The Novel and Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

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The Novel and Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Literature


Although the autobiographical style that Defoe had used in his early novels continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century, a number of other authors soon expanded the repertory of techniques that could be called upon to structure the novel. Among these, Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) was the most influential in fashioning a mature novel style that was soon to be imitated by a number of writers. His career was unusual for a writer. Born into relatively humble circumstances, he was educated for the clergy before becoming a printer's apprentice out of financial necessity. In the years that followed he became a successful printer in his own right, and eventually turned to writing as a pastime. His first novel, Pamela (1740), appeared when he was already 51. Rather than relying on the autobiographical narrative that Daniel Defoe had popularized, Pamela is written in the form of a correspondence between its main characters. Richardson's own voice serves as the editor who compiles and arranges these letters, filling his audience in on the details that they need to know to understand their exchanges. Like Defoe, he structured his work to be both an entertaining diversion and a morally instructive tale, but although it was soon a hugely popular success, not everyone was so convinced that its themes were uplifting. The central character, Pamela, is a maid who rises to marry her master. Some criticized such a plot as seeming to sanction class commingling to its readers, while others found some of the novel's episodes—including one in which one character watches Pamela undress—immoral. In the years that followed, numerous parodies, including the almost equally famous Shamela (1741) of Henry Fielding, appeared from English presses. Richardson took the criticisms of his work to heart, and a few years later he completed his masterpiece, Clarissa, a work that was published in two halves during 1747 and 1748. The themes of this work were darker, and the book today retains the curious distinction of being the longest novel ever written in the English language. The novel recounts the trials of a young heiress at the hands of an immoral aristocrat, Lovelace, who eventually succeeds in seizing the woman, drugging her, and raping her in a brothel. Following the rape, Clarissa resolves to die, and the remainder of the story deals with the way in which she makes her funeral preparations. The story itself was not remarkable. Richardson apparently pieced together a tale from plots and themes that had been popular in English literature since the Restoration, even as he also relied on the works of a number of female writers that were popular in the early eighteenth century, including Penelope Aubin, Eliza Haywood, and Mary Delarivière Manley. Yet while its story was not extraordinary, the psychological insight that Richardson brought to this material, and the pathos with which he treated it, soon made it a sensation. Even before the novel had been completely published, a number of literary luminaries in England began to write to the author to plead that Clarissa's life be spared. The work established Richardson's reputation as a fictional writer of the highest rank, and his works and their epistolary style were widely copied. Eventually, his influence helped to establish a new genre known as the sentimental novel, which explored the emotions and their effects on characters.


The career of Henry Fielding followed a course different from that of the artisan Richardson. Born into a gentry family, he had grown up in an apparently well-off household, although there had been tensions about money which were exacerbated by his father's poor management of the family's resources. His mother had married for love, and her own family always found the match with Fielding's father inappropriate. Despite these troubles Henry Fielding received the best education possible. He attended the prestigious public school Eton before going off to study at the University of Leyden in Holland. In his twenties Fielding enjoyed a successful career writing for the London stage, but like many playwrights he faced a crisis when the government passed the Stage Licensing Act in 1737, a measure designed to censor and contain the theater, which had recently grown as a vehicle for expressing discontent. The Licensing Act prohibited drama in all venues in London that lacked a royal patent, effectively placing a damper on the capital's great theater scene. As a result, Fielding saw the commercial possibilities that the stage offered dry up rather quickly. To continue to earn a living, he studied the law and eventually entered the bar. Although he was successful in his new career and eventually rose to the rank of judge, he continued to write, anonymously publishing his Shamela, a spoof on Richardson's Pamela as early as 1741. In that work Richardson's virtuous Pamela is transformed into the social-climbing servant Shamela who tricks her master, Mr. Booby, into marrying her. In 1742 Fielding wrote his first novel, Joseph Andrews, a work that continues where his spoof Shamela left off. Shamela is now the hopeless snob, Mrs. Booby, and Joseph Andrews is her lowborn brother. The novel opens with a hilarious scene of seduction in which Joseph refuses to surrender his virginity outside the bounds of marriage, and the resulting comic spectacle that Fielding relates ranks among one of the most entertaining in eighteenth-century English fiction. Fielding's skills as a storyteller continued to grow, and in 1749 he produced his great masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This rollicking story in which Jones makes his way in the world through a series of mishaps and romances is lighthearted and often erotic, but not without an infusion of moral purpose. At the novel's conclusion, the hero renounces his wayward past, marries, and settles down into a more prudent life. Tom Jones, in contrast to the darker Clarissa of Richardson, is a work of high comedy, but together the two stories rank as the finest novels of the period.

