On the 18C novel

In yesterday’s comments, Danielle, who, I’m coming to find, is a marvelous asker of questions, asked where to begin with the eighteenth-century novel.

Well. Such a question couldn’t make me happier because it gives me a chance to talk about one of my reading obsessions.

So – I won’t say where to start, but I’ll talk a bit about books I think are important in understanding the period and books that are fun to read. Sometimes these overlap, sometimes they don’t. When it comes to the 18C, it’s hard for me to tell what you would find a fun read. Any of them would be great places to begin.

True to yesterday’s post about categories, I’d recommend Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko, which isn’t in the 18C at all (1688) – it has the virtue of being short (which many, many 18C novels most decidedly are not), and fascinating in terms of genre – it’s sort of a novel, sort of a romance, sort of both – and connected with historical events. It has love, violence, travel, sweeping historical forces, all in 100 pages or so.

And there’s Defoe, who shouldn’t be missed. I happen to love Robinson Crusoe, and it’s a great book for understanding class, colonialism, capitalism, Puritanism, individualism, you name it, it’s in there. Well, there’s no sex. But there’s sex in his other books, which are also great places to begin: Moll Flanders and Roxana. Those give you great female protagonists trying to survive with their intelligence and wit.

As for Samuel Richardson, who is most definitely one of the most important novelists of the period, I’d read Pamela. Clarissa is great, but it’s so long it’s daunting. Pamela by no means conforms to any rules of structure and good fictional form we might believe in today, but it is just so great in the way it captures many 18C obsessions: class; sex; marriage; language, letters, and identity; the relationship of writers and readers; women and the body; anxiety over fiction itself.

And if Pamela irritates you, then you simply must read Henry Fielding (read him if you loved Pamela too), who found Pamela so annoying he wrote a parody Shamela, which is hilarious. Then Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews, which is another send-up of Pamela, this time more complicated and developed. The Richardson/Fielding pairing is very useful in understanding 18C writing – they capture two different types of novels, two ways of thinking about writer/reader relationships and what fiction should do, and it’s possible to read Austen’s novels as integrations of that Richardson/Fielding split – Richardson’s psychological interest and Fielding’s satire. Fielding’s best book is Tom Jones, but the Pamela/Shamela/Joseph Andrews story is too interesting to be missed.

I also really enjoyed Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote: it’s her version of Cervantes’s story, about a woman who thinks the world is like one of the many French romances she has found in her dead mother’s library. And I loved Samuel Johnson’s short novel/fable Rasselas, about finding happiness. It’s a beautiful book, but sad. It makes no attempt to be realistic, so some people say it’s not a novel, but whatever it is, it tells a wise story.

I absolutely adore Tristram Shandy, which I keep mentioning around here. It’s hard for me to tell how challenging a read it would be for someone not familiar with the period. Some of the jokes might be hard to get. It’s a book about the impossibility of writing the story of one’s life, and it’s a book about sex and impotence, about philosophy and playfulness, about sentiment, but mostly about language – what it can and can’t do. If Tristram Shandy seems a bit daunting, you can try A Sentimental Journey, which has a similar tone and style.

Of course, there’s Evelina, which I’ve posted on before – an excellent place to begin.

And I could go on and on (I won’t) – but I think some of the novels of the late 18C are particularly interesting: Elizabeth Inchbald’s novel A Simple Story, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (for an example of the gothic – and if you think you’d like the gothic, don’t miss Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto or Matthew Lewis’s The Monk – these two are among the most bizarre books you’ll ever read).

Does anyone want to add a favorite?

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