- Women Novelists before Jane Austen:The Critics and Their Canons
In the mid-twentieth century, the dominant histories of the early novel, Alan McKillop's Early Masters of English Fiction, and Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel, paid passing attention (McKillop) or no attention (Watt) to women writers before Jane Austen. Brian Corman's project began with a question as to whether or not this exclusion had always been the case. In exploring this question, Corman has written a 'history of histories' of the novel, a reception history of the eighteenth-century novel, and a history of the canon of the novel by way of tracing the critical histories of the women novelists before Austen. And he has found, and demonstrates for us, that the answer to his original question is a resounding 'no.' In a comprehensive review of the work leading up to McKillop and Watt, Corman establishes a long critical tradition that privileged the male novelist but that accorded the female novelist a role, sometimes quite significant, in the development of the form.
Abrief review cannot do justice to the detailed attention Corman pays to the vast body of work comprising the history of the novel from the eighteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. His coverage is comprehensive and his summaries of the various perspectives thorough. As important as his breadth and depth is his precision. Especially impressive is his ability to convey the general tone of the works in question through judicious quotations. It is a particular strength that Corman has attentively reproduced the lively language in which some of the opinions of the past were expressed. Critical disagreement caused William Hazlitt to dub John Wilson Croker a 'talking potatoe'; aesthetic appreciation of Austen prompted Robert Chambers to denigrate Walter Scott's 'big bow-wow strain.' Arthur Compton-Rickett's Samuel Richardson is a 'dumpy Fairy Prince'; Ernest Baker's Mary Robinson and Helen Maria Williams are 'two perfervid exponents of the sentimental theme.' Other judgments are framed as provocative comparisons. For Victorian Lord Macaulay, Frances Burney '"did for the English novel what Jeremy Collier did for the English drama."' For Thomas Secombe, writing in 1900, '"Samuel Richardson's contribution to the development of the novel was almost what Harvey's discovery of the heart's action was to the study of medicine."' To J.J. Jusserand, in 1890 (and to others, including Walter Raleigh later on), Aphra Behn's Oroonoko was the 'first "philosophical novel . . . Rousseau before Rousseau."'
An emphasis on morality, a preference for Fielding over Richardson, and the privileging of 'realism' over sentimentality, the Gothic, and romance, are the key factors in relegating women to secondary status at best, denying them any status at worst. Behn, Manley, and Haywood [End Page 426] fall victim to an emphasis on morality early on, and they are not recuperated by the turn to formalism in the twentieth century. The fate of mid-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century women novelists is tied to that of Richardson, in particular. In studies that value his accomplishment, mid-century women novelists fare better than in studies that rank Fielding first. Corman's book ends by recognizing that, though Watt and McKillop themselves did not define a place for women in their stories of the novel's development, they paved the way for those who followed, and they did so precisely by 'restoring Richardson to his central position in the history of the novel' and by paying attention to Defoe's 'novels of the female underworld,' which increased interest in women writers who dealt with the transgressive and unsavoury sides of life.
In this study, Corman has produced a volume of essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the novel. This book represents a major reinterpretation of the field, and it belongs in the personal libraries of all scholars of the subject and on required reading lists of all students of the subject. If not that, we need to invest in the vast library Corman has read, reviewed, and interpreted, for only...