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Material conditions: The rise of the novel

Drs Joe Bray and Adam Smith discuss where the novel came from and the factors that lay behind its emergence.
This week, we’re discussing Jane Austen. Jane Austen is the first author on the course we’ve encountered so far who wrote what we recognise today as novels. So today I’m joined by our educator this week, Dr. Joe Bray, who’s going to talk to us a little bit about the history of the novel. So Joe, in the 18th century, what is the novel? And where does it come from? It’s a good question. It emerges very gradually during the course of the 18th century. I mean, there are a number of factors. It emerges out of autobiographical writing, diaries, journals, also journalism.
But there are also a number of technical factors as well to do with printing that makes it easier to produce novels, and also a rise in readers of a certain class who had leisure time to read them. So a huge number of factors went into it and it was a very gradual thing that happened during our period. And what were the first novels, and how did they develop? Well, one of the first novelists in English was Daniel Defoe. He was very much connected with journalism and news, and that’s one of the early meanings of the word novel, to do with news.
And so a lot of his writing was journalistic and he also then produced work which was slightly tailored, and had fictional elements in it, and that’s how the novel gradually started. One of the key figures is Samuel Richardson, who was himself a printer, so was also very highly connected with this journalist print culture. And one of his novels, in fact, I’ve got here today, one of my own copies of his third novel, ‘The History of Sir Charles Grandison’, which is a huge, seven volume (as you can see) epistolary novel. So his novels were in the form of letters. So can you tell us a little bit more about what the epistolary novel is?
Yes, so you have letters between different characters, so the whole novel is told through a series of letters. All his three novels are like this. The first two, ‘Pamela’ and ‘Clarissa’, have virtuous heroines who are being pursued by evil, rakish men. One problem he found was that his readers preferred the villain to the heroines. He decided for his third one he would solve this by writing the story of a really virtuous man instead. Not surprisingly, no one reads it.
So where does Jane Austen come into this rise of the novel? Well, Richardson was one of her favourite authors, and she comes in a period where the novel is beginning to settle down at the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th. It’s becoming more established as a genre, people know what the novel is. It’s becoming a bit more distinct from the romance, which was the other form that was in competition with the novel throughout the century, and I think by Jane Austen and Walter Scott’s time, the novel is becoming - people know what it is - they know what to expect from it.
Joe, can you tell us a little bit about this other text that we’ve got just here? Yes. So as I said, ‘Sir Charles Grandison’ was Austen’s favourite novel, and we think that it was very widely known in her family. They would sit around reading it aloud of an evening, and it was said by her nephew who wrote a memoir of his aunt that she knew it off by heart - all seven volumes - and remembered the characters as if they were her real friends. One of the things that we think she wrote while she was still becoming a novelist was a short abridged - very abridged - dramatic version of the novel.
So it shows her familiarity with it and part of the humour is the fact that this is a one million word novel and this is a 52 page manuscript version. It shows that she knew it very, very well in order to make fun of it and produce this dramatic version. I’m not going to ask you to paraphrase a book as long as ‘Sir Charles Grandison’, but was sort of things happen in the story? Well it’s more about a virtuous hero so it’s a bit less dramatic than ‘Pamela’ and ‘Clarissa’, for which he’s better, more widely known.
It’s more about social and domestic life, and it’s about a virtuous hero who gets into a lot of scrapes, but always emerges well and treats his servants extremely well. But it does have at its core as well a female heroine, Harriet Byron, and one of the things that we think Austen took from Richardson was this development of the female perspective and female consciousness in this novel. That’s perhaps one of the major influences on her writing, where we have strong central female characters throughout her work. This is seven volumes long. How long would it have taken to appear? Well, that’s a good question. It didn’t all come out at once.
So the first four volumes came out in, I think it was late 1753 in November, the next two in December, and the final one in March of the following year. So it was about over a four month period. And what was important about that is obviously, you would be excited waiting for the next volume to come out as a reader. But also, Richardson responded as he was going along to what readers thought. He set up a sort of reading group of some of his friends, and they would comment on the first four volumes when they came out, and that went into the writing of the rest of it.
So it’s quite a different process to the novel today as we know it, developing as it went along. I’ve just noticed as well, you’ve brought another copy of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’. Yes. This looks a little bit newer. Yes. How is this different? How is the novel in the 18th century different from the novel that we recognise today? You can see this is a sort of modern Oxford World’s Classic 1986 edition. So this is obviously quite different. To read that is a mammoth project. This you can imagine, is much more portable; you could carry around a volume, take it with you.
And we think in the 18th century that readers would sort of read on the go a bit more than this, which is quite a labour to carry around. So I think the novel could be consumed much more quickly and much more freely perhaps than the modern huge volume edition like that. But another difference as well, as I said earlier, is that the novels were much more likely to be read out loud in the 18th century. So you would sit round of an evening and read it to the family and comment on it, and we certainly think that’s what happened with the Austens. Wow. Well, thanks very much, Joe.

Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was first published in 1813, at a time when literacy and print culture in England underwent a significant expansion. In this video, Dr Joe Bray and Dr Adam Smith discuss where the novel came from and the factors that lay behind its emergence.

Focusing in particular on Austen’s favourite novelist, Samuel Richardson, they highlight how the material form of the 18th-century novel was very different to that which it typically takes today and consider what implications this has for the way it would have been read.

Once you have watched the video, you may like to comment on and discuss the following points:

  • The new opportunities that the novel form offered 18th-century authors.
  • The relationship between these early novels and earlier forms of prose writing that we have encountered on the course.
  • The differences between reading a novel in the 18th century and the 21st.
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