First Modern Novel
Author: Gosse, Edmund

First Modern Novel

1740

 



"Let me make the ballads of a nation," said Fletcher of Saltoun, "and I
care not who makes the laws." The place which the ancient ballads held in
forming the characters of the people is in our day more than filled by the
novels. Everybody reads them, especially in the younger generation, and every
character is more or less moulded by the sentiments and teachings they
contain.

The novel has been almost entirely a modern English development. Two
centuries ago our ancestors did not read fiction: they had practically none to
read. So that the production of the first English novel in 1740, leading as
it has to the present state of affairs, may fairly be counted a most important
event in the history of our race. Nowadays ten thousand novels are published
every year, and for some of these is claimed the enormous circulation of half
a million copies.

There is nothing offensive to the dignity of literary history in
acknowledging that the most prominent piece of work effected by literature in
England during the eighteenth century is the creation - for it can be styled
nothing less - of the modern novel. In the seventeenth century there had been
a very considerable movement in the direction of prose fiction. The pastoral
romances of the Elizabethans had continued to circulate; France had set an
example in the heroic stories of D'Urfe and La Calprenede, which English
imitators and translators had been quick to follow, even as early as 1647.
The Francion of Sorel and the Roman Bourgeois of Furetiere - the latter,
published in 1666, of especial interest to students of the English novel - had
prepared the way for the exact opposite to the heroic romance; namely, the
realistic story of every-day life. Bunyan and Richard Head, Mrs. Behn and
Defoe - each had marked a stage in the development of English fiction. Two
noble forerunners of the modern novel, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels,
had inflamed the curiosity and awakened the appetite of British readers; but,
although there were already great satires and great romances in the language,
the first quarter of the eighteenth century passed away without revealing any
domestic genius in prose fiction, any master of the workings of the human
heart. Meanwhile the drama had decayed. The audiences which had attended the
poetic plays of the beginning and the comedies of the close of the seventeenth
century now found nothing on the boards of the theatre to satisfy their
craving after intellectual excitement. The descendants of the men and women
who had gone out to welcome the poetry of Shakespeare and the wit of Congreve
were now rather readers than play-goers, and were most ready to enjoy an
appeal to their feelings when that appeal reached them in book form. In the
playhouse they came to expect bustle and pantomime rather than literature.
This decline in theatrical habits prepared a domestic audience for the
novelists, and accounts for that feverish and apparently excessive anxiety
with which the earliest great novels were awaited and received.

Meanwhile the part taken by Addison and Steele in preparing for this
change of taste must not be overlooked, and the direct link between Addison,
as a picturesque narrative essayist, and Richardson, as the first great
English novelist, is to be found in Pierre de Marivaux (1688-1763), who
imitated the Spectator, and who is often assumed, though somewhat too rashly,
to have suggested the tone of Pamela. Into this latter question we shall
presently have need to inquire again. It is enough to point out here that
when the English novel did suddenly and irresistibly make its appearance, it
had little in common with the rococo and coquettish work which had immediately
preceded it in France, and which at first, even to judges so penetrating as
the poet Gray, was apt to seem more excellent because more subtle and refined.
The rapidity with which the novel became domiciled among us, and the short
space of time within which the principal masterpieces of the novelists were
produced, are not more remarkable than the lassitude which fell upon English
fiction as soon as the first great generation had passed away. The
flourishing period of the eighteenth-century novel lasted exactly twenty-five
years, during which time we have to record the publication of no less than
fifteen eminent works of fiction.

These fifteen are naturally divided into three groups. The first
contains Pamela, Joseph Andrews, David Simple, and Jonathan Wild. In these
books the art is still somewhat crude, and the science of fiction incompletely
understood. After a silence of five years we reach the second and greatest
section of this central period, during which there appeared in quick
succession Clarissa, Roderick Random, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, Amelia, and
Sir Charles Grandison. As though invention had been exhausted by the
publication of this incomparable series of masterpieces, there followed
another silence of five years, and then were issued, each on the heels of the
other, Tristram Shandy, Rasselas, Chrysal, The Castle of Otranto, and The
Vicar of Wakefield. Five years later still, a book born out of due time
appeared, Humphrey Clinker, and then, with one or two such exceptions as
Evelina and Caleb Williams, no great novel appeared again in England for forty
years, until, in 1811, the new school of fiction was inaugurated by Sense and
Sensibility. The English novel, therefore, in its first great development,
should be considered as comprised within the dates 1740 and 1766; and it may
not be uninstructive, before entering into any critical examination of the
separate authors, to glance at this chronological list of the first fifteen
great works of English fiction.

