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Social Rank, "The Rise of the Novel," and Whig Histories of Eighteenth-Century Fiction Nicholas Hudson Few fields ofliterary scholarship have so fully embodied the characteristics of"Whig history" as the study ofthe eighteenth-century novel. Since Ian Watt's The Rise ofthe Novel (1956), which still casts a long shadow over this field, the thesis that the eighteenth-century novel should be regarded as a "progressive," "liberal" genre that signalled a social revolution, connected by Watt with the rising wealth and power ofthe "middle class," has been challenged only in sporadic and tentative ways. It is still conventional to claim that a new social and literary order, as exemplified by the novel, vanquished a conservative , aristocratic, and oppressive ancien régime and its characteristic form ofprose fiction, the romance. "The novel is associated from the beginning with the more optimistic, and politically liberal strands in eighteenth-century thinking," writes Marilyn Butler, and Michael McKeon cites Watt in the following synopsis of the social roots of novelistic realism: The philosophical, the novelistic, and the socioeconomic are united during this period in their validation of individual experience, of one or another sort of "individualism," which is manifested in the realm of the social by a number of inseparable phenomena: the development of capitalism and of economic specialization, the spread of a secularized Protestantism, the increasing EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION.Volume 17, Number 4,JuIy 2005 564 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION dominance of "the commercial and industrial classes," and the growth of a reading public.1 J. Paul Hunter has described the typical reader of the eighteenthcentury novel as "primarily urban, whig, middle-class Puritan, 'modern,' enlightened, and anxious to be free from a dark primitive past."2AndJames Thompson pronounces that "Freedom and equality find their true home in the novel."3 Recent scholars have shown a willingness to challenge Watt's legacy. Feminist scholars have impugned his neglect ofwomen novelists and succeeded in making some of these authors—Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald—standard figures on university reading lists.4 A recent special issue of Eighteenth-Century Fiction identified various misleading "shibboleths" in Watt's history of the novel, such as the failure to make sense ofFielding's place in the novel's development, a tendency to impose a rigid and simplistic teleology on this development, and the erroneous assumption that novel-reading underwent a period of unprecedented expansion during the first few decades ofthe eighteenth century.5Yet even this criticism has generally questioned particular assumptions in Watt's thesis without really tampering with the overall paradigm that TheRise oftheNovellaunched: the vision of the novel as belonging, as Deirdre Lynch recendy put it, to "the history of freedom and democratic revolution."6 Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 10; Michael McKeon, The Origins ofthe English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 2. J. Paul Hunter, Before Noveb: The Cultural Contexts ofEighteenth-Century Fiction (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 148. James Thompson, Models ofValue:Eighteenth-Century PoliticalEconomy and theNovel (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 86. See, in particular,Jane Spencer, TheRise ofthe Woman Novelist (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Marie Anne Schofield and Ceclia Macheski, Feiter'd or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670-1815 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986)Janet Todd, TheSign ofAngelika: Women, Writing andFiction 1660-1800 (London: Virago, 1989); and Ros Ballaster, SeductiveForms: Women's Amatory Fictionfrom 1684-1 740 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). In Reconsidering the Rise of the Novel {Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12, nos. 2-3 [2000]), see the articles by W.B. Camochan, Robert B. Alter, Michael McKeon, andJA. Downie. Downie uses the term "shibboleths." As Ian Watt points out in his essay in this collection, "FiatFooted and Fly Blown: The Realities of Realism," the German translation of his famous book is DerBürgerlicheRoman, an indication ofhow deeply TheRise oftheNovelis implicated in the thesis of "die rise of die middle class." Deidre Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture and the Business ofInner Meaning (Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1998), 124. SOCIAL RANK, "THE RISE OF THE NOVEL" 565 Yet, in many respects, this vision of the novel's social and political contexts has fallen badly behind...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 563-598
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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