The Origins of the English Novel, 1660-1740 
by Michael McKeon.
Johns Hopkins, 530 pp., £21.25, April 1987, 0 8018 3291 8
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Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel,* which Michael McKeon energetically bids to transcend, gave us, whatever else, the clear image and serviceable concept: ‘formal realism’, the growth of ‘the middle class’, secularised Protestant Man proudly bearing the standard of an aggressive ‘individualism’ – on Crusoe’s hard-won island as in the socioeconomic landscape of contemporary England. McKeon’s is on the whole more the beetle’s-eye view, tracking at the dark tangled roots the processes of historical change and he novel’s becoming.

A thesis is established, underpinned by Marxian dialectics and Bakhtin’s insights into the dialogic structure of texts. The novel arose, for McKeon, as a response to the profound instability of social and literary categories in the Early Modern era, involving at one level problems of ‘how to tell the truth in narrative’, and at another ‘questions of virtue’ as the old affinity between rank and right came under pressure from the idea of individual merit. He discerns in the writings of the period a definite pattern operating on two fronts: in the sphere of truth, ‘romance idealism’, favouring received authorities, is refuted by a ‘naive empiricism’ that insists on factual authenticity: but this in turn becomes vulnerable to an ‘extreme scepticism’ which recapitulates features of the original idealist position; and similarly, in issues of virtue, ‘aristocratic ideology’, based on an essentially feudal world-view, is challenged by ‘progressive ideology’, which then prompts a counter-critique from ‘conservative ideology’. If this seems too schematic or too linear an approach, especially in these Post-Structuralist times of ‘indeterminacy’ and ‘open-endedness’, it should be pointed out that the pattern of double reversal is seen as dynamic, perpetually in motion, persisting unresolved even at that point in the 1740s when, in the controversy between Richardson and Fielding, the new genre achieved the status of what Marx calls ‘a simple abstraction’, an identifiable category in its own right. McKeon’s terms are useful ones; and his theory argues attractively for the early novel’s significance as a crucial site of mediation, a place where epistemological, ethical and cultural crises were not only registered but given shape and brought under control.

As might be expected, it is progressive ideology that matters most – that supplies the main thrust in the origins of the novel. In particular, despite the acerbic disapproval of writers like Swift, who created in Jack the Calvinist in A Tale of a Tub a perfect type of the parvenu in whom moral rectitude cloaks corrupt self-interest, the upwardly mobile person undoubtedly steals the show, though by no means always winning the day. The book-keeper hero of Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines (1668) is one that does come out on top, but in a rather special way. Shipwrecked on a desert island, George Pine, habituated to the work ethic, hits upon the happy idea of substituting reproduction for production, and sets about impregnating the four women cast away with him – his master’s daughter, two maids and a black slave – until eventually he founds a new dynasty. Neville was a Harringtonian republican, and we must assume that his story is a witty affirmation of radical principles – the world turned upside down with a vengeance. It could just as easily be taken, however, as a joke at their expense – a consigning of progressive urges to the realms of bizarre utopian phantasy. In two of Neville’s contemporaries, Francis Kirkman and Mary Carleton, who write about themselves, we witness the actual difficulties and unforeseen consequences of rising in society, with a corresponding increase in narrative complexity and interest. It is in the autobiographical mode that the pulse of the embryonic novel beats most strongly.

Kirkman calls himself ‘The Unlucky Citizen’, but he is able to oppose to the topos of Fortune’s wheel the more convenient aspects of Puritan soteriology: so that, after repentance for sin, he arrives by providential stages at the seemingly stable present of his career as a small businessman – author, printer and bookseller, ‘a man set up for my self, sole Master of a shop’. Yet McKeon aptly underlines the element of ‘fretful eagerness to be of service’ in this final address: Kirkman’s situation remains precarious, for he inhabits a system of exchange value where prosperity depends upon a demand for his wares – not least the autobiography he is writing – and upon his willingness to be in a sense often ‘consumed’: he is ensnared by the very mechanisms of the print culture and capitalist enterprise that are the conditions of his self-definition and ascent, and whose incipient authority his work at once reflects and helps to constitute. Things are more complicated still for Mary Carleton, because she is a woman. In her fascinating apologia for her alleged ‘crime’ of tricking a man of property into marrying her by masquerading as a rich heiress, gender is ultimately revealed as an insuperable obstacle to self-affirmation since the only recourse available to her ambition is the role of fortune-hunter and knight-errant (she hankers to be ‘Lady Errant’), the mobility that even in romance is reserved for men alone. As she herself concedes when fiercely denying she ‘was seen in man’s apparel ... in designe to do mischief’, she has attempted an impossible crossing of boundaries.

