“What makes Robinson Crusoe so monumental is the moment of hesitation – brief for some readers, longer for others – during which the horizon of expectations definitively shifted and adjustments were made that ultimately forced such ‘historical’ narratives to be read as works of fiction. Defoe’s importance to the history of the novel lies principally in the fact that his narratives were a key part of the process in the course of which readers created a new narrative category, eventually labeled ‘novel’.”
In History And The Early English Novel: Matters Of Fact From Bacon To Defoe, Robert Mayer contends that the novel as we know it evolved out of historical writing, and his study makes a case for Daniel Defoe as the critical figure in the development of the novel, based upon Defoe’s unique melding of history and fiction in those works which we now call his “novels” – but which were not generally recognised as novels at the time.
The first half of this book traces “the history of history”, the development of historical writing in England and the different forms in which it appeared before what we might now consider “proper” historical writing emerged, including history with a frank political or religious agenda, or history that was also autobiography, such as the Earl Of Clarendon’s History Of The Rebellion.
Although it covers a great deal of ground, Mayer’s main thrust here is his examination of how legendary or fantastic material, most notably the stories of King Arthur, was handled over the years by various categories of historians. He shows that even with a strong push towards factual and unbiased history, the old stories continued to be included and treated with respect. It was the attitude of the historian that changed, from one of declared belief to an acknowledgement that the stories were just stories. Many historians took the view that a respect for tradition demanded the inclusion of these tales; others recognised that a fabulous beginning was better than no beginning at all (harder-line historians tended to begin their work with the first Roman invasion); while others still, significantly, simply recognised that their readers liked stories.
The upshot of all of this, according to Mayer, is that the English people were not merely used to having, but happy to have, “fabulous” material included in their history; that they were accustomed to a little fiction mixed into their facts. And this, he contends, paved the way for the idiosyncratic writings of Daniel Defoe, who took the opposite tack of producing fictions that read like histories, and that challenged the reading public to categorise them correctly – and indeed, do so to this day.
Mayer uses Robinson Crusoe and The Journal Of The Plague Years as the basis of his argument, examing the puzzlement, the confusion and the outrage that greeted the former, and the way in which history and fiction are blended in the latter. Some of this we have glanced at before, courtesy of Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, which Mayer references here, but which is considerably more critical of Defoe’s manoevrings than this study. Mayer makes a strong case, but a highly selective one; and the more I thought about his assertions the more I felt inclined to argue.
Mayer’s stance – and he uses the word repeatedly – is that Defoe’s writing is “revolutionary”; that it literally changed the landscape and determined the course of the development of the novel. There are, of course, quite a number of studies of the history of the novel that make a case for a single critical figure, an ur-figure, as Mayer puts it; and while I do not dispute the importance of Defoe or the uniqueness of his writing, my issue with this approach to literary history is that by definition it requires an accompanying argument as to why other writers are not important…and that’s where I start to get uncomfortable.
In fact, the main case that Mayer makes against Defoe’s “rivals” – and we are, of course, talking mainly about Aphra Behn, but also Eliza Haywood – is that their writings were not “revolutionary”; that readers were not confused and uncertain about them, as they were about the status of Defoe’s “histories”; that they didn’t change anything, or not immediately. This seems to me an odd sort of argument, but I suppose it is an unavoidable one once you start insisting upon a single writer, a single work, as responsible for the rise of the novel. In making this assertion, and dismissing Aphra Behn and her followers from the history of the novel, Mayer makes use of what seems to me some fairly specious arguments, which confuse the writings themselves with their changing public reception.
“The inescapable fact of the history of the English novel is that the so-called “novel of amorous intrigue” has been marginalized for two-and-a-half centuries, and no amount of criticism will change that.”
One immediate problem I have here is the snarkiness of that final clause. I would argue, on the contrary, that criticism has changed everything: that thanks to the hard work of some very determined academics, we have not only witnessed the rehabilitation of the personal and professional reputations of Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, but seen, not just Behn and Haywood, but other writers like Delariviere Manley, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, among others, take their rightful places in the timeline of the novel’s development.
But if we’re only arguing the immediate effect of the works in question, well, I feel inclined to dispute that point, too. Mayer seems to be suggesting here that the “marginalising” of certain writers meant that they could not be an influence upon the course of the development of the novel. If that is his contention, he’s rearranging the facts to suit himself. The marginalisation to which Mayer refers happened well subsequent to the original publication dates of the works in question, which were successful and popular to a degree that should not be underestimated. For example, Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister ran through something like eighteen editions between the time of its publication and the turn of the century, that is, better than one a year: hardly evidence of “marginalisation”. It was years, in some cases decades, before the writings of Behn and Haywood did fall out of favour, and then it was the result of shifting social mores, that is, a judgement made not upon the quality of the writing, but upon its content.
