The English Realist Novel Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.