Introduction: Realism and the Rise of the Novel

  • Rachel Carnell


To scholars of the eighteenth-century novel, it may seem “a truth universally acknowledged” that “narrative realism” and “the rise of the novel” are outmoded categories. We are now cautious about focusing on formalist conventions that have been used to distinguish “great” from “lesser” works of literature. We are likewise skeptical about the teleological implications of the term “rise,” even when our students innocently remind us that the novels of Jane Austen are more structurally sophisticated than those of Aphra Behn. Perhaps not surprisingly, one prominent critic has reasserted the “intellectual/aesthetic power . . . of the line that begins with Defoe and flourishes in Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, and Burney and that is not fully achieved by other eighteenth-century novelists.”1 By returning to the formalist trajectory of the traditional canon, this critic implicitly protests against two decades of scholarship more focused on political and cultural history than on aesthetic or formalist analysis. In doing so, he challenges us to reconsider the political history of the novel in light of the formal quality by which the genre has traditionally been judged: its narrative realism.


Eighteenth Century Political Discourse Formal Realism Political History Woman Writer 
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  1. 1.
    John Richetti, “Ideas and Voices: The New Novel in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (January–April 2000): 327–44.Google Scholar
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    When Watt identifies Robinson Crusoe’s “original sin” as “the dynamic tendency of capitalism itself ” (Watt, Rise of the Novel, 65), he suggests the link that Georg Lukács asserted between narrative realism and “the contradictorily progressive character of capitalist development.” See Studies in European Realism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), 13. Elsewhere, Watt refers directly to Lukács’s Die Theorie des Romans (Berlin, 1920), 84 (Watt, Rise of the Novel, 84). Rather than directly pursuing Lukács’s larger ideological goal of “helping to combat the sociological and aesthetic prejudices which have prevented many gifted authors from giving their best to mankind” (19), Watt focuses on the history of “bourgeois” British realism, leaving the future of progressiveGoogle Scholar
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    Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel 1660–1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987) allows us to understand the emergence of verisimilitude in the historical context of the evolving dialectical relations between aristocratic and progressive ideologies. However, his work has not yet prompted much new scholarship on the category of formal realism per se, nor does he account for the fact that some of the discourses he associates with generalized aristocratic ideology might derive more specifically from particular partisan debates. First-wave feminist scholars tended to emphasize the similarities between the works of canonical male novelists and those of their rediscovered sisters without challenging the traditional category of narrative realism. Dale Spender establishes the sheer number of women writing novels in Mothers of the Novel (New York: Pandora, 1986). Jane Spencer emphasizes the similarities between Richardson’s work and that of many female novelists in The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 140–42. Janet Todd suggests that “The novel that women wrote . . . did not pursue verisimilitude for its own sake” in her highly informative study of early woman writers. See The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660–1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 139. Subsequent feminist scholarship on the rise of the novel has focused on revising Watt’s category of the individual, rather than his analysis of formal structure. Nancy Armstrong provocatively suggests that the novel helped to establish the domestic woman, rather than the bourgeois man, as the embodiment of the modern individual in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). In Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), Catherine Gallagher delineates the narrative and social power that women writers derived from gendered self-representation. Ros Ballaster, Toni Bowers, and Jill Campbell have pursued the question of how early novelists deployed different gendered categories of the individual for partisan political purGoogle Scholar
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© Rachel Carnell 2006

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  • Rachel Carnell

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