I know. You’re thinking, “What on earth can Bennetts be talking about now? And anyway, what could Bennetts possibly find to admire about the author of Brave New World? There’s not a single mention of Wellington, Castlereagh or Nelson anywhere in his work!”
Well, that is true. And obviously, it is a serious drawback.
Nevertheless, Huxley wrote some of the finest essays on literary criticism in the English canon. And I’ve lately been thinking a very great deal about the one entitled, Tragedy and the Whole Truth.
Chiefly because in it, he hits on one of the qualities that make English literature great. And that is the telling of the whole truth. Or you might prefer to call it the everpresent strain of irrepressible comedic writing…
One of his prime examples of “the whole truth” is found in Henry Fielding’s tour de force 18th century novel, Tom Jones.
Now the scene is this: our heroine, the beautiful Sophy Western, has run away from her father’s house. And at the end of a long day’s journey, she rides into an innyard meaning to secure lodgings for the night. Whereupon, she promptly falls off the horse into the mud, legs in the air, revealing to the grooms and ostlers and bystanders her lack of undergarments. This, naturally, causes great hilarity.
And that’s the whole truth!
It doesn’t matter to Fielding that he based Sophy upon his first wife whom he loved very dearly. He wasn’t being spiteful, he was just telling what really happened… And it’s funny. Because human beings are funny.
And it’s this willingness to see ourselves and to laugh at ourselves and to mock our own pretensions that makes the English novel such a wonder.
It’s a thread too–this willingness to tell the whole inglorious hilarious truth–that runs straight through from Chaucer through Shakespeare and Austen all the way to the present.
(I mean, you often get the sense with Shakespeare that he just couldn’t help himself–he’d been sitting down the pub thinking out this scene and these lines which had him laughing so hard and he just had to put them in…I’m convinced that’s what happened with Touchstone and all his mocking love poems in As You Like It…)
But this thread of effervescent ebullient humour over the human condition even–and I know it’ll shock you to hear me say this–runs through those authors about whom I complain, those pesky Victorians.
I know. I know.
I have described the Victorian novel as a great big fat overlarded suet pudding, the likes of which would sink a small frigate without nary a trace. And I have made it clear that I would only read one under extreme duress. Or for a very large cash payment (tens, twenties–used notes please).
But that, as I’ve discovered as I’ve thought about this, is not actually true.
Because the fact is, I love Dickens’ novels. And he was probably the greatest of Victorian novelists. But I’m also a huge fan of Anthony Trollope.
And both these authors were heirs of this tradition of telling of the whole hilarous truth. (Indeed, some call Dickens the greatest comedic writer in the English language.)
Trollope, of course, is less a purveyor of belly-laughter than Dickens. His is perhaps a slyer, drier wit. Nonetheless, his pairing of the Bishop’s wife, Mrs. Proudie with the oleaginous Rev. Obadiah Slope in Barchester Towers, is one of the great literary couplings of all time. Or if you prefer, the irreverent Bertie Stanhope and his sister, Madeleine. And you can’t think about them without laughing…you just can’t!
And Dickens? Well, even in A Tale of Two Cities–hardly his most laugh-a-minute novel–he gives us that glorious scene of the mild Miss Pross–she who wouldn’t say boo to a goose–beating the knitting needles out of that French thug, Mme Desfarges. And as she does so, not only is there much cheering from the home court, but you can’t help laughing. It’s a comedic triumph!
Equally, any of the dinner scenes with the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend–without a doubt one of Dickens’ darkest works—show our author’s tongue firmly wedged in his cheek. (He couldn’t help it.) He was illustrating the whole truth–and making the reader laugh as he did so. (You’ll be jolly for days afterward.)
So what is it I detest about Victorian literature (I’d mention Edith Stuffy-stays Wharton here, but she’s not English, is she?)–or maybe it’s the pseudo-neo-Victorian stuff–I can’t be sure. And in light of Dickens’ and Trollope’s wonderfully broad array of mirth and wit (think the Fezziwigs!), I’m not certain if it’s properly Victorian at all.
Upon reflexion, I’d say it’s humourless prose so thick you need a sabre to slice it, the stultifying, soap-boxing morality which purveys not true sentiment but its cloying, saccharine, social inferior, sentimentality, elevating not genuine emotion, but its overwrought, overheated, overindulged half-brother, emotionalism.
It’s the absence of the whole truth.
(And for more of the whole truth–I have just been informed that Louis XIV, le grand Roi Soleil, he who built the palace of Versailles, was only 5’4″…Not convinced I can cope with this one…)