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Introduction: Realism and the Rise of the Novel

  • Rachel Carnell
Chapter
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Abstract

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.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Political Discourse Formal Realism Political History Woman Writer 
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Notes

  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
  2. 2.
    Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), 92, 32, 31.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    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
  4. realism to others. Raymond Williams subsequently describes the need for “a new realism” in The Long Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 289. Stephen Heath sees realism as “a utopia of writing and reality.” See “Realism, Modernism, and ‘LanguageConsciousness,’ ” in Realism in European Literature, ed. Nicholas Boyle and Martin Swales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 120. Harry E. Shaw provides an overview of the ideological tensions in the competing analyses of nineteenth-century narrative realism, especially regarding its potential for presenting a “totalizing” image of reality, in Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999). Such concerns about realism’s potential for totalizing have not yet fully permeated mainstream eighteenthcentury literary scholarship, however.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    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
  6. poses. See Ros Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992); Toni Bowers, The Politics of Motherhood: British Writing and Culture 1680–1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Jill Campbell, Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding’s Plays and Novels (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) adds much to our understanding of a significant cultural shift in the way family relations were perceived and negotiated in the second half of the eighteenth century, but does not directly address the category of narrative realism.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    See J. A. Downie, “Mary Davys’s ‘Probable Feign’d Stories’ and Critical Shibboleths about ‘The Rise of the Novel,’ ” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (January–April 2000): 325.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Michael Seidel, “The Man Who Came to Dinner: Ian Watt and the Theory of Formal Realism,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (January–April 2000): 194. See also J. Paul Hunter’s comments on the dangers of placing too much emphasis on realism as the primary distinguishing feature of the novel in Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 22–23. Toni Bowers offers cautionary advice about the “privileged category ‘novel’ ” which defines itself against works excluded by “gender and genre hierarchies” See “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility: Amatory Fiction from the Restoration to Mid-Century,” in The Columbia History of the British Novel, ed. John Richetti et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 50.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    William B. Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 34.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Deborah Ross, The Excellence of Falsehood: Romance, Realism, and Women’s Contribution to the Novel (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 12.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    J. A. Downie appropriately cautions scholars against using either the term “rise” or the term “novel” during this period since “the novel was still in the process of being made.” See “The Making of the English Novel,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 9:3 (April 1997): 264. In discussing the instability of the term “novel” during this period he points out how it was frequently used interchangeably with “romance” (257–60).Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 69.Google Scholar
  13. 26.
    J. A. Downie, “Mary Davys’s ‘Probable Feign’d Stories’ ”: 312–13.Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    Richard Ashcraft and M. M. Goldsmith, “Locke, Revolution Principles, and the Formation of Whig Ideology,” Historical Journal 26:4 (1983): 773–800.Google Scholar
  15. 28.
    Linda Colley, In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714–60 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); J. C. D. Clark, English Society 1688–1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  16. 29.
    Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (New York: St. Martin’s, 1967), 21.Google Scholar
  17. 36.
    Anna Letitia Barbauld, “On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing,” reprinted in Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002), 350.Google Scholar
  18. 39.
    Paula McDowell, The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace 1678–1730 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 4.Google Scholar
  19. 40.
    J. A. Downie, Robert Harley and the Press: Propaganda and Public Opinion in the Age of Swift and Defoe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 1. Downie emphasizes that Robert Harley, in particular, enabled the press “to be controlled by government without the imposition of a strict system of censorship” (130).Google Scholar
  20. 45.
    See Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988) and Susan Moller Okin, “Humanist Liberalism” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 39–53.Google Scholar
  21. 46.
    Mary Astell’s preface to the third edition of Reflections on Marriage (London, 1706) in The First English Feminist, ed. Bridget Hill (New York: St. Martins Press, 1986), 76. (In the third edition Astell removed Some from her original title.) After the Revolution of 1688–89, early English feminist writers Mary Astell and Margaret Cavendish, both staunch Tories, expressed serious reservations about the advantages to women of power being shared between men, rather than concentrated in the single person of the king. See Ruth Perry, “Mary Astell and the Feminist Critique of Possessive Individualism,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 23:4 (1990): 444–57. See also Catherine Gallagher, “Embracing the Absolute: The Politics of the Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England,” Genders 1 (1988): 24–39.Google Scholar
  22. 47.
    Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 25.Google Scholar
  23. 52.
    John Richetti insists that Eliza Haywood’s early novels depict “tumultuous emotions,” not ideas or developed characters. A selected passage in Robinson Crusoe, in contrast, reveals both depth of character and a “dialogic” engagement with the moral issues of cannibalism and colonialism. Yet, had Richetti chosen a passage from Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaai, for example, he could not have ignored her narrator’s and heroine’s “dialogic” engagement with the “ideas” of tyranny, republicanism, and the social contract, many of the same themes addressed by Crusoe when he becomes “monarch” of his desert island.Google Scholar

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© Rachel Carnell 2006

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