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Thursday, 12 January 2017

THE MEDIOCRE STATE OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL BEFORE JANE AUSTEN


The Monthly Review (August 1790 edition - published when Jane was fourteen) states that 'The manufacture of novels has been so long established, that in general they have arrived at mediocrity ... We are indeed so sickened with this worn-out species of composition, that we have lost all relish for it'. The years were particularly lacking in novels worth taking seriously. I have not been able to trace any novel of repute, for example, from the years 1774, 1780 and 1781.

Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality (1770) illustrates why the novel needed rescuing. This story stretches to five volumes, has a repetitive central plot (in which each 'villain' is humbled and reformed, becoming the 'hero' of the next section), and depends continually on coincidences and providential deliverances. There are digressions on the importance of commerce, the status of women, the British constitution and the use of prisons. There is much sobbing.

For an example of the state of the novel even when Jane Austen was writing, take The Nuns of the Desert by Eugenia de Acton (1805). We have Brimo, a talking dog, who answers questions put by witches. This is bunglingly explained later as ventriloquism. It is not surprising that Jane Austen developed a strong scepticism about contemporary ideas of what novels should seek to achieve. 



Yet book sales quadrupled between 1771 and 1791. By the end of Jane's childhood, there were a few novelists of fair ability. In 1795, Musgrave, Smith, Kelly, Lathom, Parsons and Robinson all produced readable novels.

Importantly, women writers were able to take advantage of a genre with no learned tradition or classical precedents. But women faced a peculiar difficulty: unless they were prepared to be considered indelicate, they could not claim too wide an experience of life. It was almost impossible for them to depict scenes in which men appeared on their own, away from women. (Jane Austen herself felt this inhibition.) Women writers were not immediately taken seriously by the critics.