- Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered ed. by Kate Parker and Courtney Weiss Smith
This provocative collection brings large historical and theoretical claims together with close attention to individual eighteenth-century texts and in particular to the workings of literary form. This dual focus is true of both the collection as a whole and the individual essays, some of which lean more towards the theoretical, some more towards individual readings, but all of which keep an eye on larger contextual questions and are built on readings of a small number of texts. In mapping out the still relatively uncharted territory of the relationship between poetry and the novel in the eighteenth century, the essays work collectively to find and demonstrate approaches to reading across genre. For the most part, they do this in ways that work not to obscure formal distinctions, but to reveal the diverse and very particular effects of genre. The collection extends current questioning of some of our fundamental assumptions about cultural and literary history, in particular the narrative of the “rise of the novel” and parallel understandings of the development of interiority and the autonomous subject. Many of the essays are based on an insight from an eighteenth-century commentator: Anna Letitia Barbauld on Laurence Sterne in David Fairer’s essay (135); Elizabeth Carter’s friend Hester Mulso on Edward Young in Joshua Swidzinski’s (161); Alexander Pope and Henry Fielding on Eliza Haywood in Kate Parker’s (45); and Hugh Blair and Lord Kames on personification in Heather Keenleyside’s (108–17). This is indicative of the spirit of the collection, which uses the responses of eighteenth-century readers to trouble what have become our later-day assumptions about literary history, shaped by the anachronism of “what happened next.”
As Kate Parker and Courtney Weiss Smith lay out in their fine critical introduction, and Sophie Gee develops in the opening essay, the collection builds on exciting new revisionary work in eighteenth-century studies, such as Sandra Macpherson’s Harm’s Way: Tragic Responsibility and the Novel Form (2010), which moves away from understandings of the novel as a technology for producing interiority, towards exploration of subjects who move across genres and who are defined more troublingly against interiority, intentionality, or agency itself (16). These essays expansively demonstrate the ways in which such new work has made way for far-reaching reimagining of the eighteenth-century self “by deflating its pretensions to autonomy, subsuming it in collectives, questioning its self-enclosedness, and making its boundaries more permeable” (xvii). [End Page 378] Wolfram Schmidgen’s essay most directly challenges the rise of the novel narrative and the parallel rise of the modern. He suggests that our current moment of post-colonialism and global capitalism, with its increasing emphasis on hybridity, mobility, and porous boundaries (between people, places, things, and genres), offers an opportunity for a radical reassessment of how we understand literary history. Rather than privileging “an idea of the modern in which differentiation is the organizing paradigm,” this new understanding would seek to theorize and historicize how mixture works (90). Schmidgen shows how this argument might work in relation to the shared aesthetic of James Thomson and Daniel Defoe, which cuts across generic boundaries and sees variety as enabling (98).
In Heather Keenleyside’s and Sophie Gee’s accounts, and in a number of the other essays in the collection, the blurring of insides and outsides is more troubled and troubling, and this tension becomes the very stuff from which much eighteenth-century innovation emerges. Gee argues for a more novelistic version of Pope’s Belinda than we are accustomed to, but one in which his poetry prefigures prose fiction not in developing interiority but in highlighting the mismatch between internal and external worlds. Her essay presents a pained Belinda, a figure of “profound emotional and cognitive disorientation” (13); she is a woman with feelings that she is unable to access or understand...