Novels in The 18th Century

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      In the 18th century English novel reached its full stature, when the way for the modern novel was fully prepared. The Elizabethans had toyed with romance and with realism; Bunyan had made a story out of his religious convictions; Addison and Steele had expressed common beliefs and sentiments in essays with a touch of fiction; Defoe had given to homely facts an imaginative appeal. A clearer day of probity and fervor among the general public had followed “the rake-hell noctambulism of the Restoration”. In prose, the earlier part of the period was overshadowed by the development of the English essay. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator established the form of the British periodical essay, inventing the pose of the detached observer of human life who can meditate upon the world without advocating any specific changes in it. However, this was also the time when the English novel, first emerging in the Restoration, developed into a major art form. Daniel Defoe turned from journalism and writing criminal lives for the press to writing fictional criminal lives with Roxana and Moll Flanders.

      The English novel has generally been seen as beginning with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and Moll Flanders (1722), though John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Aphra Belin’s, Oroonoko (1688) are also contenders. Other major 18th century British novelists are Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), author of the epistolary novels Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48); Henry Fielding ( 1707-54), who wrote Joseph Andrews (1742), Shamela (1741) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). If Addison and Steele were dominant in one type of prose, then Jonathan Swift author of the satire Gulliver’s Travels was in another. In A Modest Proposal and the Drapier Letters, Swift reluctantly defended the Irish people from the predations of colonialism. This provoked riots and arrests, but Swift, who had no love of Irish Roman Catholics, was outraged by the abuses he saw. The English pictorial satirist and editorial cartoonist William Hogarth (1697-1764) has been credited with pioneering western sequential art. His work ranged from realistic portraiture to comic strip like series of pictures called “modern moral subjects”. Much of his work satirizes contemporary politics and customs. The new developments did, however, lead to Eliza Haywood’s epic length novel, Love in Excess (1719/20). Mention must be made of some other novels published in the 18th century. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1754), Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilia (1796) are also to be considered as significant addition to the genre of English novel in the 18th century. However, some literary historians date the beginning of the English novel with Richardson’s Pamela, rather than Crusoe.

      The idea of the ‘rise of the novel’ in the 18th century is especially associated with Ian Watt’s important study The Rise of the Novel (1957). Ian Watt puts forward the idea that novel was a ‘new form’ and associates this with the importance placed on realism by novelists such as Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. It should be mentioned that Fielding English novel came into maturity. He gave the novel its form and he may be called the Father of novelistic realism. Another novelist Tobias Smollett (1721-71) was Fielding’s contemporary. He did not bring to the novel anything that was new in form but he introduced a new background as he gave an account of sea life and the old navy. His important novels are like Roderick Hudson (1748), Peregrine Pickle (1751), Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762) and Humphrey Clinker (1771). So, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding and Smollett are altogether known as four masters of English novel. Watt’s theory about the novel in the 18th century led to the suggestion that the earlier Romance forms of long prose narrative were either not novels or were at least inferior. However, others including Margaret Anne Doody disagree that the novel originated in the 18th century, arguing that the history of the novel is over two thousand years old, and that in addition the romance tradition continued through the 18th and 19th centuries and still flourishes today. Given these differences in opinion, what happened in the 18th century can best be described, not as the rise of the novel, but the rise of realism in fiction. Indeed, this is what Ian Watt sees as distinguishing the novel from earlier prose narratives.

      The new 18th century status of the novel as an object of debate is manifested in the development of philosophical and experimental novels. Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) is an experimental work which rejects continuous narration. In it, the author not only addresses the reader in his preface but speaks directly to him or her in his fictional narrative. In addition to his narrative experiments, Sterne has visual experiments, such as a marbled page, a black page to express sorrow, and a page of lines to show the plot lines of the book. Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704) was an early precursor in this field.

      Sentimental novels relied on emotional responses, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance emotions rather than action. The result is a valorization of ‘fine feeling’, displaying the characters as a model for refined, and sensitive emotional effect. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations. An example of this genre of fiction is Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, composed “to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes focuses on the potential victim, a heroine of all the modern virtues vulnerable through her social status and her occupation as servant of the libertine who falls in love with her. Eventually, she shows the power to reform her antagonist. Male heroes adopted the new sentimental character traits in the 1760s. Laurence Sterne’s Yorick, the hero of the Sentimental Journey (1768) did so with an enormous amount of humor. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling (1771) produced the far more serious role models.

      The novel of terror or Gothic novel came into being during this century. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), William Beckford’s Vathek (1782), Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Mathew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796), Tales of Terror (1799) and Tales of Wonder (1801) all are the kind of horror novels with which we are very well acquainted at the present time. It may be noted that most of these horror novels earned popularity and were widely acclaimed. Some of these deserve great praise even when judged by the standard of modern thrillers. However, by around 1700, fiction was no longer a predominantly aristocratic entertainment, and printed books had soon gained the power to reach readers of almost all classes, though the reading habits differed and to follow fashions remained a privilege. By the 1780s reviews played an important role in introducing new works of fiction to the public. A later development was the introduction of novels into school curricula and later that of universities.

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