Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

by Patricia Meyer Spacks

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In this study intended for general readers, eminent critic Patricia Meyer Spacks provides a fresh, engaging account of the early history of the English novel. Novel Beginnings departs from the traditional, narrow focus on the development of the realistic novel to emphasize the many kinds of experimentation that marked the genre in the eighteenth century before its conventions were firmly established in the nineteenth. Treating well-known works like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy in conjunction with less familiar texts such as Sarah Fielding’s The Cry (a kind of hybrid novel and play) and Jane Barker’s A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (a novel of adventure replete with sentimental verse and numerous subnarratives), the book evokes the excitement of a multifaceted and unpredictable process of growth and change.
Investigating fiction throughout the 1700s, Spacks delineates the individuality of specific texts while suggesting connections among novels. She sketches a wide range of forms and themes, including Providential narratives, psychological thrillers, romans à clef, sentimental parables, political allegories, Gothic romances, and many others. These multiple narrative experiments show the impossibility of thinking of eighteenth-century fiction simply as a precursor to the nineteenth-century novel, Spacks shows. Instead, the vast variety of engagements with the problems of creating fiction demonstrates that literary history—by no means inexorable—might have taken quite a different course.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300128338
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Series: Yale Guides to English Literature
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Patricia Meyer Spacks is Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita, University of Virginia. A recognized authority on eighteenth-century fiction and culture, she is the author of numerous books, including Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.

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Novel Beginnings



Copyright © 2006 Patricia M. Spacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11031-9

Chapter One

The Excitement of Beginnings

THE YEAR 1719 PRODUCED two fictional best sellers in England: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess. Literacy was rising, and an increasingly large and eager audience now devoured fiction in many forms. Just over twenty years later, Samuel Richardson would publish Pamela, which generated controversy as well as excitement, stimulating parodies, continuations, and other printed responses. These conspicuous instances suggest that the novel-which hardly yet knew itself to be "the novel"-already engaged wide and enlarging attention.

Robinson Crusoe, as even many children still know, narrates the vicissitudes of a mariner shipwrecked on a desert island. Love in Excess consists of a series of semi-erotic tales, linked by a group of participants acquainted with one another, and resolved by the happy marriage of a man who has previously enjoyed many amatory adventures. Pamela tells of a fifteen-year-old servant girl who resists her master's attempts at seduction or rape until he finally marries her. She then must withstand the violent disapproval of herhusband's aristocratic sister. As these examples indicate, the early novel investigated a range of subjects. If its writers paid lip service to the classic ideal that literature must both please and instruct, they increasingly emphasized the first of these goals even while proclaiming allegiance to the second. They often stressed also their claims to factuality. Richardson announced himself as only the "editor" of Pamela's letters; Defoe prefixed to several of his novels elaborate announcements of their literal truth.

To call the works of Defoe, Haywood, and Richardson examples of "the early novel," however, makes literary history neater than the facts justify. Both the starting point and the definition of the novel remain debatable. Certainly prose fiction has existed since classic times. Daphnis pursued Chloe through the pages of Longus in the second century. Even earlier, imagined by Apuleius, Lucian metamorphosed into an ass and enjoyed marvelous adventures. The ancient Greeks produced romances; so did the Middle Ages, throughout Europe and Asia. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, elaborate French romances, translated, had won wide readership in England. These romances-considered by moralists, because of their stress on love, a threat to the moral well-being of young women-centered on beautiful maidens of high rank whose numerous wooers confronted daunting and interminable trials in the service of their beloved. Written in elaborate prose, narrated at a leisurely pace and with lavish detail, the romances told stories with little immediate connection to the lives of their readers. They belonged to the realm of fantasy and accordingly-like popular romances of our own time-satisfied imaginative needs.

Beginning a story of the novel with the beginning of the eighteenth century, then, is an arbitrary choice. Much that was written earlier both prepares for and anticipates what would emerge from presses between 1700 and 1800. Yet that arbitrary stretch of time saw an explosion of new energies, a sequence of fictional experiments, that justifies special attention. Early in the century one innovation emerged that would itself account for much subsequent change. Such writers as Daniel Defoe began to organize fictions around the careers of imagined working-class or middle-class characters-not Everyman or Everywoman or, like John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress, Christian Man; not, like Aphra Behn in Oroonoko, exotic "savages" with extraordinary capacities; but sea captains and maidservants assigned individualized natures and following individualized life courses. The repercussions of that development still continue to resound.

