The Evolution of the Novel

It is useful to go into the history or genesis of the novel in England, there are a large number of books on the subject that provide good information about prose works in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The idea in these books is that the prose works of the earlier period can be clearly linked up with the novel in the eighteenth century. The common point between the two seems to be prose. Then, there are the stories of discovery, exploration and adventure, which also have laid claims to parenting this modem literary form. It is suggested that the spirit of curiosity necessitated a loose fictional form which, provided enough scope to the writer to collect information as well as to question, analyse and assess the new material. These stories centred around ‘the wandering rogue,’ a rootless, un-tied persona whose fascination for new and unknown places could hold immense appeal for the reader. Add to them the imaginary, totally ‘fictional’ pieces written by their authors in different countries of Europe to entertain the reader, taking him or her on an imaginary voyage to the world of mystery, wonder and magic. In these, nothing ‘real’ was intended for projection, their fundamental motive being to give pleasure, Curiosity, suspense and story-telling were supposed to bring these, writings closer to the novel. In this context, all one can say is that important as these imaginative efforts are in their respective languages and periods, they scarcely enlighten us about the emergence of the novel. All that has come in the wake of such a venture is in mere guesswork.

In fact, the fault in such a genesis-tracing exercise is that it is based on the erroneous concept of literary history. The term ‘literary history’ denotes that there is a direct linkage within literature between works written in the past with those written later, and that, in a manner of saying, literature produces out of itself. There is also a tendency among scholars of literature these days of going to the philosophical writings of the period in which specific literary works were composed. This is done with a view to explaining how a particular writer’s sensibility was moulded by those philosophical writings and trends. The suggestion is that apart from the literary works already existing, it is the philosophical tendencies which produce new literature. Under this scheme, the author is merely seen as moulding the available literary material to suit his/her cultural requirements and of extending the literary horizon a bit further. This assumption should be carefully gone into and examined. Literary history, or even history of literature for that matter, is a concept that requires careful handling by the student of literature. I am not saying that there cannot be a history of the novel theoretically speaking, but that it cannot be seen as independent of that larger history with its specific struggles to break free from existing shackles. It is really disappointing to see that reference to actual events, particularly the economic and political ones, is missing in discussions about the emergence of the novel.

Shift to Prose in the Eighteenth Century Prose had seldom been a medium of serious creative endeavour before the eighteenth century. Barring a few exceptions, writers of the past chose verse — longer poems, poetic drama, short poems of definite or indefinite length — to share their views, experience or vision with the audience. That is how it had to be, since the audience consisted of the selected few. Till the middle of the seventeenth century, poems could also be found circulating among the narrow circle of friends and fellow writers because they alone were presumed to appreciate imaginative work. The idea of the mass of readers who could be approached through the printed word emerged only in the eighteenth century. Why? Did something peculiar happen in the later period? This prose-work in the eighteenth century came to locate some new issues in society and handled them with a seriousness hitherto unnoticed. As said above, one of these issues was marriage. It was more than a subject of debate through the presentation of which the writer was able to critique a particular relationship. Earlier, the act of marriage reminded us of the considerations of social propriety, class distinction and religion — it was truly social. For instance, the Restoration marriage, the marriage encountered in the comic plays of the Restoration period, was between those men and women who came largely from the upper stratum, the would-be partners in marriage talked with some self-consciousness (they thought of choice, need and purpose) and finally joined each other in a tradionally accepted matrimonial schedule — their background and social upbringing seldom allowing them to rethink or breach the social code of the male-dominated family. This family was a well-established institution essentially reflecting the nature of the older social structure. Writers could not invest much thought in an issue which remained largely impersonal or, if the partners in marriage were bold and courageous, narrowly personal. This second could be seen only around the seventies of the previous century under the impact of recent upheavals or changes. But matrimony could not be considered a significant point of living, confined as women were to the home. The higher plane of social existence associated itself with such vital principles as honour, privilege, acquisition of money, etc. However, things changed radically in the first quarter of the eighteenth century compelling people to considermarriage as a whole set of new considerations — morality, ethics, love, courage, commitment. And what stood in focus was not merely the middle class man, conscious, alert and honest, but the woman, the new woman who was becoming aware of her place in society, who saw that new horizons of fulfilment and liberty had opened in the wake of the socio-political churning England had gone through a few decades before. The epithet ‘middle class’ is not to belittle or denigrate the worth of these people on whom it had fallen, to fearlessly as well as intelligently, confront the mighty world of privilege. They were the common people of England who had moved upfront by dint of hard labour and industry and who not only asserted their right to equality but also influenced the policy-making of the nation. They led the lower masses in thought and attitude and effectively resisted the Ways of old tradition. Their kind of sharp rational questioning, self-assurance and vigour found a true medium in prose. The common people of England, particularly the middle classes, wanted to know and understand. They enjoyed talking. For them, dialogue was more important than statement since it provided to them an opportunity to question and disagree. They also aspired to theories and philosophies and evolve through this a new way of responding to the environment. They took pleasure in cracking jokes and playing with language. Far from being complacent about popular norms, they happily shocked their friends and critics alike. All this required larger accounts and representations. Fielding particularly exemplifies this activated mass of people in England and he lets them talk in their natural style which is prose, the medium through which life in the market, the street, on the road, at the inn, conducted itself.

