Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Excerpt

No book comes into the world altogether naked, new, or alone. Every text has a past and a history of its own, and its friendships with people and other books identify the place it seeks in the world and establish its relationship with potential readers. Some of what clothes a text or comes along as baggage is authorially chosen, but some is not: larger cultural contexts impose more, in fact, than style and accessories, influencing shape and direction and often determining as fully as the author's individual consciousness the text's character, identity, and aim, as well as its situation and force. The independence of an individual text, so much treasured in traditional literary history, is compromised in other ways as well, for unless readers leave a text altogether unread and untouched they too impinge, bringing a context of reception and response that determines not only the social place that the text comes to occupy but what it means and ultimately can do. For all the would-be autonomy of texts, their originality and liberty of spirit, they exist like human beings in a world of assumption, interaction, and implication. Texts without contexts are both meaningless and impossible; the power of texts is in relationship, their ability to reach outward and their nature in reaching backward to their own origins. Just as surely as the people who make them, texts are a part of all they have met, a complex product of a cultural moment in which a past is receding and a future developing.

This cultural claim about reading, particularized for English novels in the eighteenth century, is the burden of this book. I argue that, to under-

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