Behind that drab, textbookish title lie some 30 spirited essays on the English novel, from Clarissa (1747-48) to Wilson's own No Laughing Matter (1967): solid, unpretentious criticism by an exceedingly well-read artist. In these brief pieces Wilson touches on practically every major English fiction writer of the last two-and-a-half centuries (though he only grazes Hardy and Joyce)--plus a handful of continental figures, particularly Dostoevsky, Zola, and Proust. His recurrent theme is the problem of evil: the way (disappointing to him) most English novelists generally substituted the mundane dyad of right and wrong for the deeper conflict between transcendent good and evil. Although (because?) he's a confirmed agnostic and secular humanist, Wilson keeps scanning the horizon of fiction for potent, believable embodiments of the demonic (such as Richardson's Lovelace). Kurtz in Heart of Darkness would seem to be a logical candidate, but Wilson thinks Conrad doesn't quite fuse the story's brooding sense of evil with ""the concrete terms of this world."" Wilson praises The Lord of the Flies--but as a fable (not a novel) all too closely resembling a boys' adventure story. Ultimately he awards the palm to Dickens and Dostoevsky (""they both believed in absolute evil""), and suggests a parallel between Dickens and himself: two would-be believers in human goodness appalled by conditions in the world around them. Wilson's judgment lapses now and then (rating John Cowper Powys with James, Lawrence, and Joyce; claiming The Tempest ""ends in despair""). But his range is immense (how many academics these days have read all of Godwin, Gissing, and Bennett?) and his vision keen (in a neat two-page article he makes a strong case that Camus ""stylises men into abstractions""). A fine performance by a craftsman in the classroom.