Other Novelists.

Although Fielding and Richardson were by far the greatest fictional authors of the period, the vogue for the novel inspired a host of other writers. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the novel had gradually replaced the theater as a source of literary innovation and entertainment for many English men and women. The commercial possibilities this kind of publication offered were great, for even in London and other provincial centers with a theater, an author still wrote for a relatively limited audience. Yet the readership for English novels might exist anywhere where English was spoken, thus providing an almost limitless audience for writers, who now became expert in appealing to their readers, and who made use of the financial possibilities that authorship offered. Although there were many great, near-great, and mediocre writers who wrote novels during this time, the works of Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne deserve special mention. In his many novels, Tobias Smollett (1721–1771) evidenced a taste for portraying characters that were amusingly exaggerated and grotesque. His tales were told in the first person and were greatly influenced by the picaresque tradition that had first developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. In those novels the central character was often lowborn and survives by his wits rather than hard work. Smollett made use of this tradition of characterization, but he modulated it to suit the current taste of English readers for a fiction that was realistic. The resulting mix of colorful characters, satire, and often righteous social commentary can best be seen in Smollett's novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748); The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751); and perhaps his best novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). By contrast, a considerably more somber spirit hangs over the great creation of Laurence Sterne (1713–1768), Tristram Shandy, which was published in nine volumes during the years 1759–1767. Sterne's novel was a self-consciously experimental one, and its tone grows darker in its later volumes, a fact that has often led literary critics to question whether its author's approaching death occasioned this change. The novel is innovative because its narrator, Mr. Yorick, spends little time telling his readers about his own life and instead devotes himself to discussing his family and surroundings. Sterne was very much influenced by John Locke and his notions about human psychology, particularly the idea that the mind was a "blank slate" upon which experience left its residue. In Tristram Shandy, then, he self-consciously attempted to develop these psychological insights by creating one of the first truly in-depth character studies in the English novel. The result is a stunning tour de force in literary experimentation, perhaps unequalled until the novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the twentieth century.


introduction: At the beginning of the second book of his The History of Tom Jones, the author Henry Fielding gave the following apology for his method of narration. He calls attention to the differences between his own methods of writing a personal history of a life, and the methods of historians. The passage illustrates the charming, rambling style of the mid-eighteenth-century English novel. But more importantly, it hints at some of the essential freedom that its authors felt lay in the new form, a literary genre that was unfettered by the rules and conventions of older styles of writing. As he observes, as he himself is one of the founders of a new genre, he can do as he pleases.

THO' we have properly enough entitled this our work, a history, and not a life, nor an apology for a life, as is more in fashion; yet we intend in it rather to pursue the method of those writers, who profess to disclose the revolutions of countries, than to imitate the painful and voluminous historian, who, to preserve the regularity of his series, thinks himself obliged to fill up as much paper with the detail of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened, as he employs upon those notable eras when the greatest scenes have been transacted on the human stage. …

Now it is our purpose, in the ensuing pages, to pursue a contrary method. When any extraordinary scene presents itself (as we trust will often be the case), we shall spare no pains nor paper to open it at large to our reader; but if whole years should pass without producing anything worthy his notice, we shall not be afraid of a chasm in our history; but shall hasten on to matters of consequence, and leave such periods of time totally unobserved.

These are indeed to be considered as blanks in the grand lottery of time. We therefore, who are the registers of that lottery, shall imitate those sagacious persons who deal in that which is drawn at Guildhall, and who never trouble the public with the many blanks they dispose of; but when a great prize happens to be drawn, the newspapers are presently filled with it, and the world is sure to be informed at whose office it was sold: indeed, commonly two or three different offices lay claim to the honour of having disposed of it; by which, I suppose, the adventurers are given to understand that certain brokers are in the secrets of Fortune, and indeed of her cabinet council.

