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date: 19 January 2020

(p. xvii) Prologue

(p. xvii) Prologue

It is generally accepted that the emergence and development of the English novel is an eighteenth-century phenomenon. Although writings calling themselves ‘novels’ had been appearing in English since the middle of the sixteenth century, when the dedication to Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566) mentioned ‘these histories (which by another terme I call Nouelles’, it is apparent that this referred to the sort of short tales to be found in works like Boccaccio’s Decameron rather than the multi-volume publications with which the eighteenth-century reader would become accustomed. Thus when Addison included ‘A Book of Novels’ in an early number of The Spectator devoted to the contents of a lady’s library, he clearly meant a volume such as Delarivier Manley’s subsequent The Power of Love: In Seven Novels (1720), rather than ‘the four volumes of the New Atalantis’ cited in the title page of the same author’s The Adventures of Rivella (1714). In turn, Manley’s ‘novels’ closely corresponded to the notoriously disparaging definition of ‘the novel’ offered in Johnson’s Dictionary—a ‘short tale, generally of love’.

Over thirty years ago Percy G. Adams made the eminently sensible suggestion that it is only the ‘generic critic’ who needs to define the term, ‘novel’.1 For those who are not generic critics, it is perhaps sufficient to observe that considerably more prose fiction was published in English at the end of the eighteenth century than at the beginning. McBurney’s Check List of English Prose Fiction 1700–1739 lists a single title for the year 1701,2 William Fuller’s A Trip to Hamshire [sic] and Flanders—hardly the most representative ‘novel’ of the period. While there were fluctuations in the annual rates of publication, with surges in the early 1720s following the publication in 1719 of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, and again in the 1740s after the appearance of Pamela, a significant, sustained upturn in the publication of new novels took place only from the 1770s, and more particularly from the late 1780s onwards, so that the magical figure of one hundred was nudged for the first time in 1799.3

It is equally illuminating to look at the different ways in which prose fiction was described at the beginning and at the end of the eighteenth century. Of the twelve new (p. xviii) publications, excluding translations, listed by McBurney for the years between 1700 and 1705, we find the following: something calling itself ‘an historical novel’; a flagrant rip-off of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress; an ‘amatorious novel’ by Mary Davys; The Consolidator—a political allegory involving a trip to the moon by Defoe; a scandal chronicle entitled The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zaranians which used to be attributed to Delarivier Manley, but which seems to have been the work of a ‘medico-politico quack’ called Dr Joseph Browne;4 and Swift’s brilliant but controversial A Tale of a Tub. Of the hundred titles listed in The English Novel, 1770–1829 for the year 1799, on the other hand, it is interesting to note that 70 per cent of the various fictions on offer included an indication of what the reader could expect to find between their covers in their titles, with ‘novel’ the word most commonly used (thirty-nine instances), followed by ‘tale’ (twenty), and ‘romance’ (eleven).5

What conclusions can safely be drawn from such raw data? Perhaps the most straightforward is that by the end of the eighteenth century a degree of generic stability had been reached as far as authors, publishers, readers, and critics were concerned—by 1800, that is, an established and growing market for prose fiction had resulted in the emergence of a category of the British reading public which could be described, with confidence, as ‘novel, or romance readers’. And were we to leap forward to the 1820s, it appears that authors and publishers no longer felt it necessary to flag up the fictitious nature of narratives to potential readers other than by alerting them that what was on offer was a ‘tale’, even if this bare description was occasionally subject to embellishment, such as the suggestion that it was ‘a tale founded on facts’.6 Perhaps this was because by then ‘the novel’—whether it offered ‘pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages’ such as those inhabited by Austen’s characters, or the ‘scenes’ of ‘higher life’ delineated by Edgeworth, or took the form of a ‘Historical Romance’ in the vein made familiar by Scott—was linked more or less straightforwardly in readers’ minds with an entertainment in prose with a strong narrative thread and incidents which did not unduly strain their credulity.

