Nearly Novel Beginnings

Aleksondra Hultquist
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

While Johnson famously defined the novel as “a small tale, generally of love,”   it seems to be the goal of literary studies to ensure that the novel is thought as anything but a small tale.   The idea of the novel’s beginnings has been a focusing feature of much of eighteenth-century literary studies since Ian Watt’s highly influential The Rise of the Novel .   Much criticism focuses on what the novel is and how it became a powerhouse of British literature—how it metamorphosized from “a small tale” to a dominant social, political and aesthetic genre.    The difficulty for scholars in the period is how to make the eighteenth-century novel important in and of itself, without jumping to narratives about how it laid the basis for the “developed” nineteenth-century tome or the modern novel.   Patricia Meyers Spacks’s new book, Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (Yale University Press, 2006) attempts to catalogue, track and explain the murky genesis of what would become the great English novel.

Spacks begins her study by drawing attention to the problems of the theory of the rise of the novel—essentially that realism, on which the value of the novel has been based, has created a system in which   eighteenth-century fiction lacks aesthetic value and relevance.   She addresses how “the expectation of realism may obscure” current studies of the early novel and changes the focus “to call attention to the complicated workings of fantasy in eighteenth century fiction” (3). In this sense, her book initially departs, at least in structural terms, from previous histories of the novel; her aim is to provide an account that does not privilege realism as a point of genesis or value.   Such a plan of attack has obvious benefits:   it frees her from using time as a historical organizer; it allows for an understanding of the novel based on eighteenth-century sub-genres of fiction, as opposed to focusing on the nineteenth-century novel as a teleological goal; and it provides her the freedom to examine multiple works by the same author without having to pigeonhole them into one genre or decade.   Spacks’s organizational method is to classify seven sub-genres of the novel—novels of adventure, the novel of development, novels of consciousness, the novel of sentiment, the novel of manners, gothic fiction, and the political novel—and to explain how each sub-genre contributes to what we have come to understand as “the novel.”

Because of her organizational scheme, narrative form becomes the focus of the first two chapters.   Based on the sub-genres of novels of adventure and novels of development, these chapters are especially tight.    Constructed around events, they are plot-based or incident-based works of fiction, where “narrative multiplicity” takes precedence over “detailed development” (30).   She places popular fiction by women into this category, as well as Defoe’s adventure fictions.   While Spacks investigates minor authors and works—Manley, Haywood, Barker, “It” novels—precedence, in space and detailed analysis, goes to Defoe.   She concludes that “these novels of adventure illustrate with particular clarity the inseparability of form and content in eighteenth-century fiction” (57).   Spacks defines the novel of development as “robust fictions that follow the career of a single human being richly imagined in a setting of other human beings and imagined as having meaning by virtue of a process of growth” (59).   These are novels about acquiring prudence, and as such, they achieve a “moral verisimilitude” (62) that does not require the aesthetics of realism.   Her examples include a rather strange assortment of texts that perhaps would not usually be grouped together— Fanny Hill and Millennium Hall are both in the sub-genre—yet conform to Spacks’s idea that “development” indicates “personal change,” or more specifically, “growth” (60).   Despite a tendency to include diverse authors and works, Spacks makes a glaring omission by ignoring Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister , an incident-based work often touted as the first English novel; and while she includes various offerings, the dominant analysis in these chapters is still based on canonical authors: Defoe and Fielding overshadow the lesser-known authors.

Three of the chapters successfully corral novels based on a psychological grouping: novels of consciousness, novels of sentiment, and Gothic fiction.   Fundamentally, novels of consciousness “confront the same issue: that of personal consciousness as impinged on by a world of other people” (126), and usually are in the epistolary form.   For Spacks this kind of novel explores the consciousness of characters by putting them in the context of the greater social world.   Spacks’s examples of such novels include canonical and non-traditional works: Richardson’s Pamela, and Clarissa ; Frances Brook’s Letters from Lady Julia Catesby, This History of Lady Julia Mandeville , and The History of Emily Montague ; Smollet’s Humphrey Clinker ; Sterne’s Sentimental Journey ; and Sarah Fielding’s The Cry.   Richardson dominates this section and the lesser-known (and also female-authored) works get far less attention than the canonical readings.   Her definition of the novel of sentiment depends on understanding satire, because novels of sentiment “proceed and depend upon exaggeration” (131).   Yet she emphasizes the need to take sentimentality on its own terms instead of those of modernity or realism: “Sentimental novels do not aspire to render the world of actuality.   They attempt, rather, to illuminate that world by creating images and actions that condense implications of actuality” (130).   The chapter instructs the twenty-first-century reader in how to read eighteenth-century sentimentalism and appreciate its merits, especially its ability to point out important social criticisms.   She puts forth the idea that such novels— Man of Feeling, David Simple, and The Wrongs of Woman among others—require a kind of sophistication to enjoy and understand.   The idea of the Sublime factors heavily into Spacks’s definition of the Gothic; she sees an intense correlation between the Sublime and the Gothic as the basis of the Gothic novel’s strengths (198).   This is especially true, she claims, in terms of character, because “Gothic novelists often attempt to create sublime effects through character as well as through the supernatural . . . .   The obscurity characteristic of the sublime (we cannot discern the full contours of the mountain; we cannot see God) may operate within the human realm” (197).   She explores the varying effects of sublime characters in terms of sexuality, evilness, constructions of femininity and how these ideas create the Gothic form.

