- The Other Rise of the Novel in Eighteenth-Century French Fiction by Olivier Delers
As the title of his book makes clear, Olivier Delers's often insightful readings of six French novels published between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries (Furetière's Le Roman bourgeois, Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, Prévost's Manon Lescaut, Graffigny's Lettres d'une Péruvienne, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse, and Sade's Les Infortunes de la vertu) offer a resolute challenge to the thesis developed by Ian Watt in his classic study of the eighteenth-century English novel, The Rise of the Novel (1957). Delers aims to provide an alternative paradigm to Watt's, for whom the emergence of this new type of fiction corresponded to the rise of a bourgeois middle class, whose outlook, characterized by individualism and the rational pursuit of self-interest, it expressed in literary form. Watt himself pointed out that his conclusions did not apply in general to French fiction, but, in doing so, Delers remarks, only relegated the eighteenth-century French novel to the margins of the genre's history. Since then, too many literary scholars seem to have believed that the eighteenth-century French novel must either be bourgeois or risk being irrelevant. [End Page 131]
Rejecting Watt's claim that early modern French fiction somehow stands outside the main tradition of the European novel, Delers argues that an objective study of the French novel in the eighteenth century calls into question the notion that the novel originally and primarily emerged as a vehicle for bourgeois ideology. In France, the persistence of classical aesthetics, the enduring prestige of the old aristocracy, and the normative influence of court society and of the ideal of worldliness all point to a different ideological makeup in the formation of the new genre. Moreover, the French bourgeoisie was less homogeneous socioeconomically, less self-assured, and its upper stratum was more eager to adopt the ways of the nobility than its English counterpart. As a class, it was therefore also less likely to espouse a coherent and distinct set of values. As for the French nobility, it too was far from constituting a coherent and insular social group in the eighteenth century. In addition to the traditional divisions between Robe and Sword, and within the noblesse d'épée itself between the wealthy court aristocracy and the often impoverished provincial landed nobility, new patterns of behaviour within the court aristocracy included supposedly "bourgeois" activities such as investing in large financial or even industrial ventures.
Consequently, Delers cautions against using pre-established and vague categories like "bourgeois" or "aristocrat" when analyzing the economic behaviour of characters in eighteenth-century French novels. Taking his cue from the later work of Pierre Bourdieu, as well as from Luc Boltanski and Bruno Latour, all proponents of a "pragmatic sociology of action" wary of overly powerful theoretical models—preferring instead a more neutral and "unfiltered" observation of social actors—he calls for a similar approach on the part of literary critics. This means reading closely, following the text wherever it takes you, while often resisting categories of interpretation borrowed from outside. It means keeping in mind that novels do not simply represent social reality, they also produce a reality of their own.
Unfortunately, in order to buttress what are otherwise valid points, Delers sometimes makes overblown claims, and sometimes distorts or ignores older scholarship. As I have already pointed out, he quite rightly emphasizes the well-established fact that the French bourgeoisie did not form a homogeneous and self-contained social class in the eighteenth century. However, citing works by "revisionist" historians such as Sarah Maza, The Myth of the French Bourgeoisie: An Essay on the Social Imaginary, 1750–1850 (2003), he goes so far as to agree that there was no French bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century. The pre-revolutionary French bourgeoisie, the revisionist thesis asserts, is simply a myth; it...