Augustan Prose - The Novel

The Novel

As has been indicated above, the ground for the novel had been laid by journalism. It had also been laid by drama and by satire. Long prose satires like Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) had a central character who goes through adventures and may (or may not) learn lessons. In fact, satires and philosophical works like Thomas More's Utopia (1516), Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–64), and even Erasmus's In Praise of Folly (1511) had established long fictions subservient to a philosophical purpose. However, the most important single satirical source for the writing of novels came from Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which had been quickly translated from Spanish into other European languages including English. It would never go out of print, and the Augustan age saw many free translations in varying styles, by journalists (Ned Ward, 1700 and Peter Motteux, 1712) as well as novelists (Tobias Smollett, 1755). In general, one can see these three axes, drama, journalism, and satire, as blending in and giving rise to three different types of novel.

Aphra Behn had written literary novels before the turn of the 18th century, but there were not many immediate successors. Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684) had been bred in satire, and her Oroonoko (1688) had come from her theatrical experience. Mary Delarivier Manley's New Atlantis (1709) comes closest to an inheritor of Behn's, but her novel, while political and satirical, was a minor scandal. On the other hand, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first major novel of the new century. Defoe had written political and religious polemics prior to Robinson Crusoe, and he worked as a journalist during and after its composition. Thus, Defoe encountered the memoirs of Alexander Selkirk, who was a rather brutish individual who had been stranded in South America on an island for some years. Defoe took the actual life and, from that, generated a fictional life. Instead of an expelled Scotsman, Crusoe became a devout Puritan. Instead of remaining alone the entire time, Crusoe encountered a savage named Friday, whom he civilized. The actual Selkirk had been a slave trader, and Crusoe becomes a far more enlightened teacher and missionary. Travel writing sold very well during the period, and tales of extraordinary adventures with pirates and savages were devoured by the public, and Defoe satisfied an essentially journalistic market with his fiction.

Defoe would continue to draw from life and news for his next novels. In the 1720s, Defoe wrote "Lives" of criminals for Applebee's Journal. He interviewed famed criminals and produced accounts of their lives. Whenever a celebrated criminal was hung, the newspapers and journals would offer up an account of the criminal's life, the criminal's last words, the criminal's gallows speech, etc., and Defoe wrote several of these. In particular, he investigated Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild and wrote True Accounts of the former's escapes (and fate) and the latter's life. Defoe, unlike his competition, seems to have been a scrupulous journalist. Although his fictions contained great imagination and a masterful shaping of facts to build themes, his journalism seems based on actual investigation. From his reportage on the prostitutes and criminals, Defoe may have become familiar with the real-life Mary Mollineaux, who may have been the model for Moll in Moll Flanders (1722). As with the transformation of a real Selkirk into a fictional Crusoe, the fictional Moll is everything that the real prostitute was not. She pursues a wild career of material gain, travels to Maryland, commits incest, returns to England, and repents of her sins. She returns to the new land of promise for all Puritans of Maryland, where she lives honestly, with a great sum of money (derived from her licentious life). In the same year, Defoe produced a flatly journalistic A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and an attempted tale of a working class male rise in Colonel Jack (1722). His last novel returned to the theme of fallen women in Roxana (1724). Thematically, Defoe's works are consistently Puritan. They all involve a fall, a degradation of the spirit, a conversion, and an ecstatic elevation. This religious structure necessarily involved a bildungsroman, for each character had to learn a lesson about him or herself and emerge the wiser.

Although there were other novels and novelistic works in the interim, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) is the next landmark development in the English novel. Richardson was, like Defoe, a dissenter. Unlike Defoe, however, his profession was as a printer rather than a journalist. Therefore, his generic models were quite distinct from those of Defoe. Instead of working from the journalistic biography, Richardson had in mind the dramatic cautionary tales of abused women and the books of improvement that were popular at the time. Pamela is an epistolary novel, like Behn's Love Letters, but its purpose is to illustrate a single chapter in the life of a poor country girl. Pamela Andrews enters the employ of a "Mr. B." As a dutiful girl, she writes to her mother constantly, and as a Christian girl, she is always on guard for her "virtue" (i.e. her virginity), for Mr. B lusts after her. The plot is somewhat melodramatic, and it is pathetic: the reader's sympathies and fears are engaged throughout, and the novel comes close to the She-tragedy of the close of the 17th century in its depiction of a woman as a victim. However, Pamela triumphs. She acts as an angel for the reformation of Mr. B, and the novel ends with her marriage to her employer and rising to the position of lady.

