Jonathan Farina, “On David Masson’s British Novelists and their Styles (1859) and the Establishment of Novels as an Object of Academic Study”


This essay shows how the publication of David Masson’s British Novelists and their Styles, the first monograph on fiction by a professor of English literature, institutionalized the study of fiction by representing novels as material evidence of otherwise ephemeral, ideological, unconscious, or otherwise invisible “currents” of history. Other Victorian theories of fiction were more manifestly influential in establishing the formalist modes of fictional analysis and narratology that have since dominated the discipline, but Masson’s work nevertheless exhibits investments in feminism, cosmopolitanism, liberalism, statistics, ideology, and history that uncannily anticipate the interests of modern scholars of Victorian fiction. However generically unfamiliar it might look, then, Masson’s work marks the emergence of the cultural interests, disciplinary objectives, and other conditions of representation that underwrite academic criticism as we now know it.

Engraved Portrait of David Masson

Figure 1: Engraved Portrait of David Masson by W. B. Hole

David Masson’s British Novelists and their Styles combines many conventional Victorian critical observations, assumptions, and generic features: it is a representative work of Victorian criticism. As such, it lacks the kind of sustained, cogent theory of novelistic representation and “close” textual analyses that distinguish 20th– or 21st-century books on the novel. Like most Victorian literary reviews and discussions of fiction, Masson’s work largely elides the content and style of the fiction he discusses and instead concentrates on two related alternatives: the abstract impressions, forces, and influences—the affects, as we might now say—that fiction-reading generated in its readers, and the material and abstract particularities of Victorian culture that fiction evidenced in its popularity and generic diversity. Yet as the first book-length monograph on fiction by a professor of English literature, Masson’s book inaugurates the professional academic discourse of fictional analysis. And, in its elision of content and style (despite its title) for discussion of the “undercurrents”—or what we might call ideologies—that generated particular kinds of novels, British Novelists and their Styles introduces the scholarly analysis of fiction as a privileged mode of cultural rather than textual analysis. Masson employs novels not as autonomous objects of knowledge or art but as evidence for the study of ideological changes that are, he says, otherwise too ephemeral, diffuse, or embedded in everyday life to be noticeable.

In other words, this foundational work of academic scholarship represents novels as representative of the often implicit—even unconscious—extra-textual assumptions, values, feelings, and practices that Raymond Williams would later call “structures of feeling.” If describing literature as representative of reality, as mimesis, was at least as old and established as Plato’s Republic, Masson’s reassertion of it is significant because subsequent, better known nineteenth-century British and American writers in the “Art of Fiction” controversy (Walter Besant, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others; see Spilka) and those associated with the Aesthetic movement would in the 1880s begin to subordinate fiction’s representative function or referentiality to its artistry, its alleged autonomy from the real world. This later tradition was more influential in the development of modern literary studies, but Masson’s particular investments have all reemerged since the 1970s.

Masson worked within generic parameters and critical protocols that differ from some of ours, and recognizing these can clarify the distinct objectives of Victorian criticism. British Novelists and their Styles belongs to an unnamed genre of nineteenth-century non-fiction prose that gathers under one title and subject tangentially related observations, passing impressions, anecdotes, historical digressions, empirical data, and generalizations about the “spirit of the age.” Masson does not employ the tropes of Romantic poetics that later critics like Henry James used to describe fictions as autonomous, organic wholes (in “The Art of Fiction” [1884], for example). He does not practice the sustained, “close readings” or textual analyses that the New Critics cultivated as the signature features of literary scholarship (starting, say, with Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction in 1921 and dominating Anglo-American literary study through the 1950s and ‘60s when its methods were implicitly subsumed and adopted by other schools of criticism).[1] Exegesis and figurative reading were available modes of interpretation in 1859, but they were scarcely applied to fiction (Anger 131-141).

British Novelists and their Styles was originally composed as four lectures that were delivered at the Philosophical Institution of map iconEdinburgh in March and April of 1858. The first lecture narrates the history of the novel from its origins in classical epic poetry through the seventeenth century; the second defends the “preponderance of prose” in the eighteenth century as an index of cultural and emotional productivity; the third, attentive to Masson’s Edinburgh audience and his own roots in map iconAberdeen, delineates the grand influence of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels and other Romantic fiction; and the fourth accounts for the diversity of Victorian fiction with a lengthy comparison of Dickens and Thackeray (a stock topic of debate for Victorian writers) and some prescriptive objectives for future novelists.

