British Isles (18th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

British Isles (18th Century)

John Richetti

Narrative fiction in Britain in the first two decades of the eighteenth century was not substantially different from what it had been in the later seventeenth century. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and into the early decades of the eighteenth century, British fiction (including many translations from French and Spanish) breaks down into a few types. The novel, as it is now understood, did not yet exist (see DEFINITIONS). Long prose narratives (more than, say, a hundred printed pages) dealing with the lives of fictional but realistically rendered individuals did exist. For example, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) is one of the founding texts of the modern novel genre. So, too, Spanish and French picaresque fiction, a genre Cervantes's novel has affinities with, narrates the racy lives of marginal characters and pícaros (rogues or criminals) and portrays the lower levels of society: for example, the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), a short tale of a resourceful servant boy, Francisco de Quevedo's El buscón (1604, The Swindler), and Mateo Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache (1599—1604), which narrate the adventures of minor criminals, were all widely read in English translations. Richard Head's and Francis Kirkman's popular The English Rogue (1665, but appearing in sequels and abridgments until 1759), which was much imitated in titles such as The French Rogue (1672) or The Dutch Rogue (1683), is closely modeled on Alemán's book, and “Guzman” became a synonym for rogue. At the end of the seventeenth century, many accounts of actual criminals were presented in quasi-fictional form which was influenced by the picaresque tradition, such as Francis Kirkman's The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled (1673), the life of the con woman Mary Moders (1642—73), and Elkanah Settle's The Complete Memoirs of the Life of that Notorious Impostor Will Morrell (1694).

But prose fiction in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) encompassed a variety of subjects and storytelling techniques. What we now identify as novelistic was simply one of many formats or perspectives. Some popular prose narratives had novelistic qualities mixed with traditional techniques and purposes. For example, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) is a religious allegory of an ordinary man named Christian and his dangerous path to salvation (see NARRATIVE). Written in a plain and homely style, with lively dialogue among a cast of recognizable English folk in sometimes realistic settings, Christian's story is a dream vision, a common medieval genre, and it is like a romance to the extent that the hero undergoes the perils of his journey like a medieval knight, brandishing sword and shield to get to the heavenly city. The Pilgrim's Progress is also satiric in its depiction of time-serving and worldly characters (Mr. Wordly Wiseman, Pliable, Talkative) and places like Vanity Fair (see PARODY).

Amatory Novels

One very popular format during the closing years of the seventeenth century and the opening of the eighteenth is amatory fiction, exemplified by Aphra Behn. Thematically, her works continue the tradition of prose romance extending from antiquity to late sixteenth-century English narratives such as Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590) and the widely read (in English translation) seventeenth-century French romances such as Honoré d'Urfé's L'Astrée (1607—33, Astrée) and Madeleine de Scudéry's Artamène, ou le grand Cyrus (1649—53, Artamenes; or, The Great Cyrus). Perhaps even more influential was La Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves) by Madame de Lafayette, an intense and realistic psychological study of frustrated love. Behn's work, however, is more topical and stylistically straightforward (at times comic and always erotic), aimed at a wider audience than these long and rather mannered aristocratic works, and her narratives with one exception are novella length.

A more immediate source for amatory fiction in the early eighteenth century is the popular (anonymous) Lettres Portugaises (1669, Portuguese Letters), five letters in which a seduced and abandoned nun writes to the lover who betrayed her. The recurring plot of amatory fiction involves the seduction and betrayal of vulnerable women by predatory aristocrats, although in Behn's work there are a few reversals in which female characters are erotically dominant (see SEXUALITY). There lingers in Behn's fiction an interest in politics and in aristocratic honor and military glory; her male characters are often soldiers and powerful politicians. These themes are richly displayed in Behn's only full-length narrative, published in three separate parts, Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684—87). Based on a contemporary sexual scandal, Love Letters offers glamorized evocations of actual people as a decadent, corrupt elite struggles for pleasure and power, love and honor. This mixture of history and fiction is also part of the appeal of Behn's best known work, Oroonoko, or, The Royal Slave (1688), in which the narrator, Behn herself, claims to have witnessed events in Surinam in South America. The title character is an African prince who escapes from slavery in Surinam only to be captured and tortured to a death that he endures stoically and heroically. Alternating the romantic and the exotic with the historical, Behn offers critical observations of aristocratic decadence and imperial cruelty and injustice even as her other novellas revel in glamorous and erotic attractions.

