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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Origins of the novel of reform?

Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Guest Author, on 04/17/07 at 05:45 PM

Reading Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose has made me think deeply about my own period of study, the eighteenth-century novel, in the light of her arguments about the novel’s sense of “purpose” and where that impulse begins in the earliest years of the English novel. As she argues in the case of Dickens, the reformist narrative of conversion often appears as an interpolated tale, as in The Pickwick Papers, framed within a narrative that renders the purpose of that conversion story ironic, or at least ineffective in its putative aims. The teller of the tale is disreputable, the audience of the tale is unmoved, and the tale itself, though frightening or moving in itself, is, by its context, rendered unmoving.

Immediately, I thought of the interpolated tales in Joseph Andrews andTom Jones, during which the characters listen to mens’ tales of dissipated living, resulting in eventual personal change in the former, and misanthropic dissatisfaction with society in the latter. The framing moral structures supplied in the prefaces to Moll Flanders and Pamela, and even in the last pages of Fanny Hill seem to do the same, from the inside out. The messages of personal reform that appear in the beginnings and endings of eighteenth-century novels about the life of sin and attempts to avoid it are rendered ironic (intentionally or unintentionally) by the inflaming pleasure offered by the sinful behavior depicted therein. Moll’s descriptions of her frankly pleasurable exploits in sex and thievery, the “warm scenes” between Pamela and Mr. B, the pornographic exploits of Fanny--they all stick with a certain kind of reader in a way that no amount of moralist justification can. Perhaps Claybaugh doesn’t address the frameworks of reform in novels before the early nineteenth century because the possible “reformist” content of eighteenth-century novels seems so universally dubious. 

Such an examination, though, could offer an insight into the novel as the genre of pastiche. If Claybaugh sees Don Quixote as “the classic text of verisimilitude” (37), it is only in its parodic relationship to the genres it imitates, just as Gulliver’s Travels bears a parodic relationship to Dampier and other voyage narratives, exposing the relentless violence, rapacious commercialism, and religious insincerity that underpins these narratives, but although Swift’s text is highly detailed in its representation, it would be ridiculous to call it verisimilar. Defoe parodied genres as diverse as criminal confessions, Protestant conversion narratives, voyage accounts, occasional poetry, and scandal fiction, which together made up a large portion of the pre-novel press output. If, as Claybaugh writes, “[N]ew conventions often argue for their own verisimilitude by exposing the artifice of the conventions that have come before,” then the novel, as a genre that both employs and parodies the conventions of all the other familiar genres of its time, has the potential to remain always on the bleeding edge of representation.

If the early novel is insufficiently convincing in its claims to attempt to reform its readers and society at large, it is perhaps because so many of the genres it borrows from and parodies are salaciously detailed accounts of criminal life, sexual scandal, picaresque adventure, and autobiography, alongside genres like the printed sermon, the impassioned speech before Parliament, and the philosophical treatise. The representation of vice and its effects is clearly not enough to produce reform in the reader. The struggle of many eighteenth-century authors was to find a moral structure within which a reformist narrative could be possible.

In his Rambler No. 4, Samuel Johnson argues that the verisimilar properties of texts are what make them far more potentially powerful for readers because one cannot help but compare the representations of a real-seeming person in everyday circumstances with oneself. However, for Johnson, this means that vice must be represented as hateful, and virtue as pleasurable, since the emotional attachments we develop toward characters may guide our actions. And it seems that most Anglo-American writers after 1750 make more sincere attempts to write truly reformist texts. Johnson, who seems to have despised Fielding’s earlier works for their moral failures, claimed to have read his 1751 Amelia in one sitting--no small feat, given its heft. Fielding’s last novel, about a married couple sunk financially low by the husband’s past weaknesses to vice, manages to be compassionate toward poor families beset by creditors and blackmail, yet still serves as a warning against the behaviors that led them to their condition. That it has never been as successful as the more morally dubious Tom Jones is another matter.

I was reminded of the intersections between reform and fiction today as I helped a student in the special collection where I work. She was looking for eighteenth-century texts on pornography, prostitution, and criminal life around the time of the printing of Fanny Hill in 1749. William Hogarth’s 1732 Harlot’s Progress series came to mind, of course, as a reformist text on the temptations and consequences of prostitution. But in looking to see if there was any reaction to Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (as it was originally best known) in the Gentleman’s Magazine of that year, I was delighted to find this, printed just the month after the simultaneous release of Tom Jones and Cleland’s pornographic novel. Cobden’s sermon was originally delivered the previous year, but apparently seemed needed at this particular moment.

What fascinated me most was the footnote, added by the editor, about the representations of the effects of promiscuity in the prose of Smollett, which inspires the editor to paint the scene with his own “high colouring,” and ending with mention of Tom Jones and Mrs. Phillips’s Apology, all of which are clearly deeply influenced by Hogarth’s depiction of a necessary “progress” from the innocent seduced girl to the diseased penitent, working herself to death in prison or dying naked on the streets. Nowhere in the sermon, the novels, the journalistic editing, or in Cleland seems to be any first-hand knowledge at all, just a reframing of a well-known narrative of personal demise because of vice.

Claybaugh rightly insists that the novel is not merely a response to previous novels, but to the social, political, and ethical circumstances of its time. I am also beginning to be fascinated by the ways that the novel is not merely born as a pastiche, but continues, always, to be a pastiche genre, pulling (sometimes parodically) from the other texts of its culture. 


Comments

(I haven’t read Claybaugh’s book yet, and I apologize if this ground was well covered there.) I wonder if, alongside hybrid early novels, hybrid early journalism should be considered another eighteenth-century lead into the nineteenth-century “problem novel”? I’m thinking of how impressed contemporaries (and the next generation or so) were by Sir Roger de Coverley, in what seems (to me, not really understanding Sir Roger’s charm) very much an “and thus we averted Revolution” way, and about A Sentimental Journey and The Peripatetic. Novels and journalism grew up together and often seem to grow right back together. (In our own lifetimes the ambiguities range from James Michener to JT LeRoy.) Gregory Garvey’s post suggests that the post-facto definitions of literary history might slant the evidence—that is, an anti-polemical book is more likely to be classified unambiguously as a novel as time passes. And the cumulative result of such classifications might appear to be a novelistic tradition in which political standoffishness triumphs....

By Ray Davis on 04/26/07 at 12:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As further possible examples, we have the posthumous treatment of Defoe’s professional books and Swift’s satircal books, where more detachable works (Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels—both readable in relative ignorance of their times) are assigned central roles in the tradition of the novel while more time-bound works (A Journal of the Plague Year, A Tale of a Tub) are not. Proto-novels of reform and purpose are hard to find because possible candidates have been assigned to other generic traditions.

Once the novel becomes more firmly established as a category, time-bound reformism and polemic (such as the books Miriam Burnstein studies) can return without breaking the categorization. Detachability then determines not whether a book is a novel, but whether a novel is literary.

By Ray Davis on 04/27/07 at 09:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The framing moral structures supplied in the prefaces to Moll Flanders and Pamela, and even in the last pages of Fanny Hill seem to do the same, from the inside out. The messages of personal reform that appear in the beginnings and endings of eighteenth-century novels about the life of sin and attempts to avoid it are rendered ironic by the inflaming pleasure offered by the sinful behavior depicted therein…

By Gamaliel VW vans on 04/10/09 at 12:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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