“Daily Life and Immediate Perspectives”

In “The novel and social/cultural history” (Chapter 2 of The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel), J. Paul Hunter discusses what he terms “the New Cultural History” of the eighteenth century. Hunter explains that approaches to studying the eighteenth century have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. This “new, more integrated ‘cultural’ history considers all kinds of documents, texts, and material artifacts” from that period, and gives “more attention to daily life and immediate perspectives and less emphasis on patterns that emerge retrospectively” (Hunter 14). This broadened perspective of life in the eighteenth century is particularly useful when reading novels from that period. As Hunter notes, life in the eighteenth century was a radically unstable thing, with “change – often rapid change – as the one constant” it possessed (Hunter 18). As such, it is necessary to know “what particular decades, or years, or days were like” if we want to truly understand the context in which these novels were written and disseminated.

Interestingly, the focus of the New Cultural History on “daily life and immediate perspectives” parallels a shift in literary tradition that is often associated with the rise of the novel (Hunter 14). While more traditional literature “promised universal solutions because human nature was constant across culture and times”, eighteenth-century novels depicted “a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context” and then “offered varied, circumstantial, and individual outcomes” (Hunter 9-10). This shift from the universal to the individual as literary subject matter mirrors the current shift from the public to the private as historical subject matter.

Hunter asserts that the New Cultural History is “more conscious of the domestic, the material, the everyday, and the interconnected, and more ready to study ordinary people who seem powerless and neglected” (Hunter 17). The same can be said of novels we have studied in this course. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko tells the story of a slave, illustrating in acute detail his personal experiences and simultaneously offering a unique insight into perceptions of the slave trade in the late seventeenth-century. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana tells the story of one woman’s experience with the problematic marriage laws of the time, and there is a significant focus on material objects (money, clothes) within the text. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey depicts an individualized journey through Europe. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is acutely “conscious of the domestic” and the narratives that can take place within a single home. All of the novels we have read focus on individual characters whose circumstances and experiences give us as readers a glimpse into the everyday life of their time.

One issue mentioned by Hunter that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of the significance of the city of London in eighteenth-century culture. He notes that “one reason that the social norms of novels had such cultural power in the eighteenth century was that they usually reflected the values of ‘modern’ London life” (Hunter 23). This point immediately made me think of Evelina, and how London seems to represent the high society to which Evelina rightfully belongs, as opposed to the lower status associated with her life in the country. According to Hunter, “Older Britons tended to hate [London’s] trendiness and distrust its fickleness and shifting standards; younger ones looked to it hopefully for their own futures…” (Hunter 24). Reverend Villars’ attitude toward London and his uneasiness about Evelina’s travelling there aligns him with those “Older Britons”, and Evelina’s youthful hopefulness for her future mirrors the appeal felt by the “younger ones”.

Hunter, J. Paul. “The novel and social/cultural history.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John J. Richetti. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. p. 9-39. Print.

Historical Notions of the Novel

According to John Richetti piece, the novel in what we commonly think of it today is a twentieth century notion. Novel what we term as “prose fiction” is a current perception. Today, we view novel as Richetti notes, “long prose narrative about largely fictional if usually realistic characters and plausible events.” The term in the eighteenth century was fluid. There were no set boundaries for what was concerned the novel. It was only toward that the latter part of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century with Jane Austen and Walter Scott that readers considered the importance and the significance of this new literary piece. Even in the eighteenth century there were many notions of the novel that differed to our conception of what the novel is perceived today. For example, Richetti notes the line of fiction and fact was blurred. He notes that fiction was presented as fact in the eighteenth century. He notes the issue that arises for most students is, “Why expectations for prose fiction seem to have shifted so clearly during the middle of the century, and why by the end of the century something called the novel very clearly exists in the minds of readers and writers. The novels in the eighteenth century presented the news of the affairs and lives of the aristocrats. These novels were read by readers, in order for readers to gather news about the world in which they lived. Also, the novels captured, as Richetti, states, “the myth of personal possibility.” They normally, told the story of a young man who goes from the familiar of family, in order to make a successful living and create a family for himself. The ideas for the novel can be captured with the social and historical events that had occurred during the time. This was the period of the Enlightenment. Many historians are not sure when the first novels appear. These historians mark Behn and other writers for having been the first novel writers.
An interesting note that Richetti also states is that the novels were called histories. He states that the novels “chronicled the daily experience, conflicts, and thoughts of ordinary men and women. The novel was a very popular form of fiction in England. According to Richettie, “When the novel came to be accepted, it represented the acceptance of the narratives about contemporary life and times of the period.”
Richetti notes the changes in which the novel underwent. For example, he states, “the novel when through many changes and it began as a short tale of romance love, gradually was broadened to include longer fiction of various kinds and then narratives, again to describe the new “realistic” forms that features ordinary people in familiar, everyday, contemporary circumstances.” He notes, “exactly when and where the novel originated is hard to say.” He also states, “the novel is just what histories depicts, the history of a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context. The plot might involve ongoing or even enduring- human issues, and the hero or heroine might be “typical” or representative” of its time and place. The emphasis was on the individual, the local, and the particular.” He mentions, “unlike traditional literary genres, the novel sought to record and privilege the specific details that shaped the daily contingent lives or ordinary people, unlike solutions because human nature was constant across cultures and times, the novel offered varied, circumstantial, and individual outcomes a freedom from formal determination that left texts open to tell whatever individual stories they chose by referring causes and effects to local choices and cultural particulars.”
He notes that the novel was first rejected for many reasons. The main reason he notes for the rejection of the novel was primarily based on “cultural particulars.” These include critical theories of formalism, structuralism which were hostile to historical questions and texts and showed little interest in any text that was not already considered a “great book.”
In think it is interesting how the author notes the changes in which the novel took place, and the difference between how the novel was first perceived to how we understand the novel today.

