Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Novelty in Novels: A Look at What's New in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Novelty in Novels: A Look at What's New in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko

Article excerpt

"The word Novel in all languages signifies something new...."--Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance (1785) 110

When, and how, was the novel novel? A new version of this old question has motivated, and complicated, recent discussions about this genre's "rise." Now, instead of asking what constitutes the genre and when it begins, critics in the eighteenth century have started to ask whether the various representatives of the genre (especially the early ones) can properly be categorized at all. (1) "So far from being ready to accept the various works as 'novels,' [eighteenth-century readers] do not appear to have arrived at a consensus that works such as Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Clarissa, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, and Tristram Shandy were even all of the same species," states Geoffrey Day (7). Not merely representatives of a new literary form, but new literary forms in their own right, these individual texts each presented their eighteenth-century readers with a novel approach to narrative we would do well to appreciate. The challenge is that in doing so, we to lose our ability to talk about "the" novel, much less its progressive development.

As Lennard J. Davis argues, however, "the attempt to deabsolutize the form will in fact yield far less than the attempt to keep the form unitary" ("Who Put the 'The' in 'the Novel'?" 333). While the desire to categorize these early--to mid-century narratives may be an anachronistic impulse, novel studies have benefited from the longstanding critical need to find some "lowest common denominator" (to use Ian Watt's term) among early prose narratives, (2) and any current resistance to studying the genre as such pays a tribute to the influence of these paradigms. What we now need, it seems, is a systematic study of the genre that preserves an appreciation for the exceptional status of its components--an impossible requirement, unless we reimagine the lowest common denominator of these narratives to be a new and conscious focus on novelty itself.

The term "novel" was not new in the eighteenth century, nor was it specific to many of those eighteenth-century narratives that today bear its name. The description was used loosely and frequently among eighteenth-century writers, applied to everything from the prose fiction of Boccaccio to amorous short stories, with a flexibility that emphasizes the contemporary ambivalence towards categories of prose fiction (Downie, "Making the English Novel" 259-60). Could this ambivalence itself prove a connecting thread? For if we trace the modern expansion of the novel canon--which, like Hamlet's crab, keeps going backwards--we note how the canon consistently includes those eighteenth-century authors who understood themselves to be breaking with a tradition, either in terms of their subject matter, the presentation of it, or both. Sterne, Fielding, Richardson, and Defoe all claimed and were acknowledged to be doing something quite new, different from prior prose narratives and from each other's. (3)

But the obsession with newness does not start with Defoe. As J. A. Downie notes, in 1692 William Congreve was already playing up the innovative aspects of his self-identified novel Incognita ("Mary Davys's 314-15). A playwright turned novelist who distinguishes his new project from his prior writing experience ("resolved," as he is, "in another beauty to imitate dramatick writing,") Congreve calls to mind another contemporary, the author who has currently seized the lead-off position in many eighteenth-century novel syllabi, Aphra Behn. Behn spent the 1680s writing, not the plays that had established her reputation, but prose fiction of all kinds: short, parodic anecdotes, a three-volume epistolary scandal chronicle, and the narrative Oroonoko. And while they mark an abrupt shift from her dramatic work, these examples of prose fiction also vary greatly from each other, so much so that "Behn ... appears to have been consciously experimenting with different genres and styles of prose" (Carnell 135). …

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