Archive for September 15th, 2022

15/09/2022

1692: a watershed year

Back when I initially conceived this blog, lo these many years ago, my first thought was a general look at the English novel from about the 1740s, at which time “the novel” was a firmly established facet of everyday life: Fielding vs Richardson was the start I had in mind.

But my brain being what it is, I then started pondering how exactly things had got to the point where a nine-volume epistolary novel with a middle-class female protagonist could be the most popular fictional work of its day. And perhaps even more pertinently, where did Pamela come from?

Gradually, therefore, my plans slid backwards to Daniel Defoe. At that time, I wasn’t as hostile to the mainstream scholarly view of Defoe as “the father of the English novel” as I am now; but even so, the fundamental question remained: how did Defoe become Defoe? Even then, I had no time for the suggestion that the English novel “began” with Defoe: someone must have been before him.

The year 1700 then seemed like a reasonable starting-point, nice and clean—until one day when I was browsing at my academic library to see exactly what had been happening with the novel around that time, and my eye was caught by a modern reissue of a novel first published in 1692: a work highlighting that year as a critical point in the development of English fiction. THIS, I thought, was a much more conceptually valid place to start.

And for quite a while there, 1692 was my choice. I began reading and researching around that date—only to come to the conclusion that there was one earlier work in particular that demanded a full analysis.

So my next stop was 1684’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister…and though I don’t believe in ur-works, if I had to nominate one work as the English ur-novel, this would be it.

But of course, it too had influences…

As some of you might recall – anyone? – my first significant posts at this blog dealt with the still-ongoing controversy over the authorship of the Lettres PortugaisesThe Love-Letters Of A Portuguese Nun – which were first published in 1669 and first translated into English in 1678. These putatively real letters triggered in England a passion for published correspondence, real or otherwise, and were a huge influence upon Aphra Behn in crafting a new sort of fiction that would later become known as the epistolary novel.

The other aspect of the Lettres Portugaises that made them so attractive is what they were notnot the other dominant form of English writing at the time – not an example of the so-called “rogue’s biography”: which is another way of saying that I desperately did not want to deal with Richard Head’s The English Rogue.

But you don’t think my brain was going to let me get away with such pusillanimity, do you?

So my blog’s actual ground-zero turned out to be 1665: a mere 80 years earlier than I first anticipated.

It’s since taken me over a decade to struggle back to what, in spite of all this, I originally recognised as a legitimate starting-point for a study of the English novel, and an enlightening journey it has been, albeit a very strange one taken via a path strewn with obstacles and detours.

We made it, my dudes.

 

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    Aurelian was growing a little too loud with his Admiration, had she not just then interrupted him, by clapping on her Masque, and telling him they should be observed, if he proceeded in his Extravagance; and withal, that his Passion was too suddain to be real, and too violent to be lasting. He replied, Indeed it might not be very lasting, (with a submissive mournful Voice) but it would continue during his Life. That it was suddain, he denied, for she had raised it by degrees from his first sight of her, by a continued discovery of Charms, in her Mien and Conversation, till she thought fit to set Fire to the Train she had laid, by the Lightning of her Face; and then he could not help it, if he were blown up.
    He begg’d her to believe the Sincerity of his Passion, at least to enjoin him something, which might tend to the Convincing of her Incredulity. She said, she should find a time to make some Trials of him; but for the first, she charged him not to follow or observe her, after the Dissolution of the Assembly. He promised to obey, and entreated her to tell him but her Name, that he might have Recourse to that in his Affliction for her Absence, if he were able to survive it. She desired him to live by all means; and if he must have a Name to play with, to call her Incognita, till he were better informed…

 

 

 

 

Born in 1670, William Congreve started out studying for the bar, and would later have a minor political career with the Whigs; but he was always drawn to the world of literature. He became a disciple of John Dryden, and through him was introduced to the London coffee-house circuit where men of letters gathered to discuss each other’s work.

