The Eighteenth Century Novel

Introduction


Birth of the "Novel", with its associations of newness and originality, occurs in the eighteenth century. Before that there had been forms of long and continuous narrative prose, but it was only in the 1720s that we begin to see the emergence of a recognisable "Novel" form, i.e, concerned with the realistic depiction of middle class life, values and experience, showing the development of individual (and individualised) characters, over time. It is in sharp contrast with the forms of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama concerned either with the Aristocracy, or with gratuitous investigation of low-life. In terms of the subsequent development of the novel, ie. the Realist 19th Century novel, the period of the eighteenth century is a mixture of consolidation and experimentation, either establishing foundations, or of experimenting with new possibilities. (epistolary form, confession, rogue biography, anti-romance, picaresque, moral tract, etc.)

 

Contexts of the Rise of the Novel

Ian Watt's influential account of the emergence of the novel connects it with the growth of the middle classes in the eighteenth century (which creates a readership anxious to read of itself and its values). His thesis is a materialist one, that social and historical factors generated aesthetic responses. In particular he isolates three key areas in which we see the influence of contexts:

 

(a) The growth of economic/possessive individualism, and with it the new mercantile capitalist values of investment and capital accumulation.

 

(b) related to this, the rise of materialistic philosophical individualism, with its new emphasis on the individual (rather than social groups) as the essential social unit.

 

(c) the new demand for education/moral training associated with middle class values. The middle classes existed as a readership, and required reading material.


Other critics, particularly in writing of Robinson Crusoe, placed emphasis on the influence of protestant individualism (especially Calvinism) in directing new attitudes towards the individual.
A related issue is the change in the notion of history itself, not simply as chronicle of the rich and famous, but new notions of History as Historical progression.

 

The Emergence and consolidation of the Novel Form

Realism: A key concern in terms of the development of the eighteenth century novel is the recurring preoccupation with realism, and realistic depiction of society. This is seen in Defoe's and Fielding's preoccupations with the word "History" (and the need to defend themselves against accusations of lying, and in their attempts to make their works as realistic as possible, whether by using first person narration as in Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, or by relying on Aristotelian notions of "mimesis". An alternative tactic was to use epistolary form, most notably in the works of Richardson, (and burlesqued by Fielding in Shamela), or to use consciously anti-romance forms as a means of asserting the realism of their writing. The predecessor here had been Cervantes, in his anti-romance, and the tradition continues in Middlemarch, where George Eliot uses phrases such as the "home epic" as a means of affirming the value of the presentation of ordinary experience. One way of asserting the value of the new novel technique was to show how its fidelity to the "real" was more accurate than earlier forms, such as romance, chronicle, fable.

Shape and Form: Working against this was the need to shape experience into narrative order (inevitable conflict between the demands of narrative order and realistic portrayal). Part of the answer, in Defoe's case, was to produce a loose baggy monster of a novel, without clear sense of narrative order and progression (the episodic technique). By the time we get to Fielding he is already self-consciously using Chapters and Books (see Book II, Ch. 1 of Joseph Andrews.) This conflict between realistic intention and aesthetic narrative order is most clearly evident in Sterne's anti-novel Tristram Shandy, in which the conventions of the Novel are exploded before the novel has had a chance to become a settled form.


Related also was the issue of moral purpose. Eighteenth century novel was torn among the demands not to offend (bring a blush to the maidenliest of cheeks), to teach, and yet also to be realistic. Novel writing from this point onwards tied to the moral demands of a middle class readership, (pleasurable instruction/ to teach and to delight, + Sidney and Elizabethan aesthetics) or to offer salacious or gratuitous accounts of low life. The moral demands on writers exploded at the end of the nineteenth century (Hardy, James, George Moore), but present here in the degree to which novelists deal with sex, adultery, passion and desire. Novel is a morally upright form from the start. Same constraints apply to political issues.

Characterisation, Social/Individual identity and history. The underlying emphasis within many eighteenth century novels is their emphasis on the individual, and the extent to which they portray the inner life of the individual as distinct from his or her social class, rank, status. This remained a continual tension within the novel throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the divorce of the late 19th C. when individual/ society are seen to be antagonistic rather than self-supporting. Related to this is the issue of typification versus individuation: is the individual shown to be the product of social being, or anterior to it?

