Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Genre and Cultural Disruption: Libertinism and the Early English Novel

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Genre and Cultural Disruption: Libertinism and the Early English Novel

Article excerpt

THE PROVERBIAL RISE OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL occurred as a result of the combination of any number of specific social factors, including new developments in scientific and religious philosophy, increasing literacy (particularly among women), and the progress of spiritual autobiography and other narrative pilgrims like picaresque and romance. Despite Terry Castle's reported belief that studies of the novel "have reached a kind of intellectual dead end" and that "we don't need further exposition" of the economic, generic, gendered, sexual, colonial, or capitalist aspects of the novel (quoted in Davis 479), there may be some things under the sun yet new. Eighteenth-Century Fiction's 2000 double issue "Reconsidering the Rise of the Novel" is only a more recent example of our continuing fascination with not only the what, but the how and the why of the English novel. Many, many theories of the novel have been offered by Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, J. Paul Hunter and others, but one facet of the genre that has not yet been considered in detail is the surprising but undeniable relationship between the prominent cultural discourse of libertinism and the increasing literary dominance of the novel in eighteenth-century England. This essay offers an overview of this relationship, and argues not that the role of libertinism in the novel's evolution in any way supersedes those of other contributing factors, but rather that as a contributor, libertinism is of much greater significance to the genre than has previously been recognized.

Theories of the early English novel are, of course, myriad, making a short overview necessary to contextualize the small but essential place of the culture of libertinism in the novel's history. (1) Watt's Rise of the Novel and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, both published in 1957, set much of the ground for current critical engagements of the early novel. Frye's romance archetypalism has since been developed in Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel, but otherwise has emerged marginal to the dominant position of Watt as the first reference for nearly every major assessment of what has become shorthanded as the rise of the novel. Watt theorized "formal realism" as the essential marker of the eighteenth-century novel, its "primary convention, that the novel is a lull and authentic report of human experience, and is therefore under an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story as the individuality of the actors concerned, the particulars of the times and places of their actions, details which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms" (32). Subsequent critics have either built upon or rejected outright both formal realism and Watts other thesis, that the novel's rise was the result of the changing culture of individualism, incorporating parallel rises of capitalism, secularized Protestantism, literacy, and the middle class and its ideology, but Watt is almost universally taken as the starting point of the discussion. The literary historical approach of Hunter's Before Novels, for example, builds on Watt in dissociating the novel from romance, but lengthens Watt's abrupt rise into a long evolutionary arc. Hunter's development of the cultural grounding of the novel well past Watt's middle class has proven most important in its consideration of the novel's roots in both high and low culture, oral and non-'literary' forms, and in a cultural consciousness that informs the individualism favoured by Watt.

Like Hunter, subsequent major studies such as John Richetti's Popular Fiction before Richardson, Janet Todd's Sign of Angallica, and Ros Ballaster's Seductive Forms engage a much wider sample of eighteenth-century prose than Watt as they challenge both the gendering and chronology of his account, which ignores both women writers and all prose fiction before Richardson's Pamela in 1740 other than that of Defoe. …

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