The novels contained in the catalogue just given, however widely they
differed from one another in detail, had this in common: that they dealt with
mental and moral phenomena. Before 1740 we possessed romances, tales, prose
fiction of various sorts, but in none of these was essayed any careful
analysis of character or any profound delineation of emotion. In Defoe, where
the record of imaginary fact was carried on with so much ingenuity and
knowledge, the qualities we have just mentioned are not ably absent; nor can
it be said that we find them in any prosewriter of fiction earlier than
Richardson, except in some very slight and imperfect degree in Aphra Behn,
especially in her Rousseauish novel of Oroonoko.

The first great English novelist, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), was born
and bred in Derbyshire. He records of himself that when still a little boy he
had two peculiarities: he loved the society of women best, and he delighted in
letter-writing. Indeed, before he was eleven, he wrote a long epistle to a
widow of fifty, rebuking her for unbecoming conduct. The girls of the
neighborhood soon discovered his insight into the human heart, and his skill
in correspondence, and they employed the boy to write their love-letters for
them. In 1706 Richardson was apprenticed to a London printer, served a
diligent apprenticeship, and worked as a compositor until he rose, late in
life, to be master of the Stationers' Company. He was fifty years of age
before he showed symptoms of any higher ambition than that of printing
correctly acts of Parliament and new editions of law-books. In 1739 the
publishers, Rivington and Osborne, urged him to compose for them a volume of
Familiar Letters, afterward actually produced as an aid to illiterate persons
in their correspondence. Richardson set about this work, gave it a moral
flavor, and at last began to write what would serve as a caution to young
serving-women who were exposed to temptation. At this point he recollected a
story he had heard long before, of a beautiful and virtuous maid-servant who
succeeded in marrying her master; and then, laying the original design aside,
Richardson, working rapidly, wrote in three months his famous story of Pamela.

All Richardson's novels are written in what Mrs. Barbauld has ingeniously
described as "the most natural and the least probable way of telling a story,"
namely, in consecutive letters. The famous heroine of his first book is a
young girl, Pamela Andrews, who describes in letters to her father and mother
what goes on in the house of a lady with whom she had lived as maid, and who
is just dead when the story opens. The son of Pamela's late mistress, a Mr.
B. - it was Fielding who wickedly enlarged the name to Booby - becomes
enamoured of her charms, and takes every mean advantage of her defenceless
position; but, fortunately, Pamela is not more virtuous than astute, and after
various agonies, which culminate in her thinking of drowning herself in a
pond, she brings her admirer to terms, and is discovered to us at last as the
rapturous though still humble Mrs. B. There are all sorts of faults to be
found with this crude book. The hero is a rascal, who comes to a good end,
not because he has deserved to do so, but because his clever wife has angled
for him with her beauty, and has landed him at last, like an exhausted salmon.

So long as Pamela is merely innocent and frightened, she is charming, but
her character ceases to be sympathetic as she grows conscious of the value of
her charms, and even the lax morality of the day was shocked at the craft of
her latest manoeuvers. But all the world went mad with pleasure over the
book. What we now regard as tedious and prolix was looked upon as so much
linked sweetness long drawn out. The fat printer had invented a new thing,
and inaugurated a fresh order of genius. For the first time the public was
invited, by a master of the movements of the heart, to be present at the
dissection of that fascinating organ, and the operator could not be leisurely
enough, could not be minute enough, for his breathless and enraptured
audience.

In France, for some ten years past there had been writers - Crebillon,
Marivaux, Prevost - who had essayed this delicate analysis of emotion, but
these men were the first to admit the superiority of their rough English
rival. In Marianne, where the heroine tells her own story, which somewhat
resembles that of Pamela, the French novelist produced a very refined study of
emotion, which will probably be one day more largely read than it now is, and
which should be looked through by every student of the English novel. This
book is prolix and languid in form, and undoubtedly bears a curious
resemblance to Richardson's novel. The English printer, however, could not
read French, ^1 and there is sufficient evidence to show that he was
independent of any influences save those which he took from real life. None
the less, of course, Marivaux, who has a name for affectation which his
writings scarcely deserve, has an interest for us as a harbinger of the modern
novel. Pamela was published in two volumes in 1740. The author was
sufficiently ill-advised to add two more in 1741. In this latter installment
Mrs. B. was represented as a dignified matron, stately and sweet under a
burden of marital infidelity. But this continuation is hardly worthy to be
counted among the works of Richardson.

[Footnote 1: It is, however, now certain that there existed an English version
of Marianne.]

