"Hieroglifick'd" History in Aphra Behn's "Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister."(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something like It, 1684-1762)

By Rivero, Albert J. | Studies in the Novel, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

"Hieroglifick'd" History in Aphra Behn's "Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister."(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something like It, 1684-1762)


Rivero, Albert J., Studies in the Novel


Though vigorously challenged by Margaret Anne Doody in The True Story of the Novel, the guiding assumption of recent studies of eighteenth-century English fiction has been that specific historical conditions contributed to the rise of a genre that was both new or novel--and recognized as such by its authors and readers--and peculiarly English in its textual inflections.(1) In the most persistent version of this argument, ultimately derived from Ian Watt's still influential The Rise of the Novel and magisterially reenunciated in Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel, 1660-1740, the English novel, after years of (in McKeon's words) "categorial instability" finally defines itself in the 1740s, in the agon between Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.(2) As such feminist historians of the novel as Ros Ballaster, Catherine Gallagher, Jane Spencer, and Janet Todd have argued, this male-centered narrative of origins leaves out the crucial role of women in the creation and development of this "new species of writing"--a phrase used by both Fielding and Richardson, in their own attempts to occlude their debts to their female predecessors and thus to represent their works as both original and originary.(3) For example, when Fielding announces in Joseph Andrews that he is writing "in Imitation of The Manner of Cervantes," he is not only ostentatiously identifying his chosen literary "father" but also separating himself from the tradition of female fiction he represents as embodied in Richardson and in "immense Romances, or the modern Novel and Atalantis Writers."(4) For his part, Richardson appropriates the plot of the fallen woman, the staple of fictions by Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, and Eliza Haywood, and "moralizes" it, all the time insisting, like Fielding, that he is not writing frivolous romances or novels but instructive "histories."(5)

As John Richetti has warned us, we should resist the temptation of succumbing to such"totalizing" narratives as Watt's--or even McKeon's more nuanced version.(6) Informed by ,shat has often been called the Whig interpretation of history, these originary accounts hinge on the teleological fallacy of adducing presumed beginnings from presumed endings; they thus offer progressivist narratives in which the term "novel" provides not only a terminus ad quem but also a standard of inclusion and exclusion. Thus if one chooses to define "novel" in terms of its "formal realism" (as Watt does) and if Richardson's works best exemplify that definition, then it follows that Richardson's works are "novels," that all works of prose fiction before Richardson are not really "novels," and that all contemporary works of prose fiction not written on the Richardsonian model (Henry Fielding's, for example) are also not "novels." If one wishes to define "novel" in terms of its' purported differences from "history," then one can write a history of the novel in which Defoe, for example, is the first true novelist--an old story most recently told by Robert Mayer in History and the Early English Novel.(7) If one prefers to define "novel" in terms of its presumed differences from "romance," then Fielding, because of his rhetorical fulminations against romance in Joseph Andrews, can become the hero of one's history. And so on. As Milton dramatizes in Paradise Lost, the problem with searching for origins is that they keep receding--man's first disobedience is not really the original sin. We can always, in short, fashion narratives to suit our historical preconceptions or prejudices.

Still, we must account for one stubborn historical fact. In 1684, there appeared an anonymous book with the attention-grabbing title Love- Letters Between a Noble-Man And his Sister. Supposedly revealing the "secret history" of the scandalous elopement of Lady Henrietta Berkeley with her brother-in-law, Ford Lord Grey, reputed cuckold and confirmed supporter of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, Love-Letters offered its original readers, as Ros Ballaster has noted, "a heady compound of sexual and party politics. …

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