Much contemporary work on eighteenth-century literature defines it as a discursive space in which writers can imagine and challenge the social order. Indeed this statement might summarise the vast amount of work on the novel in the 1980s and 1990s: John Bender’s discussion of the novel as prefiguring changes in prison design and legislation (Bender 1987), John Mullan’s argument that eighteenth-century writing in general, and the sentimental novel in particular, attempts to stage society as a scheme of consensus (Mullan 1988) and John Richetti’s account of the reciprocal definitions of fictional self and society (Richetti 1999) are prominent examples of this tendency. For John Richetti (1992 and 1999) and Paula Backscheider (2000), eighteenth-century prose fiction is the genre in which a textual public sphere becomes possible. And, as we have seen in chapter 1, John Bender links Fielding’s style of narration with the negotiation of a rational public consensus within the public sphere. This chapter further develops these arguments by examining how literary forms in the eighteenth century, including the novel, might be said to continue the ideals of sociable, critical discussion and to extend those ideals into a specifically literary sphere.
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