A recent newspaper survey published in
recorded the finding that 81 per cent of a sample of young people between the ages of 18–24 could not name 3 novels by Charles Dickens. This was taken to be an index of educational failure, a clear indication that today’s youths are know-nothings, ignorant of the ‘classic’ landmarks of their cultural heritage. Such a view is somewhat ironic given that, in the early phase of its development, the novel had to struggle hard against a powerful anti-novelistic discourse in order to gain
kind of cultural respectability. When did this situation begin to change? When did the novel begin to be taken seriously as an art form, to the extent that, by the millennium, ignorance of its most esteemed practitioners can be regarded as a touchstone of national malaise? The year 1884 was clearly significant, because in that year Sir Walter Besant gave a lecture at the Royal Institution setting out the proposition ‘that Fiction is an Art in every way worthy to be called the sister and the equal of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, Music, and Poetry’.
Besant’s proposition is less important in itself than for the fact that it stimulated Henry James to write his landmark essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884), in which he advances a manifesto for serious fiction:
Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call
. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it — of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison … During the period I have alluded to there was a comfortable, good-humoured feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding, and that our only business with it could be to swallow it … [The novel] must take itself seriously for the public to take it so.