18C Novels

I enjoyed reading two posts on Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, one from Smithereens and one by Danielle, with two different reactions to the book. Both bloggers pointed out all the weeping, fainting, and quaking, all the passivity and sensitive emotionalism that the heroine Emily exhibits. It’s hard as a 21st-century reader not to get a bit annoyed by all this, but it helps, as Danielle pointed out, to know that this is simply what novelistic heroines tended to do at the time. Readers at the time expected it and ate it up. Radcliffe was writing when sensibility was all the rage — when everyone was talking about emotions, what they are, why they are important, where they lead us, and how they can possibly make us better people or can possibly distract us from more important matters. You see phrases like “exquisite sensibility” and “overflowing hearts” all over the place.

And the heroines tend to be models of perfection, which can also get annoying, since we are used to much more complexity in our characters. So often plots revolve around testing the perfection of the heroine who tends to remain static, rather than allowing the heroine to have flaws and grow and change. Not all novels are like this, by any means (see Wollstonecraft or Mary Hays or The Female Quixote), but so many heroines from 18C fiction are so irritatingly perfect, that you realize Austen’s genius in creating such well-rounded people.

Given all that, I do love the 18C novel, as you know. I find all the intense emotionalism fascinating, if strange, and I love the way the genre develops though the time period, emerging out of a rich mix of biography, autobiography, history, crime narrative, spiritual narratives, travel writing, etc. I love how weird the 18C novel can be — see The Monk or Tristram Shandy for examples. And I love how you see see political and social changes reflected in the writing — class struggles in Pamela, for example, or capitalism in Robinson Crusoe.

I must say, however, that I’m struggling a bit with my latest 18C novel — Sophia Lee’s The Recess. My initial assessment is that it’s interesting for historical reasons, but not something I’d recommend for someone interested in an absorbing read or someone just starting out on the 18C novel. The book has an odd rhythm to it. I’ve read only the first part out of six, and already I suspect I’ve been given way more historical detail than I need. I’ve come across two stories-within-the-story, both of which are pretty outlandish, filled with incest, murder, lust, and betrayal. That sounds like it might be fun, but the narrator rushes through it all, it’s too much to absorb, and I’m not sure she’s really making use of all the details she throws out there. The pace of the novel is awkward; it’s so fast, I begin to feel bored, oddly enough.

It’s interesting, though, because it’s an early example of the historical novel; it’s about two (fictional) daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester are characters. If I remember correctly, the editor of Waverly claimed that Scott is the first historical novelists, and that’s simply not true. I don’t know who the first is (if there is such a thing), but Lee certainly wrote historical novels before Scott did.

I’ll definitely finish it, so I’ll see if the remaining five parts pick up a little bit.


Filed under Books, Fiction

6 responses to “18C Novels

  1. Had I not been exposed to your posts and then read the very good introduction to the book, I’m not sure what I would have made of the story. Keeping Emily and her weepiness in context with the time, it was much easier to take her very sensitive behavior. I have read very little 18th c. literature, but (and I use this word a lot–I need a new one) it is really fascinating. I like the idea that these are the beginnings of the novel in english (well more or less?). And I’d like to know more about what the world was like at the time–socially and philosophically as that obviously had an impact on what authors wrote and how they developed their stories. For someone who loves historical fiction–how much better can you get than this–reading an author writing in that particular time period–there is no better authenticity. I definitely plan on reading more novels from this period–I have lots of good suggestions that you’ve given in the past. The Sophia Lee novel you’re reading sounds interesting and I look forward to hearing more about it as well.


  2. What a wonderful overview of the 18th century, Dorothy! You make me wish I had paid more attention when I was a callow teenager at university and that strangeness and hybridity of the the novel seemed simply confusing to me. The thing I do appreciate in novels from past ages is how they show us how very, very different the expectations of society are. Should encourage us to see our current ones as endlessly open to change and moderation.


  3. I love your posts about 18C novels! For some reason I always think of the 18C as being rather light on novels but you prove time again that it’s simply not so. My list of books to read has grown quite a lot thanks to you.


  4. Danielle — often I like to just pick a book up and see what I think of it without getting any context, but sometimes knowing some context can make for a much nicer reading experience, can’t it? I suppose ideally I’d read once just on my own and then again after having done some background reading, but that can take an awful lot of time. Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed the Radcliffe.

    Litlove — I do wonder what people in the future will say about our novels today — how they will feel dated, and how they will reveal things about us we don’t even see right now. That’s something we can never know, and it’s rather disappointing!

    Stefanie — thank you! It’s really the novel that got me interested in the period; the nonfiction of the time is interesting but doesn’t draw me in in quite the same way the fiction does, and the poetry and drama from the time isn’t quite my thing. But I do think novels from the period got ignored for a long time, and only recently (last couple decades) has there been an explosion of interest in them, in academia at least.


  5. I read that about ‘Waverley’ being the first historical novel as well and, knowing no better, swallowed it hook line and sinker! Do you know of any other historical novelists of the 18th century, aside from Sophia Lee? I suppose I should have realised that Scott couldn’t possibly have been the first – the past is full of exciting material to fictionalise. (And now I’m thinking about it, it occurs to me that a lot of medieval Romance is ‘historical fiction’ in the most general sense – so much of it is founded on stories of Troy and Alexander the Great.)

    I’m fascinated by the impulse to write historical fiction – what is it that drives us to animate the past so vividly? To make it up new and ‘live’ there for the duration of a story? I conjecture it is the same thing that inspires people to become historians. They’re on the same spectrum as novelists afterall, in that they create a coherent and interesting narrative out of the chaos of real events. 🙂


  6. Well, I know Maria Edgeworth was writing historical fiction too; I think the editor of my edition of Waverley mentions and then dismisses her, but unfairly so. The introduction to The recess talks about Madame de Lafayette’s Princess of Cleves as well. And yes, it’s interesting to think about historians and historical novelists doing something similar!


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