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date: 22 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

Before the 1830s British attempts to place the novel in literary history habitually resorted to an older history of fiction depicting a genre, stretching back to antiquity, that was transnational and frequently translated because it was said to traverse with ease temporal, linguistic, and geographic borders. By the 1850s, this context had been replaced, for the most part, by a more compressed history, featuring the rise of a distinctive ‘English’ novel in the mid-eighteenth century, to be followed by the form’s unprecedented Victorian proliferation. Using a book history approach, this essay argues that a new brand of evolutionary literary history formulated in the 1830s and 40s did much to sponsor this transition. By shifting attention to issues related to literary consumption, several pioneering histories of ‘English literature’ (rather than ‘literature in English’) were the first to situate novels and novelists in a larger story of literary achievement across the ages in the British Isles. The well-known story about the eighteenth-century rise of the novel, in this perspective, did not simply reflect suitable evidence or plausible argument. It flourished thanks to an industrialized flood of paper and ink that submerged and obscured an earlier transnational history of prose fiction.

Keywords: Book history, Literary history, Transnational networks, Reading nation, Mechanical Reproduction, Industrialization, Evolutionary theory, Anthologies

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