To speak of "ordinary people" as central figures in the new novel is not to say that eighteenth-century novels were necessarily "realistic." On the contrary: the story I want to tell focuses especially on deviations from realism. It is primarily because novels depict characters with physical needs and ordinary occupations in relatively familiar settings that they have so often been described as realistic. Moreover, as I will soon suggest more fully, novels of this period often reflect in recognizable ways the assumptions and disturbances of the society from which they emanate. The facts of the world we inhabit measure reality for most of us, and eighteenth-century fiction frequently draws on facts of experience. Yet to call it realistic for these reasons requires ignoring a great deal that it also does: for instance, the degree to which it relies on palpable artifice, trades in wish fulfillment, and depends on plotting that is too neat to correspond to the course of actual lives. In this chapter I propose, among other things, to initiate investigation of aspects of the early novel that the expectation of realism may obscure and to call attention to the complicated workings of fantasy in eighteenth-century fiction. I shall return to this subject from several angles.

During the period that concerns us, some novelists showed new interest in delineating detailed psychological experience. Others provided abundant details of the social world. Their work conformed, therefore, in a limited sense to customary standards of realism as offering a plausible illusion of actuality. But many relied heavily on techniques of exaggeration often associated with satire, though crucial also to sentimentalism; and almost all presented plots answering more to desire than probability. The novels' realistic aspects matter: their attention to and reflection of social problems, their interest in the implications of social class, and their effort to investigate psychological depths. Those aspects do not, however, comprise all that matters. To think of eighteenth-century fiction as dominated by realism makes it more difficult to see its complexity and range and to experience its variety of riches.

From one point of view, anything short of accounts of ogres and enchanters belongs to the territory of realism. Yet the generalizing designation obscures the formal variety of eighteenth-century narrative, the multiple technical possibilities it explores, the broad spectrum, from credible to barely credible, that marks the period's fiction. In 1957 Ian Watt declared "formal realism" to be the crucial characteristic of the eighteenth-century English novel, citing Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding as principal cases in point and ignoring a large number of less conspicuous novelists. Almost fifty years later, thanks partly to the generations of critics that followed Watt, we are in a position to see a more complicated, confusing, and compelling picture, taking into consideration a larger group of variously ambitious writers. Approaching these novels from a new angle, I hope to recapture the multiplicity of eighteenth-century fiction, partly by bracketing the issue of realism and making an effort to start anew.

I propose, in other words, to tell a fresh story about the eighteenth- century novel. That many stories yet remain to be told is an important polemic point. The eighteenth century, like every other period defined by literary histories, offers abundant variety. Like other narratives of literary history-like, indeed, all stories-my story will necessarily flatten some of actuality's diversity for the sake of coherence and economy, but it will attempt to convey the excitement and power of an era of radical literary experiment. The entire eighteenth century composed such an era. Energy is its hallmark, primary evidence of the impetus of the new-newness suggested by the very designation novel. By the century's end, the novel had become the dominant literary genre. Henry Fielding, as early as the 1740s, had half-jokingly tried to assimilate his new genre to the epic, claiming to be writing, in Joseph Andrews, a "comic Epic-Poem in Prose" (4). Although it would never claim the epic's high dignity, the novel indeed came to fulfill a traditional epic function by articulating the nation's values and its complicated sense of itself in a period of dramatic change.

Examining the century's novels primarily as literature, rather than as social documents or exemplars of a single movement, I shall call attention to the narrative dexterity exemplified in the work of almost forgotten writers as well as in that of their better-known contemporaries. My story of a century's fiction will also celebrate the act and process of reading, aspiring to bring to the attention of twenty-first-century readers the pleasures of encountering unfamiliar assumptions and unfamiliar ways of representing character and action.

This study concerns itself with literary causes and effects rather than social causes and with the experience of reading rather than theories of writing. Watt's brilliant The Rise of the Novel, arguing the importance to the novel of a new social class and of increasing stress on individualism, inaugurated a sequence of significant inquiries into social forces that bear on the novel's development. Along with subsequent investigations-the work, for example, of Michael McKeon, J. Paul Hunter, Nancy Armstrong, and Catherine Gallagher (see Suggestions for Further Reading)-it laid the groundwork for understanding the eighteenth-century interpenetration of the social and the literary. My own enterprise calls attention to another vital aspect of understanding: concentrating on the texts. My story depends on staying close to the novels themselves in order both to delineate their individuality and to suggest connections among them. For purposes of this inquiry, I treat male and female novelists as members of a single species. Much valuable recent work has concentrated on the special contributions of women writers considered as a group. Such criticism has helped to create a situation in which it becomes possible to think about the way that men and women simultaneously shaped the course of English fiction.

