The English Realist Novel
The English Realist Novel, 1740-1771
The turning point in the development of the English novel is generally said to be 1740, the year Samuel Richardson published Pamela. Richardson claimed that this work represented a new fictional form, differing significantly from the novelistic works that had come before. Henry Fielding made a similar claim when he published Joseph Andrews in 1742. Subsequent critical opinion has concurred that these two works mark a departure in English fiction. Prose fiction in the early decades of the eighteenth century was a heterogeneous and experimental mix, containing many of the elements that would come to mark the realist novel and others that would eventually be discarded. The most significant development was a turn toward realism and away from the conventions and structures of the heroic romance. Fiction writers began to adopt a view of the relationship between reality and literature in which truth and art were found in ordinary experience and the development and assertion of the individual personality were paramount. As early as 1705, Delarivier Manley had called for more realism, psychological detail, and natural dialogue in novelistic fiction. She and others, such as Aphra Behn, Mary Davys, Daniel Defoe, and Eliza Haywood, experimented with the techniques and forms that moved the novel closer to maturity, including the epistolary novel, characters drawn from all social levels, and depictions of contemporary life.
Richardson's Pamela was an unqualified and unprecedented success. Widely praised and enormously popular, it spawned a succession of imitations, parodies, and secondary scholarship. Richardson's aim in writing the novel had been didactic, and his effective blending of entertainment and ethical instruction was significant for the novel's success in an era when the genre itself was still considered morally suspect. Another striking achievement of that work was the detailed and nuanced portrait of the heroine and the rich attention to emotional life. With this attention to psychic depth, Richardson ushered in the novel of sensibility, wherein every act, gesture, and feeling is examined. Pamela marks a watershed in the development of the subjective point of view that is central to the modern novel. Fielding'scontribution to the novel form was different, but equally important. Joseph Andrews is noted for its emphasis on naturalistic details of rural and domestic life, brilliantly evoking the particulars of setting and situation. Both of these works demonstrated a coherence of characterization, plot, and theme that had been missing in earlier novels. Richardson's and Fielding's later works continued to exemplify the mature novel, along with the works of Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, and others. The striking success of Richardson's work led to increased production of popular novels, along with frequent plagiarism and the distribution of novels to a widening middle-class audience. The expansion of the audience moved the novel away from the category of great art and closer to that of a mass market entertainment. Popular fictions increasingly became commodities, disposable, serial pleasures, rather than timeless achievements.
Early novels had long been unesteemed and viewed as morally problematic. With the growing popularity of the genre, many worried that novels were dangerous and unwholesome, especially for younger readers and women. The increasing interest in realistic fiction heightened this anxiety, as the representations of immoral, unethical, or sexual behavior that had such a prominent place in the plots of many popular fictions were seen to be negative influences on impressionable readers. This issue, along with newly articulated questions of structure and genre definition, spurred critical debate. By the end of the eighteenth century, critical consensus held that the quality of novels had dropped off. The major genre at the end of the century, the Gothic romance, was considered inferior to the great works of the middle decades of the century. Novel-reading was regarded as a middle-brow activity, not suitable for the refined and highly educated. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, written at the end of the eighteenth century but not published until 1818, wittily satirizes its own genre by portraying a naive heroine who has formed her ideas of the world based on the sentimental and Gothic novels that she avidly reads.
The Life and Opinions of John Buncle Esq.: Containing Various Observations and Reflections Made in Several Parts of the World and many Extraordinary Relations (novel) 1756-70
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. 2 vols. (novel) 1748-49
Pompey the Little (novel) 1751
The Reform 'd Coquet; or the Memoirs of Amoranda (novel) 1724
The Accomplish 'd Rake; or Modern Fine Gentleman. Being an Exact Description of a person of Distinction (novel) 1727
Joseph Andrews (novel) 1742
Tom Jones (novel) 1749
The Vicar of Wakefield (novel) 1766
Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (novel) 1740
Clarissa (novel) 1748
Sir Charles Grandison (novel) 1753-54
Tobias George Smollett
The Adventures of Roderick Random (novel) 1748
The Adventures of a Peregrine Pickle (novel) 1751
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (novel) 1771
Tristram Shandy. 9 vols. (novel) 1760-67
Sentimental Journey (novel) 1768
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Michael McKeon (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel" in Cultural Critique, Vol. 1, Fall, 1985, pp. 159-81.
[In the following essay, McKeon analyzes the relationship between the instability of the novel as a genre and the growing instability of social categories during the eighteenth century.]