My reader then is not to be surprised, if, in the course of this work, he shall find some chapters very short, and others altogether as long; some that contain only the time of a single day, and others that comprise years; in a word, if my history sometimes seems to stand still, and sometimes to fly. For all which I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever: for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein. And these laws, my readers, whom I consider as my subjects, are bound to believe in and to obey; with which that they may readily and cheerfully comply, I do hereby assure them that I shall principally regard their ease and advantage in all such institutions, for I do not, like a jure divino tyrant, imagine that they are my slaves, or my commodity. I am, indeed, set over them for their own good only, and was created for their use, and not they for mine. Nor do I doubt, while I make their interest the great rule of my writings, they will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity, and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire.

source: Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones (London: 1749; reprint New York: Modern Library, 2002): 75–78.

Samuel Johnson.

While novels continued to attract the attention of English readers as one of the fashions of the age, the greatest literary personality of the eighteenth century was not a novelist, but a literary critic and poet. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), known affectionately as Dr. Johnson to generations of English readers, began life in humble surroundings in a Midlands town before embarking on a remarkable life. He attended Oxford for only little more than a year, where the depth of his learning in the Classics impressed his tutors. He became a teacher at a grammar school, but left soon afterward when he found the environment stifling. Eventually he married well, and with his wife's money he set up his own school. One of his students, David Garrick, was destined to become the greatest actor in eighteenth-century England, but Johnson's school failed, and he and his pupil departed for London in 1737. Soon, he was writing for the Gentlemen's Magazine, a popular literary and political journal. Although he was prolific and achieved some successes, his first decade in London was difficult. He did not, despite the aid of Alexander Pope, attract patrons, and he struggled to establish a reputation. In these years he formulated his plans for a comprehensive dictionary of the English language, a work that was begun in the late 1740s and published in its first edition in 1755. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was not the first such reference work to appear in England, although it was the most comprehensive to date. It provided its readers with etymologies, definitions, and examples of how words had been used at different points in the history of the language. It quickly became an indispensable source of information for writers and educated society, and it was also a source of significant pride to its author, who reminded his friends that he had compiled his dictionary in only nine years, while a similar reference work for French had required a team of writers forty years to complete. In 1750, Johnson had begun writing for The Rambler, and his columns in that periodical as well as The Adventurer had already brought him significant acclaim. He began in 1756 to serve as editor of the Literary Magazine, and in that capacity his critical reviews helped shape literary tastes. Around this time, he also turned his attention to the works of William Shakespeare, planning and then in 1765 publishing the first critical edition of the bard's opus. Even before that great publication, the government had awarded him with an annual pension, which freed him from the necessity of his journalistic endeavors. In the same year of the first publication of his Shakespeare edition, he received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin, a degree that was followed a decade later by another from Oxford.

A Force with Which to be Reckoned.

Besides his literary endeavors, Johnson was famous for the role that he played in establishing The Club, an organization that he and his friend, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, formed in 1764. Nine members drawn from the world of politics, literature, and the arts were among the founding members of this organization, which quickly became an important force on the London scene in the later eighteenth century. Eventually, it became known as The Literary Club and it provided a significant outlet for Johnson's personable nature. His house in the center of London near Chancery Lane also became a significant social and literary hub, and in the years following his wife's death Johnson frequently invited literary men and women to stay with him there. Some in these later years of his life saw Johnson as a kind of literary dictator, who could establish or discredit the career of a budding author in a phrase or two. Yet he was a perceptive critic and was widely regarded for the common sense and good judgment that he exercised when commenting upon other authors' works. Johnson's life, his interest in everything from the Latin Classics to manufacturing processes, points to the increasingly outward-looking culture of metropolitan London in the Georgian era. Johnson arrived in London at a time when it was already the largest city in Europe, a great metropolis that attracted traders and literary figures from across the continent. Yet in those years, despite the city's precocious journalistic culture and its heated printed debates, London lacked the equivalent of the sophisticated salons that played such an important role in the diffusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment in France. Johnson's influence over the literary society of the later eighteenth century helped to develop similar centers of refined discussion throughout London society, as debating the relative literary merits of contemporary authors' works became increasingly a pastime of the city's cultivated society.


J. G. Basker, Tobias Smollet, Critic and Journalist (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1988).

A. H. Cash, Laurence Stern: The Early and Middle Years (London: Methuen, 1975).

—, Laurence Stern: The Later Years (London: Methuen, 1986).

T. Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

I. Grundy, Samuel Johnson and the Scale of Greatness (Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1986).

J. Harris, Samuel Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

N. Hudson, Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

C. Rawson, Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal Under Stress (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972).

P. Rogers, Samuel Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

W. Sale, Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1950).

I. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, Fielding (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1957).

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The Novel and Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Literature

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