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This article is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

Uncancelled Challenge: Raymond Williams III Nicolas Tredell

The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence came out in 1970. Based on a Cambridge lecture course, it combines informality with a close insistence of argument. Williams proposes that the central concern of the novel in this period is "the exploration of community: the substance and meaning of community" (ENDL, 11), at a time when that substance and meaning is more uncertain than ever before. The exploration that the novel conducts is one of form and language, not only of abstractable 'content'. With The Great Tradition implicitly in his sights, Williams seeks to reinstate Dickens and Hardy in the lineage of the English novel, and to reopen what he sees, rightly, as a crucial debate in the development of fiction: a debate focused by the Wells/James dispute. While defending James against Wells's unjust attacks upon his fiction, and correctly stressing the strong consciousness of money, power, property, commodification, in James's novels, he argues that the issues between Wells and James cannot be settled as easily on James's side as 20th century criticism has tended to suggest: the split between the 'personal-psychological' and the 'social-sociological' novel is still at the heart of our creative difficulties and concerns.

Today, we are likely to be aware of Williams's version of the English novel as a 'construction', a questionable selection of texts and emphases, rather than as an authoritative revelation of a line of inheritance and development. We may also ask whether 'community' isn't more important to Williams than it ...


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