British writers had been composing theories of fiction as long as they had been writing novels. In addition to shorter narrative and prescriptive prefaces by novelists like Henry Fielding and Fanny Burney, such works include Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785), Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s The British Novelists (1810), John Colin Dunlop’s History of Fiction (1814), and John Cordy Jeaffreson’s British Novelists: From Elizabeth to Victoria (1858), the last of which Masson cites.  Many journalist-critics also contributed influential periodical essays on the novel: Masson singles out the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for instance, for his two-part essay “On Art in Fiction.” Bulwer-Lytton’s essay catalogues and describes the generic components of novels; replacing vaguely evaluative terms (like “graphic,” “suggestive,” and “probable”) with ostensibly neutral analytical terms (like “conception,” “interest,” “incident,” “mechanism,” and “conduct”), “On Art in Fiction” is important because it treats the novel more as a subject of technical knowledge than as a subject of taste or judgment.

That said, British Novelists and their Styles marks the moment when novels had come to be institutionally recognized as repositories of disciplinary rather than general moral knowledge. In Britain, the position of “English professor” only originated in the mid-eighteenth century with Hugh Blair and Adam Smith, who (unofficially) denominated themselves professors of “belles-lettres,” although they did not offer courses in vernacular literature. The programmatic study of English literature and Departments of English—university departments dedicated to interpreting, researching, and teaching English literature as a discipline with an autonomous history and methodology—only emerged in the 1890s and 1900s (see Miller, Graff, Guillory, and Sutherland).  map iconUniversity College, London, where Masson held the Quain Professorship of English Language and Literature from 1852 to 1865, began offering English literature in 1828, but its first professors—Thomas Dale and Arthur Hugh Clough—were primarily invested in poetry. Even Masson is now most famous for his critical biography of a poet, The Life of John Milton (1858-94), and most of his work before British Novelists and their Styles was historiographical rather than literary.

Masson was simultaneously involved in extra-academic institutional changes that affected the representation of fiction. From 1858 to 1865 he edited the new Macmillan’s Magazine, which published signed rather than anonymous articles so as to elevate the literary merit and credibility of literary criticism in periodicals. In 1843 Harriet Martineau had imagined a “British Society of Authors” partially because it would potentially improve the integrity and intellectual rigor of reviews, most of which were then advertising puffs or comically vituperative and shallow assaults (Poovey 437). Responding to the proliferation of fiction produced in the 1850s, when three tax repeals cheapened the cost of print, novelist Margaret Oliphant made similar complaints in her essay “The Byways of Literature: Reading for the Million,” which calls for noncommercial methods of adjudicating literary merit. Novelistic value was determined at mid-century by sales (reader interest), reviews (often commissioned by publishers), and by circulating libraries, like Mudie’s, which purchased most of the novels published and therefore had enormous sway over what was publishable (Poovey). Mudie’s determinants were morality and appropriateness for a large range of readers, particularly young women, the largest demographic of subscribers. Masson’s intervention as an editor and critic was important for establishing an ostensibly disinterested, objective mode of evaluating fiction not for its popularity, salability, and morality but for its value as a medium or vehicle of cultural history, local and national character, and the allegedly universal political and humanist ideals that Masson called “elemental” life.[2] Masson’s efforts as editor and as academic scholar both participate in the distinction of literary value from commercial value, then, but they represent the “literary” neither as a philological or linguistic matter (the study of the English language) nor as the taxonomy and interpretation of tropes and figures of speech (rhetoric, belles lettres, or stylistics) but as a kind of psychology of history. Masson’s “elemental,” one of many loosely scientific words used in the Victorian critical idiom, equivocally connotes both universal human truths and the hidden, fundamental motives and assumptions of particular historical cultures and places; it amalgamates idealism and realism.[3]