The novelist showed great wisdom in not attempting to repeat too quickly
the success of his first work. He allowed the romances of Henry and Sarah
Fielding, the latter as grateful to him as the former were repugnant, to
produce their effect upon the public, and it was to an audience more able to
criticise fiction that Richardson addressed his next budget from the mail-bag.
Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady, appeared, in installments, but in
seven volume in all, in 1748, with critical prefaces prefixed to the first and
fourth volumes. In this book the novelist put his original crude essay
completely into the shade, and added one to the masterpieces of the world.
Released from the accident which induced him in the pages of Pamela to make
his heroine a servant-girl, in Clarissa, Richardson depicted a lady, yet not
of so lofty a rank as to be beyond the range of his own observation. The
story is again told entirely in letters; it is the history of the abduction
and violation of a young lady by a finished scoundrel, and ends in the death
of both characters. To enable the novelist to proceed, each personage has a
confidant. The beautiful and unhappy Clarissa Harlowe corresponds with the
vivacious Miss Howe; Robert Lovelace addresses his friend and quondam
fellow-reveller, John Belford. The character of Clarissa is summed up in
these terms by her creator: "A young Lady of great Delicacy, Mistress of all
the Accomplishments, natural and acquired, that adorn the Sex, having the
strictest Notions of filial Duty." Her piety and purity, in fact, are the two
loadstars of her moral nature, and the pursuit of each leads her life to
shipwreck.

By the universal acknowledgment of novel-readers, Clarissa is one of the
most sympathetic, as she is one of the most lifelike, of all the women in
literature, and Richardson has conducted her story with so much art and tact
that her very faults canonize her, and her weakness crowns the triumph of her
chastity. In depicting the character of Lovelace, the novelist had a
difficult task, for to have made him a mere ruffian would have been to ruin
the whole purpose of the piece. He is represented as witty, versatile, and
adroit, the very type of the unscrupulous gentleman of fashion of the period.
He expiates his crimes, at the close of a capital duel, by the hands of
Colonel Morden, a relative of the Harlowe family, who has seen Clarissa die.
The success of Clarissa, both here and in France, was extraordinary. As the
successive volumes appeared, and readers were held in suspense as to the fate
of the exquisite heroine, Richardson was deluged with letters entreating him
to have mercy. The women of England knelt sobbing round his knees, and
addressed him as though he possessed the power of life and death.

The slow and cumbrous form of Clarissa has tended to lessen the number of
its students, but there is probably no one who reads at all widely who has not
at one time or another come under the spell of this extraordinary book. In
France its reputation has always stood very high. Diderot said that it placed
Richardson with Homer and Euripides, Rousseau openly imitated it, and Alfred
de Musset has styled it the best novel in the world. To those who love to see
the passions taught to move at the command of sentiment, and who are not
wearied by the excessively minute scale, as of a moral miniature-painter, on
which the author designs his work, there can scarcely be recommended a more
thrilling and affecting book. The author is entirely inexorable, and the
reader must not hope to escape until he is thoroughly purged with terror and
pity.

After the further development of Fielding's genius, and after the advent
of a new luminary in Smollett, Richardson once more presented to the public an
elaborate and ceremonious novel of extreme prolixity. The History of Sir
Charles Grandison, in seven (and six) volumes, appeared in the spring of 1754,
after having been pirated in Dublin during the preceding winter. Richardson's
object in this new adventure was, having already painted the portraits of two
virtuous young women - the one fortunate, the other a martyr - to produce this
time a virtuous hero, and to depict "the character and actions of a man of
true honor," as before, in a series of familiar letters. There is more
movement, more plot, in this novel than in the previous ones; the hero is now
in Italy, now in England, and there is much more attempt than either in Pamela
or Clarissa to give the impression of a sphere in which a man of the world may
move. Grandison is, however, a slightly ludicrous hero. His perfections are
those of a prig and an egoist, and he passes like the sun itself over his
parterre of adoring worshippers. The ladies who are devoted to Sir Charles
Grandison are, indeed, very numerous, but the reader's interest centres in
three of them - the mild and estimable Harriet Byron, the impassioned Italian
Clementina della Porretta, and the ingenuous ward Emily Jervois. The excuse
for all this is that this paragon of manly virtue has "the most delicate of
human minds," and that women are irresistibly attracted to him by his splendid
perfections of character. But posterity has admitted that the portrait is
insufferably overdrawn, and that Grandison is absurd. The finest scenes in
this interesting but defective novel are those in which the madness of
Clementina is dwelt upon in that long-drawn patient manner of which Richardson
was a master. The book is much too long.

Happy in the fame which "the three daughters" of his pen had brought him,
and enjoying prosperous circumstances, Richardson's life closed in a sort of
perpetual tea-party, in which he, the only male, sat surrounded by bevies of
adoring ladies. He died in London, of apoplexy, on July 4, 1761. His manners
were marked by the same ceremonious stiffness which gives his writing an air
of belonging to a far earlier period than that of Fielding or Smollett; but
his gravity and sentimental earnestness only helped to endear him to the
women. Of the style of Richardson there is little to be said; the reader
never thinks of it. If he forces himself to regard it, he sees that it is apt
to be slipshod, although so trim and systematic. Richardson was a man of
unquestionable genius, dowered with extraordinary insight into female
character, and possessing the power to express it; but he had little humor, no
rapidity of mind, and his speech was so ductile and so elaborate that he can
scarcely compete with later and sharper talents.
 

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