I also take issue with the implication that these writers wrote only “novels of amorous intrigue”. This may or may not be true of Eliza Haywood, or true of the first phase of her career – I haven’t examined her writing closely yet, so I can’t at the moment say – but you can hardly call Oroonoko a “novel of amorous intrigue”. Nor, in spite of its sex and manoeuvring, can Love Letters… possibly be dismissed as nothing more than a cheap thrill, as we have seen. What’s more, having now really sat and studied Behn’s first attempt at fiction, it seems to me Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Roxana owe more than a little to the character of Sylvia, but there’s no consideration here of any such possible influence.
More importantly, however, at least to my mind, is the fact that if you dismiss Aphra Behn from the novel’s timeline, you lose along with her a proper understanding of the development of the epistolary novel, so dominant a form all the way through the 18th century, and so critical a factor in the emergence of true psychological writing. Here, too, Mayer strikes me as disingenuous: while arguing for Defoe’s creation of a new form of writing, he takes no notice of the fact that Behn did the same; his account of the novel, as all these “single figure” studies do, then jumps from Daniel Defoe to Samuel Richardson, where we find him simultaneously admitting Aphra Behn’s influence upon Richardson while dismissing her as an important influence. He also skates over the fact that Richardson plundered Behn’s work while leading the growing wave of criticism, moral rather than literary, against her.
(While I wouldn’t call Pamela “a novel of amorous intrigue”, exactly, I do find its prurience much more offensive than Behn or Haywood’s frank approach to sex.)
I suppose in the end it comes down to whether you want to posit the history of the novel in terms of a single individual, or whether you prefer see it as a stepwise process involving any number of writers. Mayer argues strenuously for Defoe’s writing as causing a “literary revolution” that expanded the “horizon of expectatations” for the early 18th-century reader. The trouble is, having made this assertion, and having dismissed Behn and Haywood for their failure significantly to alter the literary landscape, he then makes little effort to show how Defoe’s “revolutionary” writing actually changed anything, either for the contemporary reader or for contemporary and subsequent writers.
And while Robert Mayer makes his case here by talking in historical terms, I feel compelled finally to answer him biologically, and to say with respect to his vision of a single progenitor, an ur-figure, that evolution really doesn’t work that way. It is true that nature sometimes throws up a spectacular mutation, a sport. However, these dramatically different entities rarely lead to anything, but are, on the contrary, usually sterile. Most of the time change occurs, not instantaneously, but gradually, by a process of action and reaction, with the individual, or the individual species, pushing against the prevailing environment, which pushes right back.
We can illustrate this in a literary context. We’ve seen already how Aphra Behn’s move to fiction writing was shaped both by her knowledge of pre-existing texts (chiefly Love Letters From A Portuguese Nun) and by political and economic factors (no new plays being commissioned): the result was Love Letters…, which in turn inspired Delariviere Manley, who was simultaneously influenced by the nature of the text and by her environment, in which politics were dominated by the Whigs she so despised. Eliza Haywood, noting the ephemeral nature of Manley’s texts, so much a product of a single time and place and milieu, shed the literal politics but kept the sexual kind; while Jane Barker and Penelope Aubin, strongly disapproving of the earlier publications but nevertheless adopting their forms, began to strive for the novel as a moral influence… And so on, to Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Edgeworth, to Scott, and Austen, and beyond… All important figures, some truly great figures…but no ur-figures, if you please.
And now, to change the subject somewhat— Thinking over my reaction to History And The Early English Novel, and trying to articulate it, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, feeling somewhat reassured about this ridiculous blog project of mine*. Mayer, like many literary historians, simply steps over the intervening years between Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson…which are precisely the years that most interest me.
This may, at first glance, seem somewhat perverse. Off the top of my head, I can name only a couple of writers who worked during this time: Penelope Aubin, who certainly was influenced by Defoe (but perhaps that’s not considered anything to boast about?), but whose career ended in the 1720s; and of course Eliza Haywood – and the first part of her fiction-writing career came to a shuddering halt during the first part of this period, too, thanks largely to the limitless bile of Alexander Pope. So who else was publishing in the years before Richardson? Was it a wasteland, as most literary histories would suggest? – or were still further novelistic developments going on there in the shadows, in works perhaps more important than worthy? Do any forgotten gems lurk there? I don’t know…but it is these historical black holes that I’m finding increasingly fascinating…
(*Call it Robert Mayer’s revenge. I’ve come away from History And The Early English Novel with yet more additions to my wishlist, this time a set of publications that are for the most part either apologies for “the Glorious Revolution”, or reactions to those apologies. Never mind my hope of “getting the hell out of the 17th century“: at this rate I’m never going to make it out of the 1680s…)