Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Eighteenth-Century Periodicals and the Romantic Rise of the Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Eighteenth-Century Periodicals and the Romantic Rise of the Novel

Article excerpt

Things As They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams

--Title of a novel, 1794 Real life can always be dismissed, it seems; fiction has to be dealt with.

--Review of the film Menace II Society, 1993(1)

Haunting our efforts to understand the "rise" of the novel is one of the stranger twists of literary history: the moment the novel actually did rise--rise literally in quantitative terms--is the moment that we have paid it relatively little attention. The problem is not an inability to count, or a failure to connect genre to history, but rather the power of the connections that already do count. Our associations are firmly fixed: once we rise novelistically past Fielding, Richardson, and Sterne, and the 1780s and 1790s come into view, critical attention shifts to the supposedly lyrical advent of Romanticism. But those were precisely the decades when the novel took off, with publication reaching. in James Raven's words, "unprecedented levels in the late 1780s."(2) Growth until that point in the century had been slow and erratic. From an annual rate of only about four to twenty new titles through the first four decades, and remaining--despite Fielding's and Richardson's popularity--within a range of roughly twenty to forty for the next three, new novel production peaked briefly near sixty in 1770 before a steep decline to well below forty during the latter half of that decade. Within the next seven years, however, the output jumped--more than doubled--to close to ninety, and continued to increase sharply into the next century.

That rise was not, of course, against the grain; Raven's figures clearly show a parallel surge in the overall ESTC publication totals. We need not look far for possible causes; population was following a similar curve, and, following Raven, we can add: "the expansion of the country distribution network, increased institutional demand, and new productivity based on financial and organizational innovation" (p. 35). The question is not, then, how the novel bucked or solely initiated a trend, but how it joined and

furthered it--how it participated, that is, in what Raymond Williams has called the" naturaliz[ation]" of writing. For Williams, the "history of writing" has spanned the last two hundred years, from the moment that the modern configuration of writing, print, and silent reading first became natural, to "the new cultural period we have ... entered" in the late twentieth century in which "print and silent reading are again only one of several cultural forms, only one even of the forms of writing."'

The quotations that head this essay bracket that history, calling attention to this scenario of change as a matter of continuity and discontinuity. What is continuous is the power of the "or" in Godwin's title: how "Things As They Are" can almost silently give way to the fictitious "Adventures" of an individual character. What both fascinated and puzzled even hostile contemporary reviewers was Godwin's presentation of that individuality: "We are somewhat at a loss how to introduce our readers to an acquaintance with this singular narrative. Of incident it presents little, of character and situation much." The quantitative rise of characters who convey "strong feeling" arising from the author's "depth of reflection on ... society"(4) signals the proliferation and valorization of fiction, and of the novel-of-character as an effective form for it.

"Things" are still becoming fiction today in works like Menace H Society, which, as the reviewer points out, also subordinates "incident" to "feeling": "You can only absorb its emotional content. The story is relatively simple, to the point of being nonexistent." What is discontinuous, of course, is the form--film rather than novel--but even that discontinuity evokes other continuities. Just as Godwin's novel is not only writing, but a thematizing of it--in particular, writing's efficacy in producing and sustaining a character worth vindicating(5)--so this movie offers itself up as the stuff of character: although the characters in this startling debut by the 21-year-old twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes may be sociopathic," reports the reviewer, "the truly disturbing thing is, so is the movie. …

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