[Before turning to an appraisal of the latest "sensation novels" by Margaret Oliphant and Mary Braddon, Dallas offers a general discussion of the significance of the "great mass of fiction" now published each week in various formats.- Graham Law]


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t is said that within the space of 35 days during the last autumn no less than 46 novels were offered for subscription in Paternoster-row - that is, nine every week for five successive weeks. The number seems to be prodigious, but in truth it gives no adequate idea of the quantity of fiction which is written and printed, published and read, year by year in this country. Not only are there heaps of stories, great and small, produced in single, in double, and in treble volumes, each one by itself, but let it be remembered that there are an infinity of periodicals, weekly and monthly, varying in price from a halfpenny to half-a-crown, which have, with scarcely an exception, each a story on foot, and some of them two. Now, making every allowance for the fact that nearly all the important novels are first published in the periodical form, and then separately, so that they figure twice in any calculation which we may make of the number of novels, it will still appear to any one who will sit down and think calmly of our fictitious literature that its bulk is enormous. There has never been anything like it before. To the literary historian it is an unparalleled phenomenon, and people know not what to make of it. There is a very deluge of fiction, before which we critics who are expected from time to time to give some account of it stand in despair, helpless - quite unable to cope with the overwhelming flood that seems as if before long it would drown the whole world of fact. We wonder who are the writers; we wonder who are the readers. The publishers seem to be well content, and to be holding out their arms for more and ever more novels, so that the whole business looks like a success. But what puzzles us most is, not that there should be so many readers of novels, but that there should be so many writers. Political economists will, of course, begin to tell us of the inevitable laws of demand and supply, high prices and competition. But then a book is not like the usual articles of trade - a thing to be consumed and destroyed, or a thing limited as to the quantity of it that can be produced. It can be multiplied to any extent, and it remains to be passed from hand to hand for years. The odd thing is that the public should buy reams of bad novels when they can get good ones in any quantity. When people say that tastes differ they fancy they account for all that may seem strange in such conduct, but they do not. Tastes also differ about wines but people would not buy bad wines if they could get good wines, a thousand times better, at the same price. The fair inference is either that between the good and the bad novels there cannot be such a mighty difference as is commonly supposed, or that people are so perverse as to prefer vileness and falsehood to nobleness and truth.

The Archbishop of York the other day made an onslaught on the class of novels which are called sensational; but we confess to being in considerable doubt as to the meaning of the phrase; for, strictly speaking, all literature that is not sensational must be soporific. It must either make a sensation or dull sensation. The name of sensation is a mere bugbear. If in sensation there is any real evil, then let it be expressed in plain language. We do not in the least wonder that moralists and dignitaries of the Church should begin anxiously to inquire what are likely to be the effects of novels on the national mind. But the most serious questions are suggested not by this or that species of novel but by the whole mass of our fictitious literature. We do not pretend to solve these questions. It is easy for bishops who care more for sermons than anything else to denounce fiction as evil. It is easy for Lydia Languish, who needs the gentle stimulant of a love story, to exalt fiction to the skies. We see before us a literary phenomenon which is quite unexampled - a great moral and literary movement which we will neither condemn rashly nor rashly applaud. In the present stage of the movement both applause and condemnation must be based on those foregone theories which are the opprobrium of criticism, and which the facts of literary history in every age of the world seem to take a malicious pleasure in oversetting. The proper attitude of a critic in view of this unwonted phenomenon is simply that of watchfulness. We overstep our duty - we overstep the logic of the facts if we pretend to be in possession of some great canon of criticism that condemns our recent fiction. On the other hand, we are mere partisans and not critics if we so pronounce in favour of the enormous spread of fiction among us as to leave it to be understood that it is unattended with danger. The true attitude is that of watchfulness. . . . What is to be the effect morally of all this cultivation and study of fictitious worlds? Is there no danger of its going too far? A moderate allowance of fiction may be all very well; but what is to be the effect when fiction begins to override every other species of literature? So, again, from the critical point of view, What is likely to be the fate of that literature in which fiction, and prose fiction, is the most important element? We see thousands of fictions produced, of which, perhaps, not one in a thousand will live for a score of years. Will the literature of which it is the most important part have a much better chance? These questions, we say, are not to be answered in the present state of our knowledge; but they must not be forgotten. [8d]

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[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Novels," The Times (30 December 1864): 8d-f. [Review of: Margaret Oliphant, The Perpetual Curate, 3 vols; Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1864; and M. E. Braddon, 3 vols; The Doctor's Wife, London: John Maxwell, 1864.]

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