Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott

Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott

Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott

Institutions of the English Novel from Defoe to Scott

Synopsis

In Institutions of the English Novel, Homer Obed Brown takes issue with the generally accepted origin of the novel in the early eighteenth century. Brown argues that what we now call the novel did not appear as a recognized single genre until the early nineteenth century, when the fictional prose narratives of the preceding century were grouped together under that name. After analyzing the figurative and thematic uses of private letters and social gossip in the constitution of the novel, Brown explores what was instituted in and by the fictions of Defoe, Fielding, Sterne, and Scott, with extensive discussion of the pivotal role Scott's work played in the novel's rise to institutional status. This study is an intriguing demonstration of how these earlier narratives are involved in the development and institution of such political and cultural concepts as self, personal identity, the family, and history, all of which contributed to the later possibility of the novel.

Excerpt

My title concerns some of the institutions associated with English prose fiction—fiction we have come to name “novels”— in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and with the uncertain, inchoate, and multiple institutions (in the active sense of that slippery word) in this time period. Uncertain, because none of the “founding” novels were given that now revered generic name by Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, who authored and authorized them by different names. the name “novel,” in any case, had different semantic values then from those it took on during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as what I am going to call an “institution.” Inchoate and multiple, because, whatever their influence on the way “the novel” came to be thought of in the next two centuries, and there were a lot of variations and differences in such thinking, no one of them can be accepted as the “first” or originary novel. No one of them is sufficient to represent what later became “the novel,” given not only the radical differences of narrative form and thematic content among them, but also their radically different “addresses” and levels of social life they “represented,” in all senses of that term. Nor, despite Ian Watt’s hope, are they in their differences from each other a “recapitulation” of the variety of forms taken by the later novel unless any difference is taken to symbolize difference as such. the fictions of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, it could be argued, only become “the novel” by means of retrospective histories that made them seem inaugural and exemplary at once.

In other words, I see “the novels” of Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson as separate institutions in the plural; generative “moments” at best; each a new beginning (of what, in principle, it might be difficult to trace, except in that vague Whiggish sense . . .

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