In the 1720s amatory fiction enjoyed great success, notably in the novels of Eliza Haywood, whose Love in Excess (1719) launched her career as the most prominent author in this genre. Haywood's novels illustrate the attractions of the amatory formula: vicarious participation in a world of thrilling illicit passion, the spectacle of suffering heroines, victims of their own irresistible sexuality and of attractive if villainous seducers. But Haywood's romances mark a sentimentalizing of the worldly cynicism of Behn's work; their emphasis is on the tormented pathos of a private psycho-sexuality rather than on the struggle for sexual dominance and political power. The emphasis falls on individuals, at times on middle-class characters in urban settings, rather than on Behn's aristocrats. However, the so-called scandal chronicles she wrote, such as Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia (1725), are satirical exposés of sexually inflected corruption in high places. Haywood was imitating the extremely popular The New Atalantis (1709) of Delariviere Manley, whose work was more satiric and politically pointed even as it sprinkled its political scandals with tales of sexual misconduct among the ruling class.

Fact and Fiction: Proto-Realism

Fact (however distorted by satire and political animus) and fiction are balanced in these works; many amatory and scandalous works were subtitled “secret history”; other subtitles for novel-like narratives such as “history” and even “true history” are common. The single most popular narrative of these years, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22), claims to be the memoirs of an actual person, “written by himself.” Robinson Crusoe opens a vein of intensely realistic narrative that marks the foundation of what is now recognized as the English novel (see REALISM), but it also mixes fiction with aggressive claims of factuality. Defoe's title page describes the book as Robinson Crusoe's “strange surprising adventures.” Defoe's achievement as one of the novel's founders is to evoke with unprecedented intensity and specificity the psychological as well as the physical difficulties of an isolated individual as he ponders the fate that brought him to his island. His meditations are PHILOSOPHICAL and deeply religious, since a rediscovered faith reconciles him to his predicament (see RELIGION). At the same time, Crusoe becomes a heroic figure, not only creating order and physical comfort on his island but, in his defeat of cannibals and mutineers later in the book, a master of his fate. His earlier predicament as a slave in North Africa and his daring escape dramatize his narrative's variety of theme and purpose. In its rendition of heroic feats, Robinson Crusoe resembles two of Defoe's other narratives; Captain Singleton (1720) and Colonel Jack (1722), one a pirate adventure story, the latter a tale of a street urchin who goes to America and becomes a planter, soldier, and merchant. Given its non-European settings, Robinson Crusoe also belongs to the genre of travel narrative, resembling Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), which is a satirical fantasy and a parody of the genre, whose hero endures, like Crusoe, various extreme forms of danger in exotic lands, but whose personality is secondary to the satire Swift articulates through his adventures.

Robinson Crusoe has a unity of theme lacking in Gulliver's Travels in its focus on the personality of the protagonist. Defoe evokes a historically specific individual, born in 1632 in York of a German immigrant family, from “the middle state” or “the upper station of low life,” as Crusoe's father identifies his social status at the beginning. Crusoe is at the same time a representative modern individual, struggling to make his way in the world and against nature, alone in a threatening society, fearful from his arrival on the island of unknown enemies. In that precise evocation of his hero, Defoe inaugurates the main subject and scope of what will be the modern novel in England (see HISTORY). That sociohistorical frame of reference is accompanied by a psychological intensity that is the essence of the amatory novel. So stories of sexual passion and stories of adventure share an interest in representing the interior lives of their protagonists. In Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1722), Defoe illustrates this mixed mode, since both of these narratives have affinities with amatory fiction but give us narrator-heroines who achieve, for a time at least, forms of independence and personal identity through action and shrewd self-consciousness not granted to other suffering heroines. Born in Newgate Prison, Moll Flanders takes to crime later in life in the face of financial desperation; her narrative is a picaresque novel with elements of amatory fiction as young Moll is caught up in illicit passion with several men. Roxana has affinities with the scandal chronicles of Manley and Haywood, since the heroine is for a time a royal mistress as well as the lover of rich and powerful men. Roxana is also the most intensely psychological of all Defoe's narratives and represents a realistic recasting of the amatory novel as the heroine looks back with horror and remorse on her career as a rich courtesan (see MEMORY).

