The Development of the British Short Story

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The Development of the British Short Story: Volume 1

Professor Charles E. May is currently working on a history of the British Short Story as a genre in which he analyzes the structure and theme of a number of important stories and try to clarify what contributions they have made to the development of the form. Here is an outline of Volume 1 of that book, with a brief comment on why the stories are important.

Volume 2 will focus on the British Short Story from Joseph Conrad to the present.


Chapter 1: Eighteenth-Century Backgrounds

Daniel Defoe’s “A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal” (1706). raises the issue of “fact” versus “fiction” so emphatically that it can serve as exemplary of many of the discriminants between the novel and the short story.

Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Disabled Soldier” (1765) focuses on the “misery” of the little man rather than on the misfortune of the great one– an emphasis that Frank O’Connor has suggested is characteristic of the short story since its beginnings with Gogol’s “The Overcoat.”

The first single work of short fiction in English literature to have a marked effect on the short story form that followed it, a work that perhaps set the tone for all nineteenth-century English short fiction, is Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” (1765).

“Sir Bertrand” (1773), by Anne Letitia Aiken, better known as Mrs. Barbauld, is a tour de force illustration of the twin appeals of the gothic: suspense and the marvelous. Indeed, it seems completely wrenched away from any novelistic elements of “as if” reality.

Chapter 2: Romantic Origins

Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children” (1822), because of its narrative movement and its management of time between the present and the past, is a central example of the emergence of the short story from the essay.

Although John Polidori’s “The Vampyre: A Tale” (1819) cannot be said to have had a direct influence on the development of the short story in English literature, it deserves mention as the first vampire story in English, which gave rise later to many other gothic stories in the latter half of the century.

Sir Walter Scott’s insert tale in Redgauntlet, often anthologized as “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (1824), forms an interesting bridge between the traditional folk tale in which confrontations with the devil are the stock-in-trade and the later British mystery story in which the supposed supernatural is accounted for in a grotesque but naturalistic way.

Chapter 3: The Mid-Century Mystery Tale

Wilkie Collins’s “The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed” (1856). is a particularly clear example of the realistic drive toward the understanding and naturalizing of the supposed supernatural—a drive that becomes as much a part of the narrative interest as the underlying mystery itself.

Edward Bulwer Lytton’s story “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” (1859), embodies a central theme in nineteenth-century British short fiction in which a projection of the mind is so taken to be real that the blurring of the lines between the physical and the spiritual becomes a predominant motif and manner of presentation.

Chapter 4: Stories by Major Victorian Novelists

George Eliot’s “The Lifted Veil” (1859), an interesting example of what happens when a novelist in the realist tradition turns her hand to the short fiction form, is better looked at as a typical irrealistic short story than as an atypical realistic novel.

Charles Dickens’s story “The Signalman” (1866), makes use of the techniques of the later turn-of-the-century short story and poses the problem of genre: Are we to read it as a ghost story, as a spiritualist story of precognition, as a symbolic story, or as a psychological story?

“Barbara of the House of Grebe,” the best-known story in Thomas Hardy’s A Group of Noble Dames (1891), focuses on the confusion of the lines between the actual and the fictional—a confusion that allows characters to project inner desires and aesthetic states outward and then respond to them as if they were real.

Chapter 5: Aestheticism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Hand and Soul” (1850), has been called the first story in the line of “aesthetic fiction” that finally comes to full flower in the nineties, the so-called “golden age” of the short story in England.

Walter Pater’s “Child in the House” (1878), presents an interesting half-way point between the “moments of vision” emphasized by Wordsworth and the “moments of vision” Virginia Woolf captures in her short narratives

In Arthur Symonds’ “Christian Trevalga” (1905), a story of the development of an artist, the plight of the pianist Trevalga is a parable of the ultimate implication of the aesthetic view in that Trevalga cuts himself off from external reality altogether.

George Gissing’s best-known story, “The House of Cobwebs” (l900), identifies the man of letters as one who can enter into another’s mind. “The House of Cobwebs” is a house of fiction spun out to suggest the dual process of both the human and the intellectual out of which fiction is made.

Ernest Dowson’s “The Dying of Francis Donne” (1896), is an embodiment of the transformation of the dry bones of science into an elegant literary pattern. It presents death as the fulfillment of the aesthetic–the ultimate transformation of life into the art work that is the story itself.

Max Beerbohm’s “A. V. Laider” (1919), is a typical example of the early twentieth-century century British short story’s central self-reflexive technique, for it plays with the reader’s credulity and asserts the primacy of imagination over external reality.