The Novel as a New Literary Form

We have to think about the factors which inspire a writer to choose a particular form from those already existing or, as happened in the eighteenth century, evolve a new one so that it served as an appropriate vehicle for his purpose. The process of the evolution or a form is highly complex because one can see in it a concrete dialectical interaction between a writer’s urge to communicate and an environment which on its part is hardly passive, which persists in its threatening posture with the existing modes of expression. I particularly want to stress the presence of women, a whole lot of them, in the eighteenth century society who had the leisure to relax at home with a book or periodical in hand as well as the inclination to know how to dress, walk and converse but also to contemplate upon the questions of right and wrong in life. They were no ordinary women. They were the wives of those men who had become more productive than members of any other social group in the economic field, who forganised manufacture from procurement of raw material and employment of artisans to work with it to making available space for, collective activity and looking after the deployment of correct methods that the artisans would use to turn out finished goods. More than this, they arranged money for all this activity which saw them through in the final activity of selling the goods in the market so that profits came flowing in. It appears to be a simple activity of the economic kind on the surface but is actually a highly challenging and problematic social activity affecting life-conditions as a whole. This is because in the course of this endeavour, the involved men who were also creating a new value pattern, a novel way of making sense about tendencies that were thrown up in the life in the market. Still more, the market as a new powerful centre of activity spread out to cover all vital areas of existence including ideology and spirituality.

Some significant developments could be seen in the early eighteenth century in England on the literary-cultural plane. One of these was the rise of the periodical — a magazine or pamphlet which sought to engage the average person in useful conversation. This average person was the middle class city-dweller, the gentleman proper or the gentleman in the making who had an interest in the daily occurrences of life, who did not want to merely put two and two together but to also develop a nononsense pragmatic understanding to guide him. Such needs were earlier fulfilled in the case of the lower masses by the village parson who interpreted the age-old principles of life and behaviour for the benefit of the common person. However, the difference between the need of the new middle class city-dweller we have in mind and the common person with whom the parson communicated lay in their social positioning — the former also asking for pleasure while receiving moral guidance. Naturally enough, this new gentleman-in-the-making looked elsewhere for this service in the direction of a non-religious, secular agency. Hence the fulfilment of the need by the periodical — an instrument which did away with the compulsion of going to a specific place at an appointed hour and instead provided the service at one’s doorstep. Of course, for availing oneself of the service, one had to meet the precondition of literacy. This the particular individual could well afford in the given social conditions. In its infancy, the novel incorporated some of the functions and traits of the periodical.

The Novel as Comedy

Comedy in the eighteenth century differed immensely from that in the seventeenth century. It became lighter in vein and dealt with those issues which could be easily resolved. Take the case of social manners under whose overall perspective questions such as marriage and love were considered by the writers. The relationship of love became extremely important in social discourse in which great emphasis was laid on individual choice. The man and the woman together took the decision to marry and thus set at nought the pressures of family and society. As a consequence of this emphasis in the eighteenth century on decision-making by the individual, norms and principles of orthodoxy came under severe criticism. One of the reasons why an ordinary person became associated with heroic qualities such as courage and fearlessness was that an important segment of society, the middle class to be precise, stood to gain from protest and rebellion since that weakened the hold of the privileged sections on social behaviour. Under this logic, marriage became a means for the middle class to question the values and norms espoused by entrenched interests. The focus on social manners takes us away from the serious Questions of work, shelter and upkeep to be provided by a society to its members. Only those who have solved the problems of bread and butter think of evolving a code of behaviour. The issues of virtue, goodness, morality and kindness which fall under the category of ethics and manners are of great interest to the progressive upcoming sections. Further, the discussion of manners suggests that the members of this group have become individually capable of improving their behaviour, that they have merely to take a close look at their norms and principles in order to adopt a strategy to execute progress and improvement. In this sense, the improvement in manners is primarily a question of active choice. The individual in such circumstances is expected to examine the nature of his/her social environment so that she can then take guidance from the rules that govern it. That the environment can be inimical and become an insurmountable obstruction is something that is beyond the imagination of this highly active and conscious entity.

Under the perspective of manners as we understand them, can we adequately define love and marriage? Well, love in such a case would be a relationship between two persons who are relatively free from social constraints. Society can certainly cause problems to them but it would not prove more than a mere inconvenience. On the other hand, love for the man and the woman involved would be a challenge they have to meet in order to fulfil their wish— love offers them scope to draw upon their inner resources and assert, in the process of meeting it, their selfhood.

Needless to say that from such a love, the journey to marriage is a more or less smooth affair The union between the young people, even when they are socially unequal — one of them from a poor background and the other belonging to the upper social stratum — can cause raising of eyebrows and some clever scheming by a few to thwart it. But the criticism from orthodox quarters may at the same time inspire some other members insociety to stand in support of the lovers. This clash ending in merely the ruffling of a few feathers, therefore, does not lead to dangerous hostility and violence as it did in the past.

Were love and marriage challenges in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for the individuals who were involved in the relationship? The answer is obviously no. Neither love nor marriage could be separated from the social structure of the time. It was a bond that decisively affected the elite in their pursuit of power, prestige and honour. Both were “social” and “political” events — they made statements about the families, the dynasties and the important streams of traditional behaviour to which the specific persons belonged and which came into play when certain individuals decided to take the “law” in their own hands.

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