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UNIVERSITY DEBATING SOCIETY., Issue 7922, 1 June 1889
UNIVERSITY DEBATING SOCIETY.
The University Debating Society’s session was opened last evening at the chemistry lecture room connected with the University. There was a large attendance, the room being crowded to the doors; Mr James Allen, M.H.R., occupying the chair. Mr A. Wilson, M.A., in delivering an interesting address on ‘The Place of the Novel in Literature and Life,’ commented upon the present enormous yearly output of novels, and traced the various causes of the increase. Was novel writing an art, and was it one of the fine arts ? asked the lecturer ; was it to be placed side by side with painting, sculpture, and music ? After explaining the vast amount of difference between art and fine art, the lecturer said that if he were allowed to range the fine arts in what he considered the order of their nobility he would place them something like: First, poetry; second, the art of prose fiction: and then in order painting, sculpture, and music. Mr Wilson dealt at length with the wide field open to the fiction writer, analysing his methods and the manifold qualifications he must needs possess. The lecturer concluded as follows:—“ I should like now to say a word or two as to the functions of the novel itself, and the place it occupies in literature. Taking the last first, I should say that the novel in modern times fills a place that used to be filled partly by poetry, partly by the drama, and partly by the sermon or moral treatise. There can be no doubt that many of our novelists, if they had lived in the eighteenth century instead of the nineteenth, would have been poets and not prose writers. I cannot conceive that Dickens and Thackeray, even had their genius never been directed towards prose fiction, would ever have been great poets, though they might have been eminent masters in a certain school of painting; but who can doubt that George Meredith and George Eliot would have been great poets had they not been great novelists ? Sir Walter Scott began as a poet, but it was inevitable that if ho continued writing ho must pass into prose fiction, where his romances might be elaborated without the fetters of rhythm and rhyme. Readers also now turn to prose fiction where they used to find their pleasure in poetry. Poetry is more severe, more divine, and calls upon the reader to spread his wings and chasten his heart. Fiction, though not ignoble, is yet more human, more earthly if you like, more on a level with our everyday life and sympathies. Poetry counts its tens of choicest spirits; fiction its tons of thousands of every quality. Further, thoqgh the novel gives ample scope for many a lyric chorus, it is yet" in its very essence dramatic. A good novel is the theatre brought to the fireside. It is not merely that you have the actors to rehearse their parts —this you have in the drama pure and simple; but you have the scenery, the costume, the by-play, and all the tricks of verisimilitude by which yon are brought under illusion in the threatre. Never again can the drama, as a factor in literature, bewhat it has been ; the novel has killed it. I should fear to assert that the novel has in like manner killed the sermon. Rather will I say that the parson, as a teacher of morality and the advocate of a high ideal of life, has found a powerful coadjutor in the good novel. This is true to a fault of the English novel, which has delivered its philippic against every social sin that disfigures our modern civilisation. Creed, on the other hand, I am happy to think, is not a matter with which the novelist often cares to meddle, though, judging by one or two late notable examples, human belief also must come in for its share of the novelist’s criticism. As to the functions of the novel, I take it that all good art should, in the first place, be interpretative—by which I mean that it should confer that sort of moral and intellectual pleasure that comes of the perception of truth ; and, in the second place, that it should satisfy a certain human longing after something other or more than we possess—in other words, that It should satisfy an ideal. The worse for us if the something we long for he the wrong thing—worst of all if, in addition to this, wa find the novelist ready to gratify us. We hear much enthusiastic talk of the fine arts; one does not hear quite so much about an equally common thing—the base arts. As every virtue has its corresponding vice, so every fine art has its corresponding base art. Now, if a base art were an easily recognisable thing, like cowardice, swaggering, or niggardliness, its own deformity would be a certain protection against it. But the base arts have a certain Belial beauty of their own which lead astray even the enlightened minds of Exhibition judges, and so are beprized and bemedalled and glorified as much as the finest of fine arts. I remember seeing in one of the galleries in the Melbourne Exhibition