The first lecture of British Novelists and their Styles attributes to prose fiction the classical and neoclassical values that were traditionally ascribed to poetry. It deftly defines fiction as poetry, or “matter of imagination,” articulated in prose. Claiming that the most exceptional novels revise narrative poetry like The Iliad or The Odyssey, Masson suggests that “the capabilities of any form of Prose Fiction are the same as those of the equivalent form of Narrative Poetry . . . excepting in as far as the substitution of prose for verse implies necessary abatements or differences” (7). These “abatements or differences” turn out to be virtues for Masson: poetry has an innate fitness for eternal, universal, general truths and elevated passions whereas prose more adequately expresses humor, historical change, local details and other particularities. For Masson, this access to particularity affords prose the epistemological legitimacy of induction, the process of abstracting general laws from particulars that was espoused by nineteenth-century theorists of science like William Whewell and John Herschel.  Thus, while appropriating for prose some of the cultural prestige and humanistic truthiness that was traditionally ascribed to poetry, Masson simultaneously distinguishes prose from poetry by affirming that it combines concrete, empirical historical data with factually grounded ideas:

Walking, as it does, on terra firma and not merely poised on ascending and descending wings it can push its way through the thick and miscellany of things, pass from generalities to particulars, and from particulars back to generalities, and come into contact with social reality at a [sic] myriad points in succession. . . . [P]oets . . . do not transmit to us so rich a detritus of minutiæ respecting the laws, the customs, and the whole economy of the defunct life of past generations, as do the prose novels. (Masson 16)

This argument embedded in an otherwise generic discussion of the differences of verse and prose enables Masson to represent prose fiction as a source of evidence for “posthumous historic use” (Masson 16), which is to say as a factual repository of historical feelings, manners, ideologies, and other typically ephemeral aspects of culture:

If Prose can concern itself more intimately than Verse with what is variable in time and place, then a prose-fiction can take a more powerful hold of those eddies of current fact and incident, as distinct from the deeper and steadier undercourse of things, which, in the language of those who look more to the eddies than to the undercurrent, constitute a social “crisis.” (Masson 16-7)

In Masson’s account, prose preserves the immediate, timely specificities of common, everyday life that poetry effaces. Thus, like the realist novelist described in the famous Chapter 17 of Adam Bede (1859), the scholar of prose fiction can seem to have special, immediate access to history-in-process because prose records particulars.

Masson also implicitly legitimates the study of fiction by correlating novels with liberalism and individualism, a correlation that would reach its apex in Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957). Dwelling on the Latin phrase oratio soluta or “loosened speech,” Masson portrays prose as the “natural” language of liberal individuals, in contrast to the artificial oratio vincta or “bound speech” of verse (Masson 33-4). For Masson, verse is both unnatural, because overly conventional, and too uncultivated, an almost rudimentary, undeveloped form of human speech: “Song or rhythmical utterance was the original form of all human speech just as the mode of thinking and feeling natural to such rhythmical utterance was the original mode of all human consciousness” (Masson 33). Prose, on the other hand, is for Masson natural and free of convention, but nevertheless the most modern, developed, and sophisticated form of expression. Masson thus tells a progressive, “Whig” history of prose fiction’s evolution correlated to the progress of freedom and individuation: “human thought, becoming less and less homogeneous, is found to demand corresponding diversity in the modes of its expression” (Masson 34).[4] He avers that “the narrative impulse” (Masson 47) coincides with an increased attention to love and to minute particulars; greater “liberty of speech and action,” especially for women (Masson 37); and the democratic leveling enacted by an extended use of vernacular language. Inscribed in this defense of novels as an appropriately historical and empirical object of university study, then, is an argument for the moral and political agency of novels: Masson’s work naturalizes novels as subjects of liberal education by integrating them with the liberation of common citizens and women, two political objectives that became primary objectives of scholarship on novels in the 1970s.