 

The Major 18th Century Novelists and their individual styles

 

Daniel Defoe (1660 -1731) is sometimes called the founder of the modern English novel. He started his writing career as a journalist, and his novels are usually written in a very realistic way. Defoe writes in the “first person” and the reader always feels he is hearing a true story about a real person. His works are always written from a middle-class viewpoint. His major works are - Robinson Crusoe (1719), Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Moll Flanders (1722). All three are written as a kind of pretended history. The first is a novel which appears to be the true story of a man called Robinson Crusoe. The second is supposed to be the diary of a man who lived at the time of the Great Plague. And the third is supposed to be the autobiography of a girl called Moll Flanders.

 

Defoe’s heroes and heroines were not deeply drawn or characterised. Defoe’s stories were how individual people with names like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders had difficulties and problems, and how they dealt with them. We learn a lot about their stories, but not very much about their true characters. The novels of Daniel Defoe are fiction presented as real facts. (This is what you would expect from a journalist)

 

Samuel Richardson (1689 – 1761):  The first “true” novel is usually said to be Pamela by Samuel Richardson. In Richardson’s novels the reader begins to think of the characters as real people. In Pamela the story is told through a series of letters. Because we are reading someone’s letters, we feel that person is much more real, and really does exist. It makes Richardson’s characters more complete and complex. His major works are: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-1), Clarissa (1747-8). The novels of Samuel Richardson are about real people and are told as moral lessons.

 

Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754) is a joyful story teller. He has no high moral message, and he does not create deeply drawn and characterised people in his novels. He simply tells a good story. However, he often stops the story and talks in the “author’s voice”, telling the reader about the art of novel writing and making comments on society. His major works are: Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749). The novels of Henry Fielding are fast and funny stories, written with technical skill and written with no high moral purpose – written for fun.

 

Tobias Smollett (1721 - 1771): His two major novels are Roderick Random (1748), Peregrine Pickle (1751). They are stories of love and adventures in war – with some special details about sailors in the Navy (based on his Smollett’s own experiences). They give a “real” portrait of 18th Century English life (especially the stories of the sailors, the Navy, doctors, etc.) The novels of Smollett are excellent examples of the “picaresque” style.

The Picaresque novel

“Picaresque” novels seem to have originated in Spain. They all have certain ingredients: they are long, rambling stories with loosely linked episodes almost complete in themselves, intrigue, fights, and lots of scenes in bedrooms! There are stories inside stories, songs, poems, social comments. They seem to be a protest against the well-ordered, formal, well-behaved polite rules of 18th Century society – and showing how the younger artists rejected the bourgeois life and wanted, instead, adventure, wildness, and a desire for the open road. Examples of this style can be seen in the works of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne.

 

Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768) is famous for just one novel Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). This work was very different to the earlier novels. There was no real story. Tristram himself was not created as a “hero”. He was the opposite—a kind of “anti-hero” - and by breaking all the rules, Tristram Shandy was not a novel, but a kind of “anti-novel”.

 

The novel has an extraordinary technical virtuosity, and a very modem philosophy of time (it takes

the hero four books in which to be born.) It seems to be a chaotic, disorganised “stream of

consciousness” (i.e. writing down the ideas in the order in which Tristram thinks about them )

The novels of Laurence Sterne are about the importance of life and individuality.

 

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) is not strictly an 18th century novelist. Her works were published early in the 19th Century. But in her style, themes and motifs she has more in common with the novelists of the 18th century. She belongs in a study of the earlier novelists. She is the greatest novelist of English manners. Her novels are written about her own world, the society of landed gentry. She writes with great detail and delicacy. Her major works are: Pride and Prejudice (c. 1812), Emma (1816). To use an image from the world of the painter: Fielding paints with bright colours on a large canvas; Jane Austen paints in delicate pastel on a miniature portrait.

 

Last modified: Monday, 16 April 2018, 2:03 PM