English, Department of



Nicola Harris

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2018 (30)


The narratives of the Victorian writers are infused with detailed expositions of living, felt pictures; it was inevitable given the expectations of their audience. Furthermore, writers-cumcritics such as Henry lames testify to the difficulty of 'drawling] a hard and fast line on the border-land of explanation and illustration'.' lames was central to the protracted Great Debate surrounding 'The Art of Fiction' which took place in 1884, and the discussion encouraged Robert Louis Stevenson to respond with his 'A Humble Remonstrance', a gesture which can be interpreted as a tactical manoeuvre to keep the debate open. Andrew Lang's own 'The Art of Fiction', though not unduly interested in facing the more contentious issues, particularly the relationship between Art and Life, does support the notion that artistic worth can be measured by its capacity to satisfy a particular 'taste'. More importantly, he also brings psychology, realism and pictorialism into close proximity, and states his preference for a novel with a good story,

above all the Bostonian nymphs who ever rejected English dukes for psychological reasons. But, to be fair, it is a matter of taste. A novel is a picture of life; many people like the picture to represent still life, or, as the French put it, nature morte.'

From the reductive point of view of both WaIter Besant (the initiator of the debate) and Lang, 'the story is the thing', but this contingency for lames diminishes the novel to 'an artificial ingenious thing', relegated from its 'immense and exquisite correspondence with Iife'. To counteract this tendency to diminish, lames professes to see enormous potential for 'adventure' in the Bostonian illusion. The inner, lived experience is transformed into a 'picture' or 'portrait' demanding attentive scrutiny: 'I see dramas within dramas in that, and innumerable points of view. A psychological reason is, to my imagination, an object adorably pictorial' (AF, p.41).