The Novel in the Nineteenth Century - The Order of Fictions

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Some Influential Notions about Nineteenth-Century Fiction:

The novel as the privileged art form of bourgeois self-reflection (The 'Triumph of Realism')

Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel (1920).
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957).
  • The Epic - "gives form to the extensive totality of life". It is found in "integrated civilisations" such as that of ancient Greece. "The epic hero is, strictly speaking, never an individual" because the epic's "theme is not a personal destiny but the destiny of a community". (Lukacs 60)
  • The Novel - is about "the life of the problematic individual" (78). It is the form of narrative that corresponds to the modern world, a world of "transcendental homelessness" (61). (Later, Lukacs will relate this to bourgeois or capitalist society.)
  • The "Eighteenth-Century Rise of the Novel" is the 'rise of the realist novel' whose great canonical achievements come in the 19th century. The old romance was aristocratic (concerned with honour and heroics), the realist novel is basically bourgeois. (Watt)
But is the novel opposed to romance or to the epic? And can Lukacs's perspective be applied to more than a small number of novels?

The novel as the privileged medium of popular entertainment

Guinevere L. Griest, Mudie's Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Indiana UP 1970).
Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: a social history of the mass reading public 1800 - 1900 (Chicago UP 1957).
There began a mass production of popular fiction:
  • serial fiction, in weekly and monthly magazines (Household Words and All the Year Round, ed. Charles Dickens, Cornhill Magazine ed. W. M. Thackeray)
  • circulating libraries (such as Mudie's) cater for the tastes of a large middle-class readership
  • a system of marketing fiction comes into effect:
  1. serial publication (frequent, but not general)
  2. first book publication: in three volumes, at the enormous price of 31s. 6d., only for the circulating libraries (who do not pay the full price).
  3. successful books will be reissued in one volume with large print-runs and (ever) cheaper editions, ranging from 6s. to 6d.
  4. The rhythms of publication take into account the season (holiday reading, Christmas reading)
  • This system was in place from the 1830s; it ended in the 1890s. To writers and publishers, it offered a guaranteed market. But it meant that the circulating libraries had the power to decide what books would reach the affordable cheaper editions. ('Moral censorship')
Note: How does this relate to the previous 'influential notion'?

From the later eighteenth century onwards, the novel develops many subgenres

(cf. William Baker, Kenneth Womack, eds., A Companion to the Victorian Novel, Westport: Greenwood, 2002).
Here are some important genres and authors:
  • sentimental novel (Samuel Richardson, Henry Mackenzie -- from 1740s)
  • novel of manners (Fanny Burney, Jane Austen – from 1770s)
  • Gothic novel (Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis – 1764?, then from 1790s)
  • historical novel (Walter Scott – from early 1800s)
  • the novel of formation (Bildungsroman) (?Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, from 1840s)
  • industrial novel / condition of England novel (Mary Gaskell, Benjamin Disraeli - from 1840s)
  • religious novel (Charlotte Yonge – from 1850s?)
  • sensational novel (Elizabeth Braddon – from 1860s)
  • detective fiction ([Poe, Collins] Arthur Conan-Doyle – from, 1870s)
  • Utopian / dystopian fiction (William Morris, Samuel Butler, H. G. Wells – from 1880s)
But you have to bear in mind: there are many novels which do not fit into any of these genres. On the other hand, there are those which have elements of more than one genre.

Questions and second thoughts - The Case of Middlemarch

  • are realist novels "realistic"?
  • how do the first two characteristics go together: the popular and commercial character of fiction and the art quality?
  • what drives the production of subgenres: aesthetic progress, new fashions?

