and that his book, having served its purpose, falls into obscurity.

Some of Miss Edgeworth's tales, and such novels as Miss Brunton's "Self-Control" and "Discipline," were among the earliest specimens of fiction having the professed object of moral improvement. These books were very popular at a time when a well-justified prejudice against novels prevailed. But since the character of fiction has been raised to its present standard of purity, professedly moral novels have become unnecessary for general reading. The successors of Miss Edgeworth's and Miss Brunton's works now appear in the form of temperance novels and Sunday-school books. A curious form of the novel of purpose is that written in the interest of religious sects or special tenets, of which specimens may be found in the writings of Elizabeth M. Sewell, who advocated High Church doctrines. Harriet Martineau made very successful use of fiction in conveying her ideas on political economy. In "Ginx's Baby," by Mr. Edward Jenkins, the popularity and interest of a political pamphlet had been greatly increased by the assistance of a narrative form.

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