The Eighteenth Century Novel

Key Texts:
(i)
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 individuated) characters, over time. 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.) Return to this in (iii)
(ii)
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.
(iii)
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 Flandersand Robinson Crusoe, or by relying on Aristolean 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 predeccessor 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 ealier forms, such as romance, chronicle, fable.
Shape and Form. Working against this was the need to shape experience iunto 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 torn between the demand 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 salaciuous 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 a morally uptight (hung-up) 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?

Page last updated 27/03/95