Experiment and Scandal: The 18th-Century British Novel


The 18th century introduced the long, realist prose fictions that we now call novels. As often with emergent literary forms, the novel arrived with an unsavory reputation and its early practitioners labored, often unsuccessfully, to distinguish their work from ephemeral printed news, escapist prose romances, and pornography. It was not until the defining achievement of authors such as Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott at the beginning of the next century that the novel achieved a status as polite and, at times, even prestigious entertainment. This course looks at the difficult growth of the novel from its miscellaneous origins in the 17th century to the controversial experiments of the early 1700s and the eclectic masterpieces of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Austen. Other authors may include Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, John Cleland, Tobias Smollett, Matthew Lewis, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. Everything we read will be arresting and restlessly experimental; much of it will also be bawdy, transgressive, and outrageously funny. Topics of conversation will include the rise of female authorship, the emergence of Gothic and courtship fiction, the relationship between the novel and other literary genres or modes (lyric and epic poetry, life-writing, allegory), novelists’ responses to topical controversies (slavery, the age of Revolution), and the meaning of realism. We may also consider films adapted from 18th-century fiction, perhaps including Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.