One of the most important points to be made about accounts of the eighteenth-century English novel is that, even today, only a tiny fraction of the prose fiction that has survived is ever mentioned by critics and literary historians, let alone considered at any length. Although sufficiently obvious, the implications for our understanding of ‘the rise of the novel’—or whatever one prefers to call the process—are not addressed so readily. How can we be sure that accounts of the eighteenth-century novel do not concentrate on unrepresentative examples? While a degree of comfort can be derived from the knowledge that those ‘canonical’ novels still studied on degree courses were (p. xix) clearly contemporary best-sellers also, it has to be acknowledged that in restricting discussions of eighteenth-century fiction, as they used to do, to ‘the great “Quadrilateral”—Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne—who’, according to Saintsbury, ‘marked out and fortified for ever the position of the English Novel’,7 critics elected to exclude other hugely popular examples of the genre.

It is of course perfectly possible to defend such a method of proceeding on the grounds that what we should be concerning ourselves with is not an archaeological project to discover what was actually read by the eighteenth-century reading public, but the establishment of a ‘great tradition’ of novel-writing in which the best-sellers of the past do not necessarily have a place. On this view, even though they seem to have sold in their thousands, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis and Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess, let alone the vast majority of the numerous productions of the Minerva Press at the turn of the nineteenth century, should be silently omitted from accounts of the making of the English novel. Such an approach has a long and distinguished history. When critics first started ordering novels towards the end of the eighteenth century, they skipped over most of the early examples to focus on the ‘canonical’ novelists. Thus James Beattie began his account of what he called ‘New Romance’ with Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison, before turning to the works of Fielding and Smollett.8 A similar approach was adopted by Anna Laetitia Barbauld in her prefatory essay to the multi-volume collection, The British Novelists, first published in 1810. Although she mentioned Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, Eliza Haywood, and Daniel Defoe by name, Barbauld explained how:

Of the lighter species of this kind of writing, the Novel, till within half a century we had scarcely any … At length, in the reign of George the Second, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett appeared in strict succession, and their success raised such a demand for this kind of entertainment, that it has ever since been furnished from the press, rather as a regular and necessary supply, than as occasional gratification. Novels have indeed been numerous ‘as leaves in Vallombrosa.’9

Barbauld’s early attempt to delineate what we should nowadays be tempted to call a ‘canon’ of English novels and novelists has proved to be of considerable historical consequence over and above her decision to begin The British Novelists with Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. While she reprinted fifteen novels written by men, she also reprinted ten written by women. Demonstrably, Barbauld’s decision to collect together the best novels written in English was not unduly influenced by the sex of the novelist.

(p. xx) Yet the practice of gradually excluding early women writers from the ‘great tradition’ began soon after the appearance of a reissue of The British Novelists in 1820. A crucial element in this process appears to have been serendipitous. Although Walter Scott had had the idea of publishing a collection of novels as early as 1808, it was, most probably, the apparent success of the reissue of The British Novelists which encouraged the launch of Ballantyne’s Novelists Library the following year. A comparison of the contents of the two collections is revealing. While The British Novelists was built around individual titles, presumably as a consequence of Barbauld’s aim of reprinting what she considered to be the best English novels, Ballantyne’s Novelists Library concentrated on authors. Thus the ten volumes included: ‘The Novels of Fielding’; ‘The Novels of Tobias Smollett, M.D.’ (including Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote); ‘The Novels of Le Sage, and Charles Johnstone’; ‘The Novels of Samuel Richardson, Esq. viz. Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe, and Sir Charles Grandison. In Three Volumes’; ‘The Novels of Swift, Bage, and Cumberland’; and ‘The Novels of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe Complete in One Volume’. The only departure from this formula was the miscellaneous fifth volume which reprinted works by Sterne, Goldsmith, Johnson, Mackenzie, Walpole, and Reeve.

