- The English Novel in History: 1700–1780, and: Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain,1684–1750
Warner’s book opens with a chapter-long survey of critical understandings of the eighteenth-century British novel—from John Dunlop’s (1841) to Taine’s to Watt’s—which are all dismissed as the distorting constructions of intellectuals seeking to elevate this fiction into literary respectability. A true broader understanding of the period’s novels, Warner argues, must recognize their status as entertaining narratives that gave rise to modern media culture. While aware that “it is impossible to define the novel in any definitive way” because of its “long history in European writing, its sheer plurality, and the amorphous ductility peculiar to novels” (p. 47), Warner proposes that it is a form used “to divert or amuse” where “in the decisive but enigmatic exchange between the entertainment and the entertained, desire is engaged” (p. 45). Further, it is for him an early manifestation of media culture, defined as “the practices of production and consumption associated with print media . . . [whose] only consistent ideology is that of pleasure itself” (p. 93).
By entertainment Warner actually means “adult” entertainment. And by media culture he means a wide readership addicted to such, denials or vociferous condemnations of the habit notwithstanding. Indeed, his book focuses on early British erotic fiction which incorporates censorious discourse that in context functions defensively to interrupt and excuse the reader’s pornographic self-indulgence.
Chapters 2 through 5 discuss works by Aphra Behn (Love Letters), Delariviere Manley (New Atalantis), and Eliza Haywood (Love in Excess), and what Warner claims is a moralistically primed parody of their novels in Defoe’s Roxana. These chapters comprise the best account to date of the formulaic aspects of such erotic fiction, typical ingredients of which include familiar heterosexual and lesbian sex scenes featuring retro-libertines (female and male); occasional [End Page 1130] kinky action (such as Briljard’s attempted rape upon Silvia’s breasts in Love Letters and the climax by strangulation symbolically conjured, in Roxana, when the Prince strangely clasps a diamond necklace around the Fortunate Mistress’ neck); seduction schemes; New Comedy plot complications of amorous intrigue; thrillingly emotive romantic verbiage; and the genre’s discourse condemning sexual license.
Although Warner notes that “pleasures disowned become discomforting and, through embarrassment, a kind of unpleasure” (p. 41), he stresses that this censorious discourse normally functions not only to defend but to enhance the erotic pleasures of readers. Hence the limited success, detailed in chapter 5, of Richardson’s effort to reform the novel along anti-pornographic lines in Pamela and the appeal of what critics have referred to as this work’s Puritan striptease (and even of certain “anti-pamela” works, like Pamela Censured, that fixate on the salacious materials of Richardson’s text). In a final, overclever chapter, Fielding is seen confronting the tradition of the erotic novel and rejecting its guilty pleasures in practice but not in theory: These pleasures are successfully evoked and disabled in Shamela but given theoretical sanction in Tom Jones through Fielding’s ironically paternalistic authorial mask embodying “the Law”—Warner’s term conflating Freud’s superego, Lacan’s Name-of-the-Father, and the Establishment of sixties’ countercultural protest.
This book treats subject matter that has been ignored in old and new canonizing studies of eighteenth-century British fiction. The exception, however, is Warner’s own earlier Reading “Clarissa” (1979), which offended certain feminists and ideologues of culturally conservative stripe by insisting on this masterwork’s erotic components, notably the prim Clarissa’s unacknowledged sexual interest in her rake and rapist, Lovelace. This larger study should again so provoke some readers. A “Conclusion” encoding a pro-pornographic stance celebrates Lovelacean “libertine interpretation” (p. 281), the “allure to readers of the novels of amorous intrigue, as well as the freedom of readers to read what they want” (p. 290), and...