two pictures which 1 thought very base art indeed—but which have since, I see, been awarded first honors. They were companion pictures called ‘ The Duel ’ and ‘The Reconciliation,’ and were by a celebrated French painter, Emile Bayard, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. I cannot pretend to be a judge of the technical quality of a picture, and therefore I accept the assurance of the catalogue that these were amongst the best work of the gallery, considered from the point of technical merit. The catalogue furnishes a description of the pictures— ‘ Two young and fair Parisiennes, attired in the latest Parisian mode, have sought the woods of Boulogne to settle with the rapier an affair of honor. They are stripped to the waist—a custom in duelling between soldiers, which the two women are ridiculously imitating.’ Now, admitting the technical merit, and recognising at the same time an unmistakeable flash of humor in one of the pictures, they are still, I maintain, the basest of base art meretricious, disgusting, and unwholesome pictures which cannot show any good reason for their existence. As with painting, so with fiction. I believe that the bulk of English fiction is not much worse than silly with the exception, indeed, of many works written expressly for boys, which remind one of those sweetmeats that have their colors heightened with poisonous matter. If, however, Mr Vizetelly is to be allowed to let loose upon us the floodgates of French fiction done into our vernacular, we may perhaps have to alter our standard of taste ; and who knows but that some day we may be able ourselves to boast of a naturalist school of fiction, with a certain ideal of its own—to paint, namely, all the ordure of a dunghill with absolute fidelity to nature. We are not likely to forget that after all said and done the paramount function of the novel is to be recreative and amusing. If a novel is not this it is nought. The one unpardonable sin In a novel is dullness. Bad grammar, bad taste, frequent quotation from foreign tongues, it is conceivable we might condone—but dullness, never. To give emotional pleasure is the first duty of fiction as it is of the other fine arts. Let it teach special lessons if it can, but it does so at its peril. Be tho lessons ever so necessary to be learnt—the evils of intemperance, the abase of certain social or political institutions, the inhumanity of certain creeds—it is almost invariably at the expense of his art that the novelist delivers sermons on such subjects. Of course, there Is no. reason why temperance should not be the motif of the most perfectly constructed novel. But it is rarely that the novelist who takes a brief for any cause of this kind can observe that self-restraint and impartiality which are necessary to the true literary artist. He takes sides with or against his own creations—an attitude fatal to the best work. In reading the novels of such a writer there is present a consciousness destructive of the beat emotional pleasure—the consciousness that you are being beguiled, that the author is entrapping you into a one-sided argument—whereas you have opened the book thinking to enjoy unmixed pleasure of a certain kind, you find that what there is of pleasure is bat a syrup, to palliate the rhubarb, senna, or other purgative drug which the novelist thinks will benefit your system. I cannot but think that as pieces of literary art the works of some of our moat distinguished novelists—Charles Reads, for instance, or Walter Besant—have suffered in this way by their devotion to a special cause. No sane man would think of making fiction his staple reading ; it is that which he lakes up amidst more serious studies to keep all sweet. I do not go to a novel for instruo-
tlon and edification, though I clo not refuse that if it comes, as it ought in a good novel, without straining, in the process of reading. The first thing I demand of a novel is that it shall give me pleasure; it must be entertaining and recreative—to use a favorite word of Matthew Arnold’s, it must be interesting. If lam tired in body or mind, or fretted with the petty carki cares that no man altogether escapes; if I have a few hours or half an hour absolutely my own to do what I like with, give me a good novel, A story not too hard to understand; a thrilling plot, if possible; plenty of surprises ; exquisite of character ; skilful descriptive word painting, but not too much of it; as much laughter as you like; whatever true pathos you can command ; all seasoned with consummate literary grace and delicacy of style, and served piping hot and fresh from the bookseller’s counter, before a bright fire and a clean hearth—l think you might go further and fare worse.” Mr Wilson was loudly applauded upon the conclusion of his address, and on tho motion of Dr Barclay, seconded by Mr Spencer, a vote of thanks was accorded him,
UNIVERSITY DEBATING SOCIETY., Issue 7922, 1 June 1889
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