Still, 1,100 pages (and rather big ones, at that). I wasn’t sure I had the patience for it. Then I read this, in the second paragraph. Schmidt is telling us about the figures he’s enlisted as our guides along the way, novelist-critics like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, V. S. Pritchett, Gore Vidal, and many others:
They are like members of an eccentric family in an ancestral mansion … Some are full of respect, some reserved, others bend double with laughter; the rebellious and impatient slash the canvases, twist the cutlery, raise a toast, and throw the crystal in the grate. Their damage is another chapter in the story.
It wasn’t the notion that Schmidt was going to orchestrate the volume as a dialogue with and among these practitioners, though that was promising. It wasn’t the metaphor of the eccentric family per se, though that was interesting. It was the writing itself. The language was alive; the book would be alive as well. Take a breath, clear the week, turn off the WiFi, and throw yourself in.
Schmidt’s account is chronological, but loosely so. Early chapters flash forward to the present or near-present, so that Aphra Behn shares quarters with Zora Neale Hurston, Daniel Defoe with Capote and Coetzee. Schmidt is weaving threads, picking out lines of descent: the Gothic, the exotic, the vernacular, the journalistic; manners, genres, voices, verisimilitude. Through Mandeville and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and The Pilgrim’s Progress, we see the novel (or rather, its precursors) find a sense of form, coalesce from a sequence of incidents into a coherent structure. Through Defoe and Richardson and Fielding, the 18th-century emergence, we see it becoming the novel.
A Biography: Schmidt’s subtitle is cunningly chosen. The novel begins as a bigheaded infant, takes its first uncertain steps, then slowly gathers its capacities. Once they’ve been invented, they’re available to all. “Earlier novelists address the reader directly,” Schmidt remarks in reference to Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, “but not personally.” Later, in Austen, “something new and remarkable begins to happen”: by perfecting the technique of free indirect discourse, in which the minds of narrator and character merge, she creates protagonists who feel so real “that they can step outside the frame of their particular novel and companion us.” By the time of the Brontës in the middle of the 19th century (we’re a fourth of the way through the book), “the form had become versatile and capacious: Scott filled it with history, the Gothic writers with dream.” Chronology is change but also enrichment; fashions and phases will get our understanding only so far. Every novelist is free to reach back into history, pull out an old trick, and make it new.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster famously requests us to imagine the English novelists not as floating down the stream of time, but “seated together in a room, a circular room,” all writing at once. In Schmidt, they get up and mingle. The book, at its heart, is a long conversation about craft. The terms of discourse aren’t the classroom shibboleths of plot, character, and theme, but language, form, and address. Here is where we feel the force of Schmidt’s experience as an editor and a publisher as well as a novelist. He knows how books get written, and not just in technical terms. He tells us that Fielding got £800 for Amelia, guides us through the office politics of literary London circa 1900, lets us in on who became a drunk, got divorced, had an outsider’s chip on his shoulder. The book is a biography in that sense, too: the lives of the novelists.