Congreve’s career as a playwright was short but brilliant: he achieved fame early, with his first play, The Old Bachelor, produced when he was only twenty-three; but he fell foul of changing mores and increasing attacks upon the “immorality” of the stage and, always sensitive to criticism, by the turn of the 18th century he had retreated almost into retirement. Nevertheless, Congreve is considered to have significantly influenced the course of English drama and comedy: his plays are still regularly revived, and two of them have given to the English vernacular lines that everyone knows, even if they don’t know the source: “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast” and “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned”, both from 1697’s The Mourning Bride; and “O fie, Miss, you must not kiss and tell” from 1695’s Love For Love.

After his career writing for the stage ended, Congreve dabbled in politics before turning back to literature, working on translations and writing poetry, and collaborating with John Vanbrugh and William Walsh on an English-language adaptation of Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac called Squire Trelooby. However, his health failed early; and after suffering a carriage-accident from which he never really recovered, Congreve died in 1729.

All of which is beside the point—or at least, beside OUR point—which is that before any of this, William Congreve wrote a novel.

I’ve nominated other years as being particularly important in the development of the English novel: 1689, for one, which seems to me the year that the word “novel” took over from “history” in describing a piece of fiction, and when the requirement to pretend that the story you were telling was true faded away.

1689 proved to be something of a false dawn, however, as a resurgence of political writing then proceeded to subsume fiction once again.

But in 1692, I believe we have the real deal. Not only is political writing conspicuous by its absence, but the words “a novel” appear almost without exception upon the title pages of that year’s publications—one of them being Incognita; or, Love And Duty Reconcil’d. A Novel.

This short work was revived and reissued in 1951 by the Folio Society—and it was this very slender volume (only 71 pages including an introduction, a dedication and a preface) that caught my eye while I was browsing the shelves of my academic library way back when.

The danger when dealing with Incognita, I think, is either demanding of it too much as a work by William Congreve, or not asking of it enough: dismissing it in contrast with his plays. Certainly no great claims for it can be made as literature. Rather, its interest lies in the fact that it exists at all: that Congreve, in first putting pen to paper, turned his talents to the form of writing that was rapidly gaining dominance in the marketplace. Some scholars believe that he may have written it when he was only seventeen, but not published it until five years later, which is interesting in itself. Still more so is the extent to which Congreve, both in his introduction and his text, addresses the reader directly—and what he has to say.

Because the first thing Congreve does is define for us the difference between the European “romance” and the English “novel”: a distinction that would occupy a great many English writers going forward (though the matter was never as clear cut as the English liked to think, as we saw via James R. Foster’s History Of The Pre-Romantic Novel In England):

Romances are generally composed of the Constant Loves and invincible Courages of Hero’s, Heroins, Kings and Queens, Mortals of the first Rank, and so forth; where lofty Language, miraculous Contingencies and impossible Performances, elevate and surprize the Reader into a giddy Delight, which leaves him flat upon the Ground whenever he gives of, and vexes him to think how he has suffer’d himself to be pleased and transported, concern’d and afflicted at the several Passages which he has Read, viz. these Knights Success to their Damosels Misfortunes, and such like, when he is forced to be very well convinced that ’tis all a lye. Novels are of a more familiar nature; Come near us, and represent to us Intrigues in practice, delight us with Accidents and odd Events, but not such as are wholly unusual or unpresidented, such which not being so distant from our Belief bring also the pleasure nearer us. Romances give more of Wonder, Novels more Delight…

This is a fascinating passage when placed in the context of the English novel’s very struggle to exist. Lingering puritan impulses in England frowned upon fiction as a form of lying, and for decades authors were forced to pretend that they were telling true stories – “histories” – rather than presenting their readers with something made up.

What Congreve does here is turn that argument on its head: it is the romance, with its high-flown content and its improbabilities, that is “all a lye”; and it is the novel that offers a more truthful picture of life—“not so distant from our Belief”.

Nevertheless, the reader of Incognita may feel that Congreve was being somewhat disingenuous here, since his novel is set amongst the nobility of Italy—Mortals of the first Rank, as you might say.