Middlemarch as Realist Masterpiece and other Readings

Some Major Characters:

Middlemarch - a provincial town in England
Dorothea Brooke - an ardent young woman from an old family who ends up in a mistaken marriage
Celia - Dorothea's sister, has common sense
Rosamond Vincy - a beautiful, but egoistical young woman from a newly wealthy family
Mr. Brooke - Dorothea's and Celia's uncle, a hopelessly confused man with high ideas of his own brains
Mr. Casaubon - the dried up and failed old scholar whom Dorothea marries
Will Ladislaw - nephew of Mr. Casaubon, a young artist and bohemian, who is financially dependent on Casaubon because his mother has been renounced by her family, and whom Dorothea will marry after Casaubon's death
Tertius Lydgate - an ardent young doctor with high scientific and philanthropic goals, trapped into a failed marriage with Rosamond
Mr. Bulstrode - a Puritan banker in Middlemarch, who turns out to be a hypocrite. He has kept a large amount of money that Will Ladislaw should have interited from his mother. He causes the death of the man who blackmails him for this.

A taste of the text

from George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72)

A Choice of Readings

  • a story of failed marriages (focus on characters)
  • a study of provincial life (cf. the subtitle - focus on description of life and society in provincial England)
  • a philosophical novel (cf. prelude - analysing society from the point of view of Positivist theory)
  • a (proto-) feminist novel (focus on the strong female characters, on critique of existing women and their social conditions)
  • a sensational novel (focus on the sensational elements such as financial crime, blackmail, poisoning)

The Serious and the Popular: One Market or Two Markets?

  • How does Middlemarch stand in relation to the popular?
  • Consider the Publication History: Middlemarch is sold with a calculated marketing strategy, in nine separate instalments, before it comes out in book form.
  • The opposition of serious vs. popular as a divide that can hardly be bridged:
  • The opposition of serious vs. popular as a scale of more or less serious / popular fictions:

The Genres of Middlemarch

  • A sensational novel?
  • A philosophical novel?
  • A historical novel?
  • A social problem novel?
  • A romance?
Genre terms postulate identifiable patterns. When they are used, they activate certain expectations, but they leave much scope for difference in realisation. In fact they are no more fixed than the designations of periods. And like them, they serve to establish a position in a debate.

A concerted view of the development of fiction in the 19th century. — "The order of fictions"

A Look Back at the Structure of the Market for Fictions around 1700.

  • The novel was ranged under "History" not under "Poetry".
  • There were several varieties of doubtful and problematic overlappings between fiction and 'reality'.

image positioning
Heroical Romances:
Fénelon's Telemach (1699)
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of public affairs:

Manley's New Atalantis (1709)
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of private affairs:

Menantes' Satyrischer Roman (1706)
Classics of the novel from the Arabian Nights to M. de La Fayette's Princesse de Clèves (1678)
Sold as true private history, risking to be read as romantic invention:

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Sold as true public history, risking to be read as romantic invention:

La Guerre d'Espagne (1707)
Satirical Romances:
Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605)
Simons 2001, p.194

After 1750 a recognisable 'Order of Fictions' is established.

In the course of the eighteenth century, the problematic overlappings between fiction and the real world are severely cut back. The new "order of fictions" circumscribes the place of fiction in public discourse and regulates the conditions of its development and circulation.
  • You may trace this development on the very title-pages of these books:
  • You can recognise the signals that you are reading a fictional text that can never be taken for 'true' in the literal sense.
(narrative techniques, "unrealistically" comprehensive knowledge of narrators [omniscience], Intertextual references to the literary tradition, connections to topics of public debate, ...)
'Realism' is not an 'imitation of reality'. It is the name conventionally given to a particular set of techniques in writing fiction. cf. Woolf, Virginia. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924)
  • All fictions are produced for and circulate on a market which is structured by internal criteria
The scale of popular vs. high art
The genres and subgenres with their typical features and their overlappings...
  • Beyond (below) this market, there is a vast 'popular' production which is also generally beyond critical discussion.
(In the twentieth century, fictional genres will largely migrate into the popular.)

Example: Middlemarch (construction of the narrative voice; marketing choices; sensational aspects, condition of England, the positivist philosophy...)

What to do with 19th century novels

  • Look for the signals of fictionality
  • Look for the signals of 'seriousness' or 'popularity'
  • Look for genre elements


Question/Reflection: In this new order of fictions, what is the relation between fiction and scandal?