Richardson and Fielding: The Rise of the Novel

Female protagonists play a crucial role in the emerging English novel. In the patriarchal order of eighteenth-century England, a woman who achieves a measure of independence through transgressive experience such as illicit passion or, as in the case of Moll Flanders and Roxana, criminal activity, offers a subversive understanding of how female identity is constructed by social forces (see FEMINIST). In dramatizing this painful process, Defoe's two novels look forward to what may be the defining moment for the establishment of one main line of the novel in England, Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740).

An epistolary novel, in which the servant heroine writes journal-like letters to her parents about Mr. B's (her master's) efforts to seduce her, Pamela was immensely popular, recognized as original by many readers. The novel's format was a technical innovation—Pamela writing just after moments of high excitement—that gives the narrative an immediacy and spontaneity that readers found compelling. Next to the predictable formulae and mechanical characterizations of amatory fiction, Pamela surprises by the complexity of its teenage narrator's responses to sexual danger. Her letters reveal a combination of attraction to her would-be seducer and fearful self-preservation of what she calls her “virtue” (the novel's subtitle is “Virtue Rewarded,” since Pamela is eventually rewarded with marriage to her wealthy master). Richardson's profound innovation is to efface himself as narrator, to imagine a character's thoughts and feelings and to allow them free rein, thereby establishing an area of realistic moral ambiguity as well as vicarious involvement. Also crucial for Richardson's importance in the HISTORY of the novel is the dramatization of social class. As an “upper servant,” the companion to her master's late mother, Pamela is intensely literate, a great reader as well as writer. She is also standing up to the sexual exploitation of the lower classes by the gentry. Her master in effect kidnaps her and tries to rape her and then offers to make her his mistress, but Pamela resists, and in the end, in marrying Mr. B, she reforms him and, by extension, the ruling class which she now joins.

Not quite everyone was charmed by Pamela, and the history of the English novel at mid-century revolves around Richardson's champions and those who found his novel false to human nature as well as to social stereotypes (whereby female servants could only be sex objects) and hypocritical in its sanitizing of amatory romance. The most significant attacks on the novel were Henry Fielding's Shamela (1740), a short, hilarious parody of Pamela, and Joseph Andrews (1742), which traces the adventures of Pamela's “brother.” Shamela is simply a shameless hypocrite who feigns virtuous resistance to her master's advances in order to manipulate him into marriage. Shamela reveals her motives openly in her letters to her mother, whereas Pamela, as she writes, discovers her conflicted emotions and struggles to preserve her personal integrity. For Fielding, human nature is transparent and recurrent, and his approach is satirical, out to reveal for comic effect how individuals rationalize their self-interested behavior. Joseph Andrews and Fielding's masterpiece Tom Jones (1749) provide panoramic views of English life and society, depicting characters across the social spectrum. Fielding's novels, like his great model, Cervantes's Don Quixote, feature a controlling narrator who guides readers through a complicated plot and comments satirically on the characters as he arranges comic scenes and draws out social and moral lessons. And yet if we consider the plots of both novels they seem at first to follow the loose pattern of picaresque narrative. But the resolution of Fielding's novels derives from romance, since both titular heroes, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, are foundlings who are revealed in the end to have upper-class identities that make them worthy of happy and prosperous endings. In their opposition to the Richardsonian mode, Fielding's novels illustrate the diversity of narrative types in the eighteenth century and the continuing force of traditional forms and universalizing morality. In place of Defoe's and Richardson's individualized narrators who offer, first and foremost, experience of their subjectivities within an objective world, Fielding's novels stabilize aberrant individuality and align particular characters with comic types. As he surveys the various abuses of mid-eighteenth-century English life (e.g., the brutal ignorance of the rural gentry, the amoral decadence of the aristocracy, the repressive laws against poaching, the crime-infested highways, the incompetence of the judiciary, the exploitation of the lower clergy), Fielding's narrator filters this world through a comic perspective that provides moral knowledge and universalizing assurance. Ironic superiority to his characters is Fielding's stance, although that confident sociohistorical representation becomes deeply problematical in his last novel, Amelia (1751), where the moral chaos of contemporary reality seems to overwhelm narrative confidence so that the moral symmetry and universalizing comedy of the earlier novels goes by the board.

