26 April 2009
John Masefield is still known principally as a poet, despite the twenty-three novels he wrote between 1908 and 1947. The contention of this thesis, however, is that the novels are at least as important as the verse in judging his overall artistic achievement.
The text deals only with the seven novels Masefield published between 1908 and 1911, and this allows greater attention to be paid to his general literary context - though the later novels, from 1923 on, are listed briefly in the introduction.
Chapter One considers Edwardian fiction as a whole, and isolates three basic impulses – realism, romanticism, and didacticism – through the discussion of a few selected novels of different genres. This introductory chapter is followed by another comparing Masefield's poetry with his prose, which concludes that while the verse better satisfies the requirements of its form, the prose is more imaginatively rich. Both are therefore necessary for any fair assessment of his writing.
The third chapter discusses Captain Margaret, Masefield's first novel, and sees certain aspects of the "love triangle" portrayed in it as being explicable only in terms of Masefield's own private emotional life. The book is finally characterized as a Psychomachia, or allegory of the author's repressions and desires.
Chapter Four looks at Masefield's two novels of contemporary life: Multitude and Solitude and The Street of To-Day. Both tend to dramatize the various options lying before him at a crisis in his career, rather than dealing "objectively" with society – but this avoidance of easy generalizations seems, in some ways, to imply a more honest approach than that of the traditional "novel of ideas".
Masefield's four boys' books are the subject of Chapter Five, and are all seen to represent different approaches to the problem of balancing the credulous and sceptical sides of his nature. Lost Endeavour, which embodies these principles in two different characters, is perhaps the most successful of them.
The conclusion discusses Masefield in the same terms as the other Edwardian novelists treated in Chapter One. However, the dichotomy in his works is more between the "natural" and "supernatural" than the realistic and romantic. Children's books are perhaps the ideal medium for conveying this emotional mysticism – since "grown-up" novels require powers of organization which Masefield lacked. His literary affinities are seen to lie more with Blake and Traherne than with his novel-writing contemporaries.