This setting also highlights another ongoing struggle, the right of the English novel to be English: as we have seen, it was far more common for even those works willing to call themselves “novels” to be set somewhere else.

The protagonist of Incognita, or one of them, is Aurelian, the only son of a wealthy and prominent gentleman of Florence, Don Fabio. At eighteen, Aurelian is completing his education in Sienna when he meets and becomes intimate with a Spaniard of his own age, Hippolito, who is travelling for his own education under the guardianship of a certain Signio Claudio. Unfortunately for the friends, Hippolito has been called home by his uncle, the Archbishop of Toledo, and it seems that they must part. Reluctant to do so, they begin looking for ways around this edict. Discovering that despite his travels, Hippolito has never been to Florence, Aurelian proposes that his friend take a rather circuitous route home via that city, and that he, Aurelian, accompany him.

Drawing near to their destination, the young men discover that a near-relation of a “great duke” is to be married, and that extraordinary celebrations have been planned to mark the occasion:

…Balls and Masques, and other Divertisements; that a Tilting had been proclaimed, and to that purpose Scaffolds erected around the Spacious Court, before the Church Di Santa Croce, where were usually seen all Cavalcades and Shews, performed by Assemblies of the Young Nobility: That all Mechanicks and Tradesmen were forbidden to work or expose any Goods to Sale for the space of three days; during which time all Persons should be entertain’d at the Great Duke’s Cost; and publick Provision was to be made for the setting forth and furnishing a multitude of Tables, with Entertainment for all Comers and Goers, and several Houses appointed for that use in all Streets.

Having found lodgings, the young men set about securing appropriately rich clothing to wear at the upcoming masque but, having arrived late, can only secure a single outfit—each trying to cede it to the other. Their dilemma is solved by one of their servants, who encounters another with a suit of clothing to sell: his own master being too unwell to wear it. Hippolito purchases the suit and, both properly dressed and appropriately masked, the two young men plunge into the revels.

At this point, William Congreve first makes his own presence felt. Having diverted from his characters’ movements with a description of the scene—

…such a prodigious number of Torches were on fire, that the day, by help of these Auxiliary Forces, seem’d to continue its Dominion; the Owls and Bats apprehending their mistake, in counting the hours, retir’d again to a convenient darkness; for Madam Night was no more to be seen than she was to be heard; and the Chymists were of Opinion, That her fuliginous Damps, rarefy’d by the abundance of Flame, were evaporated…

—he then addresses his reader directly:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed…

Aurelian and Hippolito are at first almost overwhelmed with the glories of their surroundings, but they soon set their sights upon some fun with the many women present. They decide to separate for an hour, each to pursue his own fortune.

Aurelian already has his eye on one particular lady, and accosts her with bows and compliments. She allows his attention, and soon reveals a nice skill at repartee—rather better than Aurelian’s:

She thanked him for his Complement, and briskly told him she ought to have made him a return in praise of his wit, but she hoped he was a Man more happy than to be dissatisfy’d with any of his own Endowments; and if it were so, that he had not a just Opinion of himself, she knew her self incapable of saying any thing to beget one. Aurelian did not know well what to make of this last reply; for he always abhor’d any thing that was conceited, with which this seem’d to reproach him. But however modest he had been heretofore in his own thoughts, yet never was he so distrustful of his good behaviour as now, being rally’d so by a Person whom he took to be of judgment…

The two then dance, and between that and the “rallery”—

…for his part, he was strangely and insensibly fallen in love with her Shape, Wit and Air; which, together with a white Hand, he had seen (perhaps not accidentally) were enough to have subdued a more stubborn Heart than ever he was master of; and for her Face, which he had not seen, he bestowed upon her the best his Imagination could furnish him with…

Hippolito, meanwhile, is having his own adventure: a woman signals her desire to speak to him privately, and then addresses him as “Don Lorenzo”. Realising that she has mistaken him for the original owner of his costume – her cousin, as it turns out – he decides to play along; although the lady’s hurried conversation raises some alarm in him:

“I am overjoy’d to see you are so speedily recovered of your Wounds, which by report were much more dangerous than to have suffered your coming abroad so soon; but I must accuse you of great indiscretion, in appearing in a Habit which so many must needs remember you to have worn upon the like occasion not long ago, I mean at the Marriage of Don Cynthio with your Sister Atalanta; I do assure you, you were known by it, both to Juliana and my self, who was so far concerned for you, as to desire me to tell you, that her Brother Don Fabritio (who saw you when you came in with another Gentleman) had eyed you very narrowly, and is since gone out of the Room, she knows not upon what design; however she would have you, for your own sake, be advised and circumspect when you depart this place, lest you should be set upon unawares; you know the hatred Don Fabritio has born you ever since you had the fortune to kill his Kinsman in a Duel…”

Realising he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew, Hippolito is about to reveal himself when his companion, misunderstanding his hesitation in replying, removes her mask to prove her identity:

…and discovered to Hippolito (now more amaz’d than ever) the most Angelick Face that he had ever beheld…

He is still trying to think of a way to extricate himself gracefully from the situation – assuming he really wants to – when his companion startles him by mentioning Aurelian’s father:

“I am mighty glad that I have met with you here, where I have had an Opportunity to tell you what so much concerns your Safety, which I am afraid you will not find in Florence; considering the great Power Don Fabritio and his Father, the Marquess of Viterbo, have in this City. I have another thing to inform you of, That whereas Don Fabio had interested himself in your Cause, in Opposition to the Marquess of Viterbo, by reason of the long Animosity between them, all hopes of his Countenance and Assistance are defeated: For there has been a Proposal of Reconciliation made to both Houses, and it is said it will be confirm’d (as most such ancient Quarrels are at last) by the Marriage of Juliana the Marquess’s Daughter, with Aurelian, Son to Don Fabio…”

Finally forced to reply, Hippolito does so in such a faint, muffled voice that Leonora, worried that “Don Lorenzo” is still insufficiently recovered from his wounds, proposes that the two withdraw from the masque. She leads him away from the crowds towards her own house—

…which gave Hippolito time to consider of the best way of discovering himself. A thousand things came into his Head in a minute, yet nothing that pleased him: and after so many Contrivances as he had formed for the discovery of himself, he found it more rational for him not to reveal himself at all that Night, since he could not foresee what effect the surprize would have, she must needs be in, at the appearance of a Stranger, whom she had never seen before, yet whom she had treated so familiarly. He knew Women were apt to shriek or swoon upon such Occasions, and should she happen to do either, he might be at a loss how to bring himself off. He thought he might easily pretend to be indisposed somewhat more than ordinary, and so make an excuse to go to his own Lodging. It came into his Head too, that under pretence of giving her an account of his Health, he might enquire of her the means how a Letter might be convey’d to her the next morning, wherein he might inform her gently of her mistake, and insinuate something of that Passion he had conceiv’d…

Meanwhile, Congreve here grants the reader more information than he has yet given his main characters; or as he puts it himself—

…let me take the liberty to digress a little, and tell the Reader something which I do not doubt he has apprehended himself long ago, if he be not the dullest Reader in the World…

—namely that Don Fabritio, as Leonora feared, recognised the outfit of clothing that Hippolito was wearing; but unlike Leonora herself, he also knew that far from attending the masque, Lorenzo was himself gravely wounded in the duel and is not expected to live; so that Hippolito was not in fact in danger of family vengeance, despite the demands of honour:

Fabritio being much concerned for his Kinsman, vow’d revenge (according to the ancient and laudable custom of Italy) upon Lorenzo if he surviv’d, or in case of his death (if it should happen to anticipate that, much more swinging Death which he had in store for him) upon his next of Kin, and so to descend Lineally like an English Estate, to all the Heirs Males of this Family…

And having caught us up with Hippolito’s present circumstances, Congreve returns to Aurielian:

