Henry Fielding, the father of the English novel, is the creator of the panoramic or the epical-novel. In this kind of novel, the novelist ranges over a wide ground and provides a comprehensive picture of the life of the times. The picture which he presents of contemporary life, society, dress, habits, and manners, is epical in its range, sweep, and variety. Every aspect of contemporary life has been presented with rare force and realism, and this makes his four especially Tom Jones, important social documents. As Richard Church puts it, “he is the first writer to focus the novel in such a way that it brought the whole world as we see it, within the scope of this new, rapidly maturing literary form.” Thackeray is another important practitioner of the panoramic novel.
Tom Jones is constructed on an epic scale. The plot is organic, and it also has epic range, sweep, and variety. Fielding merely claims to narrate the life history of Tom Jones, a founding, but in reality, he has given us a comprehensive picture of the life of the times. To the simple tale of the adventures of Tom Jones, the hero, are added a number of episodes, one episode leading to another, and so on, and in this way, “is built up a very complicated and elaborate structure.” “In other words, the plot is complicated; it is episodic, and it is panoramic. The novel holds a mirror to contemporary life. It reflects faithfully the life in the country, on the roads, in the wayside inns and taverns, and in the city. Every professional and social group is well represented; no aspect of the life of the times has escaped the attention of the novelist. And the comprehensive picture it presents is the result of personal experience and observation of its author as a London Magistrate. Hence it is that the picture is remarkable for its truth and veracity.
Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is also panoramic, and like Fielding’s Tom Jones, makes a comprehensive and elaborate survey of the Victorian scene. The setting, so far as physical place is concerned, moves from London to Brighton, to the Continent including Paris, Rome, Brussels, and Pumpernickel, a small German principality. The reader moves from city-house to country estate, from private Academy to the sponging house, or debtor’s jail.
The enormous canvas of the novel portrays the conventions and manners of genteel society realistically and effectively. The novel has an immense variety of characters and incidents. This makes it a most valuable social document showing how England in the Victorian era was riddled with snobbery, and craze for social climbing. The novelist has presented convincingly the immense panorama of social life in the Victorian vanity fair, and not only has he rendered the social manners of the age, but he has also exposed their folly and vanity. All the characters are shown to be self-deceived pursuing phantoms that elude their grasp, or, when achieved, bringing no satisfaction or sense of fulfillment.
Also read: A short note on Documentary Novel