The eighteenth-century literary critic, Samuel Johnson, suggested that the difference between Richardson's and Fielding's novels lay in their conception of character: Fielding's he called “characters of manners,” but Richardson's were “characters of nature, where a man must dive into the recesses of the human heart” (J. Boswell, 1901, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. A. Glover, 366). What Johnson saw is that Richardson's characters acquire a dramatic life of their own that goes beyond social and historical identity toward what Johnson and other critics of the time call “nature.” Such psychological penetration is achieved by the intensity of his epistolary technique as it licenses his characters' obsessive introspection. Richardson's approach reached its perfection in Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747—48). Unlike its predecessor, Clarissa was less a popular than a critical sensation, recognized immediately as a narrative breakthrough and as a morally profound work; even Fielding wrote to his rival expressing admiration. Written in letters mainly to and from the central four characters—the heroine, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy upper-middle-class Harlowe family; Anna Howe, her friend and confidante; Robert Lovelace, an aristocratic suitor and practiced seducer; John Belford, his friend, fellow rake, and confidant—Clarissa transforms the amatory novel, achieving not only those psychological depths that eighteenth-century critics admired but also social-historical resonances. The heroine is at the center of a clash between a decadent aristocracy embodied in Lovelace and his friends, and a commercial upper bourgeoisie, the Harlowe family, seeking to enter the gentry, with Clarissa the individual who tries to preserve her moral integrity caught in the conflict.

Richardson's intent was didactic and religious, to frustrate readers who expected what he called “a light novel, or transitory romance,” and to defend, as he said, the principles of morality and Christianity and to show the punishments that attend those who ignore those principles. Clarissa remains linked to amatory fiction in the fantasies that Lovelace, the arch rake and seducer, projects onto the incomparable but beleaguered Clarissa. Fascinated by the beautiful, brilliant, and pious young woman, repelled by her avaricious family who seeks to marry her to a suitor who will further enrich them, Lovelace tricks her into running away with him, and the rest of the novel depicts over hundreds of pages his efforts to seduce her, which end in his drugging and raping her. She escapes and the end of the book is her drawn-out decline and death in which she achieves a saintly apotheosis. Such a plot summary is misleading in its melodrama, since the book slowly develops complex psychological and moral dilemmas, so that, as Richardson discovered to his dismay, many early readers found his villain, Lovelace, extremely attractive, and some even wondered if Clarissa preferred her own will rather too much. Despite his didactic purposes, the effect of Richardson's novel is dramatic in a radical sense, with characters acquiring over the course of the novel complex and ambiguous identities that took even the author by surprise.

Lovelace is a rake, an experienced seducer whose conquests end up as prostitutes in the brothel to which he takes the unsuspecting Clarissa, and his erotic fantasies about her are a central feature of his personality. Overt erotic and even pornographic fiction was, however, fairly rare. The great exception is John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748—49), which traces the career of Fanny Hill, an orphan from Liverpool who comes to London and turns prostitute. Cleland gives Fanny an inventive knack for sexual description, with the sex act and organs evoked by a variety of descriptive devices. The male phallus is often an “engine” or mighty “machine,” and the sex act is portrayed vividly, in heroic terms. But despite its elegant pornographic descriptions, Fanny Hill (as the novel is often called) is a conventional sequence of adventures featuring a young, sympathetic heroine that gives readers a panorama of social types in various forms of sexual expression and features in the end the happy marriage of Fanny and her first love.