Twenty-five years after its first appearance, Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel continues to be the most attractive model we have of how to conduct the study of this crucial literary phenomenon.1 The phenomenon is crucial because it is modern. If the novel originated in early modern Europe, it should be possible to observe and describe its emergence within a historical context whose richness of detail has no parallel in earlier periods. But of course this is no coincidence: it is the rise of an unprecedented historical consciousness, and of its institutional affiliates, that has both encouraged the preservation of historical detail, and legitimated contextual methods of study which use that detail as a mode of understanding. Watt's book is attractive because it is fully responsive to the call for a historical and contextual method of study that seems somehow implicit in his subject. Thus his concern with the rise of a distinctive set of narrative procedures—"formal realism"—is informed by a concern with a...
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From Romanticism To Realism
Arnold Kettle (essay date 1951)
SOURCE: "Realism and Romance," in his An Introduction to the English Novel, 2d ed., Vol. 1, Hutchinson University Library, 1967, pp. 25-38.
[In the following chapter from his history of the English novel, Kettle locates the origins of the novel in the traditions of the literary romance.]
The moment we found ourselves, a few pages back, asking, by implication, the question, 'Why were the first novels written?' we had to begin thinking in terms of history, and it is essential that we should not run away from history. The rise and development of the English novel, like any other phenomenon in literature, can only be understood as a part of history.
History is not just something in a book; history is men's actions. History is life going on, changing, developing. We, too, are characters in history. Men make history. Every action of every man, consciously or not, is directed, satisfactorily or not, towards the solving of the myriad problems, gigantic and trivial, complex and random, first of keeping alive and then of 'living', with all that the word, after centuries of experience, implies. Living alters. It alters according to the degree to which man masters his problems, wins new battles with nature, solves the countless difficulties and possibilities of existing alongside other men. History is the process of change in living....
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Women And The Novel
Katherine Sobba Green (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "The Courtship Novel: Textual Liberation for Women," in her The Courtship Novel 1740-1820: A Feminized Genre, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1991, pp. 11-24.
[In this essay, Green discusses early courtship novels written by women within their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.]
However enlightened our understanding of patriarchy, when we thumb back through eighteenth-century conduct books we expect to find a language of containment and circumscription that preempts female hopes and desires—the monitory gesture, uplifted forefinger, and glowering brow, usually belonging to male conduct writers. A line from the Reverend John Bennet's Letters to a Young Lady (1792) conveys the stereotypic patriarchal attitude: "If I was called upon to write the history of a woman's trials and sorrows, I would date it from the moment when nature pronounces her marriageable."1 Addressing boarding-school students, Bennet outlines a bleak prospectus for a woman's life—coextensive with her body, woman's history begins with puberty. Ominously, a woman becomes eligible for heroinization in the male-authored text only when she is objectified, when nature "pronounces her" an object of choice ("marriageable"). Writing as late as 1792, Bennet can still obscure the happier prospects of choice and love by adopting...
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The Novel And Other Literary Forms
Terry Castle (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Literary Transformations: The Masquerade in English Fiction," in Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction, Stanford University Press, 1986, pp. 110-29.
[In this excerpt from a study of the carnivalesque, Castle examines the relationship between the masquerade and English fiction in the eighteenth century.]
The literary history of the masquerade in England could be said to begin, not with a novelist at all, but with John Dryden. The following dialogue from Marriage a la Mode (1673) celebrates the birth of a topos:
PALAMEDE. We shall have noble sport tonight, Rhodophil; this masquerading is a most glorious invention.
RHODOPHIL. I believe it was invented first by some jealous lover to discover the haunts of his jilting mistress, or perhaps by some distressed servant to gain an opportunity with a jealous man's wife.
PALAMEDE. No, it must be the invention of a woman: it has so much of subtlety and love in it.
RHODOPHIL. I am sure 'tis extremely pleasant, for to go unknown is the next degree to going invisible.
PALAMEDE. What with our antique habits and feigned voices—do you know me? and I know you?—methinks we move and talk just like so many...
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Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel, vols. III-V. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 10 vols., 1950.
Selection from a comprehensive history of the novel. The volumes cited focus on the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, discussing the romance, the development of realism, the novel of sentiment, and the Gothic novel.
Butt, John. The Mid-Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Survey of English literature after 1740, with chapters on major novelists and other prose fiction.
Cruse, Amy. The Shaping of English Literature and the Reader's Share in the Development of its Forms. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co. nd.
Studies the development of English literature by focusing on reader responses to contemporary authors. Included a chapter on books and authors read and discussed by Fanny Bumey.
Elton, Oliver. A Survey of English Literature 1730-1780. 2 vols. London: Edward Arnold & Co., 1928.
Comprehensive review of the period, with chapters on Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Steme and others.
Görtschacher, Wolfgang and Klein, Holger. Narrative Strategies in Early English Fiction. Salzburg: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995, 365 p.
Collection of essays on topics ranging from transformations...
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