Pamela, like its author, presents a dissenter's and a Whig's view of the rise of the classes. It emphasizes duty and perseverance of the saint, and the work was an enormous popular success. It also drew a nearly instantaneous set of satires. Henry Fielding's response was to link Richardson's virtuous girl with Colley Cibber's shamefaced Apology in the form of Shamela, or an Apology for the Life of Miss Shamela Andrews (1742) and it is the most memorable of the "answers" to Richardson. First, it inaugurated the rivalry between the two authors. Second, beneath the very loose and ribald satire, there is a coherent and rational critique of Richardson's themes. In Fielding's satire, Pamela, as Shamela, writes like a country peasant instead of a learned Londoner (as Pamela had), and it is her goal from the moment she arrives in Squire Booby's (as Mr. B is called) house to become lady of the place by selling her "vartue." Fielding also satirizes the presumption that a woman could write of dramatic, ongoing events ("He comes abed now, Mama. O Lud, my vartu! My vartu!"). Specifically, Fielding thought that Richardson's novel was very good, very well written, and very dangerous, for it offered serving women the illusion that they might sleep their way to wealth and an elevated title. In truth, Fielding saw serving women abused and lords renegging on both their spiritual conversions and promises.

After the coarse satire of Shamela, Fielding continued to bait Richardson with Joseph Andrews. Shamela had appeared anonymously, but Fielding published Joseph Andrews under his own name, also in 1742. Joseph Andrews is the tale of Shamela's brother, Joseph, who goes through his life trying to protect his own virginity. Women, rather than men, are the sexual aggressors, and Joseph seeks only to find his place and his true love, Fanny, and accompany his childhood friend, Parson Adams, who is travelling to London to sell a collection of sermons to a bookseller in order to feed his large family. Since the term "fanny" had obscene implications in the 18th century, Joseph's longings for "my Fanny" survive as satirical blows, and the inversion of sexual predation strips bare the essentials of Richardson's valuation of virginity. However, Joseph Andrews is not a parody of Richardson. In that novel, Fielding proposed for the first time his belief in "good nature." Parson Adams, although not a fool, is a naif. His own basic good nature blinds him to the wickedness of the world, and the incidents on the road (for most of the novel is a travel story) allow Fielding to satirize conditions for the clergy, rural poverty (and squires), and the viciousness of businessmen. Fielding's novels arise out of a satirical model, and the same year that he wrote Joseph Andrews, he also wrote a work that parodied Daniel Defoe's criminal biographies: The History of Jonathan Wild the Great. Jonathan Wild was published in Fielding's Miscellanies, and it is a thorough-going assault on the Whig party. It pretends to tell of the greatness of Jonathan Wild, but Wild is a stand-in for Robert Walpole, who was known as "the Great Man."

In 1747 through 1748, Samuel Richardson published Clarissa in serial form. Like Pamela, it is an epistolary novel. Unlike Pamela, it is not a tale of virtue rewarded. Instead, it is a highly tragic and affecting account of a young girl whose parents try to force her into an uncongenial marriage, thus pushing her into the arms of a scheming rake named Lovelace. Lovelace is far more wicked than Mr. B. He imprisons Clarissa and tortures her psychologically in an effort to get her consent to marriage. Eventually, Clarissa is violated (whether by Lovelace or the household maids is unclear). Her letters to her parents are pleading, while Lovelace is sophisticated and manipulative. Most of Clarissa's letters are to her childhood friend, Anna Howe. Lovelace is not consciously evil, for he will not simply rape Clarissa. He desires her free consent, which Clarissa will not give. In the end, Clarissa dies by her own will. The novel is a masterpiece of psychological realism and emotional effect, and, when Richardson was drawing to a close in the serial publication, even Henry Fielding wrote to him, begging him not to kill Clarissa. There are many themes in play in Clarissa. Most obviously, the novel is a strong argument for romantic love and against arranged marriages. Clarissa will marry, but she wishes to have her own say in choice of mate. As with Pamela, Richardson emphasizes the individual over the social and the personal over the class. His work was part of a general valuation of the individual over and against the social good.

Even as Fielding was reading and enjoying Clarissa, he was also writing a counter to its messages. His Tom Jones of 1749 offers up the other side of the argument from Clarissa. Tom Jones agrees substantially in the power of the individual to be more or less than his or her class, but it again emphasizes the place of the individual in society and the social ramifications of individual choices. While Clarissa cloisters its characters geographically to a house imprisonment and isolates them to their own subjective impressions in the form of letters, Fielding's Tom Jones employs a third person narrative and features a narrator who is virtually another character in the novel itself. Fielding constantly disrupts the illusionary identification of the reader with the characters by referring to the prose itself and uses his narrative style to posit antitheses of characters and action. Tom is a bastard and a foundling who is cared for by Squire Allworthy, who is a man of great good nature. This squire is benevolent and salutary to his community and his family. Allworthy's sister has a child who is born to a high position but who has a vicious nature. Allworthy, in accordance with Christian principles, treats the boys alike. Tom falls in love with Sophia, the daughter of a neighboring squire, and then has to win her hand. It is society that interferes with Tom, and not personified evil. Fielding answers Richardson by featuring a similar plot device (whether a girl can choose her own mate) but by showing how family and village can complicate and expedite matches and felicity.

