Digesting the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Article excerpt


Two primary difficulties attend the teaching of the eighteenth-century novel: the intimidating length of many representative texts and the diversity of the fictional forms that occur during the period. To help make texts both manageable and comparable for students, I recommend a reading process that involves establishing formal analogies between individual narrative elements and appraising the intentional principles of organization that govern the assembly of those elements.


Taking on the novel-oriented course invariably presents teachers with organizational challenges. In a quarter or semester, there is only so much students can (or will) read; what they are asked to read, they do not always read carefully (or entirely); and the tools they need to grasp the contexts of their reading may not be among those they already possess (or desire). Moreover, the perspective students formulate from readings and lectures on novels can harden into a discriminatory filter, a rigid scheme for sifting fictions and judging their quality. The collection of narratives legitimized in the classroom may include the last books some students ever will see, and the teacher of the novel must accordingly assemble texts with foresight and circumspection.

In the case of teaching the eighteenth-century novel, these challenges multiply and intensify. Students intimidated by the substantiality of 300-page books may be terrified by the 1,500-page Clarissa; they also may find it difficult to remember narrative details when winding through such mammoths. Unfortunately, the preferred expedients of the teacher of novels, shorter fictions by canonical authors, are not readily available during the period. When substitutions can be made, representative value must often be sacrificed for the sake of brevity. Pamela, Joseph Andrews, or A Sentimental Journey might be used to replace Clarissa, Tom Jones, or Tristram Shandy, for example, and an instructor could thereby trim more than a thousand pages from her reading list. Such an exchange, however, can also make the delineation of the characteristic artistry of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne more difficult for students to apprehend.

Additionally, even if the teacher of the eighteenth-century novel adopts the shortest fictions available, she faces the daunting task of gathering them all beneath the rubric of some unifying period aesthetic. Despite their historical proximity, the immediacy of Richardson's epistolary method scarcely resembles the urbane detachment of Fielding's style or the sportive digressiveness of Sterne's approach. The teacher must also find ways to accommodate competing fictional impulses that emerged during the period--the diaristic accounts of Daniel Defoe, the romanticized intrigues of Eliza Haywood, and the Gothic nail-biters of Horace Walpole--as well as generic oddities like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Samuel Johnson's Rasselas. The studies that work through this heterogeneity are themselves dauntingly long, and they often require some knowledge of literary theory (Marxism in the case of Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel, for example, or Foucauldian New Historicism in Lennard J. Davis's Factual Fictions) or a more extensive reading background (as is the case with Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel or Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction) to be of significant value. The volume and diversity of texts and available support materials often oblige the teacher to cobble together her own means of harmonizing the literature of a maddeningly various period.


My own attempts to develop a method for tackling the eighteenth-century novel found me returning recurrently to Ian Watt's foundational study, The Rise of the Novel. Published in 1957, Watt's reconstruction of the origins of the English novel from the works of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding now seems somewhat antiquated. …