The Cambridge Companion to English Novelists

Reading Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors's mammoth and magnificent New Literary History of America, I was continually amazed by the vivacity of its (mostly) American contributors, and regretted that our lot couldn't muster anything like the same pep or zing. Adrian Poole's book, a distinguished achievement on a much smaller scale, proves that to be a foolish thought. Where the Americans were swift and lively but occasionally imprecise, the contributors to Poole's volume, most of them English, are calmer but more exacting. As Bob Dylan, who has received the attention of both kinds of critic, put it in 1966: "You know, the English can say 'marvellous' pretty good. They can't say 'raunchy' so good, though. Well, we each have our thing."

The "thing" these academics have is an ability to move from dot to canvas. A congratulatory letter to George Eliot opens up the context in which she wrote her books; the phrase "multiplying eye" provides a way around the work of Thomas Hardy, described here as "a novelist of the long run". If the descendants of Emerson have a tendency to drift and wander, the children of Empson have sharper concentration and a surer sense of purpose.

There are 27 chapters, one for each English novelist deemed worthy of inclusion. Poole's introduction, enlightening on the mixture of freedom and anxiety that attends the novelist's task, does a slightly evasive job of explaining why Joyce is here and Beckett isn't. But you have to start - and stop - somewhere. Everyone will have a list of the perennially neglected (William Gerhardie or John Cowper Powys). On the other hand, few will bemoan the exclusion - a close-run thing, apparently - of Wilkie Collins or Tobias Smollett. I suspect most readers will feel roughly equally grateful and aggrieved.

The English novel is a tale of rapid progress which, as told here, goes something like this: Defoe invented it from a mixture of journalism and autobiography; Richardson gave it depth; Fielding gave it breadth; Fanny Burney gave it women. At the novel's peak in the 19th century, in the work of Jane Austen and George Eliot, the early signs of promise and progress reached their fulfilment and culmination.

An appropriately autobiographical chapter on Laurence Sterne, by far the book's most wayward contribution, makes all kinds of loud claims and settles a variety of scores. Melvyn New, a leading Sterne scholar, wants to sell his man as "the first 'modern' novelist, the explorer of novelistic conventions even prior to the establishment of the novel tradition". He says that Tristram Shandy "is always the work not discussed by 'rise of the novel' scholars", but then he would, wouldn't he?

Lacking a thesis, the book does not amount to a whole, but its parts are strong and its participants sometimes surprising. Anthony Lane's chapter on Evelyn Waugh pays as much attention to the later, more ruminative novels as to the early, funny ones; it is a surreal joy to witness this heroically flippant writer making the case for a scholarly edition of Waugh's work. The best chapters have a driving force - Robert Macfarlane considers William Golding's confrontations with the unspeakable, Jocelyn Harris emphasises the significance of Austen's reading. In his exceptional chapter on Dickens, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst considers recent accounts of the novels, all the while elaborating his own view of the author as a subtler and more self-conscious practitioner than we give him credit for. The discoveries of Douglas-Fairhurst's close reading yield a new way of thinking about this familiar writer; a chronological tour such as the contribution on Conrad cannot achieve the same impact.

The hardest job falls to Bharat Tandon, who has been given the chapter on Henry Green, a writer capable of bewildering even those of us who are besotted with him. Tandon is obliged to provide a brisk introduction to Green's work, but he also advances an argument about how Green's language at once liberates and honours his characters. I don't think anyone could have done a better job, though he neither quotes nor cites Green's wisest readers, John Updike and V S Pritchett - presumably on the grounds that neither was an academic.

Only a few of the contributions offer a sublime collision like Tandon on Green, or Lane on Waugh, or Douglas-Fairhurst on Dickens, but all contain passages of interest. Poole imposes no strict scheme. Chapters vary in the biographical and historical in­formation they provide, and in their concern with sex, family or money. Some academics find a writer's home life illuminating, others don't. Gone are the bad old days when edited collections of this sort were launched as weapons in the "theory wars". I suppose Terry Eagleton would dismiss most of the work here as "bourgeois-liberal-humanist" - which is another way of saying that the book is not only affordable, but intelligible.

Edited by Adrian Poole

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice