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The following discussion has been included in the Victorian Web with kind permission of the author from John Whalen-Bridge, Political Fiction and the American Self. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

The academic study of the political novel begins confidently in 1924 with Morris Edmund Speare's founding study The Political Novel. He wrote about both English and American political novels but was concerned to show the differences between these traditions as well as their similarities, and he argued that a specific genre, the political novel, had been introduced by Disraeli and developed by subsequent authors such as Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and H.G. Wells, as well as by Americans such as Henry Adams, Winston Churchill, and Paul Leicester Ford. While there were numerous book reviews published condemning the mixture of political activism and literary technique by the time this study was written, Speare's book itself does not describe the political novel as a fallen form. Speare never apologizes for exploring the political novel, a form that soon becomes inherently questionable.

While Speare's pioneering study The Political Novel has been faulted both for his inclusiveness and his exclusiveness, his definition requires the political novelist to do much more than merely represent the various movements and sub-movements of political history. His enthusiasm for "the pageant" and the "canvas" of history may very well have the recognizable feel of the men-only parlor room, of smoking jackets and civil banter, but Speare's privileged-liberal tones should not distract us from more significant matters such as his basic demands of the political novel: "In this sort of pageant men take sides on great national and international issues. Whigs, Tories, Conservatives, Liberals, Unionists, Chartists, Anti-Corn Law Leaguers, Utilitarians, Utopians of every type and color —they crowd upon your canvas and demand a hearing" (26). Inclusiveness may not by itself be a satisfactory defense against charges of elitism. To proceed within the hermeneutics of suspicion properly, we should also ask: Does Speare merely demand that the political novelist include token characters from various rag-tag political parties? Or, if he were writing today, would he say that the political novelist must include representations of all genders, races, and classes? One of the most pleasing aspects of Speare's definition is that he never seems to be making a show of his own moral superiority.

Related Material


Speare, Morris Edmund. The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1924.

Last modified 26 March 2002 [MB]