So, Reader, having now discharg’d my Conscience of a small Discovery which I thought my self obliged to make to Thee, I proceed to tell thee, that our Friend Aurelian had by this time danced himself into a Net which he neither could, nor which is worse desired to untangle…

Aurelian is, in fact, busy making declarations of undying passion to the woman whose identity he still doesn’t know; yet in the middle of these solemn vows, he is also telling her lies:

    Aurelian was unwilling for the present to own himself to be really the Man he was; when a suddain thought came into his Head to take upon him the Name and Character of Hippolito, who he was sure was not known in Florence…
    “I am by Birth a Spaniard, of the City of Toledo; my name Hippolito di Saviolina: I was yesterday a Man free, as Nature made the first; to day I am fallen into a Captivity, which must continue with my Life, and which, it is in your power, to make much dearer to me. Thus in obedience to your Commands, and contrary to my Resolution of remaining unknown in this place, I have inform’d you, Madam, what I am; what I shall be, I desire to know from you; at least, I hope, the free discovery I have made of my self, will encourage you to trust me with the knowledge of your Person.”

The woman, more cautious – and more truthful – then offers “Hippolito” a choice: he may know her name, or see her face:

    …she pull’d off her Mask, and appear’d to him at once in the Glory of Beauty. But who can tell the astonishment Aurelian felt? He was for a time senseless; Admiration had suppress’d his Speech, and his Eyes were entangled in Light.
    In short, to be made sensible of his condition, we must conceive some Idea of what he beheld, which is not to be imagined till seen, nor then to be express’d. Now see the impertinence and conceitedness of an Author, who will have a fling at a Description, which he has Prefaced with an impossibility…

When the time comes for them to part, in spite of all this “Hippolito” again pleads to know the woman’s name. She answers only, “Incognita…”

After a few more confusing adventures with which we need not concern ourselves, Aurelian and Hippolito meet up at their lodgings and exchange love-stories. In the course of this, Aurelian learns to his dismay that his father, in order to put to rest the family feud, has engaged him to Juliana, the daughter of the Marquess of Viterbo; and also that Don Fabio knows that he is in Florence. Aurelian resolves to avoid his father at all cost, in order to be compelled neither to obey nor disobey him.

Hippolito’s problem, meanwhile, is how tactfully to inform Leonora that she has been confidential with a complete stranger, and that the complete stranger in question is in love with her:

    He look’d upon it as an unlucky thought in Aurelian to take upon him his Name, since possibly the Two Ladies were acquainted, and should they communicate to each other their Adventures; they might both reasonably suffer in their Opinions, and be thought guilty of Falshood, since it would appear to them as One Person pretending to Two. Aurelian told him, there was but one Remedy for that, which was for Hippolito, in the same Manner that he had done, to make use of his Name, when he writ to Leonora, and use what arguments he could to perswade her to Secrecy, least his Father should know of the Reason which kept him concealed in Town. And it was likely, though perhaps she might not immediately entertain his Passion; yet she would out of Generosity conceal, what was hidden only for her sake.
    Well this was concluded on, after a great many other Reasons used on either Side, in favour of the Contrivance; they at last argued themselves into a Belief, that Fortune had befriended them with a better Plot, than their regular Thinking could have contriv’d. So soon had they convinc’d themselves, in what they were willing to believe…

Leonora is at first horrified and offended, when she receives a letter from “Aurelian” explaining her error of the evening before; but before long – and having read the impassioned epistle several times – she begins to make excuses for its author, and to find much to admire within. Indeed, her thoughts lead her so rapidly away that, when she catches herself, she is shocked:

    She had proceeded thus far in a maze of Thought, when she started to find her self so lost to her Reason, and would have trod back again that path of deluding Fancy; accusing her self of Fondness, and inconsiderate Easiness, in giving Credit to the Letter of a Person whose Face she never saw, and whose first Acquaintance with her was a Treachery, and he who could so readily deliver his Tongue of a Lye upon a Surprize, was scarce to be trusted when he had sufficient Time allow’d him to beget a Fiction, and Means to perfect the Birth.
    How did she know this to be Aurelian, if he were? Nay farther, put it to the Extremity, What if she should upon farther Conversation with him proceed to Love him? What Hopes were there for her? Or how could she consent to Marry a Man already Destined for another Woman? nay, a Woman that was her Friend, whose Marrying with him was to compleat the happy Reconciliation of Two Noble Families, and which might prevent the Effusion of much Blood likely to be shed in that Quarrel: Besides, she should incurr share of the Guilt, which he would draw upon him by Disobedience to his Father, whom she was sure would not be consenting to it…