Where twentieth-century critics might perform “close readings,” Masson experiments with the then fashionable discourse of statistics to represent the value and meaning of fiction. He offers page-long lists of novelists and patiently calculates the numbers of novels and volume parts published over various decades and in various cities. Masson enumerates the history of the novel as an inventory and gauges its value—its ideological and emotional influence and “meaning”—based on “matter of quantity” and “productiveness,” on the “velocity” of what he calls “the novel-producing apparatus at work among us” (220). The fourth lecture of British Novelists and their Styles lists the prominent novelists since Scott and again substantiates the value of fiction by registering its sheer volume (the lists comprise several pages and includes arithmetical calculations). The form of the list and the form of this lecture, which divides nineteenth-century fiction into over a dozen subgenres, does not portray “the novel” as a unified genre progressing or developing over time, but instead portrays the multiplication of different subgenres of novel as the effect of a society that was becoming more complex and more various.  Masson’s subgenres include “the novel of Scottish life and manners,” “the novel of Irish life and manners,” and “the novel of English life and manners,” categories that demonstrate Masson’s investment in fiction as a mode of national characterization.

Here before the advent of “close reading,” Masson dabbles in a mode of statistical criticism that presciently resembles the “distant reading” approach recently led by Franco Moretti (see Farina). The primary reasons for this historical coincidence seem clear. Masson wrote about fiction as a new technology at the advent of the institutionalization of English literary studies, so he used the language of mathematics and the awe-inspiring quantities of novels produced and consumed to justify the value of his new field of scholarship. We write in a time when economic constraints and new technologies of representation have made some question the value of literary study, so some critics have turned to computers and numbers not only because they can indeed help generate new understandings of literary history but also because these technologies reaffirm the relevance and epistemological credibility of literary study.[5]

Masson marshals quantitative data as historical evidence in his discussion of the new spirit of the age in Romantic prose fiction: “between 1789 and 1814,” he writes, “I count twenty novelists, of sufficient mark to be remembered individually in the history of British Prose Literature” (184).  Masson is cautious not to specify exactly what the work of these twenty novelists reveals about British history or the history of the novel because he acknowledges that reading is comprised of largely individual, unrecorded, and ephemeral “impressions” (124, 184) and personal “associations” (163, 164, 184). Deferring to his own readers, Masson writes, “I must depend very much on your own associations with these names [which he lists] for the impressions you are likely to take, along with me, as to the nature of the change or changes in British novel-writing which they represent as having occurred in the quarter of a century now under notice” (184). Masson is not quite what we would call a reader-response critic, then, because he does not perform interpretations of individual texts in order to gauge the response the texts had on readers.

But Masson does interpret two numerical “facts” at the level of genre. First, he notes how “no fewer than fourteen out of the twenty novelists that he has named were women” and, he adds, “No fact of this kind is accidental” (184-5). Masson links this female majority to changes in the condition of women in Europe, to the shift of men to other literary genres, and to transformations of the “general fund” or “stock” of political, economic, social, and personal ideas and affects. Masson claims that women, in dominating the domain of the novel, have vastly improved it; and he prognosticates that women may eventually just as profitably appropriate all other genres as well. A member for the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women from its inception who lectured several times on behalf of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, Masson surmises that prose fiction is a mode particularly well suited to feminine expression and that both the ascent of the novel and the widespread development of women novelists indicate progress and modernity. British Novelists and their Styles thus represented fiction as an adequate object of academic study before the people who benefited by representation in those novels—women, the working classes—were represented in universities like University College, London, and Edinburgh University where such lectures were delivered. Academic criticism of the novel begins here as an act of explicitly political representation and reform.

Masson uses similar statistics to demonstrate the emergence of map iconIreland, Edinburgh, and map iconScotland generally as centers of fiction production (no fewer than 19 out of 29 Waverley novels describe Scotland, according to Masson’s elementary calculations [198]). This basic observation leads Masson to observe social “tendencies” marked by prose fiction, including the embodiment of “those social speculations and aspirations which had sprung out of the French revolution” (189); a “democratic spirit” exemplified by Godwin’s Caleb Williams; a turn to the Gothic as both a reactionary “veneration for the past” and a contemptuous, imaginative rejection of classical forms of representation (191-2); and the emergence of a peculiarly feminine mode of description and the description of feminine manners, tastes, and feelings previously elided by fiction (194-5). If Masson is innovative, then, it is because he turns away from the conventional Victorian critical debates about the relative merits of plot and character, realism and idealism, to historical, political, and ideological concerns of feminism, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism.

