Ugliness in Fiction

A severe family health crisis this week has prevented my writing a blog, and I offer instead this extract from the concluding part of an article ‘On Ugliness in Fiction’ in the Edinburgh Review of April 1908 (pages 463-4).

A somewhat tardily exhibited regard for space induces us to cut short our chain of analyses. It was necessary to make it sufficiently long to assure our readers that the evil to which they point is of sufficiently frequent manifestation to warrant attention. But we have by no means exhausted our stock of examples. Many of those which remain are such as to render any description of them difficult in the pages of this Review. 

Once more let us emphatically say that our reduction to their bare poles of the plots which we have given was neither unfairly nor unkindly meant. We have done it in order to place, without confusion or admixture, one question before contemporary writers of fiction: ‘Why work upon a bad subject? Why prostitute your undoubted literary gifts?’ All novels should be contributions towards the liberal education of their readers. Though not to be obtruded, this purpose should be unswervingly kept in view. So delicately should the teaching be administered that it should be imbibed almost insensibly by the scholar. 

None of our really great novelists have posed as pedagogues; but who among us, all the same, has not felt that he has risen up the better for having read one of their books? Have they not laid bare to us our failings, our affectations, our self-seeking, our vanities, our falsenesses?—some quality of conduct, positive or negative, which has prevented us from deserving that useful, if sartorial epithet, ‘thorough-stitched’? Do not such writers place before us ideals of a practical altitude to which we may hopefully aspire, and, in contrast with them, lower standards of sufficient likeness to our own unassisted views of life to strike us with their perilous proximity? And because such men bestow these serious boons on us, are they in any way shorn of their powers to interest, excite, and amuse? How varied are their characterisations, how free is their fun, how sound their pathos; how true their love of landscape, how rich and vivid their descriptions of external nature! Have we any real need to justify ourselves when we beg their successors in art to work in the same fields which they and many good men before them have indeed tilled, but which no amount of cropping will ever exhaust? 

By all means, in order to achieve actuality give all types and topics their due places in the broad pages of art, just as they take them in the life-dramas which we see enacted around us. But do not let the evil and the phantastic usurp the field of presentation, nor let necessary shadows grow till they obscure the picture, the main qualities of which should still be brightness and beauty. Every artist should remember that his own nature rises and sinks with the choice of his subjects no less surely than it rises and sinks with the earnestness of the work which he puts into them. And of all artists the novelist is specially bound to gauge his responsibility by the reflexion that inasmuch as the novel is devoured by larger crowds than those which are accessible to any other form of didactic literature, its debasement spreads moral decadence over a proportionately greater section of mankind.


  1. Praying for you in your difficult circumstances - hope the crisis is being resolved. My only comment on the blog itself is that its original author had clearly not read Judges 19.


Post a comment