Allan Massie

Open to the world?

Allan Massie draws a distinction between open and self-enclosed novels

One may make a distinction between two types of novel: the self-enclosed and the open. The distinction is not absolute. Such things never are. Genre fiction may merge with what is called the literary novel, for instance. Still the categories I have in mind are useful, or at least interesting. By the self-enclosed novel, I mean one which makes no reference — or almost no reference — to anything beyond itself. It belongs to its age of course, but it does not appear to be set in time. Time naturally passes, as it must in a narrative, but there is no suggestion that events in the world of fact beyond the novel might impinge on its characters, influence their behaviour, or affect the course of their lives. The doors of the novel are closed against the winds of the world.

In the open novel, these winds, which are the winds of history, beat upon the characters. Indeed history is itself a character in this kind of novel, even if the author chooses not to introduce real-life historical figures. In, for instance, that fine novel by Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day, the second world war is a character as the Napoleonic Wars are not in Jane Austen’s beautifully self-enclosed novels. The treason of which the heroine’s lover is guilty would seem less significant if we didn’t bring to our reading of the novel our knowledge of the enemy he has chosen to serve — the enemy whom his lover, Stella, rightly calls ‘horrible — specious, unthinkable, grotesque’.

The open novel was invented more or less by Walter Scott, though it had ancestors in Defoe and Fielding. Especially in the series of great novels set in the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries, Scott demonstrates that, for a man of a certain stamp at a certain time, there is no escaping history.

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