Establishing any discipline of study involves generating a set of abstractions (to function as objects of study within the discipline) and a vocabulary of analytical terms (to analyze those abstractions methodically). Masson addresses this with five familiar categories of analysis: idea of subject, incident, characters, scenery, and “extra-poetical contents,” by which he means reflections, digressions, and stylistic flourishes (40). Character and incident dominated nineteenth-century criticism of fiction, particularly for later 1860s journalists and reviewers of sensation fiction who belabored the relative merits of “novels of character” and “novels of incident,” as Bulwer-Lytton had dubbed them in “On Art and Fiction.” As novelist Anthony Trollope said, these terms were too interrelated and over-determined to function as useful critical categories. The broadness with which Masson defines all of his categories indicates their inadequacy for the complex combinations of features and effects he and other Victorian critics seem to have felt, perceived, and wished to describe. Masson elaborates “idea of subject,” for example, as “the scheme, the idea, the total meaning, the aim, the impression, the subject,” “conception or intention” (Masson 21, 24). Of all of these apposite terms, “impression” seems most important to his actual valuation of fiction, which rarely describes incidents, characters, or scenery.

For Masson, “impression” connotes more than the influence or affect of reading fictions. It seems to indicate the way novels register and produce concrete abstractions or virtual realities: imaginary things like characters, feelings, and ideas that nevertheless have real agency and effects in the world. Masson describes characters, for instance, as “potent invisibles”: “these phantoms of the human imagination are things, existences, parts of the world as it is,” as real as rocks, trees, and clouds; they have “a function in the real evolution of the future” (Masson 30). Masson writes in a similar way about Walter Scott’s production of characters and “impressions.” Scott has enriched “the thought of the world with additions to its stock of well known fancies” (195):

when we think of the quantity of Scott’s creative writing as well as of its popularity in kind—of the number of romantic stories he gave to the world and the plenitude of vivid incident in each, of the abundance in his novels of picturesque scenes and descriptions of nature, fit for the painter’s art and actually employing it, and, above all, of the immense multitude of characters, real and fantastic, heroic and humorous, which his novels have added to that ideal population of beings bequeathed to the world by the poetic genius of the past, and hovering round us and overhead as airy agents and companions of existence—he evidently takes his place as, since Shakespeare, the man whose contribution of material to the hereditary British imagination has been the largest and the most various. (195)

The encomiastic objective of this passage reveals its obvious link to the belles-lettristic tradition of criticism as taste, but the form of the praise—the language of number, plenitude, population, abundance, multitude—bespeaks how this early example of academic criticism of the novel sought to represent the real, material effects of imaginative, fictional, abstract representations (see Farina).

These ostensibly ineffable impressions are the raison d’etre of Masson’s work; he represents them as the meaning or products of fiction. In a passage that prefigures the language of Walter Pater’s more famous “Conclusion” to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873), Masson writes:

The moral effect of a novel or poem, or any work of the kind, lies not so much in any specific proposition that can be extracted out of it as its essence, and appended to it in the shape of an ethical summary, as in the whole power of the work in all its parts to stir and instruct the mind, in the entire worth of the thoughts which it suggests, and in the number and intensity of the impressions which it leaves.  The addition which it makes to the total mind, the turn or wrench which it gives to the mind, the collection of impressive pictures which it hangs on the walls of the imagination—these are the measures of its value, even morally.  (124-25)

Pater also privileges impressions over ideas and theories and writes quantitatively of maximizing their number: “impressions—colour, odor, texture—in the mind of the observer . . . impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them”; he aspires “to be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy” (Pater 187-88).  For Pater, we need to avoid habits and theories: “What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy” (Pater 189). That two contemporary critics writing otherwise dramatically different forms of criticism should share this investment in numerical words and “impressions” affirms that these were fundamental features of the Victorian critical vocabulary.

