Friday, 27 February 2015

The New Realistic Novel by Samuel Johnson.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775).
The New Realistic Novel is an article by Samuel Johnson for his periodical The Rambler, and was published on Saturday, March 31st 1750. The Rambler was all his own work, and unlike other popular periodicals of the time (The Spectator, for example, or The Tatler) it was more academic in style, and he wrote on a variety of subjects from morality, politics, religion, and literature. Examples include:

  • Stoicism (1750)
  • Pastoral Poetry (1750)
  • Sorrow (1750)
  • Capital Punishment (1751)
  • The Need for Enterprise (1751)
  • The Need for General Knowledge (1751)
  • A Rural Tyrant (1751)
  • 'Rules of Writing' (1751)
  • A Prostitute's Story (1751)
  • An Astute Young Lady (1752)

There were, in total, 208 articles, each quite short, and The Ramber ran between 1750 to 1752 at the time when Johnson was working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was later published in 1755.

The New Realistic Novel was the fourth article for the periodical and in the collected edition it was titled 'The modern form of romances preferable to the ancient. The necessity of characters morally good'. Johnson begins,
The works of fiction with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.
This he refers to as "the comedy of romance", which is achieved "without the help of wonder". The learned Dr. Johnson continues by applauding this new 'movement':
Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while readers could be procured, the authors were willing to continue it: for when a man had by practice gained some fluency of language, he had no further care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life.
There is a danger, however, not simply that authors become "just copiers of human manners", but that immoral heroes and heroines corrupt the minds of young readers whose minds are "not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account". Former styles with "the help of wonder" were of no danger because no reader could identify with characters or situations,
But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of universal dramas as may be the lot of any other man, young spectators fix their eye upon him with closer attention, and hope by observing his behaviour and success to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.
Johnson goes on, therefore, to issue caution: "It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn". As a consequence of those characters being drawn "we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit".

He concludes this essay by extolling virtue in literature:
In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.
This essay is a particularly enlightening read and I'm glad this happened to be my first 'Johnson'. The idea that realistic novels should encourage virtue is an old fashioned belief now but it says a lot about the times in which it was written. Contemporary 'fans' of Samuel Johnson's works included Samuel Richardson (author of Clarissa, 1748) and Charlotte Lennox (author of The Female Quixote, 1752), but I wonder what some of my favourite authors would have made of this piece. Would Johnson have condemned Émile Zola, for example? His novels do sometimes make for a bit of a rough read, but his contemptible characters are not without their purpose, and some (I won't get into specifics) condemn themselves by their own lack of virtue even if the corrupt world they inhabit does not.

Jane Austen, who would have been nine when Johnson died, was another writer influenced by Johnson and I can't help but think from this short essay of Johnson's that he would have approved of her works. The time frame in which Johnson was writing was the 'Neo-Classical Period', specifically the 'Age of sensibility' (known too as the 'Age of Johnson'), but though Austen was writing later in the 'Romantic' period her works reflect more 'Neo-Classical' styles and concerns, particularly in (I dare say) Sense and Sensibility (1811). Finally, if I'm thinking about some of my favourite authors: Austen would have passed Johnson's test, and perhaps Émile Zola might have done, but Emily Brontë would not. I am certain he would have condemned Wuthering Heights (1847).

As for others: what would he have made of modernists? Surely James Joyce would not pass the Johnson test, but perhaps Woolf might have done; perhaps he would have been interested and excited by the psychological 'realism' of writing. It's hard for me to say. I think having read this essay it will stay with me and I'll often wonder if the books I am reading would have been approved by Johnson.

Next week for the Deal Me In Challenge I am delighted to say I got the King of Diamonds, which is The Wasps by Aristophanes (the play I ought to have read when I mistakenly read The Frogs). I adored The Frogs so I'm very happy to be reading another Aristophanes so soon!

For now, here is Johnson's article in The Rambler vol. 1, published in 1801 (the article can also he read here on Virtual Salt).


  1. If anyone were able to read only one author from an era, Samuel Johnson would be #1 for his era. And his appraisals of Shakespeare are "must read" selections for anyone who cares about appreciating Shakespeare. I fear, though, that in another generation or two (if not already) Johnson will be read only in graduate school English classes and then only rarely. Thus, I am pleasantly surprised to see you feature him in your blog. Bravo!

    1. I'm planning on reading the Shakespeare part quite soon. I really enjoyed this article so I'm planning on featuring him much more in the year to come. It would be such a shame if folk stopped reading him. I certainly don't!


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