Eighteenth Century April: Realist Fiction

This is one of the most important literary developments of the century. Although novels and novel-like books had existed before, it was in the 18th century that what we consider a “novel” really developed. There are a lot of different variations of “novel”; you could think of the realistic novel as the base form.

The realistic novel has a few key features:

  • Set in the “real world” — a place you could visit
  • Characters could plausibly be people you could meet
  • Situations are things that could “really happen”
  • Narrative focuses on the main character(s) inner thoughts and psychology.

These aspects distinguish the novel from other kinds of fictional narrative, like the medieval romance, the poetic epic, and many kinds of drama. We don’t get real-world situations or settings in Le More d’Arthur, for example, and the narrator never puts the reader in Sir Lancelot’s head to get to know his inner thoughts, for example. Whereas Daniel Defoe is very interested in his main character’s thoughts; so much so that there are pages and pages of inner dialogue, and not a lot of action in his novels. Or think of Jane Austen, who is a realist novelist par excellence, who balances action with interiority; the chapter where Elizabeth Bennet digests the letter Mr. Darcy sends her is a great example of the realistic novel’s portrayal of a person’s interiority.

Different novelists, especially early on, handle the “realism” of their novels differently. Defoe is scrupulously, even journalistically accurate and detailed (as far as he can be–he does accidentally put penguins on Crusoe’s Caribbean island). Henry Fielding is perhaps less scrupulous, but he insists on presenting his novels as “history”; which in this period was used to encompass a wide range of nonfiction texts.
Of course, sometimes realistic novelists stretch the boundaries of reality (Could you really survive for 30 years alone on a deserted island? Is a young servant girl really going to win over her pushy boss by her virtue?), but these novels still are considered “realistic” for the above reasons.

Major eighteenth century realistic novelists include Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Eliza Haywood, and Frances Burney. Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding are the trifecta of novel development, and have received a lot of critical attention, including in the foundational book The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt. Haywood and Burney, despite being popular in their time, were neglected or forgotten for a long time, but have been experiencing a critical comeback. If you’d like to explore these major novelists, I recommend the following books:

Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe is the obvious recommendation, about a man who is shipwrecked on a deserted island and manages to build his own little kingdom over the 30 or so years that he is stuck there. I also recommend Roxana, a very interesting story about a woman who, left destitute when her husband abandons her and their children, eventually gains great wealth by becoming mistress to a succession of more and more important men.

Samuel Richardson: Pamela is the story of a young servant girl who heroically rejects the unwanted advances of her young, single master (despite actually liking him), until he is willing to marry her. The plot feels rather far-fetched, especially today, but Pamela herself is a fascinating character, a strong woman who holds fast to her principles even under extreme pressure and mental distress.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones is the “history” of a young man, a foundling, who is raised by the squire Mr. Allworthy. When Jones’s actions, exaggerated by his enemies, lead to him being kicked out of his home, he begins a comic and sometimes ridiculous journey around England, as he tries to find a way to make himself worthy of the fair Sophia. This novel is long, and rather episodic, but it does circle around and tie everything together at the end in a satisfying way. I also like that we don’t only follow Tom, but get the perspectives and adventures of a number of characters, including Sophia, another virtuous but determined young woman.

Eliza Haywood: Love in Excess is an absolutely wild tale about, well, love in excess. A half-dozen characters fall in love (lust?) with each other, and DRAMA ensues. For something shorter, Fantomina is a novella about a young woman who, after finding her virtue compromised, decides she’s going to enjoy herself as long as she can, and uses several clever ruses to hold her lover’s interest.

Frances Burney: Next on my list to read, I’ve heard Evelina described as an influence of or precursor to Jane Austen. Burney is later than the other four novelists, and would be a good example of how the realistic novel developed over a half-century.

In the 19th c. the realist novel remained the main novel form, and most major classic novelists wrote this form: Austen, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, James, etc

Even today, most novels that are “contemporary” or “historical” fiction are realistic novels, and the tenants of realism infuse most other novelistic genres, even if they are simply there to be made fun of or undermined (as in satire or metaphysical fiction). Fantasy still usually focuses on a character’s interiority, for example, and strives for realism within the fantasy world.

As a final note, Tristram Shandy really shouldn’t be in the above picture: it’s a metaphysical novel that calls attention to and makes fun of the realistic novel.


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