Masson’s criticism accounts for but does not exhaustively interpret the sheer volume of “impressions” and “associations” “added” to the aggregate population of fiction readers by each novel that is read. Eschewing the potentially didactic content or meanings readers might glean from particular fictions, Masson concentrates instead on the implicit impressions novels generate. Such thinking was not new: Richard Whately’s 1821 review of Jane Austen’s novels in The Quarterly Review, for example, praised Austen’s fiction for making its morality implicit, and thus Whately encouraged the correlation of moral worth with fictional style rather than content. Many other Victorian critics tacitly adhered to this subordination of explicit content to implicit impressions and meanings. Like Whately—and indeed like Shaftesbury, Blair, and Smith before them—Masson finds “latent doctrine” in style (Masson 299) and asserts that implicit purposes, ethos, thoughts, and ideas underwrite fiction unconsciously (Masson 23-4). This conviction evidences how Masson and some others—most famously, perhaps, E. S. Dallas with his theory of “the hidden soul” of art in The Gay Science (1866)—implies that meaning inheres not in authorial intention but in readers and in the historical and cultural information embedded within the language of prose fiction. This representation of meaning as “hidden” legitimated the interpretive work of criticism, because hidden meaning requires special methods of reading and trained readers.

Masson works with two other related terms, “Scotticism” and “locomotion,” that distinguish his work as uncannily prescient of current literary-critical interests. He describes “a North British literature” (157-8) distinct from that of England or London.  Describing Walter Scott as a “genius loci” (163) of Edinburgh, Masson sketches a cultural geography with an alternative capital to London.[6]  Scott exemplifies two key features: a historicist investment in local particularity and “Scotticism . . . of a . . . metropolitan kind” (171). Masson couples Scott’s “actual magnetic or nervous connexion” to his native Scotland with a kind of urbanity or cosmopolitanism, as if Scott’s particular local attachments paradoxically transcend their localism and represent a “catholic and cosmopolitan” (206) frame of mind—a communal, nonpartisan bond different than that found in other writers (171). In line with James Buzard’s recent work on “autoethnography” and British fiction, Masson prefers fiction that registers “specimens of provincial dialect” (220), “native” singularities of manner, habit, custom, and physiognomy to fiction that portrays British subjectivity as homogenous. Valuing such local differences is part of the cosmopolitan attitude Masson denominates “Scotticism.” “Scotticism,” he explains, “is not one invariable thing, fixed and intransmutable . . . it may exist internally as a mode of thought” (205). In British Novelists and their Styles, the historicism and local specificity of Scott’s fiction manifest a kind of inductive attitude: a movement between particularity and generalization that simultaneously disavows modernity (by embracing historical and local specificity) and enacts it (by enjoying that historical and local particularity from the detached position of a participant observer). Masson yearns for this inductive attitude, this curiously named “internal Scotticism,” to underwrite all literature (206).

The localism of “internal Scotticism” is counterbalanced by the urbanity and mobility of the related category Masson dubs “imaginary locomotion.” “Imaginary locomotion” indexes how well a novel moves readers to a specific place, time, and culture, how well it embodies the “undercurrents” and “motive currents” of its milieu. The “centralization” of fiction in London generated cosmopolitan genres like “the novel of fashionable life,” “the illustrious criminal novel,” “the traveller’s novel,” “the novel of American manners and society,” and “the Oriental novel, or novel of Eastern manners and society” (222). “Imaginary locomotion”—not character, plot, moral purpose, or realism—dominates these genres as well as “the military novel,” “the naval novel,” “the novel of supernatural phantasy,” “the historical novel,” and “the novel of purpose” (223). Masson here reaffirms the “versatility” of Bulwer-Lytton’s generic classifications, on which he has based his own, as if to suggest that the literariness of novels is an effect of their versatility, their comprehensiveness, their movement or “imaginary locomotion” (228-29).

Recycling much from Masson’s 1851 essay on Pendennis and David Copperfield, one section of British Novelists and their Styles discusses the “fresh impulse” Dickens and Thackeray afforded fiction by popularizing “the British Metropolitan novel” or “the novel of cockney fun” (223, 239, 253). This subgenre capitalizes on “imaginary locomotion” because it portrays the metropolis, like the novel, as a combination of different dialects, cultures, places, classes, occupations, mannerisms, and modes of life:

London is as good an epitome of the world as anywhere exists, presenting all those phenomena of interest, whether serious or humorous, which result from great numbers, heterogeneousness of composition, and close social packing; besides which, as the metropolis of the British Empire, it is the centre whither all the sensations of the Empire tend, and whence the motive currents issue that thrill to the extremities (238-39).