One of the unforeseen consequences of this editorial policy appears to have been the exclusion, with the sole exception of The Old English Baron, of novels by women writers other than Radcliffe. However, the composition of the volume devoted to ‘The Novels of Swift, Bage, and Cumberland’ strongly suggests that the principle governing selection was the avoidance of duplication rather than any other consideration. Consisting of five ‘novels’, it included Gulliver’s Travels, Henry by Cumberland, and Barham Downs, Mount Henneth, and James Wallace by Bage. Pondering ‘some oddities’ about Ballantyne’s Novelists Library in his Introduction to the Everyman edition of Scott’s Lives of the Novelists, Saintsbury observed that ‘Scott, risking and incurring the displeasure of some who generally agreed with him by giving some of the works of the eccentric and unpopular Bage, does not give them all, and omits the one which he himself calls the best’.10 But Hermsprong was the sole example of the work of Swift, Bage, and Cumberland to appear in Barbauld’s British Novelists, and doubtless this was the deciding factor in an otherwise eccentric and inexplicable decision.

If serendipity was a factor in deciding which eighteenth-century novels and novelists would be included in the ‘great tradition’, it would be equally distorting and potentially misleading to restrict accounts of the ‘eighteenth-century English novel’ to those published between 1701 and 1800. Until the publication of The Strange, Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner in 1719, early eighteenth-century ‘novels’ largely worked within the conventions which had operated during the later seventeenth century. While not all the prose fiction published in these years adhered to Johnson’s dismissive description of the novel as ‘a short tale, generally of love’, most others tended to conform to one of several pre-existing literary traditions, such as the memoir or the private (p. xxi) history. It was almost certainly in response to the challenge to readers’ expectations posed by Defoe’s spurious autobiographies that Mary Davys explained in 1725 that ‘’Tis now for some time, that those Sort of Writings call’d Novels have been a great deal out of Use and Fashion, and that the Ladies (for whose Service they were chiefly design’d) have been taken up with Amusements of more Use and Improvement; I mean History and Travels.’11

Considerations such as these are not, of course, readily apparent in the hugely influential account of the emergence and development of the novel offered by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel. Watt began his study by painting himself into a corner not merely by taking it for granted that the novel was ‘a new literary form … begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding’, but also by going on to assume that as

the appearance of our first three novelists within a single generation was probably not sheer accident, and that their geniuses could not have created the new form unless the conditions of the time had also been favourable, [The Rise of the Novel] attempts to discover what these favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were, and in what ways Defoe, Richardson and Fielding were its beneficiaries.12

It should come as little surprise that, after begging the question so flagrantly, Watt proceeded to discover to his own satisfaction that social and cultural conditions were indeed propitious for the emergence of the novel in England in the early eighteenth century. Watt’s ‘triple-rise’ thesis (as J. Paul Hunter aptly refers to it13)—according to which the rise of the middle class led to the rise of the reading public, which led, in turn, to the rise of the novel—has proved to be enduring because of its manifold attractiveness to critics.

There are, however, major difficulties with each plank of the ‘triple-rise’ thesis. ‘Though literary critics, politicians, and students have continued to see early modern England in terms of the rise of the middle class,’ Jonathan Barry pointed out in 1994 in his Introduction to a volume of essays with the significant title The Middling Sort, ‘few professional historians have dared to do so.’14 True, the blurb to Paul Langford’s volume in the New Oxford History of England, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727–1783, asserts that ‘[t]‌his was, above all, a period of rapid commercial growth and burgeoning pretensions’,15 while John Brewer’s thesis about the ‘consumption of culture’ in the middle of the eighteenth century is founded on the assumption that ‘culture was well within the purchasing power of the “middling sort” who had enough money and leisure time to acquire a small but solid library and prints or paintings to decorate their houses, and to enjoy periodic visits to the (p. xxii) theatre, art exhibits and concerts’.16 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have also simply assumed that there was a growing middle class of English men and women in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,17 although Dror Wahrman has subsequently argued—with particular relevance to the period covered by this volume—that the significant changes took place from the 1820s onwards, when ‘two key—linked—developments suddenly became conspicuous: the coupling of “middle class” with social change and the coupling of “middle class” with demands for parliamentary representation’. On this view, ‘it was not so much the “rising middle class” that was the crucial factor in bringing about the Reform Bill of 1832; rather, it was more the Reform Bill of 1832 that was the crucial factor in cementing the invention of the ever-rising “middle class”’.18

