I started this with a random Facebook post, as I was watching an old BBC production of Anna Karenina with Nicola Pagett. The beauty of seeing a really good dramatization of something one has read and loved is that all the bits they have to trim away to make it fit into the allotted time are still there, at least for me. I fill them in, reliving the original reading.
And I realized that whenever anyone asks me who my favorite author is, I somehow forget about Tolstoy. I guess it’s part of that paralyzed feeling one might have trying to choose a favorite among one’s children. There are so many that I love equally; I simply couldn’t.
To return to the topic at hand: have novels changed since they were first written in the late 17th/early 18th century (OK, so there was the Tale of Genji in the 11th century, and Le Morte d’Arthur in the 14th, but whether or not they have been retroactively identified as novels, they weren’t called novels when they were written)?
The novel had entertainment in its origins. Madame de Lafayett’s La princesse de Cleves is one of the earliest true psychological novels, with a realistic plot instead of the fantasy of earlier attempts. And, of course (ahem!) it was a historical novel, taking place a century earlier at the court of Henry II. I think it’s significant that a woman first attempted such a project, something that delved into the social and emotional issues of the time.
By contrast, the first novel written in English (if you dismiss Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as being too short) was Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Rather than take a realistic relationship as its center, Defoe’s novel was full of adventure and excitement in wild, untamed places. To quote from Wikipedia’s article:
The book was published on April 25, 1719. The positive reception was immediate and universal. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions. Within years, it had reached an audience as wide as any book ever written in English.
By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had spawned more editions, spin-offs, and translations (even into languages such as Inuit, Coptic, and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 such alternative versions, including children’s versions with mainly pictures and no text.
Needless to say, he started a trend. Whatever we think about the colonizing Defoe exalted in his work, he paved the way for more adventure novels. And a lot of them went right for titillation and excitement, too. An enthusiastic group of Englishmen started writing enormously popular novels (Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). If anyone has ever plowed diligently through Richardson’s Pamela, it’s no trick to see the barely disguised sexual references embedded in Pamela’s steadfast refusal to succumb to seduction.
Later in the 18th century (sorry this is such a whirlwind tour), the novel was once again co-opted by women. Eliza Haywood, largely unknown today, is in my opinion a direct precursor of Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. The novel was domesticated, as it were, and a split began to show itself: between the serious, moralizing “literature” created by men, and the sentimental, romantic tales created by women. (This is my opinion, not necessarily backed by any bona fide scholarly articles…)
Ooph! This has become a history lesson, which I didn’t intend. And it’s getting long. And my initial finding is this: the writing style may have changed, because we no longer speak the way people did in the 18th century, and we live life at an altogether faster pace. But so far, the content of novels isn’t very different: romance, adventure, danger, complex relationships. They’ve always been there.
So I’ll leave off for now with this: Enter Ann Radcliffe.
Next time, I’ll step into the 19th century, through the distorting mirror of Radcliffe’s deliciously gothic novels.