Masson sees this as characteristic of the age and the novel: “Was there ever a time when Britain contained within it a greater mass of esoteric opinion at variance with existing profession and practice” (256). The very mobility and diversity of the modern world necessitates the mobility and diversity of the novel to represent it adequately.  Masson discusses how “representative institutions” are on trial by new forms of representation like metropolitan prose fiction, realism, and Pre-Raphaelitism, which are peculiarly suited to registering current movements of thought, including “an increased willingness to accept, as worthy of study and representation, facts and objects accounted common, disagreeable, or even painful” (258-9).

As Nicholas Dames suggests, “even the most potentially embarrassing or incorrect of [historical] critical practices may have lessons for us” (330), and I would suggest here that generous, careful attention to the curious terms of criticism like Masson’s can help us better understand the specific epistemic objectives of Victorian intellectual work and the ill-defined Victorian genre of criticism. British Novelists and their Styles marks the initial legibility of modern categories of literary analysis (feminism, nationalism, cosmopolitanism) and records for us some of the prevalent and important—however vaguely named and defined—epistemic categories of Victorian literary analysis, including the “impressions” or “undercurrents” that we now denominate affects and ideologies and the “internal Scotticism” or “imaginary locomotion” that we now tend to describe in terms of cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and mobility. Some of these objectives have become legible because they correspond to current 21st-century interests, but what other prescient insights might remain illegibly embedded in Masson’s curious criticism unavailable to us because we have not yet represented them as legitimate objects of knowledge?

Jonathan Farina is Assistant Professor of English at Seton Hall University.  He has taught at Vanderbilt and at NYU, where he earned his PhD in 2008.  Jonathan has published articles in RaVoN, Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex, Victorian Literature and Culture, Victorian Periodicals Review, Victorian Studies, and elsewhere, and he is presently completing a book manuscript, Everyday Words: The “Character” of Nineteenth-Century British Realism.


published May 2012

Farina, Jonathan. “On David Masson’s British Novelists and their Styles (1859) and the Establishment of Novels as an Object of Academic Study.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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[1] The principles of New Criticism did of course predate it: its roots were in German Romanticism and Coleridgean poetics, the art of fiction debate, Biblical hermeneutics, and late nineteenth-century works of literary interpretation like Richard Green Moulton’s Shakespeare as Dramatic Artist (1885).  As Suzy Anger points out, John Ruskin and others had performed some close textual analyses in the latter half of the century (Anger 136-41).

[2] Other influential appeals for a science of criticism include E. S. Dallas’s Poetics: An Essay on Poetry (1852) and The Gay Science (1866) and Moulton’s Shakespeare as Dramatic Artist.

[3] Masson concludes his book with an injunction for future novelists to aspire to greater “breadth of interest,” more “elemental” concerns, something more poetic than romance and historical specificity.  Like G. H. Lewes, Masson blurs the distinction between realism and idealism (the category that best captures what he means by “elemental” concerns). He prefers “elemental” to ideal because he wishes to avoid the common misperceptions of idealism as somehow antirealist. On the balance of idealism and realism, see G. H. Lewes’s “Realism in Art.” Masson also discusses his aesthetic ideal as a combination of realism (exemplified by Thackeray) and idealism (exemplified by Dickens) (233-53).

[4] Masson’s thesis here coincides strongly with Ian Watt’s influential 1957 argument in The Rise of the Novel, however much the methodologies and generic conventions of their books necessarily differ.  Both books assert that the story of the novel’s development is a story of increasing attention paid to individual experience, empirical observation, and resistance to the abstraction of philosophical idealism.

[5] On computer technologies and literary study, see the “Forum on Evidence and Interpretation in the Digital Age” in Victorian Studies. Many Victorian critics employed simple statistics to remark on the scale of fiction production—among many other things—but the practice tapered off in literary criticism after Vernon Lee’s work in the early 20th century (it persisted in the separate domain of linguistics).

[6] See Duncan, who elegantly makes this case according to modern scholarly protocols, generic expectations, and terms.