October 11, 2004
Peter Padfield on the early years of the English novel

I have just done a review for Samizdata of a book by Peter Padfield about the history of Maritime Supremacy. What makes this book interesting is that it contains both blow by blow accounts of sea battles and a succession of o sketches of what these battles meant for the lives of those on land. Britain, of course, had its time of maritime supremacy, and its own highly distinctive sort of liberal, capitalist culture. Here is Padfield's account of the beginnings of the English novel. I do not personally enjoy reading the great works of fiction of the past, my fictional tastes being contemporary, and middlebrow if that. But I know that I am missing a great deal, and I do at least like to know about these works, and about the people who wrote them. So bluffers guide paragraphs like these are something that I especially appreciate.

The novel was an important vehicle. Its development had been foreshadowed even before William's revolution by the poet and popular playwright Aphra Behn, the first woman in England to earn her living by the pen. Her Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave (1688) told the story of a Negro of noble descent whom she had known while living in Suriname (now Dutch Guiana). Besides lighting the way for the future novel, Oroonoko, which was adapted for the theatre and played successfully for many years, was an important influence for change in the generally uncomprehending attitudes towards Negroes and the institution of European slavery.

Daniel Defoe took the imaginative embellishment of real persons and events a stage further in The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), often regarded as the first English novel. The son of a prosperous small businessman and religious Dissenter of Cripplegate, London, Defoe was also a living example of how trade had bred a clamorous and articulate middle class. His own attempts to set up as a merchant failed spectacularly, ending in the Fleet prison for bankrupts, and obliging him, like Aphra Behn, to earn his living from writing. Nonetheless, he remained a prolific publicist for trade, which he called his 'beloved subject'. He had previously taken part in the rebellion against James in the cause of both trade and religious dissent, and had written a verse eulogy of William of Orange as The True-Born Englishman – an illustration of the depth of the historical tide William had ridden, which must surely have brought about revolutionary change very soon with or without the 'Protestant wind' down-Channel.

Defoe's most famous protagonist, Crusoe, had made two slaving voyages to Africa before setting himself up as a planter in Brazil; there he told his Portuguese neighbours how easy it was on the coast of Guinea to buy Negroes 'for trifles – such as beads, toys, knives, scissors, hatchets, bits of glass and the like', as a result of which they persuaded him to guide an expedition to Africa and bring back slaves for them. On the way, he was shipwrecked and cast ashore on a deserted island; perhaps Defoe intended a moral. Basing Crusoe's subsequent experiences loosely on those of a real castaway, Alexander Selkirk, Defoe entered his mind so powerfully and portrayed his lonely struggle in such straightforward prose the book entered popular mythology and enjoyed immediate and lasting success at home and in continental Europe. Encouraged, he wrote a second novel, taking his readers into the mind of a girl, Moll Flanders, coping with even less promising circumstances in a debtors jail.

The next original genius of the English novel, Samuel Richardson, also came from the middle classes. He was a printer who had married well and established one of the best presses in London. In Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), he used the device of letters written by his characters to tell the story of a maid resisting extreme attempts at seduction from her former employer's son, until eventually the young man marries her; whereupon she embarks on a second, equally successful, struggle to disarm those who disapprove of the misalliance. This very moral and sentimental story and the novel method of its telling won extraordinary acclamation, and Richardson followed it in similar epistolary style with Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady. Here the heroine's family attempts to force her into marriage for money; in her refusal and subsequent adventures, Clarissa exhibits more sublime moral virtues even than Pamela.

Meanwhile Richardson had provoked Henry Fielding, most accomplished and witty of the pioneers of the novel, into the genre. Fielding came from the gentry, but while studying at Leiden University his allowance had been stopped and like Defoe he had turned to his pen to earn a living, principally as a satirical playwright. In 1737 he lampooned Walpole so savagely that the Prime Minister retaliated by steering through an Act of Parliament requiring all new plays to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain before being produced. It was a small dent in British liberties – plays could still be printed and published – but put an end to Fielding's career in the theatre. He studied law to become a barrister. When Richardson published Pamela, however, Fielding was evidently so struck by what he regarded as its sentimentality and prim morality – although, like Robinson Crusoe, the novel was based on a true story - he produced two parodies of the type. The second, Joseph Andrews, in which the protagonist, a footman, resists all attempts of a well-born lady to seduce him, was a masterpiece of observation and irony which took on its own life; together with two later novels by Fielding, Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), it established a pattern in plotting, characterization and authentic contemporary setting that was to dominate English fiction thereafter, and indeed spread across continental Europe.

These trailblazing books were written by middle-class or professional men, and won a huge middle-class readership which identified with the realistic characters and social settings depicted. The prominence accorded women is striking. Apart from Robinson Crusoe, the extraordinarily popular novels mentioned all had strong, admirable women as the central character or in a major role: a beautiful, high-mettled girl, Sophia Western, inspired Tom Jones's odyssey; like Amelia in Fielding's subsequent book, she was based upon the novelist's own beloved wife. This was an accurate reflection of the strong position women enjoyed in society, despite their unequal legal status, and another echo of the United Provinces of the previous century, where, as noted, women of all classes moved and expressed themselves freely as individuals, enjoying a far greater measure of independence than anywhere else in Europe at that time.

The novels, plays and journals were products of a free, trading society – their success or failure depending upon volume of sales – and also agents of change, undermining, often none too subtly, aristocratic or dogmatic assumptions, replacing them with more bourgeois attitudes. In the same way other branches of art were metamorphosed into new, more popular and subversive forms as they emerged from patronage into the market place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: HistoryLiterature