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  • Quixotes, Precepts, and Galateas:The Didactic Novel in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Sarah Raff

British novelists were hounded throughout the eighteenth century by the charge that they seduced female readers and thereby turned these readers into quixotes. The accusation linked seduction with quixotism in the following way. Once inflamed for the first time by a licentious scene in the novel, the reader, unable to consummate her desire with the text itself, attempts to enact that scene in the real world, much as Don Quixote attempts to enact scenes of chivalry. By performing his fictions—and the sexual transgression to which they are reducible—the reader becomes, in effect, a character moved by the hands of the author whose book has, by inflaming her, already destroyed her chastity of mind and perpetrated her first seduction. The author exerts complete sexual and intellectual mastery over the reader, who imposes the semiotic code of the novel on the whole range of her experience and selects whichever lover the text appears to choose for her. The reader is Galatea to the author's Pygmalion: the author shapes her to fit his desire in the same acts with which he shapes the fictional heroine whom she imitates. The statue comes alive when the reader quixotically performs with a real lover, the author's delegate and belated successor, the sexual plots supplied by the author.

Staking their vindication on the instructive efficacy of their fictions, novelists tried to draw a hard and fast line between seductive novels, which corrupt readers, and their own, which teach readers virtue. "Precepts and examples" was their rallying cry, but precepts became the more useful basis for the defense.1 While precepts stand out as pieces of instruction, examples are part of the story and not easily distinguished from mere entertainment. [End Page 466] A hostile critic may impugn the value of even the most carefully monitored example, but precepts are short enough to be conspicuously orthodox and devoid of inflaming particulars. It is difficult to show virtue overcoming vice without presenting an imitable portrait of vice, and even harder to construct a good story in which model characters make no mistakes at all. Prescriptive generalizations can attest to the author's good intentions without determining the course of the story or giving innocent readers bad ideas. Less susceptible to misconstruction than example, the precept articulates and emphasizes the lesson that the example attempts to convey. Precepts advocate virtue explicitly, and their very form urges the importance of the rules. Indeed, the general, widely applicable precept gains an air of chastity through its sheer opposition to "particularity," a word eroticized in the eighteenth century in many ways, among them by signifying the pointed, exclusive sexual attention that one person can give another.

As a result of the felt unreliability of example, even Samuel Richardson, who invested so much in his model heroines, came to embrace the concession of his preface to Clarissa (1747–48): "the reflections and observations" are "the most useful part" of the novel, and "the story or amusement should be considered as little more than the vehicle to the more necessary instruction."2 This most painstakingly instructive of novelists experimented with removing example altogether by publishing books composed mainly of precepts he had culled from his novels.3 As William Warner points out, Richardson's attempt to distinguish his productions from the licentious earlier works that Warner dubs "novels of amorous intrigue" is of a piece with his larger literary project: by demonstrating its capacity for moral seriousness, Richardson wanted to "elevate" the novel to the status of religious texts.4 Richardson claimed that he wrote not only to instruct but also "in order to decry such novels and romances, as have a tendency to inflame and corrupt."5 Yet, as John Mullan rightly notes, "the legend of indecency" that Richardson helped to propagate "lacks an original example, a work to be held up as the dangerous and misleading romance," for novels of amorous intrigue themselves warn against licentious, misleading fictions.6 The "disreputable text," as Mullan remarks, was "always other than the one being written" but never stably identified (97). Worse, the respectable text continually shifted as well...


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