- Generic Networks
These days, everything’s a “network.” It is the most useful, and therefore, perhaps the most hackneyed metaphor of our time. But it is the only image that captures how these two new books approach literary history. At first glance, they might seem rather distinct enterprises: Parker and Weiss-Smith’s collection shows how the history of poetry and the novel were intertwined in eighteenth-century Britain and Ireland; Cook and Seager’s shows how eighteenth-century novels adapted earlier texts, and how they went on to be adapted in various ways from their own time to ours. What unites these two exemplary collections is a shared approach to genre. Classic histories of eighteenth-century fiction (Ian Watt, Michael McKeon and Nancy Armstrong come to mind) sometimes give the impression that the novel is autonomous. It emerged after seventeenth-century romance. It drew on but broke away from conduct literature, journalism, and travel writing. It established its own distinct standards of literary value. But these two collections approach the eighteenth-century novel as only one genre in a complex network of genres: epic, lyric, romance, chapbook abridgements, newspaper serializations, opera, drama, film, prose anthologies, parodic history, political cartoons, and the novels of other places and times. These genres jostle and interact through history, transforming one another in unexpected ways.
Both sets of editors question the “rise of the novel.” In their introduction, Parker and Weiss-Smith argue that the new novel-centered literary history “can ‘squeeze’ poetry such that it can seem out of place, conservatively backwards-looking or presciently ‘pre-Romantic’” (xv). They seek to restore some “simple realities of eighteenth-century bookstalls: poetry and novels co-existed and commingled, and the poetry predominated” (xxi). Cook and Seager do not set themselves against the “rise of the novel” so firmly, but do argue that their approach can help us to see it in [End Page 126] a new way: “The ascendency of the novel may be gauged by its saturation of other genres” (13). The novel rose less because of its intrinsic properties—interiority, realism, length, etc.—than because of its position in networks of adaptation: by the end of the eighteenth century, the novel became the primary source for many other genres, as Walter Scott swept through the opera houses of Europe; Laurence Sterne’s “beauties,” neatly anthologized, burdened the shelves; and Jane Austen flickered in packed cinema-halls or elicited sobs in tissue-strewn living rooms.
Though both books adopt a networked approach to genre, the kinds of networks they envisage are rather different. In graph theory, a network comprises two elements: nodes (or vertices), the objects in the network; and edges, the links between them. In Eighteenth-Century Poetry and the Rise of the Novel Reconsidered, there are only two kinds of nodes—most of the essays in the collection discuss, more or less exclusively, poems and novels. But there are many kinds of edges—the essays establish many different kinds of connection between these two genres. Parker, in her contribution to the volume, shows how Eliza Haywood drew upon the mock-heroic conventions of John Dryden and Alexander Pope to stage the attempted rapes in Betsy Thoughtless. Shelley King reveals the various and subtle ways Amelia Opie integrated verse into her novels and tales, to reveal both private and public shades of her characters’ thoughts. Joshua Swidzinski compares Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts, arguing that both authors relied on similar techniques of polyvocal and homiletic language to represent “what Clarissa calls the ‘inwardest mind’” (163). In these three essays alone, we can see how eighteenth-century poetry could influence the novel (Parker), how poetry and the novel could be integrated (King), and how they could simply be similar in form and meaning (Swidzinski). Taken together, the ten essays of the volume reveal a remarkable range of interactions between...