Saturday, 28 February 2015

English Novels and Writers

What I would like to point out is that the English novel as written in this epoch inherits a Spanish and French practice of narrative insertion that has little to do with the main plot. Thus, writers such as Cervantes, Sorel and Scarron would put short stories amid a longer tale, and their English admirers (such as Fielding and Smollett) would do the same. The insertions in "Joseph Andrews", "Tom Jones" and "Jonathan Wild" are not necessarily joined into the narrative web. The same is true of Smollett, above all in "Peregrine Pickle", but also in his four other novels.

I'm writing this not to say that Fielding and Smollett were not novelists, but to say that the novel in eighteenth century didn't have such a formal cohesion: it was rather a genre of relative freedom in a time when neoclassical rules had yet some hold on literature. Any consensual definition of the novel is a product of later times, a light thrown retrospectively upon an already existing corpus, and it must be as flexible as the corpus itself. There is no sense in expecting that novels were so-and-so when the writers who first brought it into being had no such concerns.

That's a reason why essentialist definitions of the "novel" are being left aside in favour of a more elastic view. Among recent studies (I mean after Ian Watt's), the two most remarkable are J. Paul Hunter's and Michael McKeon's, and they have in common this wider approach to what may or not be considered a novel. In most recent studies the place of Defoe is taken for granted, as well as that of Richardson. (Fielding, ironically, is seen as more backward than them in this front of inovation.What I would like to point out is that the English novel as written in this epoch inherits a Spanish and French practice of narrative insertion that has little to do with the main plot. Thus, writers such as Cervantes, Sorel and Scarron would put short stories amid a longer tale, and their English admirers (such as Fielding and Smollett) would do the same. The insertions in "Joseph Andrews", "Tom Jones" and "Jonathan Wild" are not necessarily joined into the narrative web. The same is true of Smollett, above all in "Peregrine Pickle", but also in his four other novels.

I'm writing this not to say that Fielding and Smollett were not novelists, but to say that the novel in eighteenth century didn't have such a formal cohesion: it was rather a genre of relative freedom in a time when neoclassical rules had yet some hold on literature. Any consensual definition of the novel is a product of later times, a light thrown retrospectively upon an already existing corpus, and it must be as flexible as the corpus itself. There is no sense in expecting that novels were so-and-so when the writers who first brought it into being had no such concerns.

That's a reason why essentialist definitions of the "novel" are being left aside in favour of a more elastic view. Among recent studies (I mean after Ian Watt's), the two most remarkable are J. Paul Hunter's and Michael McKeon's, and they have in common this wider approach to what may or not be considered a novel. In most recent studies the place of Defoe is taken for granted, as well as that of Richardson. (Fielding, ironically, is seen as more backward than them in this front of inovation.

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