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The Making of the English NovelJA. Downie The search for the origins of the novel now bears comparison to the quest for the Holy Grail. Part of the problem is to do with the very terms in which such investigations are couched. Almost inevitably, the search for origins assumes the evolutionary connotations of Darwin's classic account, On the Origin ofSpecies by Means ofNatural Selection. Several unfortunate consequences ensue. First, the search for origins insinuates that the novel is in some obscure sense a natural phenomenon, when it quite clearly is not. Second, the evolutionary overtones that accompany the search make it difficult to avoid offering an account of the novel that is not uncompromisingly teleological, the part played by human agency in the novel's development downplayed, if not discounted altogether. Finally, the overall effect is to imply that, whatever it is, "the novel" is not a construct. Although most recent studies of the origins of the English novel illustrate several if not all of these points, they are equally appropriate to Ian Watt's classic, The Rise ofthe Novel (1957). The OED's first signification of "origin" is, after all, "The act or fact of arising or springing from something : derivation, rise; beginning of existence in reference to its source or cause" (emphasis added). If John J. Richetti was the first to take exception to Watt's "teleological bias,"1 critics have subsequently queued up to identify other weaknesses in Watt's approach. For all its initial persuasiveness , Watt's "triple-rise" thesis is built on a number of flawed or at least unverified—perhaps unverifiable—assumptions. 1 John J. Richetti, Popular Fiction before Richardson: Narrative Patterns 1700-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), "The Rise of the Novel Reconsidered," pp. 1-22. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 9, Number 3, April 1997 250 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION Briefly stated, the "triple-rise" thesis is as follows: the rise of the reading public, a more or less direct consequence of the rise of the middle class, leads in turn to the rise of the novel. Unfortunately, as scholarship since 1956 has increasingly demonstrated, there are major problems with each plank of the "triple-rise" thesis. Let me outline these difficulties in turn. 1)Where is the evidence for the rise of a "middle class" in England in the early eighteenth century? Despite the consequences of the Revolution of 1688, the structure of English society remained stubbornly hierarchical, not to say aristocratic during this period. Indeed, the Glorious Revolution itself has been convincingly interpreted as a conservative attempt to defend the rights and privileges of the propertied élite against the threat posed by the absolutist policies of James n. Not only liberal and conservative historians express such a point of view. E.P. Thompson insisted that the "class" that "gained the day in 1688" was not a "middle" class, but the gentry. Although "a purposive, cohesive, growing middle class of professional men and of the manufacturing middle class" may have existed in the early to mid-eighteenth century, it "fell far short of a class with its own institutions and objectives." "Such a class did not begin to discover itself (except, perhaps, in London) until the last three decades ofthe [eighteenth] century" (emphasis added).2 How does this affect Watt's thesis? Difficulties arise because he virtually restricts his account of the rise of the novel to three influential figures—Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding—writing almost exclusively in the first half of the eighteenth century. If the rise of the novel is linked to the rise of the middle class, then one might reasonably expect the relevant social developments at least to have coincided with, if not actually to have preceded, the literary. Instead, they seem to have taken place some years later. 2)Watt's account of the growth ofthe reading public presents problems similar to those in his account of the rise of the middle class, because the most significant growth does not appear to coincide with the publication ofthose key works by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding either. In order to assess whether there was a growth in the reading public in the early eighteenth century, we need to take...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 249-266
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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