- Reorienting the Rise of the Novel
The title of Srinivas Aravamudan’s new book calls to mind Edward Said and Ian Watt, along with their rich legacies of complementary and revisionary studies. In the past decade, new postcolonial scholarship has reappraised the sovereignty of European empires, identifying overlooked ways that the East impacted the West. Meanwhile, research on the novel has demonstrated the porosity of national boundaries, making it easier to see the ingress of genres such as the Oriental tale. The following paragraphs survey recent work in these fields—Orientalism and the rise of the novel—and explain how Aravamudan’s book brings them together.
One of the imperatives has been to rethink those features of Orientalism (1978) that seem too rigid, especially before the end of the eighteenth century or beyond the Middle East. Scholars have stressed nuance, contradiction, and contingency, as well as desire, utopian idealism, more curiosity, and less aggression. Ros Ballaster’s Fabulous Orients (2005), winner of the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, has reinvigorated interest in the Oriental tale, which, she argues, began to distill three regions of the half-imagined East: Persia; India; and China. Ballaster shows us how Oriental tales “moved”—as artifacts [End Page 115] crossing geographic spaces, as entertainments inciting emotions, and as tools conditioning political sensibilities—and how the genre could be repur-posed for different audiences. Persuasively, she teases out Said’s observation that narrative could stir up sedimented images of Eastern inferiority. Another important book, Robert Markley’s Far East and the English Imagination (2006), works exclusively outside Orientalism’s reach, focusing on Southeast Asia in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This book heeds Dipesh Chakrab-arty’s call to “provincialize Europe” and brings to bear new historiography placing China and Japan at the center of the world economy during the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Specifically, Markley illustrates how an array of English writers compensated for their nation’s status as globally peripheral. In Islam and the English Enlightenment (2011), Humberto Garcia looks at the nearer East, tracking the movement of a religious and political vocabulary animating “Islamic republicanism.” We see how a host of writers, from Henry Stubbe to Mary Shelley, forged connections between Islam and Protestantism to challenge orthodoxies and inequalities in Britain and the British Empire. Drawing inspiration from Said, this book nevertheless questions his assumptions about secularization and complicates arguments about modernity that split Western secularity from Eastern religiosity. Instead, Garcia investigates England’s adaptation of Muslim ideals, showing how they served a spectrum of political agendas.
Many, with Aravamudan, have resisted Watt’s Rise of the Novel (1957), drawing inspiration instead from Margaret Doody’s True Story of the Novel (1996), which heralded our so-called “transnational turn” in novel studies. Exemplary of this trend is Princeton’s “Translation/Transnation” series, including one of its inaugural titles, The Literary Channel (2001), edited by Margaret Cohen and Carolyn Dever. The series has also given us an English-language edition of Franco Moretti’s The Novel (2006). Moretti maintains that the novel is our “first truly planetary form,” and his contributors back him up by studying a vast variety of novels. Along these lines, there is also Jenny Mander’s collection, Remapping the Rise of the European Novel (2007), reviewed in Eighteenth-Century Life 34.2 (2010): 114–21. Most monographs have narrower purviews, concentrating on well-defined tropes or subgenres. In Freedom’s Empire (2008), for instance, Laura Doyle insists on the influence of the “the liberty plot,” a convention representing Atlantic crossings for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Doyle takes a “regional transnational approach” to writers from Aphra Behn to Virginia Woolf, analyzing a rhetoric of freedom that remains blind to the forms of exploitation it entails. Mary Helen McMurran, a contributor to The Literary Channel, returns to this issue in The Spread of Novels (2009), which flattens Watt’s “rise” and boosts geography over history. McMurran [End Page 116] looks at shifting practices of translation and shows how the eighteenth-century print...