The Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century the years after the forties witnessed a wonderful efflorescence of a new literary genre which was soon to establish itself for all times to come as the dominant literary form. Of course, we are referring here to the English novel which was born with Richardson’s Pamela and has been thriving since then.

When Matthew Arnold used the epithets “excellent” and “indispensable” for the eighteenth century which had little of good poetry or drama to boast of, he was probably paying it due homage for its gift of the novel. The eighteenth century was the age in which the novel was established as the most outstanding and enduring form of literature. The periodical essay, which was another gift of this century to English literature, was born and died in the century, but the novel was to enjoy an enduring career. It is to the credit of the major eighteenth-century novelists that they freed the novel from the influence and elements of high flown romance and fantasy, and used it to interpret the everyday social and psychological problems of the common man. Thus they introduced realism, democratic spirit, and psychological interest into the novel— the qualities which have since then been recognized as the essential prerequisites of-every good novel and which distinguish it from the romance and other impossible stories.

Reasons for the Rise and Popularity:
Various reasons can be adduced for the rise and popularity of the novel in the eighteenth century. The most important of them is that this new literary form suited the genius and temper of the times. The eighteenth century is known in English social history for the rise of the middle classes consequent upon an unprecedented increase in the volume of trade and commerce. Many people emerged from the limbo of society to occupy a respectable status as wealthy burgesses. The novel, with its realism, its democratic spirit, and its concern with the everyday psychological problems of the common people especially appealed to these nouveaia riches and provided them with respectable reading material. The novel thus appears to have been specially designed both to voice the aspirations of the middle and low classes and to meet their taste. Moreover, it gave the writer much scope for what Cazamian calls “morality and sentiment”-the two elements which make literature “popular.” The decline of drama in the eighteenth century was also partly responsible for the rise and -ascendency of the novel. After the Licensing Act of 1737, the drama lay moribund. The poetry of the age too-except for the brilliant example of Pope’s work—was in a stage of decadence. It was then natural that from the ashes of the drama (and, to some extent, of poetry, too) should rise the phoenix-like shape of a new literary genre. This new genre was, of course, the novel.
Before the Masters:
Before Richardson and Fielding gave shape to the new form some work had already been done by numerous other writers, which helped the pioneers to some extent. Mention must here be made of Swift, Defoe, Addison, and Steele. Swift in Gulliver’s Travels gave an interesting narrative, and, in spite of the obvious impossibility of the “action” and incidents, created an effect of verisimilitude which was to be an important characteristic of the novel. The Coverley papers of Addison and Steele were in themselves a kind of rudimentary novel, and some of them actually read like so many pages from a social and domestic novel. Their good-humoured social satire, their eye for the oddities of individuals, their basic human sympathy, their lucid style, and their sense of episode-all were to be aspired after by the future novelists. Defoe with his numerous stories like Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana showed his uncanny gift of the circumstantial detail and racy, gripping narrative combined with an unflinching realism generally concerned with the seamy and sordid aspects of life (commonly, low life). His lead was to be followed by ‘ numerous novelists. Defoe’s limitation lies in the fact that his protagonists are psychologically too simple and that he makes nobody laugh and nobody weep. But his didacticism was to find favour with all the novelists of the eighteenth, and even many of the nineteenth, century. Some call Defoe the first English novelist. But as David Daiches puts it in A Critical History of English Literature, Vol. II, whether Defoe was “properly” a novelist “is a matter of definition of terms.”
The Masters:
Between 1740 and 1800 hundreds of novels of all kinds were written. However, the real “masters” of the novel in the eighteenth century were four-Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. The rest of them are extremely inferior to them. Oliver Elton maintains: “The work of the four masters stands high, but the foothills are low.” The case was different in, say, the mid-nineteenth century when so many equally great novelists were at work. Fielding was the greatest of the foursome. Sir Edmund Gosse calls Richardson “the first great English novelist” and Fielding, “the greatest of English novelists.” Fielding may not be the greatest of all, but he was certainly one of the greatest English novelists and the greatest novelist of the eighteenth century.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761):
He was the father of the English novel. He set the vogue of the novel with his Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1741). It was in the epistolary manner. It took England by storm. In it Richardson narrated the career of a rustic lady’s maid who guards her honour against the advances of her dissolute master who in the end marries her and is reformed. Pamela was followed by Clarissa ffarlowe (1747-48), in eight volumes. It was, again, of the epistolary kind, Richardson’s third and last novel was Sir Charles Grandison (1754). The hero is a model Christian gentleman very scrupulous in his love-affair.
Among Richardson’s good qualities must be mentioned his knowledge of human, particularly female psychology and his awareness of the emotional problems of common people. He completely, and for good, liberated the novel from the extravagance and lack of realism of romance to concentrate on social reality. The note of morality and sentimentality made him a popular idol not only in England but also abroad. Thus Didoret in France could compare him to Homer and Moses! However, his morality with its twang of smugness and prudery did not go unattacked even in his own age. Fielding was the most important of those who reacted against Richardsonian sentimentalism and prudish moralism. One great defect of Richardson’s novels, which is especially noticeable today, is their enormous length. The epistolary technique which he adopted in all his three novels is essentially dilatory and repetitive, and therefore makes for bulkiness. He is at any rate a very good psychologist and as one he is particularly admirable for, what a critic calls, “the delineation of the delicate shades of sentiment as they shift and change and the cross-purposes which the troubled mind envisages when in the grip of passion.”
Henry Fielding (1707-54):
