It always amuses and fascinates me when novelists comment on novels and novel reading in their novels — this happens an awful lot in the 18C when the novel is just becoming an established genre and people were really anxious about what it meant and how it was changing the culture of reading. It happens also in Jane Austen’s unfinished last novel Sanditon (1817).
Charlotte, the novel’s heroine, has decided that Sir Edward, who has spent some time flirting with her, is a complete idiot (my words, not hers), and she knows this partly because of the way he talks about novels. Sir Edward claims he is “no indiscriminate novel-reader,” staying away from “the mere trash of the common circulating library,” but when Charlotte asks him what kind of novels he likes to read, he has a peculiar answer:
You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn. — In vain may we put them into a literary alembic; — we distil nothing which can add to science. — You understand me I’m sure?
Charlotte astutely replies, “I am not quite certain that I do” and asks him a follow-up question. His answer is an even longer string of sentences that make little sense, including this extraordinary one:
They hold forth the most splendid portraitures of high conceptions, unbounded views, illimitable ardour, indomptible decision — and even when the event is plainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned machinations of the prime character, the potent, pervading hero of the story, it leaves us full of generous emotions for him…
Sir Edward’s problem is that he is a bad reader. He claims to be a good reader and to read only “quality” novels, but the narrator tells us otherwise:
The truth was that Sir Edward whom circumstances had confined very much to one spot had read more sentimental novels than agreed with him.
It’s not just that he’s read too many sentimental novels (which were extremely popular at the time), but that he’s not smart enough to make proper sense of them. He has a “perversity of judgment” that makes him sympathize with the villain when it’s clear that’s not what the author wanted. And he thinks reading well means pulling out every big word he can find and then throwing it into casual conversation — which results in the kind of atrocious sentence I quoted above.
Austen singles out Richardson in particular — Sir Edward is too fond of Richardson and those who have imitated Richardson:
His fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned, and most exceptionable parts of Richardson’s; and such authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as man’s determined pursuit of woman in defiance of every feeling and convenience is concerned, had since occupied the greater part of his literary hours, and formed his character.
All of this amuses me because Austen was a Richardson fan herself, and, of course, she’s a producer of the novels that she’s here pointing out the dangers of. She learned a lot from Richardson, after all.
What it comes down to, I guess, is that novelists were very concerned about what novels were supposed to be, what makes a good novel or a bad novel, what novel-reading would do to people’s minds, and how people would interpret their own novels. Were their readers going to be smart and savvy, or stupid like Sir Edward?
So, many novelists have passages like this one from Sanditon where they seem intent on separating their own good, wholesome novels from those bad ones that have pernicious effects. And in these kinds of passages, they are also asking us to be smart readers — we are supposed to be more like Charlotte than like Sir Edward, to read this passage and condemn Sir Edward and determine not to be foolish like him. What novelist doesn’t want to have smart readers, after all, so why not throw in passages like this one that indicate to us how we should read — or how we shouldn’t?