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12. CHAPTER XII - ON NOVELS AND THE ART OF WRITING THEM
It is nearly twenty years since I proposed to myself to write a history of English prose fiction. I shall never do it now, but the subject is so good a one that I recommend it heartily to some man of letters, who shall at the same time be indefatigable and light-handed. I acknowledge that I broke down in the task, because I could not endure the labour in addition to the other labours of my life. Though the book might be charming, the work was very much the reverse. It came to have a terrible aspect to me, as did that proposition that I should sit out all the May meetings of a season. According to my plan of such a history it would be necessary to read an infinity of novels, and not only to read them, but so to read them as to point out the excellences of those which are most excellent, and to explain the defects of those which, though defective, had still reached sufficient reputation to make them worthy of notice. I did read many after this fashion,--and here and there I have the criticisms which I wrote. In regard to many, they were written on some blank page within the book; I have not, however, even a list of the books so criticised. I think that the Arcadia was the first, and Ivanhoe the last. My plan, as I settled it at last, had been to begin with Robinson Crusoe, which is the earliest really popular novel which we have in our language, and to continue the review so as to include the works of all English novelists of reputation, except those who might still be living when my task should be completed. But when Dickens and Bulwer died, my spirit flagged, and that which I had already found to be very difficult had become almost impossible to me at my then period of life.
I began my own studies on the subject with works much earlier than Robinson Crusoe, and made my way through a variety of novels which were necessary for my purpose, but which in the reading gave me no pleasure whatever. I never worked harder than at the Arcadia, or read more detestable trash than the stories written by Mrs. Aphra Behn; but these two were necessary to my purpose, which was not only to give an estimate of the novels as I found them, but to describe how it had come to pass that the English novels of the present day have become what they are, to point out the effects which they have produced, and to inquire whether their great popularity has on the whole done good or evil to the people who read them. I still think that the book is one well worthy to be written.
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