In Henry James’s influential account, criticism of the Victorian novel began in 1884, when Walter Besant’s essay “The Art of the Novel” called forth James’s response of the same title. Up to that point, James claimed, “there was a comfortable, good-humored feeling abroad that a novel is a novel, as a pudding is a pudding.” But such complacency had long been challenged by vigorous critical discussion of the novel, which reflected its stature as the dominant cultural form of the age – as well as its relative novelty and the sheer heterogeneity of its formal structures. (What James mistook for “comfortable” common sense often reflected the maddening difficulty of finding artistic principles shaping such a protean form). To be sure, the field of debate could itself be unruly; the vast bulk of Victorian criticism unfolded in reviews rather than in more systematic treatments, and the dominant modes of reading were more unguardedly personal than those of contemporary academic criticism. Victorian discussions nonetheless frame what would become central concerns in twentieth-century criticism of the novel: the varieties and coherence of the form; novelistic style and its relation to an implied author; the substance of “character” and its relation to plot; the moral dimensions of the novel, its subject matter and effect; the narrator and modes of “presentation” (particularly point of view); the novel as a vehicle of social criticism; the relations of the novel to history, both that of its own forms and that of the world in which it was produced; and, above all, the nature of realism.
When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, the novel was still widely regarded as an idle amusement, which inflamed evangelical mistrust of vain and ungodly indulgences, and exasperated many earnest Victorians. This mistrust persisted throughout the century in a fabled Victorian prudishness about subject matter, vividly incarnated in Dickens’s Podsnap. Though Bulwer Lytton declared in 1853, “It is the treatment that ennobles, not the subject,” this was an eccentric view until the 1880s, and the fiercest battles over novelistic decorum came in the 1890s, particularly in the reception of Zola and Hardy.