- Direction and Diversion: Chapter Titles in Three Mid-Century English Novels by Sarah Fielding, Henry Fielding, and Charlotte Lennox
Most readers of eighteenth-century novels will recognize a typical feature that seems designed to delight, instruct and occasionally annoy the audience: the long chapter titles in works by authors such as Henry and Sarah Fielding and Charlotte Lennox. Famously, Henry Fielding himself provided a commentary on the phenomenon: in Joseph Andrews, he explains that the purpose of the “Contents prefixed to every Chapter” resembles that of “Inscriptions over the Gates of Inns … , informing the Reader what Entertainment he is to expect, which if he likes not, he may travel on to the next.”1 In Joseph Andrews or other novels of the period, however, these titles in fact work in a less straightforward way than this quote suggests: while some do seem calculated to convey an adequate idea of a chapter’s contents, others appear as ironical, superfluous, mysterious, or self-contradictory.
While interpretations of individual novels have included references to the chapter titles, the phenomenon as a whole has not received the attention it deserves. In this article, I want to offer a comparative analysis of the chapter titles in three well-known novels from the middle of the century—Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David Simple (1744), and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752). [End Page 211] In doing so, I aim to show that providing summaries is only a small part of a whole complex of functions these titles serve: put briefly, they negotiate the relations between author and reader and reflect on the functions of fictional reading at a particular (and particularly interesting) point in literary history.
The theoretical basis for such an understanding of chapter titles is provided by Gérard Genette, who introduces the concept “ paratext” as an overarching category to describe a text’s “accompanying productions,” such as titles, illustrations, prefaces, notes, and front and back covers.2 While these different elements have (to varying degrees) been the subject of study before, Genette’s theory is the first to provide a conceptual basis and a terminology for describing the relations between the text proper and the elements he defines as paratext. Moreover, it directs attention to the key functions that paratextual elements fulfill as mediating between a text and both its imagined and real historical audiences.3 The concept of paratext thus helps to bridge the gap between narratologically informed readings of textual features and cultural-historical approaches.
Genette’s work on intertitles primarily raises questions regarding typology that are too general to be useful here. Yet, his argument that those components of the book which are outside the narrative content in fact shape readers’ reception of the text provides a guide to this investigation into chapter titles’ use in a specific genre at a specific historical moment. To apply Genette’s ideas here, it will be helpful to consider the general distinction between descriptive and connotative functions of titles. The descriptive function of titles is to “describe the text by one of its characteristics, whether thematic (this book talks about…) or rhematic (this book is…).”4 The connotative effects, on the other hand, “stem from the manner in which the thematic or rhematic title does its denotating,” which may implicitly provide information about the author’s stance, the stance expected of the audience, the text’s genre, etc.5 This distinction helps to highlight the ways in which chapter titles fulfill, but also exceed their functions as summaries, which is probably the most obvious example of a descriptive use. For instance, the title of chapter 1.7 from Joseph Andrews “Sayings of Wise Men. A Dialogue between the Lady and her Maid, and a Panegyric or rather Satire on the Passion of Love, in the sublime Style”—descriptively furnishes information about the contents (there is indeed a dialogue between two women), while the exaggerated attention to finding the right label for the kind of writing connotatively suggests that the reader is to expect a parody instead of a serious rendering of the “sublime Style.”
Genette moreover provides a provocative point of...