We then get a piece of infuriating male smugness from William Congreve, whose male protagonists, let us remind ourselves, have done nothing but lie to the women they supposedly love since they met them: apparently this comes under the heading of “all’s fair”, as no criticism is made of their conduct. Of Leonora, however, who finds herself the more strongly attracted to “Aurelian” the more reasons that they cannot be together occur to her, we get this:

    ’Tis strange now, but all Accounts agree, that just here Leonora, who had run like a violent Stream against Aurelian hitherto, now retorted with as much precipitation in his Favour. I could never get any Body to give me a satisfactory reason, for her suddain and dextrous Change of Opinion just at that stop, which made me conclude she could not help it; and that Nature boil’d over in her at that time when it had so fair an Opportunity to show it self: For Leonora it seems was a Woman Beautiful, and otherwise of an excellent Disposition; but in the Bottom a very Woman. This last Objection, this Opportunity of perswading Man to Disobedience, determined the Matter in Favour of Aurelian, more than all his Excellencies and Qualifications, take him as Aurelian, or Hippolito, or both together.
    Well, the Spirit of Contradiction and of Eve was strong in her; and she was in a fair Way to Love Aurelian…

The masque of the night before gives way to a tournament: both Aurelian and Hippolito don armour, concealing their faces behind their visors, and join the lists; the latter wearing Leonora’s handkerchief as a favour, and the former, having nothing to display, drawing himself to the attention of his Incognita by “bowing to her after the Spanish mode”. Both young men perform well, particularly in the jousting that closes the entertainment (that is, the participants use blunted lances); and both manage to steal away without their identities being revealed.

Also attending the tournament was Don Fabio, who thinks he has a very good idea who the two unknown young knights were; and when the nobles of Florence praise the two, and speculate over their identities, vanity makes him speak out:

This discovery having thus got vent, was diffused like Air; every body suck’d it in, and let it out again with their Breath to the next they met withal; and in half an hours time it was talked of in the House where our Adventurers were lodged. Aurelian was stark mad at the News, and knew what search would be immediately made for him. Hippolito, had he not been desperately in Love, would certainly have taken Horse and rid out of Town just then, for he could make no longer doubt of being discovered, and he was afraid of the just Exceptions Leonora might make to a Person who had now deceived her twice…

Meanwhile, the Duke is busy reconciling Don Fabio and the Marquess of Viterbo, who are still wary of one another, and pushing for the formalisation of the engagement of Aurelian to Juliana:

In short, by the Complaisant and Perswasive Authority of the Duke, the Dons were wrought into a Compliance, and accordingly embraced and shook Hands upon the Matter. This News was dispersed like the former, and Don Fabio gave orders for the enquiring out his Son’s Lodging, that the Marquess and he might make him a Visit, as soon as he had acquainted Juliana with his purpose, that she might prepare her self…

Juliana is anything but delighted by her father’s announcement, and by the ribald way he makes it in front of her friends—including Leonora, who withdraws in dismay, finding that the greater the obstacles become, the greater also her passion for “Aurelian”.

Elsewhere, the two young men are even more miserable:

Hippolito’s Speech, usher’d by a profound Sigh, broke Silence. “Well! (said he) what must we do, Aurelian?” “We must suffer,” replied Aurelian faintly. When immediately raising his Voice, he cry’d out, “Oh ye unequal Powers, why do ye urge us to desire what ye doom us to forbear; give us a Will to chuse, then curb us with a Duty to restrain that Choice! Cruel Father, Will nothing else suffice! Am I to be the Sacrifice to expiate your Offences past; past ere I was born? Were I to lose my Life, I’d gladly Seal your Reconcilement with my Blood. But Oh my Soul is free, you have no Title to my Immortal Being, that has Existence independent of your Power; and must I lose my Love, the Extract of that Being, the Joy, Light, Life, and Darling of my Soul?”

