'The Novel as a Propandanda Agent' - by Vigilant , Westralian Worker, 15 June 1917, page 2

Fitzgerald made the following annotations regarding this article:

a substantial attempt to consider the place of fiction reading in our lives….still considering the “sex problem”… as part of his domain. [1]

Vigilante makes reference in the article to Plato, H.G. Wells, More, Richardson, Fielding, Thackeray, Eliot, Shaw, Dickens, Marx, Henry George, Edward Carpenter, Carlyle and some popular contemporary authors.


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The Novel as a Propaganda Agent by Vigilant

Narrative and conversation have ever been adopted, by men who desire to deliver great messages to the many, as the best literary vehicles for their thoughts. Plato’s “Republic,” which is, in fact, a treatise on communism, takes the latter form, and Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” (No Place), in the former. More relates the experiences of a traveller in a country where production is carried on communal lines. “Republic” was written more than 2000, and “Utopia” 400 years ago. Neither work should be overlooked by the Labor propagandist, who would be well informed. Both are published in the Everyman Library (1/9 from Perth booksellers).

Neither however, meets the definition of a novel – in fact, the novel is a comparatively recent literary discovery. In 1740 Samuel Richardson, a country gentleman who is described as a “model of the proprieties,” wrote a series of model letters, for a “polite letter-writing” text-book. He conceived the plan of stringing the letters together into a plot, a story, and so produced the first novel. “Wowserish” is the only name for the tale, and possibly the form would not have survived had not Henry Fielding, who was by no means a wowser, written a smart satire upon Richardson’s “Pamela.” Pamela was a very good girl, who met the inevitable very bad man, but whose virtue proved unapproachable. Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” tells of a very good boy, of unassailable virtue, who survives fearful temptations thrown in his way by ladies smitten with passion for him.

The pungent irony, screamingly comical situations, and shrewd delineations of character that the production displayed all combined to ensure an immense success for the new literary form. Unless the reader is prepared to stomach vulgarity capable of bringing the rouge of shame to the cheek of Ezekiel, one cannot recommend Fielding’s novels, but their importance in the history of English literature commands attention.

The fact that the novel deals with possible, or at least feasible events, set in a background of historic fact and real institutions, give it it’s great value as a propaganda medium. We students of economic, social and sex problems desire to understand certain views, aspects and phenomena of society. Treatises such as Marx’s “Capital”. Henry George’s “Progress and Poverty,” or Edward Carpenter’s “Love’s Coming of Age,” are a brilliant achievement of abstract reasoning and such work must form the basis of our economic education. But if we end there, we become mere academician, quoters of Marxian texts, learned humbugs afflicted with mental ingrown toenails. On the other hand to mistake mere novel reading for study is to cultivate an inexact and lazy habit of mind.

It is possible, too, to fall under the moral domination of a particular action-writer, or even of a fictitious character, The soul has been defined as a “complex of emotions,” and an artificial complex of emotions, created by a novelist, might well function as a soul.

“Hereward the Wake,” “Buffalo Bill,” and “Sexton Blake” undoubtedly exert an influence, akin to personality, upon boys, while George Eliot’s Felix Holt, Dickens’s Sidney Carton (in the “Tale of Two Cities”), and Bernard Shaw’s John Tanner and Sandida must influence men and women in much the same way. Nor can it be argued that the personality is entirely that of the author, for authors themselves frequently fall under the domination of their own creations.

This may seem like a digression, but it helps our inquiry by showing the immense power for convincing wielded by the novelist.

To resume: - The treatise is an effort of abstract logic. It is theoretic. The novel is an attempt to prove by experiment. In studying physiology we form a theory concerning say, nerve machinery. We proceed to verify by obtaining a human body no longer required by its owner. We painfully unravel the nerve system. We use chemical stimulants, and electric current. We obtain certain results, and eventually uphold, modify, or abandon our tentative theory. In social science, we form a theory concerning say, sex relations.

  No way of experimenting is possible save by watching the problem develop for the next hundred years. But the novelist adopts a subterfuge. We cannot take a real person and examine his “complex of emotions.” We have no units to measure by, no instruments capable of gauging the quantity, no reagents to reveal the quality of the various emotions that make up the “complex”. But we can create a fictitious complex, and watch it develop.

Thus H. G. Wells created a complex called Ann Veronica. He puts it together piece by piece in the first few chapters. Both he and the reader become thoroughly familiar with it – know just what it thinks and feels, what it may be expected to do. In fact, we lose our own personality and become this new creation, Ann Veronica. We are given a set of surroundings including other complexes less detailed in character. The breath of life is breathed into Ann’s mouth, and off she and we go.

But, you object, is Ann an impossible complex? Has Wells created a real woman, or has his over-fertile brain spawned a psychological monster? The answer cannot be absolute. You may disapprove of Ann, but if she drags you with her – if you become Ann – then her complex is not impossible – to you. Under given circumstances you would, in reality, become Ann. Some others may find the psychological strain too great. Wells’ solution of the puzzle will not do for them.

The power of the novelist rests, not so much in his literary ability as in his knowledge of man, his analytic faculties, his insight into motives and emotions. Dickens was neither so scholarly nor so fine a writer as Thackerary, but he was a greater novelist, because, to take the common expression, his characters “lived”. Everyone knows Peckaniff and Micawber. The terrible Madam Detrage can be visualised by everyone of us, nodding, counting, knitting, as one by the one the bloody trophies of Terror fall from the guillotine.

But, be not led astray. The novelist cannot be held excused from the obligation to write good English. Novel readers, unfortunately, are often satisfied if the ‘moral,’ or the story is there. Generally speaking, your novel writer who can’t write English isn’t to be trusted in his presentation of facts and indeed, his sentiment is usually of the gabby goody-goody order. Mistrust him.

Well, I set out to say something about novels of interest to the workers and I’ve hardly commenced. To tell truth, my muse of late has been away flirting with someone else. Tonight, she won’t stop whispering to me, tho she knows her column’s full.

So, despite her, we must be content with a prosy catalogue (mainly for beginners) of a few worth-while propagandist novels. H.G. Wells, in “Tono Bungay,” deals with the career of a patent-medicine humbug. His “World Set Free” combines in a remarkable way criticism of the social structure, and the scientific-magic factor so common in his earlier works. “Ann Veronica” should be compared with Grant Allen’s “Woman Who Did,” and Bernard Shaw’s “Unsocial Socialist.” But in fairness to Shaw read also his “Sanity of Art,” (an essay) before firing your revolver at a statute of Apollo. To “Felix Holt” and Kingsley’s “Alton Locke,” both stories of radical leaders, may be added. “The Conflict” by Graham Philips. Jack London’s “Iron Heel,” Bellamy’s “Looking Backward,” and Well’s “Sleeper Awakens,” are three attempts at forecast of the future – pessimistic, optimistic and fantastic, respectively.

Upton’s Sinclair’s “Jungle” comes very nearly under the ban on the count of indifferent literary value, but “The Metropolis” is much freer from blemish. But remember, - young propagandists, and recruits to the movement – one of the books you should make up your minds to read is Carlyle’s “French Revolution”. Carlyle understood better than anyone at his time, how much bread had to do with sentiment, and sentiment with revolution. Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” may be read as a light introduction to the subject.



1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36