- Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel by Stephanie Insley Hershinow
"Nevertheless, she persisted": this timely phrase could serve as an extra epigraph for Stephanie Hershinow's Born Yesterday, reminding us both of the character traits of young heroines of eighteenth-century novels—words like "plucky" and "irrepressible" come to mind—and of the critical condescension with which unwavering ingenuousness has been met. Just as this latter-day feminist motto was reclaimed from its origins in admonishment—will she ever learn?—and appropriated as a rallying cry, Hershinow seeks to show how, rather than representing the generic immaturity of the novel itself, good-girl protagonists from Richardson's Pamela to Austen's Emma are instead the vanguard of aesthetic achievement. She is reclaiming these figures from a tradition that would see them as static, less as paragons of resilience than as avatars of a surprising, even a maddening, consistency. Who's mad about these stubborn women, besides Mitch McConnell? Novel theorists who understand character in terms of "the accretion of experience over the time of the novel's plot" (22), that's who. For them, "characterization is successful to the degree that maturation is achieved" (22). This conception of character seems so intuitively right—or maybe just so familiar—that I found it hard at first, I'll confess, to dislodge it from my own thinking as neatly and radically as Hershinow's argument demands. Narrative fiction would seem to fail if its basic procedure were a depiction of stasis. Plot feeds characters into situations and encounters that affect them, even if they resist being changed by their experiences. Still, it is one thing to affirm that characters change—or don't—in response to the changes with which plot confronts them. It is quite another to say that aesthetic success depends on a specific character arc: what Hershinow calls the plot of development (117), or maturation, or Bildung. There is a critique of Bildung here, as a problematic shorthand for the kind of character development Hershinow scrutinizes. Its generic affiliation with disillusionment and accommodation as the price of worldliness is too narrow for the English novel. But the really radical implication of Born Yesterday is that character change itself is simply the wrong way to think about the category of experience in the novel. [End Page 510]
The keyword for Hershinow, as her subtitle announces, is not experience but inexperience, and the character-type whose complexity is obscured when criticism overvalues development is a figure she calls the novice. Often (but not always) youthful, often (but not always) a woman, the novice, Hershinow argues, is "the central figure of the early realist novel, encapsulating its formal, epistemological, and moral aims" (7). The book's four chapters focus, respectively, on Richardson's Clarissa, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the Gothic novel (with examples from Horace Walpole and Anne Radcliffe), and the career of Frances Burney, who repudiates her own precocity even as she builds her brand on the story of a "young lady's entrance into the world" (5; that young lady is Evelina, though the chapter devotes its most sustained attention to the later Camilla).
Female adolescence is Born Yesterday's topic, and yet youth and femininity are only approximate criteria for identifying a novice in Hershinow's sense. Instead, she places the novice "in a line of sentimental protagonists who, in assuming the goodness of others, merely project their own minds onto those they encounter" (110). The subject of that particular formulation is not, say, Evelina Anville but sitcom heroine Kimmy Schmidt. Hershinow does not shy away from pop-culture references, in part to challenge a conception of literary culture that is dismissive of girls and their aesthetic preferences. The payoff is as much stylistic as polemical. Lively and brimming with wit, Born Yesterday conveys through voice the impression of its author as a savvy and companionable guide to a selection of canonical novels she loves without apology.
"Assuming the goodness of others": this way of defining the novice highlights the...