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The Eighteenth-Century Novel and the Secularization of Ethics by Carol Stewart (review)

From: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 255-256 | 10.1353/scb.2013.0030

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Ms. Stewart surveys the eighteenth-century novel “as a new arena for moral and political controversy; as a means of supporting the prevailing order or protesting against it; and as a means of gaining fame, influence and—not least—money.” She pursues these and other themes in five chapters covering the canonical novelists, including Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sarah Fielding, Lennox, Sheridan, Sterne, Mackenzie, Walpole, Burney and Godwin. Each major novel is contextualized intellectually and biographically. Her portraits of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne stand out as particularly illuminating, and the book makes for a fine introduction to the eighteenth-century novel, deserving shelf space alongside Brean Hammond and Shaun Regan’s Making the Novel: Fiction and Society in Britain, 1660–1789 (2006) and John Richetti’s The English Novel in History 1700–1780 (1989).

Holding this sprawling study together is a simple proposition: as the clergy lost cultural authority over the course of the eighteenth century, the novel rushed in to take its place as moral guide. Like William B. Warner’s influential Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (1998), Ms. Stewart is concerned with the genre’s “legitimization,” which she frames as “an episode in the history of secularization.” In attempting to sketch the latter history, her Introduction ranges from the religious settlement of the sixteenth century to the rise of Methodism in the 1730s and 1740s, touching on a host of issues, including casuistry, politeness, societies for the reformation of manners, and the development of the periodical press. She claims to be interested above all in the “secularization of ethics,” by which she means the “separation of ethics—ethics both in the broader sense of moral philosophy and in the narrower sense of rules for moral behaviour—from religion.” She rightly points out the national Church’s own turn to ethics, which began with the Cambridge Platonists and became institutionalized with the rise to power of the Latitudinarians, who placed practical theology and morality above doctrine and dogma. The Latitudinarians responded to the threat of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) “not so much by refutation, as by appropriating the Hobbesian vocabulary,” which forms a leitmotif of the subsequent chapters. By appropriating Hobbes in this way, Ms. Stewart maintains, “Latitudinarian sermons helped to forge one of the most powerful ideas in eighteenth-century ethical thought: the notion that self-interest is compatible with virtue.”

Some scholars will undoubtedly question the assumptions on which Ms. Stewart’s thesis is predicated: to what extent did eighteenth-century British society really become more secular? But in some sense, her study is not really about secularization at all. The book’s title notwithstanding, the thrust of Ms. Stewart’s analysis actually demonstrates not only the continuing influence of the national Church, but more specifically its contribution to both the developing novel and to its “sceptical, scientific, [and] modernising tendencies.” Quickly noticing what might become a wrinkle in her argument, she observes the paradox: “Religion itself was ‘secularized”’ in the period. While this may be a rather strained interpretation of “secularization,” it points to the fact that the Church remains a powerful presence in her study, something that strengthens, rather than weakens her reading of eighteenth-century fiction. This is nowhere more evident than in the chapter on Tristram Shandy, the best and most focused of the book, which persuasively argues that Sterne puts the Latitudinarian values of “tolerance, moderate skepticism, [and] distrust of totalizing theories” in the service of a “liberal” and “reformist agenda.” A significant contribution to the study of the relation between Sterne’s fiction and his religious beliefs, this chapter should be read alongside Tim Parnell’s overlapping explorations of the subject in recent issues of The Shandean.

Ms. Stewart’s treatment of ethics is less successful. Though she professes an interest in ethics as “moral philosophy,” she does not bring the same learning to the subject as she does to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century religion. By narrowly identifying the compatibility of “self-interest” and “virtue” with Latitudinarianism, for example, she overlooks moral philosophy’s long tradition of reflections on the good life, dating back to the eudaemonist ethics of ancient Athens. More troubling, Ms...

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