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About this book

The formal and expressive range of canonic eighteenth-century fiction is enourmous: between them Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne seem to have anticipated just about every question confronting the modern novelist; and Aphra Behn even raises a number of issues overlooked by her male successors. But one might also reverse the coin: much of what is present in these writers will today seem remote and bizarre. There is, in fact, only one novelist from the 'long' eighteenth century who is not an endangered species outside the protectorates of university English departments: Jane Austen. Plenty of people read her, moreover, without the need for secondary literature. These reservations were taken into account in the writing of this book.

An Introduction to Eighteenth Century Fiction is a comprehensive and accessible introduction to English fiction from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen. It deals with novel criticism, canon formation and relations between genre and gender. The second part of the book contains an extensive discussion of Richardson and Fielding, followed by paired readings of major eighteenth-century novels, juxtaposing texts by Behn and Defoe, Sterne and Smollett, Lennox and Burney among others. The various sections of the book, and even the individual chapters, may be read independently or in any order. Works are discussed in a way intended to help students who have not read them, and even engage with some who never will. The author consumes eighteenth-century fiction avidly, but has tried to write a reader-friendly survey for those who may not.

Table of Contents

Novel Departures

Frontmatter

1. Critics and Theorists

Abstract
Outside conventional literary histories, the vast secondary bibliography for eighteenth-century fiction can be broadly divided into two kinds of study. One typically provides a series of elaborate readings of canonical texts, together with a conceptual model that often seems tacked on as an afterthought. The other begins with a sophisticated hypothesis, which is then applied to a select group of writers — generally some permutation of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding.1 The two approaches have accounted for much academic work over the last half-century. Within the first category, Dorothy Van Ghent’s classic study of the English novel offered valuable insights into Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, whilst its hard-nosed reading of Clarissa shocks even yet;2 Van Ghent’s interpretations are still found recycled today, although few now remember her overall thesis.3 In the second group, Nancy Armstrong’s more recent Desire and Domestic Fiction has a well-articulated thesis for her ‘political history of the novel’, although it hardly refers to any actual eighteenth-century fiction beyond the first part of Pamela.4
John Skinner

2. Sounding the Canon

Abstract
Watching a movie (and particularly the ‘film of the book’) rather than reading a novel was once widely regarded by university English departments as a soft option, a kind of mental slumming. Eighteenth-century gentlemen, at least, might have had similar reservations about reading anything as trivial as a novel rather than a more mentally exacting philosophical treatise, or culturally significant essay in natural history. Their choice was perhaps made simpler, however, by the fact that most current scientific knowledge was still comprehensible to the layman, while fiction did not yet have such literary heavyweights as Proust or late James. Today, the same English departments may be teaching cultural theory or women’s studies and will certainly no longer be questioning the legitimacy of different narrative media. Urban graffiti, if politically correct, may rate higher than an ideologically reactionary epic. Similarly, the children (and above all the grandchildren) of those eighteenth-century gentlemen probably possessed handsome bound sets of the same lowly novels, as fiction became increasingly respectable and institutionalized.
John Skinner

3. Genre and Gender

Abstract
The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that, whereas epic and tragedy had long reached their final stage of evolution, the novel was the one literary genre still in the process of development. Or, expressed from a slightly different perspective, most readers have a clear concept of what an epic or tragedy involves, and might be expected to recognize one fairly easily when they met it; the case of the novel is hardly so simple. And if, on yet another tack, the epic or tragedy in question were anonymous, the sex of the poet would likewise arouse little debate, so widespread would be the assumption of male authorship for that kind of writing; but an anonymous novel, as literary history repeatedly shows, would again prove a greater challenge. Such issues of genre and gender, admittedly framed rather simplistically here, are the overall subject of the present chapter.
John Skinner

4. Two Literary Parabolas (i): Richardson from Familiar Letters to Grandison

Abstract
After the remarks on critics and theorists in the first chapter, it will be useful to consider Richardson’s entire prose output rather than one specific text. For it is striking how often an exceptionally large chunk of this writer’s work serves rather modest critical aims (say Grandison considered solely as a kind of men’s ‘conduct book’), or a comparably small chunk inspires such bold theoretical ones (say the role of Pamela I in the feminization of the novel). And since Richardson is so central to this study, there had best be as much of him as possible.1
John Skinner