Fielding in the words of Hudson, “was a man of very different type. His was a virile, vigorous, and somewhat coarse nature, and his knowledge of life as wide as Richardson’s was narrow, including in particular many aspects of it from which the prim little printer would have recoiled shocked. There was thus a strength and breadth in his work for which we look in vain in that of his elder contemporary. Richardson’s judgment of Fielding-that his writings were ‘wretchedly low and dirty’-clearly suggests the fundamental contrast between the two men.” His very first novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), was intended to be a parody of Pamela, particularly of its priggish morality and lachrymosic sentimentalism. According to Wilbur L. Cross, Richardson “was a sentimentalist, creating pathetic scenes for their own sake and degrading tears and hysterics into a manner.” In Joseph Andrews Fielding light-heartedly titled against morbid sentimentalism and sham morality. After the ninth chapter of the book, however, he seems to have outgrown his initial intention of parody. Parson Adams, one of the immortal creations of English fiction, appears and runs away with the rest of the novel. Joseph Andrews was followed by Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751). We may add to the list of his fictional works Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), a cynically ironical novel which, as Legouis says, must have been written “after a fit of gloom.”
Fielding’s novels are characterised by a fresh and realistic moral approach which admits occasionally of animalism and ribaldry, a searching realism, good-humoured social satire, and healthy sentiment In his abundant and coarse vigour, his common sense and unflinching realism, and his delight in physical beauty (especially female) he is essentially a masculine writer. He does not have the delicacy of Richardson. It may be said that it is not Richardson who is the “father of the English novel; it is in fact, Fielding. As for Richardson, he is only the “mother” of the English novel!
It is to the credit of ‘Fielding that unlike Richardson and most of his own successors, at least in Tom Jones (if not the other novels, too), he provided a glowing model of a well-constructed plot. According to Coleridge, Jones (with Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist) is one of the three works in world literature which have perfectly constructed plots.
Tobias Smollett (1721-71):
Along with Richardson and Fielding, Smollett is generally included among the masters of eighteenth-century novel; but, as Hudson points out, “it must be distinctly understood that his work is on a much lower level than theirs.” His novels are of the picaresque kind, and include Roderick Random (1748), Peregrine Pickle (1751), and Humphrey Clinker (1771). Smollett was a realist and had his own art of racy narrative and eye-catching description. He was a keen observer of the coarser facts of life, particularly naval life. He exulted in coarseness and brutality. He never bothered about the construction of a plot. Nor did he bother about morality, Richardsonian or “Fieldingian.” His humour, in keeping with his nature, is coarse rather than subtle or ironical and arises mostly out of caricature. Hazlitt observes: “It is not a very difficult undertaking to class Fielding or Smollett-the one as an observer of the character of human life, the other as a describer of its various eccentricities.” Smollett’s characterisation is necessarily poor. His heroes are mechanical puppets rather than living personalities. They are meant only for the bringing in of new.situations. As a critic puts it, “Roderick Random’s career is such as would be enough to kill three heroes and yet the fellow lives just to introduce us to new characters and situations.”
Laurence Sterne (1713-68):
His only novel is Tristram Shandy which appeared from 1759 to 1767 in nine volumes and which is described by Hudson as “the strange work of a very strange man.” If this work can be called a novel, it is one of its own kind, without predecessors and without successors. Hudson observes: “It is rather a medley of unconnected incidents, scraps of out-of-the-way learning, whimsical fancies, humour, pathos, reflection, impertinence, and indecency.” The plot is of the barest minimum: we have to wait till the third book for the birth of the hero! And he is put into breeches only in the sixth! What a pace of development! It was, says Cross, “a sad day for English fiction when a writer of genius came to look upon the novel as the repository for the crotchets of a lifetime.”
Sterne’s sentimentalism was to leave a lasting trace on the English novels which followed. What is quite remarkable in Tris&am Shandy is the wonderfully living characters of Uncle Toby, the elder Shandy, his wife, and Corporal Trim.
The Novel after Sterne:
After Tristram Shandy we find in the eighteenth century a remarkable proliferation of novels. But none of the later novelists comes anywhere near Richardson and Fielding. We find the novel developing in many directions. Four major kinds of the novel may be recognized:
(i)         The novel of sentiment.
(ii)        The so-called Gothic novel.
(iii)       The novel of doctrine and didacticism.
(iv)       The novel of manners,
Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) is prominent among the novels of sentiment. According to Cross, “written in a style alternating between the whims of Sterne and a winning plaintiveness, [it] enjoys the distinction of being the most sentimental of all English novels.” The Gothic novel, which appeared towards the end of the eighteenth century, indulged in morbid sensationalism with impossible stories of supernatural monsters and blood-curdling incidents. Horace Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis, and William Beckford were the most important writers of this kind of novel. The novel of doctrine and didacticism includes such works as Mrs. Inchbad’s Nature and Art (1796) and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). These works used the form of the novel just for propagating a specific point of view. The novel of manners was mostly patronised by fairly intelligent female writers such as Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth who aimed at a light transcription of contemporary manners.
Sarah Fielding’s David Simple (1744), Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefleld (1766) also deserve a special mention in an account of eighteenth-century novel. Sarah Fielding’s work was inspired by the success of Pamela. It abounds in faithfully rendered scenes of London life. Dr. Johnson’s work is hjighly didactic. It emphasized “the vanity of human wishes” in the form of an allegorical tale which he wrote in a very despondent mood induced by the death of his mother. Goldsmith’s work is, in the words of Cross, “of all eighteenth-century novels, the one that many readers would the least willingly lose.” This novel is admirable, among other things, for the sensitive characterisation of Dr. Primrose and the general sanity of the “philosophy of life” which peeps through, it.

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