The implications for Watt’s thesis are to do with timing: if ‘the rise of the novel’ was conditioned by the development of an identifiable and sizeable middle class, then it would seem reasonable to expect the social developments upon which it depended at least to have coincided with, if not actually to have preceded, the literary. Instead, they seem to have taken place some years later. If there is indeed a link between the ‘rise’ of the middle class and the ‘rise’ of the novel, then it would make sense to locate the latter not in the earlier, but in the later, eighteenth century. This, in turn, would fit in better with the actual upturn in the production of prose fiction in English.

Similar problems attend the notion that the novel was linked to the growth of the reading public in Britain in the early eighteenth century. As H. S. Bennett sagely remarked in his English Books and Readers half a century ago: ‘To speak of the reading public is to speak of a body about which we are very imperfectly informed.’19 Not that this has prevented Jürgen Habermas and his disciples from writing about ‘the bourgeois reading public of the eighteenth century’,20 even though, as David Cressy observes:

Every study demonstrates that literacy in pre-industrial England was closely and consistently associated with social and economic positions … The gentle, clerical and professional classes, of course, had full possession of literacy, except for a few who were decrepit or dyslexic. Members of this dominant class, who comprised no more than 5 per cent of the population, were the primary audience for most of the output of the press. Literacy was an attribute of their status and an active element in their lives. Here, and here only, was the seventeenth-century cultivated elite. And (p. xxiii) among their wives and daughters were the principal female participants in literate culture, a minority within a minority.21

While it is almost certainly the case that there was a growth in literacy between 1701 and 1800, in the absence of firm evidence it would be imprudent to overstate the case. E. P. Thompson doubted whether ‘a purposive, cohesive, growing middle class of professional men and of the manufacturing middle class’ existed, ‘(except, perhaps, in London) until the last three decades of the century’.22 Every bit as disconcerting for those who believe in the emergence of a ‘bourgeois public sphere’ at the turn of the eighteenth century is Cressy’s observation that ‘The period between 1720 and 1760 is one in which virtually nothing is known about the incidence of literacy’.23

If, as I have suggested, there are serious doubts about the ‘rise’ of the middle class in Britain, or the ‘rise’ of a bourgeois reading public in the early eighteenth century, then the search for the kind of favourable conditions necessary for ‘the appearance of our first three novelists’—Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding—‘within a single generation’ may be misguided, more especially as the thesis that ‘the rise of the novel’ took place in these years is not borne out by the statistical evidence. Comparatively few new works of prose fiction were published during the first two decades of the eighteenth century. Considerably more were in fact published in the 1670s and 1680s, a significant number of which were actually called novels on their title pages, and described as such in the Term Catalogues. True, there were brief booms between the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and the publication of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, and once again in the 1740s after the publication of Pamela. But the real upturn in the production of new novels took place only in the later 1780s—an increase which was sustained throughout the 1790s and into the nineteenth century.24 And, as I have already remarked, this transformation in the fortunes of ‘the novel’ was accompanied by a growing stability in the terms used to describe prose fiction.

