The following discussion has been included in the Victorian Web with kind permission of the author from John Whalen-Bridge, Political Fiction and the American Self. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

The Political Novel (1924), Speare points to the connections between this form and such English didactic literature as Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders and Samuel Johnson's novelistic parable The History of Rasselas. To understand what Speare means when he claims that the political novel develops from didactic literature, we must recall that, in the decades before Joyce's Ulysses (1922), it was just as often a defense as a criticism to describe a book as didactic or moralistic. We have become used to thinking of didactic literature as a crude evolutionary stage, like the morality play that had to be borne before Shakespeare's morally variegated art became possible; however, according to Speare, Defoe does not divide moral intelligence from psychological insight, as though one were the primitive and the other the mature form. In reading Moll Flanders through Speare's eyes, "we watch the infinite misery of a sinner who, after arriving at Newgate, gets no satisfaction from repentance when she knows that it has come after the power of sinning further has already been removed from her" (360). Literary movements that became powerful during the Cold War such as Modernism and New Criticism have been quick to dismiss just this sort of didacticism.

In emphasizing the didactic function of literature as he did, Speare unknowingly left himself vulnerable to later critics, who could blame him for defining the political novel in an anti-literary or anti-aesthetical way. Completely lacking in foresight what we in the age of political correctness now know to be true, Speare would define the political novel as

a work of prose fiction which leans rather to `ideas' than to `emotions'; which deals rather with the machinery of law-making or with a theory about public conduct than with the merits of any given piece of legislation; and where the main purpose of the writer is party propaganda, public reform, or exposition of the lives of the personages who maintain government, or of the forces which constitute government. In this exposition the drawing-room is frequently used as a medium for presenting the inside life of politics. (ix)

As we can see from this quotation, Speare's definition is flexible yet specific; he discusses the political novel in terms of its tendencies rather than any rigidly defined characteristics. Speare's is a civil and useful definition that subsequent readers have invariably faulted.

Related Material

References

Speare, Morris Edmund. The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1924.


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Last modified 25 December 2004