Two of the sub-genres are less defined: novels of manners and the political novel.   These types of novels combine aspects of event-based or psychologically-based novels.   Novels of manners are “focused on social detail” and in them, “manners become a subject of consuming interest” (160).   Heroines succeed when they learn to negotiate their social scene through the rules provided to them as seen in works by Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Smith, and the obscure Eliza Fenwick.   In these novels Spacks claims that manners become a kind of short hand in determining the morality of characters and their fates, and in that sense, the reader becomes active in such books, because she too must read characters’ manners’ properly.   Spacks’s pushes at the boundaries of her own definition in this chapter, claiming that two of the novels she close reads are not properly novels of manners, but in which manners are nevertheless important.   The last sub-genre, the political novel, seems to be the most perplexing for Spacks.   It includes, in a sense, “all else” (222), because political novelists used the form of the other genres to make their point.   Political novelists of the period are occupied with “the relation between concern with individuals and awareness of social actualities” (229).   While they do not necessarily offer a model for change, “Political novels seek to expose.   They eagerly deploy devices that earlier novels had made familiar; they sometimes disguise their intent by soliciting the reader’s interest for plots of love and adventure; but their purposes always center on revealing the urgency of change” (253).   This is the most difficult genre for Spacks to define and her analysis that the political novel is “whatever is leftover” manifests in her pointing out that her examples are in fact, not so political after all.   The lack of definition sets her apart from works by James Thompson, Charlotte Sussman and Srinivas Aravamudan, among others, and tends to weaken the overall structure of the book’s argument.   I question the usefulness of the sub-genre and her exploration of it.

Spacks’s study offers an exceptional organizational idea for the messy pre-history of the novel.   Overall, the book does a wonderful job of sorting and classifying the eighteenth-century novelistic forms, and creating an accessible rubric from which to understand its growth, development and trajectory.   But despite her claims of rethinking the novel—of considering the importance of fantasy, of disregarding a teleological outcome, of trying to understand the sub-genres in their own cultural values and terms rather than those of the twenty-first century—her study ends up being teleological in terms of its implications.   Her last two chapters illustrate this problem: “ Tristram Shandy and the Development of the Novel,” and her afterward, subtitled “What Came Next.”   Ending her study on such a note seems to undo much of her successful work in the first chapters in which she establishes a useful history of the messy world of eighteenth-century fiction.

The Tristram Shandy chapter is especially problematic, as Spacks herself realizes when she claims that “Paradoxically, the most eccentric novel of the eighteenth century best exemplifies the genre’s developing resources and the sense of wide possibility that had accrued to it” (254).   She defends her insistence on an entire chapter devoted to one novel because it “not only works brilliantly as a novel; it also comments brilliantly on the novel as a genre” (254).   But to read Tristram Shandy in this way seems to miss the point of the earlier parts of the book, especially as she emphasizes not only that Shandy capitalizes on what come before, but also looks ahead to what came next.   Despite her attempts to figure Shandy as a culmination, she ends up emphasizing that it is transitional piece between the eighteenth-century and “what comes next”—in effect, the nineteenth-century novel.

As useful and interesting as her study is, I cannot help but feel that Spacks missed an opportunity to rethink the history of the novel, because though her attempt to expunge realism as an aesthetic value is successful, her attempt to abandon a teleological view is not.    While she sets up beautifully the possibility for doing so in organizing the book by novelistic sub-genre and considering the sub-genres historically, her final chapters force the book into a study of how the novel matured into its nineteenth-century forms and beyond.   In the end, her study becomes teleological in its form because the afterward clearly points the reader to the book’s overarching goal.   Spacks offers that “we all know the riches of nineteenth-century fiction; their abundance derives partly from that of eighteenth-century novels” (277), as if to imply that the history of eighteenth-century novel is important primarily for demonstrating how it laid the foundation for the nineteenth-century novel.   This idea is emphasized by her claim that “Admirers of the nineteenth-century British novel, however, have often failed to acknowledge how crucial to its accomplishment is the achievement of its predecessors” (282); the implication is that this book will help such critics do so.   Spacks does include many non-canonical works, and her examinations of quirky novels and obscure authors are intelligent, respectful, and delightfully clear.   But her conclusions serve to reestablish the idea that canonical novelists dominate and nineteenth-century novels prevail.    Her study would be very beneficial for scholars of the nineteenth-century novel; indeed, it seems to have been expressly written with this audience in mind.    And it would be an interesting exercise to base a course on the novel on her book; her categories are useful and specific.   She allows for cross readings of each novel into other subgenres and plenty of room for debate and discussion in terms of readings, categories, and literary inheritances.   Yet one wishes for a book that gives eighteenth-century fiction is due.   Yes, works by Scott, Austen, Edgeworth and Shelley are wonderful, but eighteenth-century novels are still waiting to be considered as more than “small tales”; Spacks’s study is nearly novel in its attempt to do so.