Before long, both young men find themselves having unexpected encounters with their beloveds: Hippolito – that is, “Aurelian” – is so fortunate as to hear Leonora give herself away via song and soliloquy; while Aurelian – that is, “Hippolito” – rescues Incognita from an assailant. Both men plead their passions, and win a confession of love returned; both plead for an immediate marriage, that their lives need not be ruined by the forced and unwanted union of Aurelian and Juliana.

Well. I think we can see where this is headed…

I have my suspicions about the origins of Incognita; or, Love And Duty Reconcil’d. I don’t think William Congreve set out to write a novel at all: I think this was his first attempt at writing a play. There’s hardly a moment in this comedy of mistaken (or false) identity where you can’t imagine how it might have played out on the stage, in particular an amusing passage towards the end where various people keep running in and out of Aurelian and Hippolito’s lodgings, always finding there someone other than the person they expect to see.

In his introduction, in which starts out by comparing “romances” and “Novels”, William Congreve goes on to explain the inferiority of both to drama:

    And with reverence be it spoken, and the Parallel kept at due distance, there is something of equality in the Proportion which they bear in reference to one another, with that between Comedy and Tragedy; but the Drama is the long extracted from Romance and History: ’tis the Midwife to Industry, and brings forth alive the Conceptions of the Brain. Minerva walks upon the Stage before us, and we are more assured of the real presence of Wit when it is delivered viva voce…
    Since all Traditions must indisputably give place to the Drama, and since there is no possibility of giving that life to the Writing or Repetition of a Story which it has in the Action, I resolved in another beauty to imitate Dramatick Writing, namely, in the Design, Contexture and Result of the Plot. I have not observed it before in a Novel. Some I have seen begin with an unexpected accident, which has been the only surprizing part of the Story, cause enough to make the Sequel look flat, tedious and insipid; for ’tis but reasonable the Reader should expect it not to rise, at least to keep upon a level in the entertainment; for so he may be kept on in hopes that at some time or other it may mend; but the ’tother is such a balk to a Man, ’tis carrying him up stairs to show him the Dining-Room, and after forcing him to make a Meal in the Kitchin…

There are, furthermore, various points at which Congreve’s attitude is amusingly like that of those stage actors who were persuaded to act in film in its early days: taking the money, sure, but convinced of the natural inferiority of this new form of entertainment.

But as I say, despite his declared intention of writing prose in which he would nevertheless “imitate Dramatick writing”, I think William Congreve originally intended to write a play—only the plot he came up with was so flimsy, he couldn’t stretch it out to the obligatory three acts. And then, when he couldn’t get his comedy to work in that format—instead of destroying his drafts, or shoving them into a drawer for a later time, he turned his story into a novel.

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen such a transformation. We’ve already dealt with William Chamberlayne’s Eromena; or, The Noble Stranger, published in 1683, wherein Chamberlayne turned his own epic poem, Pharinnida, into a novel; and also the anonymous 1689 reworking of another, centuries-old epic poem into The Famous And Renowned History Of Sir Bevis Of Southampton. In both of these cases, there is a clear acknowledgement of the extent to which the English reading public was becoming a novel-reading public.

But—I could be entirely wrong about the origins of Incognita, which would be no less interesting or significant. Perhaps the most fascinating touch here is the extent to which future playwright William Congreve reveals himself as a novel-reader: so much so, he can offer a thoughtful criticism of their shortcomings. And perhaps he did indeed sit down to write a short fiction work in which, in his opinion, those shortcomings were addressed.

In the end, however, the question of whether William Congreve did or did not set out to write a novel is infinitely less important that the fact that he did it at all.

1692, you people: mark it in your diaries!