Little by Little; or, the History of the Early Novel, Now

Article excerpt

One of the most important and vexing questions currently facing students of the British novel is the very simple one of how to tell the story of its gradual emergence as the dominant modern form of literary expression in the English-speaking world. The question is especially vexing when asked with reference to the earliest large body of significant work, from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth-from the time of Aphra Behn to the generation of Walter Scott and Jane Austen. Thanks to several decades of bibliographical research we know much, much more than we used to about what was actually written in this period, and by whom. But the task of sorting, assessing, and assimilating all this abundance has only recently begun. Meanwhile the practitioners of the many new critical "-isms" with which we have all been obliged to familiarize ourselves (unless we wished to seem hidebound and doltish) have given us a multitude of approaches that take us into ways of understanding unimagined, and unimaginable, just forty short years ago when Alan Dugaid McKillop (The Early Masters of English Fiction [1956]) and Ian Watt (The Rise of the Novel [1957]) set in motion a busy industry of historical inquiry and critical evaluation that has ever since been driven by a kind of excitement no one before them had been able to generate. The effect has been dizzying. In any event, if it now seems impossible to trace the entire development of the English novel in the manner once followed by such blowby-blow chroniclers as the expansive Ernest Baker (The History of the English Novel, 10 vols. [1924-39]) or the more pithy Walter Allen (The English Novel: A Short Critical History [1954]) and Lionel Stevenson (The English Novel: A Panorama [1960]), the record of eighteenth-century fiction, though less daunting to contemplate because it encompasses only the first phase of that development, is hardly less difficult to set down in every bit of its fullness. There are so many novelists (scores of them), so many texts (numbering in the hundreds), so many generic types (a dozen or more and still counting), so many experiments with form and subject matter (the word lawlessness leaps to mind). How could any literary historian take in all this variety and then write of it completely and accurately in a single continuous narrative that even a teenager would live long enough to read all the way through? No one has yet invented a way of doing so. Probably no one ever will.

Well, then, what is to be done? Those of us who care about the early novel in English need a current record of its history, especially since the structure of our old system of understandings (linear, evolutionary, centered on "major" authors and a few additional representative figures) has recently been dismantled by a successful-but necessarily piecemeal-critical revisionism. The kind of history that is wanted now must incorporate not just facts, difficult enough in themselves to handle because they have multiplied almost exponentially, but an application of theory that can lead to meaningful renderings of those facts. A few years ago, in The Columbia History of the British Novel (1994), John Richetti found a new way to tell the whole story of English fiction that indeed may be the best way for our time. With help from several assistant editors, he gathered up essays from more than three dozen contributors, each treating a different writer, group of writers, or topic from any one of a great variety of approaches, and all of them together covering virtually the entire range of novelistic practice in Britain from the earliest period all the way to the postmodernists. I remarked in reviewing this work (Eighteenth-Century Fiction [October 1995]) that it involved "a bold conception, revisionist in form as well as substance," "breathtaking" in its sweep and invaluable for its "density-the sheer number of novelists treated in detail-and its consistent, if varied, insight into relations among texts, writers, and contexts" (pp. …