First, though, something about the cultural context these novels inhabited. The growing population of literate English men and women could find many kinds of prose besides that of romance narratives to fulfill their imaginative needs, even before the novel developed. Lines spoken on the stage and printed in published plays provided colloquial, witty, socially alert versions of speech in the service of often familiar but freshly imagined and elaborated plots. Drama flourished in the Restoration and the early eighteenth century, as it had flourished in the Renaissance, but its dominant mode had shifted. Now comedy triumphed in the theater-comedy that frequently skirted the obscene or pornographic. Love, in Restoration comedy, figured often as game or battle, or both. Audiences became accustomed to rapid action and to verbal repartee that both furthered the action and entertained its participants and its audience. The period's tragedies likewise emphasized the rhetorical, declaring and demonstrating the power of language. Type characters worked effectively in comedy and tragedy alike: the bold warrior, the naive country woman, the rake-hero. They would show up again in the novels that succeeded Restoration plays. The audiences that flocked to the theater in this period were unwittingly preparing themselves for the advent of increasingly complicated novelistic forms. More than the various energies of published prose, however, contributed to the course of subsequent fiction. Social changes impinged upon, even helped to determine, the shape of the evvolving novel. All eras, obvously, are marked by change, but especially dramatic shifts occurred in England during the eighteenth century. For most of the century the nation remained at peace. After the Peace of Utrecht in 1714, marking the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, no further armed conflict involved England (politically united with Scotland in 1707) until the American colonists rebelled. Within this context of military quiescence, however, unrest continued.

An inexorable process of urbanization persisted, even heightened, throughout the century. Urbanization meant, in most instances, movement toward London, imagined by those existing in rural poverty as a place of infinite opportunity. The enclosure of common land in the country to enlarge the estates of big landholders intensified the neediness of the rural population, and on occasion deprived them of occupation. By 1800 Wordsworth could mention "the encreasing accumulation of men in cities" as a sign of national malaise (160). Men, and women, too, made their way to London, only to endure, often, misery and degradation. Entrepreneurial gifts and energy might find abundant reward, legal or illegal, but the city remained-as many novels would remind their readers-a place of physical and moral danger, threatening some residents by the depredations of criminals and others by the lure of criminality.

Criminality was rampant in eighteenth-century London, in an era of draconian punishment: a fictional Moll Flanders and her real-life counterparts risked hanging for stealing a length of cloth. Crimes against property carried heavy penalties, for property-not only land, the traditional measure of wealth, but money and objects-assumed ever-increasing importance. Money (along with love) provided a crucial subject for the novel, as well as one of the period's central preoccupations.

We take money for granted now-not its possession, but the fact of it in the world. Money had been a fact for a long time when the eighteenth century began, but the power it represented attracted special attention during this period. Accumulating new meanings in the culture, money became a new kind of fact. The literary situation reflected actualities of the society at large. In earlier times writers of verse and prose had profited from a system of patronage: wealthy men and women, usually aristocrats, bestowed gifts and sinecures on authors whom they favored, thus providing them with somewhat precarious means of support. Dependent on the favor of the great, writers might be tempted to flattery as a mode of livelihood. The lack of social status accorded to most writers bore some relation to this fact.

The old patronage system, slowly and at first partially, gave way to more direct methods of selling literature. "Subscription" provided one popular mode. Usually a stationer, or publisher (occasionally an author directly), would solicit advance purchases of a forthcoming book; the rich would sometimes agree to buy multiple copies. As subscribers accumulated, lists, frequently ordered by rank, were often published before the book itself, providing credibility to the literary venture. Writers would thus not only get advance payment; they would reap certain benefits of the old patronage system as well. Moreover, they would have some assurance of an audience.

Other systems also operated. A writer who could not win over a publisher on other terms might agree to pay the costs of printing, with profits beyond those costs to accrue mainly to the author. The stationers themselves might assume financial responsibility for printing, paying the author a fixed sum and profiting from any sales beyond their initial commitment. Although inexperienced authors usually accepted the payment offered, more seasoned writers might negotiate the amount. As the century progressed, these sums became increasingly large.

With general literacy spreading, the market for literature expanded. Hard evidence is difficult to come by; we lack dependable figures about the number of readers and writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Historians agree, though, that the capacity to read and write expanded across social levels, creating a new audience, so that by the end of the eighteenth century the expectation that a child would become literate had been fully normalized. Publishing as well as writing became increasingly profitable, and it spread across the country. In the late seventeenth century, virtually all publishers worked in London. A hundred years later, hundreds of presses flourished in small towns across England.


Excerpted from Novel Beginnings by PATRICIA MEYER SPACKS Copyright © 2006 by Patricia M. Spacks. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1 The Excitement of Beginnings....................1
2 Novels of Adventure....................28
3 The Novel of Development....................59
4 Novels of Consciousness....................92
5 The Novel of Sentiment....................127
6 The Novel of Manners....................160
7 Gothic Fiction....................191
8 The Political Novel....................222
9 Tristram Shandy and the Development of the Novel....................254
Afterword: What Came Next....................277
Suggestions for Further Reading....................287
Works Cited....................293

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