Literacy in the Eighteenth Century

With the changes to print and the printing press during the eighteenth century, “a larger production of text” were produced,” and therefore made texts more accessible to the general public and increased the literacy rates in England (“Short Overview of Influences and Changes in Print in 18th Century England”). With the increased rate of literacy, a new readership developed and the many authors began to appeal to the tastes of these audiences. These changes, according to Ian Watt, influenced the development of the novel. According to the University of Michigan’s Student Project on “Illustrated 18th Century Editions of Pamela” based on the Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela marked the progression from “literature as education to literature as entertainment.” It was the first example of the “best seller” in the history of English Fiction (“Illustrated 18th Century Edition of Pamela”). This piece notes that “Richardson in writing Pamela, “incorporated aspects of the different literary predecessors into his work: the educational, the entertaining, and the utilitarian.” The letters of love are addressed not to Pamela, but to her parents.” This piece, acknowledged that format “redefined the genre of letter-writing and the novel.” Pamela has interested many because it is a story about a female from a working class, as seen in her letters to her parents about her conversation with Mrs. Jervis about her master’s “wicked devices” and “schemes” (excerpt from Pamela)
The changes in printing is mostly seen in John Baskerville’s printing press, “ his printing was remarkable, too—for a run of 1500, he would print 2000 copies so he could select 1500 sheets of even color; he also used his type only once” (“Short Overview of Influences and Changes in Print in 18th Century England”).
Another well-read text was Shamela, a satirical text based on Pamela. Shamela was written by Henry Fielding, and Fielding sates, “Mrs. Shamela Andrews. In which, the many notorious Falsehoods and Misrepresentations of a book called Pamela, Are exposed and refuted; and all the matchless Arts of that young Politician, set in a true and just Light.” This is also a story written in letter form.
According to Ian Watt in the Rise of the Novel and the chapter titled “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel,” He argues that the break of the novel from literary tradition is the result of the “eighteenth century reading public” (35). Watt notes that many authors tailored their texts to include what was suitable to the general public, since the literacy rates increased. For example, he notes “In his English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century, for example, Leslie Stephen long ago suggested that the gradual extension of the reading class affected the development of literature addressed to them” (35).
Watts notes that the reading public totaled “80,000 in the nineties” (38). Watts also explains that in towns, such as London “shop names instead of signs began to appear, which struck a Swiss visitor, Carl Philipp Moritz, as unusual in 1782 surely implies that it was being increasingly assumed that written communication would be understood by a large enough proportion” (38).
I think that public readership influences many of the writings that were produced. Also, public readership probably influenced the subjects in which the authors wrote, and the influence of readership may have made an impact on the way the authors would describe their characters’ experiences. In my opinion, I think many authors wrote and expressed the visions and dreams of many members of the general public, as a result of this new readership. Many of these visions and dreams probably included social mobility, town life, family, and marriage which were . at the heart of many individuals at this time these themes which were reoccurring in text such as Roxana, Pamela, Shamela in addition to other literary works.