Satire and the Novel of Ideas

Next to Fielding's and Richardson's innovations during the middle of the eighteenth century, the novels of the Scottish author, Tobias Smollett, are more conventional as specifically British picaresque fictions. Roderick Random (1748) and Peregrine Pickle (1751) are close to the French and Spanish tradition of the genre in their almost amoral energy. Featuring an enormous and vivid variety of scene, action, and character, these novels defy summary. Their heroes struggle against a range of knaves and fools, rendered in the broadest caricature; both novels contain memorable comic characters in a characteristic English “humor” mode, such as Commodore Hawser Trunnion in Peregrine Pickle, whose discourse and way of life are strictly nautical. Roderick Random is the better of the two books, as its Scottish provincial hero has to leave home and seeks fame and fortune in adventures in the British navy (based on Smollett's own experiences as a naval surgeon) and the French army, eventually returning to Britain, where with the help of his colorful uncle, the sailor Tom Bowling, he finds his long-lost father in Argentina and ends prosperous and happy. Roderick is an attractive character, unlike Peregrine Pickle, an amoral trickster and savage satirist whose story is formless but brutally amusing. Smollett's best novel was his last, published posthumously in 1771, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which is epistolary in form but otherwise unconventional. More of a satire than a novel, it follows the travels of Matt Bramble, a Welsh squire, and his family (and several characters who join the trip, including the titular hero) around the island of Britain. In the long letters the various characters write as they travel any number of controversies of the day are criticized (e.g., the corruptions of urban life as experienced in London and Bath), and Matt and the eccentric Scotsman, Lieutenant Lismahago, dispute the relative merits of a traditional agrarian or a modern commercial society. Humphry Clinker is a novel where ideas are taken seriously and discussed at length. In this regard, it can be paired with Samuel Johnson's oriental tale, Rasselas (1759).

Rasselas is a philosophical tale in which the eponymous character, one of the princes of Abyssinia, escapes from the Happy Valley, where the royal progeny are imprisoned in what the prince finds an unsatisfactory paradise. Hearing about the outside world from his tutor, Imlac, Rasselas sets out to experience it and to make what he calls the “choice of life.” The book is a series of philosophical dialogues in which the characters explore various scenes and issues in the world but find no final answers, and so at the end they return to the Happy Valley. Johnson's tale is short on characterization and indifferent to social and historical setting but rich in paradoxical wit and rhetorical articulation of opposing ideas. Rasselas is not a novel, although it was very popular with eighteenth-century readers. In Humphry Clinker, on the other hand, Matt, for all his satiric ferocity, discovers a long-lost son, the titular hero; his moral development in that relationship and others takes precedence in the end over the social and moral debates in the book. Matt alters slowly from a satirist into a man of feeling; his extreme condemnation of the world softens into acceptance and emotional connection. This subordination of ideas to character development is a defining feature of the novel as it emerges in the eighteenth century. Looking back, we can see that the primacy of character development is what strikes readers as novelistic in some of Defoe's narratives and that complexity of character is what separates, for example, Richardson's novels from the amatory fiction of Haywood, and to some extent Fielding's Tom Jones from Smollett's picaresque romps.

Women Novelists and Characters

The influence of the developmental approach to character appears vividly in the two novels in the mode of both Richardson and Fielding that Haywood produced in response to shifting tastes, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) and The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy (1753), longer and more thoughtful works than her amatory fiction and directed by an approach in which young women become mature through their experience in the world. From mid-century and onward, thanks in large part to the influence of Richardson and Fielding, the novel becomes moralized, discarding the racy sexual excitement of the amatory formula as it treats the difficulties of coming to maturity for young women in a dangerous world. Haywood's Betsy Thoughtless resembles Fielding's Tom Jones in that she is slightly flawed, seeking excitement but retaining (just) her sexual honor and foolishly rejecting a worthy suitor, Trueworth. Forced into an unhappy marriage by her brothers, she finds happiness at the end when her brutal husband conveniently dies, as does Trueworth's wife. So, too, Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy traces the mundane difficulties of a young couple destined to a marriage delayed by jealousies and misunderstandings and rival relationships.