5. Two Literary Parabolas (ii): Fielding from Jonathan Wild to Amelia

Abstract
Fielding’s prose production, like Richardson’s, could also be said to form a parabola, even if its shape is neither quite as symmetrical or as simple to trace as that inscribed by his great rival. Formally and ideologically, however, the two curves may be broadly characterized as inversions of each other, as the following brief comparison suggests.
John Skinner

Fictional Perspectives from Behn to Austen

Frontmatter

6. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

Abstract
Through its concern with issues of gender, race and class, Oroonoko was guaranteed the attention of late twentieth-century critics and theorists. Feminists emphasized the strong matrilinear claims of Behn in genealogies of the novel: a form supposed to have ‘risen’ with those ‘fathers of the novel’, Fielding and Richardson, in the 1740s — or even Defoe in the 1720s — was already emerging with Behn in the 1680s. New historicists seized on the ideological contradictions inherent in Behn’s writing: Tory, royalist and elitist, she produces a radical, pre-feminist text sometimes regarded as a pioneering anti-slavery narrative. For these reasons alone, Oroonoko is a challenging starting-point for a series of individual readings.1
John Skinner

7. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker

Abstract
Whether regarded as straight novel, anti-novel or meta-novel, Tristram Shandy reflects the progress of the form to date, even as it suggests future potential. Through judgement and commentary, or satire and parody, it thus reviews the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the genre, even if this process is not as methodical — and certainly never as self-consciously authoritative — as it is in the hands of Fielding. At the same time, however, Sterne’s fiction is a strange mixture of parts, exploiting the mid-eighteenth-century vogue of sensibility, even as it draws on an older tradition of learned wit now most familiar from Swift.1
John Skinner

8. Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote and Frances Burney’s Evelina

Abstract
There are good grounds for discussing Lennox’s The Female Quixote with Burney’s Evelina, whether in terms of the similarities or the differences between the two novels. In the first respect, both novels feature naïve heroines from sheltered rural environments, forced to live through a painful socialization process, with all its attendant public embarrassment. Some form of sentimental education is central here, thus anticipating the concerns of the female Bildungsroman or ‘novel of formation’ proper, perfected by Jane Austen — who, incidentally, praised both of these writers.
John Skinner

9. Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams

Abstract
In traditional histories of the novel, the last three decades of the eighteenth century normally receive far less attention than any of the seven before. After its ‘birth’, ‘rise’ or ‘origins’ (tastes in metaphor vary), the novel seems to lose its appeal until the arrival of Jane Austen and the beginnings of a recognizably classic realist tradition. The main victims of this critical neglect have been the Gothic novel and the politically radical novel of the late eighteenth century; the most celebrated examples of each tendency are juxtaposed in the present chapter. It was earlier noted that, of the male proto-canon, Smollett had the longest fiction-writing career. Between Roderick Random (1748: a year before Tom Jones) and Humphry Clinker (1771: three years after A Sentimental Journey) there was an interval of twenty-three years; the literary and conceptual gap seems even greater. If one now moves forward another twenty-three years exactly, there is a striking literary coincidence. The year 1794 saw the publication of two epoch-making novels, superficially quite diverse, but with interesting literary parallels: Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams.
John Skinner

10. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park

Abstract
Even if the known details of Jane Austen’s biography were not so familiar, there would be little to tell. The seventh child of a High Tory Anglican clergyman, the writer grew up and later resettled in rural Hampshire, where she seems to have been happy; in the interim, she lived five years with her family in Bath, and briefly — on her father’s death — in Southampton: places where she was clearly less happy.1 The relative uneventfulness of Austen’s life always seems implicit in subsequent literary judgements, where there is of course a great deal to tell. Several much-quoted tags (the ‘two square inches of ivory’, or the ‘two or three families in a country village’) record Austen’s own self-deprecating assessment of her range. The novelist’s first — and for long her only — substantial critic, Sir Walter Scott, noted in his journal another comment that has become famous:
John Skinner
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