The Domestic Novel

Storm Jameson, The Georgian Novel and Mr. Robinson. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1929.

In 1901, at the beginning of the Edwardian era, the novelist Arnold Bennett published a book of essays* on popular novelists that included an essay on Rhoda Broughton and the genre of “domestic fiction.” In this essay, Bennett concluded that domestic fiction, as exemplifed by Broughton’s novels, is “part of the artistic furniture of the [late Victorian] home, like the ballad on the piano and the water-colour on the wall.” The domestic novel, according to Bennett, is a product of the conservative middle-class Victorian society that abhorred the disturbances of doubt and social change. “The earth may spin like a fretful midge among problems,” he writes, “philosophers may tremble with profound hesitations, partisans may fight until the arenas are littered with senseless mortality; but the home, wrapt in the discreet calm of its vast conservatism, remains ever stable, a refuge and a seclusion for those who will accept its standards and agree not to create a disturbance.”

In 1929, a new generation of novelist critics was addressing the issue of the modern novel. The most famous of these was Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One’s Own appeared in 1929. But in the same year, the novelist Storm Jameson published her essay The Georgian Novel and Mr Robinson. The Mr. Robinson of the title is an imaginary ordinary reader, “a quiet and respectable little man…[who] knows himself to be, in an unassuming way, intelligent.” What does Mr. Robinson make of the contemporary novel?

Jameson begins her essay with an attempt to measure the difference between the Victorian novel, as represented by Dickens’ David Copperfield, and the contemporary Georgian novel, as represented by Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. She writes:

The Victorian novelist begins the story of his hero with his birth (no: before it). He continues it, with every circumstance of humour, pathos and changed scene, through childhood, school days, youth and marriage, to the point where David’s life may be supposed to have become static. When, that is, it ceases to be changeful and becomes a mere chronicle of little happenings, getting up in the morning, sitting down to work, dining, talking placidly with Agnes of the everyday things, his work, the children, friends, which now make up their life, supping, going to bed, sleeping. For Dickens the story of David is finished as soon as it has achieved that point. It was only interesting, and fit matter for a novel, when he could display it as exciting, or very sad, or comic. It would not have occurred to him to construct a drama out of the thoughts and emotions of David looking at Agnes ten years after their marriage. That—for him—would not have been, was not, a story.

How different, of course, is Mrs. Dalloway, which is precisely a drama constructed of the thoughts and emotions of a middle-aged woman on a single day of her married life. In the evolution of the novel from Dickens to Woolf, from Victorian to modern, Jameson sees Arnold Bennett, the Edwardian novelist, as an important transitional figure, and it is precisely in Bennett’s treatment of domesticity that his significance lies. Jameson explains:

When Dickens describes what we will call a simple domestic scene he makes it either pathetic or comic according to the natures of the people involved in it. That is to say, he heightens the colours to get a dramatic effect. Very commonly, he heightens them to melodrama. But for Mr. Bennett the drama lies actually in the domestic simplicity itself. He sees in the ordinary events of life, preparing of meals, making of beds, falling ill, an immense and staggering drama. These men and women, so calmly and faithfully going about their little daily tasks, are the battlegrounds of terrific forces.

Bennett, who had seen the home in the Victorian novel as insulated from disturbance, had made the home the locus of disturbance, the scene of “staggering drama.” At the same time, he had internalized much of the drama in the thoughts and emotions of his characters.

Jameson later claims that the “Georgians” have as yet produced no masterpiece—no work that, like the works of Shakespeare, both thoroughly reflects and thoroughly transcends its own age. For Jameson, as for Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare is the touchstone. Woolf writes: “[T]he mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind…” Jameson, too, turns to an image of light to express the genius of Shakespeare: “He was like a man living in a room with windows all round.”

If any Georgian novelist could produce a masterpiece, Jameson concludes, it would be Virginia Woolf. From the perspective of eighty years further on, it might be said that, in Mrs. Dalloway, she had already produced that mastepiece. Here is what Jameson says about Woolf’s novel:

What Mrs. Woolf offers us—in place of the long varied panorama of David Copperfield’s life or of [Arnold Bennett’s] The Old Wives’ Tale—is the spectacle of Mrs. Dalloway caught, immobilised, as it were, for one moment in time, with her life revolving round her, so that we see her with her thoughts darting back into the past and forward into the future, and catch a glimpse of the infinite (infinite in the sense that we cannot count them) number of revolving lives which touch the circle of hers and one of many points and in their turn touch and are touched by others, a world-wide pattern of interlaced and separately revolving circles.

Woolf’s narrative of “separately revolving circles” reflects an increasingly fractured and relativistic world, a world without a center.

This, at least, is what it has become for Septimus Smith. This is what the Great War has done. In her essay, Storm Jameson suggests that the Georgian novelists have produced no masterpiece because “they lack faith”—faith “in the stability of the world,” faith “in the likelihood that man, so apt to imagine means to destroy himself and his works, will yet devise some means to save them.” Septimus certainly reflects this lack of faith. Where Woolf—turning to Antony and Cleopatra—sees the “incandescence” of Shakespeare, Septimus sees only loathing and despair:

Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Antony and Cleopatra—had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of the words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair.

Perhaps Mrs. Dalloway is the masterpiece Jameson is looking for precisely because it reflects this contemporary lack of faith, and the struggle to find in ordinary daily life reasons to go on living in spite of what has been lost.

But I am less concerned than Jameson with the elusive masterpiece that defines a particular era. For me, the value of her essay lies in her observations on the evolution of the novel from Dickens to Woolf, and the ways in which the novelistic treatment of dailiness and domesticity matures, so that domestic fiction, broadly speaking, comes to engage with the disturbances of life that it once politely avoided.

The great nineteenth-century novels are teleological. The plots are complex machines to develop character and produce a marriage proposal. The best of the interwar domestic novels are existential. They concern themselves with what it means to live an ordinary life from day to day. There is less a sense of momentum toward a destination or a climactic event, and more a sense of time passing: Big Ben striking the hour, this moment in June.

“She feels time passing like a cord moving in her bowels. She’s moved by time, she’s shifting. She knows it.”

Those words are from Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, published in 1938. A woman approaching middle age reflects on her life in the months before and after the birth of another child.

“What am I?” she whispered into her hands, unable to sleep. “My excitement, imagination, vitality, gift for life—are like a spray that falls again on the ground and is lost and sopped up. I am lost every day. By every nightfall all is lost.”

She thinks this, then picks up a book from her beside table to read, reflects on the arc of her own life, and drifts off to sleep. A little later, the baby cries, and she nurses him. Nothing happens, except what happens in life—the moments of self-doubt and self-interrogation, the search for meaning in one’s life, the connection to other lives, the daily getting up and going on. Bagnold may not, as Jameson’s unwritten masterpiece would, comprehensively reflect the life of her times, but she reflects beautifully and truthfully the rhythms and realities of a woman’s life.

*E. Arnold Bennett, Fame and Fiction. London: Grant Richards, 1901.

2 thoughts on “The Domestic Novel

  1. Thank you Rob for such a comprehesible and interesting piece. Having never ‘studied’ and ‘analysed’ English lit I really would like to understand more. As you may know from our links elsewhere I am extremely interested in Storm Jameson and her works and am slowly collecting her works. 1929 was quite a year! You have helped me reflect and think more about why that should be – and I am not surprised!

  2. A very beautiful comparison and something I had never given thought to though I have appreciated the differences. It’s lovely to see these thoughts down on paper and your comments and thoughts have put my mind in a different and more reflective mood this morning.
    Thank you.

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