Novels written by women began to dominate the market for fiction in the 1740s and their numbers increased until the mid-1780s. These novels follow a young woman's entrance into the world where marriage is her only suitable fate and the feminine ideal that she is expected to live up to is a passivity and chastity that bring moral elevation but can also involve intense suffering. The most extraordinary of these characters is Arabella, the heroine of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752). Like Cervantes's hero, she lives in an imaginary world constructed from her reading of seventeenth-century French romances. But Arabella, again like Quixote, is intelligent and perceptive within her romantic visions, and she acquires by them an independent identity. Lennox's novel implicitly evaluates her fantasies as exaggerated versions of the privileges granted to rich young women as objects of male desire. In the end, Arabella is disabused of her fantasies by a wise male doctor and turned away from romantic fantasy to marriage with her suitor.

Romantic love such as the female novel depicts holds out the possibility of free choice, and the novel of women's experience in the eighteenth century explores the chances of that freedom within the iron necessities of biology and patriarchal society. Often enough in this fiction, however, those necessities cancel female freedom, and suffering on a heroic scale is the result. Frances Sheridan's Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761) is the most extreme example of this rule. Married through parental pressure to a man she does not love after rejecting one she does on the strength of a false story, the heroine endures her husband's adultery and subsequent bankruptcy as well as the discovery that the story about her former suitor is false. Even after her husband dies and her former lover renews his suit, she rejects him again, victimized through all this by the machinations of two sexually aggressive female rivals. Sheridan's novel features unrelenting female misery and suffering. As such it offers the pleasures of sentimental identification, like Clarissa but without that novel's formal and moral complexities.

Frances Burney's Evelina (1778) brings together the novel of female suffering and the comic and satiric energies of Fielding and Smollett. The child of a seduced and abandoned woman, the heroine is allowed by her guardian to visit friends and her French grandmother in London. In a journal-like account of her experiences, she manages to be passive and modest but also satirically sharp in rendering the manners, aristocratic and lower-middle-class, of that world. Various dangers, including a predatory aristocratic seducer, menace Evelina, but in the end thanks to her beauty and steadfast virtue she marries the perfect nobleman, Lord Orville, and her father acknowledges his paternity when he finally meets her and is overwhelmed by her resemblance to her dead mother. Evelina is both sentimental and satiric, a rare and winning combination. Burney's two subsequent novels, Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796), suffer from melodramatic excess, although the former features a rich and satirical panorama of characters and scenes from upper-class life.

Sterne and the Novel

Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759—67) is, arguably, the most original eighteenth-century English novel, and as it appeared several volumes at a time in the 1760s it was a great success. Sterne followed it with a short novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), which narrates the travels of Parson Yorick, a character who dies in the first volume of Tristram Shandy. As its title announces, A Sentimental Journey is a sentimental novel and may be said to initiate certain key features of the mode. A series of impressionistic sketches from Yorick's travels, it flouts the fullness of the representational ambitions of the emerging novel as Yorick ignores the larger social-historical context and instead lingers on his particular whims, impressions, embarrassments, chance encounters, and flirtations, with some scenes provoking sentimental and comic reactions, and some verging on the erotic. There is nothing like a plot in these episodes, and in dwelling on his own reactions Yorick articulates the novel's primary interest in the individual self. At the same time, however, Yorick is aware of his own excessive self-absorption, and his sentimental experiences have comic resonances that undercut the sentimentality and reveal a selfish and absurd side to Sterne's traveler.

Tristram Shandy is in many ways also a sentimental novel; in many others like A Sentimental Journey it is a satire of sentiment and also a comic parody of the explanatory ambitions of the novel. Tristram Shandy's autobiographical narrator declares at the outset that he will seek to understand himself by tracing his life from the moment of his conception, but that requires presenting the history of his immediate family and the circumstances of his birth (see BILDUNGSROMAN). So the opening volumes of the book concern his father, Walter, and his uncle Toby, in the last days of Mrs. Shandy's pregnancy. Both these men are English humor characters, defined by their zany “hobby horses,” Walter a retired merchant with elaborate and crackpot theories about everything, including the importance of names for children, and Toby a retired army captain obsessed after his wounding at the battle of Namur in 1695 with the science of fortifications and with constructing on his bowling green in miniature the progress of the wars in the Low Countries in the early eighteenth century. Since his father and uncle are crucial parts of his “life and opinions,” Tristram takes hundreds of pages to arrive at the moment of his birth, and in fact his project of self-understanding is comically interrupted and digressive. And yet Tristram does succeed in expressing himself, and he comes alive on the page. Like his father and uncle, his subjectivity exists by virtue of his impossible project of understanding everything about himself. Tristram's failures at self-understanding, along with the silly theories of his father and uncle, make them objects of satire but also of sympathy. Tristram Shandy marks a subversive reductio ad absurdum of the British eighteenth-century novel in which the sociohistorical world it has sought in different ways to understand and to represent is exchanged for personal and eccentric self-expression.

