I have begun reading Patricia Meyer Spacks’s new book on the 18C novel, Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. The front flap declares that the book is intended for a general audience, and so far (I’ve read the introduction and part of the second chapter), this seems to be true. It’s got lots of good information that a specialist would be interested in, but it’s clearly written and engaging and gives all the background a general, non-academic reader would need.
She argues that while critics have focused on realism in the development of the 18C novel, what actually happens is much more complex, and she will look instead at deviations from realism, at the many experiments that authors undertook with narrative forms. She discusses what is for me one of the most exciting characteristics of the 18C novel: the fact that during the 18C there were no novelistic “rules.” 18C writers made up many of the rules we’re familiar with today, but at the time, they didn’t exist. So Spacks’s idea is to focus on the diversity of form, style, and content present in novels, rather than pointing out unities that existed then and that would later harden into rules.
One of the points she makes that particularly intrigues me is about narrative multiplicity versus unity. Many if not most or even almost all early 18C novels told multiple stories; they did not focus on a handful of main characters and develop them in detail, but instead had lots of sets of characters and lots of stories. These stories were often brief and told without much detail. The focus was not on character development, but instead on events, lots and lots of events:
Narrative multiplicity rather than detailed development marks many early-century fictions, apparently predicated on the assumption that readers will not long sustain interest in a single set of characters or predicaments.
Think, for example, of The Decameron where there is a frame narrative but within that frame narrative a hundred stories are embedded. Another example is Mary Delarivier Manley’s work The New Atalantis, which also has a frame narrative that never gets developed in depth, and then the characters tell each other stories, which make up the bulk of the book. Isn’t it interesting to think that readers might not have wanted to read about the same people at length?
What this focus on multiple plots does is to offer the reader a particular kind of pleasure:
… the reader is invited to take pleasure in a collection of happenings linked more by sequence than by logic and to register the excitement of sheer event.
Writing of the early 18C novelist Jane Barker, Spacks argues that
The vigorous, varied, lavishly multiplied narratives that compose her novels declare the power of fiction, not to make the reader suspend disbelief; rather, to make disbelief irrelevant. The pleasure these stories provide acknowledges invention, manipulation, ground-shifting, and the wide possibilities of the reader’s role. Above all, the stories acknowledge their own fictionality.
We are far from realism here. Instead, what we have is such a multiplicity of stories that the reader is not led to believe in any of them, but rather to enjoy the energy and power of them, to enjoy the author’s inventiveness.
Now I must say that none of this appeals to me particularly. I find it hard to understand how readers would find pleasure in all this diversity and multiplicity. I much prefer the unity of plot and the character development that begins to become the norm in the second part of the 18C. Reading story after story after story where the action zips by and the characters are never fleshed out strikes me as wearisome rather than exhilarating. But it’s interesting to think about how different readers’ tastes can be, and I wonder how much of this is a personal matter (perhaps some of you would disagree with me?) and how much of it is a cultural matter — i.e., perhaps we have been trained by the 19C and 20C novel to value depth of character development and unity of plot and that makes it harder to appreciate the fun of multiple narratives.
Spacks’s account does help explain my impatience with The Recess; although it was published in 1783 when the novel was moving away from the multiplicity characteristic of the earlier part of the century, it still is full of plot events and is rather short on character development. It has unity of plot in the sense that it focuses on two main characters, but it’s so full of events, unbelievably full of them that it’s clear it was influenced by earlier forms of the novel. Believability is not the point at all; rather, the point is to see just how much those two main characters can handle.
Now if you’re wondering where a novel like Clarissa fits into this scheme, a novel where practically nothing happens and we are with the same characters for 1,500 pages, it’s evidence, for Spacks, of the diversity of form in the 18C. You can find lots of extremes in the period — short novels and long novels, novels about few characters and novels about many, novels that have lots of detail and novels that don’t, novels with a fast pace and novels with a slow pace. Over the course of the century, many of these extremes began to disappear and novelists found a happy medium. This happy medium would turn into what we tend today to think of as “the novel.”