The final desideratum for the acceptance of ‘the novel’ as a form of literature meriting critical respect was provided by Scott as ‘The Author of the Waverley Novels’. To adopt Homer Obed Brown’s term, Scott’s contribution helped to ‘institutionalize’ the novel by allowing it to realize its ‘generic identity’.25 For this reason, the approach taken in the present volume is radically different from that of The Rise of the Novel and other subsequent attempts to offer a ‘grand narrative’ which seeks to account for the origins of the English novel. Rather than concentrating on the novel’s ‘birth’, or ‘origins’, or ‘rise’, (p. xxiv) The Oxford Handbook of the Eighteenth-Century Novel aims simply to supply critical and contextual commentary on the long prose fiction which was published in English from the later seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Instead of merely offering chapters on ‘canonical’ authors, therefore, the emphasis is placed on viewing Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Burney, Radcliffe, Edgeworth, Austen, and Scott in perspective. Their novels, in other words, are situated against the background provided by the rest of the fiction which was published while they were writing, as well as against the cultural background of the period, including the conditions governing their production and publication. Similarly, while a number of contributors comment on ways in which contemporaries sought to deal with questions of definition—some of them even seeking to contribute to early twenty-first-century debates on what constitutes a novel—there has been no attempt to suggest that there is a consensus on such a vexed question, much less to offer yet another ‘grand narrative’ purporting to account for the emergence and development of that eclectic entity, ‘the English novel’.

J. A. Downie


(1) Percy G. Adams, Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1983), 3.

(2) William Harlin McBurney, A Check List of English Prose Fiction 1700–1739 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960), 3.

(3) Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (eds.), The English Novel, 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, 2 vols. (Oxford: OUP, 2000), 1: 807. The hundred barrier was finally breached in 1808. In both cases, we are of course talking about the titles of new novels that have either survived, or that were reviewed at the time of publication.

(4) The Amours of Edward IV. An Historical Novel (1700); The Progress of the Christian Pilgrim, From the Present World, to the World to Come (1700); The Fugitive (1705); [Daniel Defoe], The Consolidator: or, Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705); The Secret History of Queen Zarah, and the Zaranians (1705)—this used to be attributed to Delarivier Manley, but see my essay, ‘What if Delarivier Manley Did Not Write The Secret History of Queen Zarah?’, The Library, 7th ser., 5/3 (2004), 247–64.

(5) Interestingly, by the 1820s the position had changed. See Peter Garside’s essay in the present volume.

(6) For instance, Beatrice, A Tale Founded on Facts (London, 1829), and The Midshipman, A Tale Founded on Facts (London, 1829).

(7) George Saintsbury, ‘Introduction’, in Sir Walter Scott, Lives of the Novelists (London and New York: J. M. Dent & Sons and E. P. Dutton & Co., n.d.), p. ix.

(8) James Beattie, ‘On Fable and Romance’, Dissertations Moral and Critical (London, 1783), 565–73. It should be noted, however, that Beattie offers The Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels as examples of moral historical allegory.

(9) Anna Barbauld, The British Novelists; with An Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical (London: Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, et al., 1810), 1: 36–8.

(11) The Works of Mrs. Davys: Consisting of, Plays, Novels, Poems, and Familiar Letters (London, 1725), p. iii.

(12) Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1960), 9.

(13) J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1990), 66–7.

(14) Jonathan Barry, ‘Introduction’, in Barry and Christopher Brookes (eds.), The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550–1800 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), 1.

(15) Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727–1783 (Oxford: OUP, 1987), back flap.

(16) John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 93. See also Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England (London: Europa Publications, 1982).

(17) Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780–1850 (London: Routledge, 2002).

(18) Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c.1780–1840 (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 227–8, 18.

(19) H. S. Bennett, English Books and Readers 1558–1603 (Cambridge: CUP, 1965), 2.

(20) Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 85. For an insightful assessment of the validity and influence of Habermas’s assertions on the emergence of a ‘bourgeois public sphere’ in the eighteenth century, see Brian Cowan’s essay in the present volume.

(21) David Cressy, ‘Literacy in Context: Meaning and Measurement in Early Modern England,’ in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 315.

(22) E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991), 31–2.

(24) These figures are derived from McBurney, A Check List of English Prose Fiction 1700–1739; Jerry C. Beasley, A Check List of Prose Fiction Published in England 1740–1749 (Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1972); James Raven, British Fiction, 1750–1770: A Chronological Check-List of Prose Fiction Printed in Britain and Ireland (Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 1989); and Garside et al. (eds.), The English Novel, 1770–1829.

(25) Homer Obed Brown, Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997), p. xi.