Jane Austen wasn’t the only novelist of the Georgian era. Recently, I’ve been reading through some of the greatest books of the eighteenth century, from Defoe at the beginning, to Fanny Burney at the end. It’s one of the best ways of researching the way people thought and the way they lived in this period, and in any case, it’s huge fun.
Defoe, of course, wrote “Robinson Crusoe,” but he was a prolific novelist and also produced “Moll Flanders” and “Roxanne.” In those days, stories existed, and had since people could speak, but they were fables, or fairy tales, or instructive illustrations to moral tales. When Defoe wrote was many academics consider the first novel, these things existed. So why is this a novel? Because, although there are instructive sermons in the book, it’s about one person, a fictional or fictionalised account, depending on whether you believe he heard about Alexander Selkirk and used him as his inspiration. Most academics cite “Robinson Crusoe” as the first “real” novel, and while there are a few others that could arguably also claim that honour, it’s a convenient place to start, and its publication did mark a new idea and a new way to tell a tale.
The story doesn’t dot about, it follows one man’s story more or less chronologically, and has a definite beginning and end. In the previous eras, stories often rambled, and didn’t really have an end, like the many stories associated with Robin Hood or King Arthur. They had great heroes and gods mingled with men, to tell tales of epic greatness. Novels don’t just have their origin in the more refined parts of society, it is also from the people, and folk tradition, and so is unlike many of the other art forms that were popular at the time. They tell the stories of ordinary people living lives that people of the time would have recognised and identified with. And these books came at a time when there was an upsurge in literacy.
By the end of the eighteenth century, for the first time in hundreds of years, most of the population could read. It’s an astonishing development, pushed on by the spreading of the franchise, the very structure of society changing. And people wanted to be entertained. While novels weren’t cheap, they could be bought in serial form, and they could be read out loud and re-read. They were portable, so a person could carry a book around, and they were something everybody could talk about. Just as the e-reader is changing the way we read and treat books, the advent of the cheap novel changed the way people thought.
So in this context, we don’t just have the improving and sermonising novel, we have books of enormous fun and entertainment. The novels of the eighteenth century are some of the most enjoyable ever written, and because the form was in its infancy, there were many experiments.
In this time, the most common novel was the “picaresque” story, that is, a series of loosely linked adventures with one hero or heroine. We’ve become used to novels having scenes with points to make, but the eighteenth century masters let the story take them where it would. So we have sermons, bawdy scenes, scenes of true poignancy and happiness, too. They are a ride to remember.
The next big thing to hit the world was probably “Pamela,” by Samuel Richardson. This is a series of letters in which a poor but honest servant girl recounts the way she rejects the lewd advances of her master, until eventually, he reforms his rakish ways and marries her.
In Victorian times, this book would have been held up as the epitome of modest and well behaved behaviour to all young ladies. It’s a great book, and has some fascinating insights into the way people thought and acted then, but not everybody agreed with it. Some critics cried out that it was hypocritical, and that Pamela was taking a lesson from Anne Boleyn, and deliberately withholding the goods until her Mr. B married her and made her a lady. Others denounced it as a chance to write scurrilous near-rape, and titillating the reader in the guise of morality. Well, since Mr. B kidnaps the luckless heroine and lays her under siege until she agrees to sleep with him, they might have a point.
The only voice in the book is Pamela’s. She tells the story, and so we have to trust her to tell the truth. And we can take the person she’s talking to into account, too, a respectable older person she loves and trusts, although there are a few other recipients.
Richardson started the book as an instructive text, but the story took him over. Just as many authors say that happens today, he said it happened to him, and Pamela became a real person to him, and to many of his readers. Take it as a sweet story about a virtuous and shy girl and a man she reforms, and you could almost have the Harlequin Presents story of today.
When it came out in 1740, “Pamela” was a sensation, and this, almost as much as the contents, is why the book is still so important. Without it we might not be reading novels. We might be listening to plays or reading poems for our main entertainment. Well, it’s possible, anyway! But as when anything has huge success, people jump on the bandwagon, with greater or lesser success. Novels followed, and some of them are undoubtedly better. “Tristram Shandy” and “Tom Jones” are two of the greatest novels ever written, bursting with life and still eminently readable today. But “Pamela” came first.
Two books were written by Fielding as parodies of "Pamela," leading to a famous and avidly watched feud between the two authors. “Shamela” was a straight parody, but Fielding’s first published novel, “Joseph Andrews” parallels Pamela’s story, but instead of Mr. B, who Fielding claims is really called Mr. Booby, it’s a relative, Lady Booby, who victimises her footman, Pamela’s brother. It shows a lot of the bouncy joie-de-vivre and enthusiasm for life that makes Fielding’s later books, even “Clarissa,” so enjoyable. Even when Clarissa, tortured by the rake Lovelace, is in the depths of despair, she’s quite capable of a great big fit of hysterics.
The eighteenth century novel had a joy, a way of savouring life that we might have lost, a way of throwing itself into a project with complete whole-heartedness. We could learn a lot from them.