Henry Fielding's sister, Sarah Fielding, was also a novelist. Her David Simple (1744) outsold Joseph Andrews and was popular enough to require sequels. Like her brother, Sarah propounds a theory of good nature. David Simple is, as his name suggests, an innocent. He is possessed of a benevolent disposition and a desire to please, and the pressures and contradictory impulses of society complicate the plot. On the one hand, this novel emphasizes the role of society, but, on the other, it is a novel that sets up the sentimental novel. The genuine compassion and desire for goodness of David Simple were affecting for contemporary audiences, David Simple is a forerunner of the heroes of later novels such as Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771).

Two other novelists should be mentioned, for they, like Fielding and Richardson, were in dialog through their works. Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett held a personal dislike for one another, and their works similarly offered up oppositional views of the self in society and the method of the novel. Laurence Sterne was a clergyman, and he consciously set out to imitate Jonathan Swift with his Tristram Shandy (1759–1767). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman was a stylistic and formal revolution for the novel. Like Swift's satires, it begins with radical skepticism and a willingness to break apart figurative language and commonplace assumptions. The novel in three books is virtually all narrative voice, with a few interpolated narratives, such as "Slawkenbergius's Tale." Tristram seeks to write his autobiography, but like Swift's narrator in A Tale of a Tub, he worries that nothing in his life can be understood without understanding its context. For example, he tells the reader that at the very moment he was conceived, his mother was saying, "Did you wind the clock?" To explain how he knows this, he explains that his father took care of winding the clock and "other family business" on one day a month. To explain why the clock had to be wound then, he has to explain his father. To explain his father, he must explain a habit of his uncle's (referred to as "My Uncle Toby"), and that requires knowing what his uncle did during the War of the Spanish Succession at the Battle of Namur. In other words, the biography moves backward rather than forward in time, only to then jump forward years, hit another knot, and move backward again. Further, Sterne provides "plot diagrams" for his readers that look like a ball of yarn. When a character dies, the next page of the book is black, in mourning. At one point, there is an end paper inserted into the text as a false ending to the book. It is a novel of exceptional energy, of multi-layered digressions, of multiple satires, and of frequent parodies. It was so experimental that Samuel Johnson later famously used it as an example of a fad when he said that nothing novel can sustain itself, for "Tristram Shandy did not last."

Tobias Smollett, on the other hand, wrote more seemingly traditional novels (although the novel was still too new to have much of a tradition). He concentrated on the picaresque novel, where a low-born character would go through a practically endless series of adventures that would carry him into various cities and circles of high life and achieve either a great gain (in a comic ending) or a great loss. Unlike Sterne, who only published two novels, or Fielding, who died before he could manage more than four novels, Smollett was prolific. He wrote the following and more: The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753), The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762), The History and Adventures of an Atom (1769), and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Smollett depended upon his pen for his livelihood, and so he also wrote history and political tracts. Smollett was also a highly valued translator. He translated both Don Quixote and Alain Rene LeSage's Gil Blas (1748). These two translated works show to some degree Smollett's personal preferences and models, for they are both rambling, open-ended novels with highly complex plots and comedy both witty and earthy. Sterne's primary attack on Smollett was personal, for the two men did not like each other, but he referred to Smollett as "Smelfungus." He thought that Smollett's novels always paid undue attention to the basest and most common elements of life, that they emphasized the dirt. Although this is a superficial complaint, it points to an important difference between the two as authors. Sterne came to the novel from a satirical background, while Smollett approached it from journalism. Sterne's pose is ironic, detached, and amused. For Sterne, the novel itself is secondary to the purpose of the novel, and that purpose was to pose difficult problems, on the one hand, and to elevate the reader, on the other (with his Sentimental Journey). Smollett's characters are desperately working to attain relief from imposition and pain, and they have little choice but to travel and strive. The plot of the novel drives the theme, and not the theme the plot. In the 19th century, novelists would have plots much nearer to Smollett's than either Fielding's or Sterne's or Richardson's, and his sprawling, linear development of action would prove most successful. However, Smollett's novels are not thematically tightly organized, and action appears solely for its ability to divert the reader, rather than to reinforce a philosophical point. The exception to this is Smollett's last novel, Humphry Clinker, written during Smollett's final illness. That novel adopts the epistolary framework previously seen in Richardson, but to document a long journey taken by a family. All of the family members and servants get a coach and travel for weeks, experiencing a number of complications and set-backs. The letters come from all of the members of the entourage, and not just the patriarch or matriarch. They exhibit numerous voices, from the witty and learned Oxford University student, Jerry (who is annoyed to accompany his family), to the eruptive patriarch Matthew Bramble, to the nearly illiterate servant Wynn Jenkins (whose writing contains many malapropisms). The title character doesn't appear until over half way through the novel, and he is only a coachman who turns out to be better than his station (and is revealed to be Matt Bramble's bastard son).

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