Sentimental Novels

Frances Burney's Cecilia (1782) is a sprawling examination of English society that anticipates in its breadth of satirical denunciation the novels of Charles Dickens. Written in a more philosophical style than Evelina, with a moralizing narrator rather like Johnson's in Rasselas, Cecilia is the story of a rich heiress who hopes to use her wealth to do good and to choose a moral life, but instead she finds a society where her philanthropy is useless in the face of systemic corruption. The book quickly turns into a novel of female suffering, as Cecilia Beverley is driven to actual madness and poverty after she marries the man she loves and violates the terms of her inheritance. The suffering woman in later eighteenth-century fiction, who seeks like Clarissa and Cecilia to choose her life and to achieve moral integrity, is often enough seduced, raped, abandoned, and abused. Cecilia's sad end records in melodramatic fashion the vicious circle novels often reveal whereby free individuals turn out to be the product of social forces that they cannot control. On the other hand, the suffering young woman is an object of pleasurable pity as she serves to arouse sentimental compassion. The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility, which includes to some extent many of the novels of women's suffering, flourishes from the mid-eighteenth century on, reflecting perhaps a compensation for the negative revelations about modern society and sociability that the novel comes to represent.

The hero of Sarah Fielding's David Simple (1744), for example, seeks a “real friend,” but all he finds is self-interested betrayal in his fellow men. David resists becoming absorbed into this world, and eventually he rescues his long-lost brother and sister from dire poverty. Together with their spouses, they form a “little family of love,” but in Fielding's sequel, Volume the Last (1753), after a series of ruinous events all the family dies, with David a Job-like figure at the end on his own deathbed. The antidote Fielding's novel proposes to a social order lacking in compassion or sociability is the compensatory fantasy of a suffering and uncomplaining hero. Other sentimental novels imagine similar paragons of philanthropy, such as Samuel Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (1753—54), whose hero is prodigiously and perfectly virtuous and also himself a man of deep feeling whose eyes well up at the sight of injustice, just as his virtuous actions bring tears of joy to the other characters. More human and imperfect than Sir Charles is the narrator hero of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Parson Primrose, who partly through his vanity and pride loses all he has at the hands of financial misfortune and of various swindlers and seducers of his daughters. Goldsmith's tale, however, is a moral fable rather than a novel, an eighteenth-century version of the Job story, with Primrose redeemed from poverty and prison (where he preaches to and reforms the inmates) by coming to his moral senses and through the good offices of an eccentric nobleman in disguise, Sir William Thornhill, who in the happy ending marries one of Primrose's daughters.

The purest instance of the sentimental novel is Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), vignettes from the life of the late Harley, culled from a fragmentary manuscript autobiography he left behind. In place of the representational fullness that the novels of Fielding and Richardson specialize in, Mackenzie's book focuses on moments of intense emotions cut off from any coherent plot, an implicit admission that novels cannot deal effectively with social and moral problems but only focus on subjective emotions. And Harley himself is mostly silent or in tears, unable to speak as he encounters objects of pity. One might also argue that the people Harley encounters—for two examples, a prostitute he meets in London, betrayed and abandoned by her lover, and an old soldier, his former neighbor, returned from India, where he was court-martialed for refusing to cooperate in the oppression of the natives—signify Mackenzie's dramatization of the failure of the eighteenth-century English novel's didactic project to meliorate social injustice.

SEE ALSO: Comedy/Tragedy, Decorum/Verisimilitude, Genre Theory, Historical Novel, Psychological Novel.


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