[Access article in PDF]
Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England
Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England, by Richard A. Barney; 402 pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, $49.50.
Richard A. Barney's Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England provides a persuasive account of the rise of the novel of education in the English tradition, rather than the importation of it from Germany. Barney traces the novel of education in English not to the Bildungsroman, but to seventeenth-century pedagogical theories and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. In laying out the argument, Barney offers an extensive and compelling look at a variety of pedagogical treatises, most notably John Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education, a work that, in its emphasis on limits to personal liberty, may surprise those familiar primarily with Locke's Second Treatise on Government. Though occasionally over-ridden with theoretical apparatus, Barney's historical inquiry into late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century English theories and novels of education is an illuminating and [End Page 490] original piece of scholarship, well worth the attention of those interested in eighteenth-century English literature and culture and the history of the novel.
Barney's project is a useful one, given the conjunction between the concerns of the early novel and educational theories. In the cultural developments of the early eighteenth century (and since), educational ideas and practices have tended to focus on the formation of individuals to the benefit of society. Since a central topic for the novel is the interconnection of the individual and society, pedagogical ideas have particular relevance for cultural studies of the novel. Barney's investigations richly explore this common topic; indeed, he effectively identifies the substantial common ground in the early novel of education and the pedagogical treatise. He concludes that there was significant influence from pedagogical theory on the novel: "educational theory during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries formed an indispensable source for the English novel's narrative form and its often contradictory representation of individuals' social identity" (p. 2). Barney also proposes that: "in understanding the early novel's pedagogical agenda, we can trace the outlines of a crucial fictional antecedent to the later development of the subgenre called the novel of education, or Bildungsroman" (p. 2). Additionally, he traces a central literary thread through the writings on education, demonstrating interwoven concerns and styles in the two genres in the early eighteenth century.
Barney's inquiry laudably integrates writings by both male and female authors about boys' and girls' education. The consideration of these traditions together provides the basis for one of his most valuable, if not entirely surprising, insights: while ideas about the education of boys were sometimes contradictory, ideas about the education of girls were deeply vexed. Tracing the trope of empire in the writings of Mary Astell on women's education alongside a discussion of gardening and medical metaphors, Barney finds that "Astell's trope of feminine empire occupies a middle ground between 'feminist' ambition and traditional gender norms. It advances the campaign to improve women's lot while attempting to assuage the anxiety--for both sexes--that such innovations would inevitably agitate" (pp. 78-79). He continues, explaining that the trope of empire "embodies the dual gestures of dissent and conformity" also found in novels with female protagonists by female authors. The complications and contradictions in the pedagogical theories reappear in the early novels of education. At stake is the reconciliation of competing claims: individual rights and liberty vs. social and political stability.
Barney enters into the ongoing debate on what Ian Watt called the rise of the novel. Though Barney's argument might easily be called the rise of the Bildungsroman in England, he nonetheless takes issue with Watt, questioning Watt's emphasis on individualism and working instead with Michael McKeon's work. It is characteristic of the insightful awareness of narrative and metaphor in Barney's work that he recognizes...