The dangers of novels

I am preparing a first-year lecture on the novel, centered around Pride and Prejudice. It is part of a course that introduces students to literary genres, and hands them the basic tools they need to analyse literature. Therefore, in my lecture I will concentrate on the ‘rise of the novel’ (to speak with Ian Watt), on money, consumerism, and the novel in many senses (see also my little Library Thing to the right), on private and public spaces, and on late eigtheenth- and early nineteenth-century reception of the genre. My explorations of the latter issue made me think about the similarities and differences between historical anxieties about new media.

Taking off from a scene in which Mr Collins (the officious clergyman) is invited to read to the Bennets and finds himself confronted with a novel, my lecture will deal with contemporary views of the novel as belonging to the private sphere, to women, and to recreation rather than instruction.

Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but on beholding it, (for every thing announced it to be from a circulating library,) he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.

This invites the question of why Mr Collins never reads novels. His choice of a sermon as more suitable reading material gives a hint of his views on the novel. An essay by Vicessimus Knox, in his Essays Moral and Literary (1778) supports this hunch. Knox deplores “the great multiplication of novels” in his time:

Such books, however pernicious in their tendency, are the most easily attained. The prudence of their publishers suggests the expediency of making them conveniently portable. Every corner of the kingdom is abundantly supplied with them. In vain is youth secluded from the corruptions of the living world. Books are commonly allowed them with little restriction, as innocent amusements; yet these often pollute the heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions at a distance from temptation, and teach all the malignity of vice in solitude.

There’s a striking contrast in this passage between the public availability of these books, because of their small size and cheap price, as well as the existence of the circulating libraries Mr Collins so detests, and the private consumption of the novel “in the recesses of the closet” where vice flourishes “in solitude”. It reminded me of a Dutch government commercial that warn parents about the things kids may get up to, in solitude, in the recesses of their bedrooms, when surfing the world-wide web. Parents who think their kids are safer in the private sphere of the home than on the city streets are mistaken, the commercial warns – street vice enters the home through a little cable.

Knox’s pinpointing of the novel as the cause of degeneration and his nostalgia for a time when “there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom” evoke a broader pattern. I am fascinated by the historical specificity as well as the transhistoricality of cultural fears about new media — I am sure someone wrote a book on this subject already.

Knox, for example, nostalgically recalls the times when there were only romances:

[Romances] were rather favourable to virtue. Their pictures of human nature were not exact, but they were flattering resemblances. By exhibiting patterns of perfection, they stimulated emulation to aim at it. They led the fancy through a beautiful wilderness of delights: and they filled the heart with pure, manly, bold, and liberal sentiments.

Pure, manly, and bold indeed – but this is not how romances were perceived in the early modern period, when they became more widely available after Caxton’s introduction of moveable type. Helen Hackett in her wonderful study of Women and Romance Fiction writes that satirists in the early seventeenth century mocked “foolish female readers of romance” who got carried away by what they were reading (well, and there’s Don Quixote, of course). A similar contrast between effeminacy and bold manliness, between virtue and vice, instruction and passion also regulates discussions of the new medium of the commercial theatre in the sixteenth century, as Laura Levine has shown in her Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642.

I had a discussion with friends about the online world of Second Life (note the emphasis on consumerism and self-fashioning on their home page) a while ago. Those who thought this kind of virtual world is dangerous used familiar arguments of the loss of identity, the dangers of performance and role-playing, the importance of social interaction in the real, public world versus the dangers of living your life “in the recesses of the closet”, to speak with Knox. Different media and different historical cultures shape different fears, but it seems as if exploring the world from the comfort of your armchair is still as dangerous as it was in 1778.


3 thoughts on “The dangers of novels

  1. Private reading, esp. by women, has a much longer history, particularly with very small editions of devotionals designed to be portable.

    A fair bit of French fiction was published in translation in the late 17thC, but plenty of continental editions would have been available and read in French.

    In the 18thC, novels were *not* necessarily portable. Most were thumping great multi-volume editions, using large type and wide margins, for economic reasons. They were highly priced (like modern academic texts) for sale to circulating libraries. Some of the octavos are uncomfortably large to hold in your hand for any length of time, although the duodecimos are easier.

    Male/female ownership inscriptions in 18thC novels I’ve examined are about equal. Its possible that ownership (wealth-based, rather than gender) was split 50/50 but circulating library copies were borrowed by more women than men.

    Its purely impressionistic, from personal examination, but whilst men far outnumber women in bookplates (recorded more often than signatures), women at least match, and in some classes of work outnumber men in ownership inscriptions, right back to the 17thC.

    A lot of research needs to be done on this subject.

    IMHO, fairer to say that long prose fiction formalised into a specific physical and textual item that we now recognise as the novel, when the economics and distribution were right, and it became trendy.

    A brief mention of Scudery’s Artamene always helps put things in context. It was interactive (Scudery had feedback) and it was published like a soap opera. As modern as any ‘multimedia’ form, yet published in the middle of the 17thC.

  2. The earlier response makes several errors. There was a huge amount of cheaply produced portable fiction in both Britain and America in the 18C. It is also true that expensive, unwieldy books were available. I do not believe there is cause to say that “most” editions were of this expensive type. Probably most were the other type. But this is knowable. Also, according to Michael McKeon, “Modern criticism has reached a consensus that women dominated the authorship and readership of the eighteenth-century novel” (Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 4, ch. 8, p. 247).

  3. Pingback: Recent Finds Weblog» Blog Archive » Carnivalesque XX

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