I consider myself pretty well-read. You probably consider yourself pretty well-read. Well, compared to Joseph Bottum, author of such bestselling Amazon singles as Dakota Christmas and Wise Guy (not to mention An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America), we’re downright remedial.
Think I’m exaggerating? (As if I ever exaggerate…) Check out, for starters, “God and the Detectives” or “The Mad Scientists’ Club” or “God and Bertie Wooster.” I’ve also seen but a small portion of Jody’s personal library, an act of ocular masochism, bibliophile that I am, that alone was cause for new prescription lenses.
And now we have “The Novel as Protestant Art,” a tour de force biography of the novel that itself is a work of fine art. Jody’s thesis, if I’m reading him correctly, is that what we recognize as the novel — though enjoying antecedents in the works of Boccaccio and Rabelais and, certainly, Cervantes — came into its own as a distinct art form owing to Protestant authors writing in predominantly Protestant cultures and, more important, with distinctly Protestant preoccupations, even if the books themselves were not “dogmatic” or works of proselytism.
Jody begins by accepting the challenge of defining the novel, no easy task. He ushers onto the stage the usual suspects, titles almost always denominated as having giving the genre birth, whether Don Quixote or Gargantua and Pantagruel or even the much-imitated Robinson Crusoe. But Jody digs deeper, into the souls of the heroes and heroines of later works, which is where we will find what we are looking for:
The individual soul’s journey increasingly defines the social line of the English novel from Fielding through the 18th-century picaresques of Smollett and on to Thackeray and Dickens—together with writers as diverse as Mrs. Gaskell, Mark Twain, and James Joyce; novels as different as Moby-Dick, Crime and Punishment, and Herzog—so even more does it define the personal line that runs from Richardson through Jane Austen and Henry James and down to Alice Walker and innumerable others.
I confess there’s something in this kind of novel I find tedious. Austen and James, many others in the Richardson line, are beyond carping; to prefer Dickens to them is as individually revealing and critically pointless as preferring the planet Mercury to the planet Mars. Still, I do prefer Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre, War and Peace to Madame Bovary, Death Comes for the Archbishop to The Awakening (and Rabelais to them all). Reading even much of Virginia Woolf, I find myself tiring of the relentless search inside the psyche, the endless dwelling on internal reality, as though feelings and thoughts about the self were as important and interesting as actions and thoughts about the external universe.
Except that feelings and thoughts about the self actually are important. They were important even in the premodern Aristotelian and Stoic rational accounts of the good life, although they were understood mostly as tools: instruments to be left behind once virtue had been achieved. And feelings and internal consciousness become more than important—they become vital—in the modern turn to the self.
This is what the novel as an art form emerged to address, and what the novel as an art form encouraged into ever-greater growth. The inner life, self-consciousness as self-understanding, becomes the manifestation of virtue and the path for grasping salvation. It’s there in 1813 when Jane Austen has Elizabeth Bennett declare, “Till this moment I never knew myself,” at the great turning point of Pride and Prejudice, and it’s there in 1908 when E. M. Forster has Lucy Honeychurch exclaim that she has at last seen for herself “the whole of everything at once,” at the great turning point of A Room with a View—Forster’s most Austen-like book, intended (as he described it in his diary) to be “clear, bright, and well constructed.”
Plenty of novels, and perhaps the majority of stories told outside the novel tradition, lack thick characters with revealed interior lives. In much of the genre fiction of our time—science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers; romances, westerns, and Napoleonic War sea-stories, for that matter—the thinness of the characters can be a benefit, keeping clear the fact that those characters are acting in a kind of chanson de geste: They instantiate recognizable types, and they perform iconic actions. In the roman tradition (which is to say, in the central stream of the modern novel), the characters are generally required to be fuller: to have unique and individual interior lives. They are required to be realistic, the novelists say, although the range of novelistic interior lives contains its own share of well-defined types.
More to the point, such books seek to explain (and by explaining, validate and make ever more central) the kind of distinct and self-conscious self whose invention in modernity is suggested by its absence in previous literature. This is why we hesitate, backing and filling a little, before naming as novels such ironic 18th-century chanson fiction as Voltaire’s Candide and Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, but do not hesitate at all to give the name to Sarah Fielding’s relatively minor book of roman fiction, The Countess of Dellwyn—although all three were published in the same year, 1759, 40 years after Robinson Crusoe and 150 years after Don Quixote.
The self-investigation of the self, the attempt to discern the truth amidst the clash of feelings with perceptions of social and physical reality, emerges as the proper spiritual journey of individuals and the true rightwising of their souls: Pilgrim’s Progress, rewritten in self-consciousness. This is the purest stream of the modern novel, however much we like Dickens—however much we understand the outward peregrinations of Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and Pip Pirrip as reflecting an inward journey toward mature self-understanding. And this stream has its wellspring in Clarissa Harlowe.
What follows, on Clarissa as the defining example of the novel-as-Protestant thesis, is worth the price of admission alone.
… The “divine Clarissa” has serious internal business to do: the willing of herself into self-integrity, a matching of her self-understanding and self-possession to the virtuous pattern of the salvation to which she has been elected. For most of the novel, she either does not understand or does not care that her breathtaking loveliness is itself a force in the world, sexually active in ways she does not wish to be. In the long time of her dying, however—as the conversion of the rake John Belford into her defender proves—Clarissa’s pale beauty is clarified beyond sexual attractiveness into a pure expression of her sanctification. No wonder Lovelace, shot in a duel with another of Clarissa’s defenders, dies with the prayer “let this expiate” on his lips.
I don’t know what more a reader could want for a Protestant art form. And there Clarissa sits, a million words near the beginning of the literature: the defining wellspring, the inescapable origin, of one of the few streams down which the entire modern project of the novel will run.
Read it all. It’s probably worth as much as, if not more than, a three-credit course in the English novel in even the best of universities.