Chapter 6: Tales of Ratiocination

Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892), is a paradigm of the classic formula of the detective story, the key to which is the attention one must pay to the details of the text itself, which are meaningful because they are symbols of what is now absent but is nonetheless significant.

In G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown story, “The Blue Cross” (1910), the aesthetic solution is the true solution. Father Brown plays the roles both of the criminal, leaving clues to his actions, and the detective who has solved the crime before it has been committed.

H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” (1904), reverses the conventional story motif of a man entering a world of the strange and the unusual, for in this case, the legendary world is foregrounded as a world that ironically perceives the “real” world to be mythical.

Chapter 7: Late Gothic

Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”(1907), is a story that seems typical of Blackwood’s thematic structure of having an average man, through a “flash of terror or beauty,” experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday.

Arthur Machen’s most famous tale, “The Great God Pan” (1890), is based on the assumption that beneath external reality lies another realm that man intrudes upon at his peril. The imagination is manifested as a mysterious suppressed absence which must be discovered.

“Casting the Runes” (1911), Montague Rhodes James’s most anthologized tale, is a typical short story for its time; its content consists of late nineteenth-century occultism, and its structure is a variant of a combination of demonism and detective work.

W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902), provides a helpful structural transition between the stories of Blackwood and Machen and those of Dunsany, De Le Mare, and Saki; for although it communicates the sense of horror of the earlier writers, it makes use of the well-made short story structure and the ironic tone of later ones.

Chapter 8: Modern Fantasy

Walter de la Mare has been called the most distinguished of the writers who made the Edwardian age a “haunted period” in English literature. For de la Mare, only the imagination makes reality significant, and what we call external reality itself is like a dream—a characteristics of the short story genre itself that can be seen most readily in de la Mare’s two best-known and most anthologized stories, “The Creatures” and “The Riddle” (1923).

Saki (H. H. Munro) marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century. His most anthologized story, “The Open Window” (1914), is a clear example of a fiction that depends for its impact on the means by which story itself works. “Sredni Vashtar” is the quintessential Saki story about the romancer who makes his imagination become real; however, the tone of this story is more serious than that of “The Open Window,” for more is at stake.

Chapter 9: Robert Louis Stevenson

It is no coincidence that the first British writer to be recognized as a specialist in the short story is also the champion of the romance form in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nor is it coincidence that this short‑story specialist was one of the first British short‑fiction writers to focus, as did Henry James, on technique and form rather than on content alone. The writer of course is Robert Louis Stevenson, and many critics suggest that it is with his work that the true modern short story began in England.

What Stevenson has done in “A Lodging for the Night” (1877), is to create a story about the artist who transforms reality into art stuff, even as Stevenson himself transforms the details of the story into art stuff. The story is an exercise in just this seeming paradox, indicating that reality must be dealt with both in terms of practical existence and the ambiguous mixture of amusement and horror, for life and death must be mocked in order to transform them into art at all.        

In “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door” (1877), Stevenson gives us the very essence of poetry, for it focuses on the conventional romance situation even as it comments on the nature of the romantic tale as a genre

“Markheim” (1884), radically foregrounds the dichotomy inherent in fiction between character and event. Rather than focusing on form because he had little content of value to communicate, as some critics have claimed, Stevenson, like Henry James, is primarily concerned with the structure and essential nature of fiction itself.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1885), is perhaps the purest example in English literature of the use of the doppelganger convention to represent the duality of human nature. However, more interesting than this external projection of the double self is the method by which the story itself is constructed.

Chapter 10: Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace the characteristics of the short story form whole-heartedly; thus his stories are perfect representations of the transition point between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern short story.

It is little wonder that “The Man Who Would be King” (1888), has such a comic tone, for truly what Kipling is playing with here is not the nature of empires, but the nature of story itself.

The tenuous world of fable is also the subject of Kipling’s other well-known India tale, “Without Benefit of Clergy” (1899). The fantasy world can exist only as the participants of the fable can maintain their separation in a world of their own making.

“Mary Postgate” (1915), is a tacit story of Mary’s hidden life in which she lives only in her imaginative relationship with others. What the story provides is the ironic single opportunity for Mary to act, by not acting. The fantasy world becomes momentarily real and thus Mary finds a release for her previously unexpressed desires.

Kipling’s most famous story, “The Gardener (1925), depends on concealment of an inner life for its effect, for it depends on the notion of a double life, a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality.

The Short Story Column / Charles E. May / 11th May 2015

Charles E. May is professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. He is the author/editor of ten books, including ‘Short Story Theories’, ‘New Short Story Theories, The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice’, ‘I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies’, and over 200 articles and reviews on the short story. He publishes weekly essays on the blog Reading the Short Story.