McKeon brilliantly revivifies these non-canonical texts, situating them as prolegomena to the 18th-century breakthrough, yet also, though as a historicist he distrusts ‘universal’, provoking a sense of their aliveness as psychodramas embracing such themes – fundamental to the dynamics of the English novel – as the power and limits of self-creation, the mismatch of aspiration and opportunity, or the illusory nature of personal freedom in a modern order every bit as imposing as God’s service or the obligations of feudal allegiance. His later chapters on a series of major works present some problems. Mainline Puritan writings are perhaps the least satisfactorily treated throughout the volume, Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, for example, being virtually ignored in spite of its signal transfer of emphasis from the Truth that life illustrates to the life that embodies truth. The Pilgrim’s Progress, however, is read at length and with extraordinary consistency as a literal narrative that subverts the intended allegory and relates the ‘rise of the new gentility ... from common labourer ... to Whitehall courtier’. The admission that this is a wilful misreading – undertaken presumably to stress the extent of Bunyan’s ‘concreteness’ – should not disarm criticism; we categorise in order to attend, not vice versa. But the worry in the end is not so much that McKeon sets aside the tension between natural and spiritual meanings insisted on by Bunyan, and thus elides the challenge of the work as a reading experience, but that he obscures important ways in which The Pilgrim’s Progress contributes to the genesis and future of the novel – in particular, how its graphic realisation of the psychology and emotional circumstances of its hero (and at times also of his negative counterparts, like Ignorance at the jaws of Hell) makes the realm of Faith richly available as the realm of Mind and Being, and how the otherworldly location for desert (Bunyan’s meritocracy is destined, of course, for heaven) prefigures that separation of virtue from the practical world which dominates a line of novels from Clarissa to The Old Curiosity Shop, Jude the Obscure, and beyond. The self-society dichotomy is apparent much earlier than the late 18th-century context in which McKeon locates it.

Robinson Crusoe, who seems the most inevitable of heroes, is really an unusual phenomenon – the virtuous man who gets his reward on earth. On McKeon’s map he appears less the familiar exemplar of human resourcefulness in an epic of survival and the will to civilise than the capstone of progressive ideology’s pursuit of the positive, seamless formulation of its aspirations. I am not so sure that Crusoe learns exactly to ‘internalise divine authority’, but he certainly aligns Providence with his own desires and intuitions, so that, for instance, he feels himself ‘call’d plainly’ to save Friday; and with this empowerment comes socio-political privilege, Friday’s subordination to his ‘saviour’ being at last extended into Crusoe’s sovereignty over his island-kingdom. Like George Pine, Crusoe ‘acquires’ his environment, but he does so in terms that look anything but fantastical, at no one’s expense (the air is thick with fair dealing, even in the master-servant relationship with Friday), and with a title to wealth that can be carried over naturally from the neutral space of the island to the world beyond.

Defoe’s mastery of verisimilitude and introspective form, together with his secular expansion of religious experience (everyone remembers the episode of the single footprint, where the Puritan obsession with signs – providential or demonic – is precisely humanised as a drama of dark imagining and attempted rationalisation), are famous landmarks in the history of the novel. He admitted that his book was an invention, but justified it as one ‘turn’d for ... upright Ends’, no ‘jesting with truth’. One man’s truth, however, may be another man’s heresy, and Swift, with unequalled trenchancy, attacked all empirical and materialist progressivism as dangerous psychological projection. He puts Gulliver, not only in an academy of mad scientists, but in a utopia – Houyhnhnmland – where the desire to be ‘godlike’ ends in his imitating a horse, and where he undergoes a ‘conversion’ that on his return home alienates him from reality. McKeon juxtaposes Defoe and Swift to excellent effect, but misinterprets the end of Gulliver’s Travels. He takes the Houyhnhnms as Swift’s ideal of a ‘privileged communism’ and conquest of desire, and pushes aside the ‘soft school’ which thinks he discredits them by making them cold and passionless. But the soft school has a point: in the light of Gulliver’s final inability to live with his family, Swift’s conservatism seems to consist, here at least, in a rejection of all ideological idealism in favour of old-fashioned ‘humanity’.

Anyone who reads McKeon’s chapter on Pamela will find it hard to resist reading or rereading Richardson’s first masterpiece (now undervalued in comparison with the much-discussed Clarissa). The epistolary technique presses to the limit the empiricist pursuit of documentary objectivity, yet also, as a ‘writing to the moment’, has built-in reference to the instability of both truth and identity – how they are written and read into existence. Social categories are important in Pamela – the heroine is a child of the worthy but impecunious lower class who has become a servant to the gentry, and when she exchanges the finery of a lady’s maid for the drab of a country girl for a trip home, she appears to those around her ‘a Stranger’, and is to her master a ‘Medley of Inconsistence’. Clothes declare status. But Pamela is empowered, through her letters and journal, to signify her value more directly. At one point she sews her pages into her undergarments, suggesting another, truer self behind appearances; and once these, her ‘private thoughts’, enter the public domain they win the approbation of the community and make B., her erstwhile pursuer in an attempted enactment of the old ritual of gentlemanly seduction, her ideal reader, so responsive to her patient virtue that he agrees to marry her.

In the alliance itself Richardson unites the ‘true nobility’ of the deserving individual with the nobility of rank and lineage. But, as McKeon shows, if the novel does become to this extent ‘a problem-solving mode’, it is also – like works throughout the period – a locus for the emergence of fresh complications. The ‘domestication of service’ that allows Pamela to move upwards, first as maid and then as mistress, ultimately means her subordination at another level. Unlike the real Mary Carleton, who died on the gallows, a thief and a bigamist, Pamela gains a settled place, but she cannot altogether escape being locked into a hierarchical system. Writing, which had earlier usurped the customary signifier of female worth, being her ‘pregnancy’, ‘grow[ing] next my linen’, indicates at last her fixed role in the household, seeing to the ‘family accounts, between me and the servants, and me and your good self’. She becomes a sort of middle-manageress.

At the same time, there is no way of verifying the honest self expressed in Pamela’s words. It might be not naked truth but a cover. ‘I long to see the Particulars of your Plot,’ says B., signalling, in the possible implications of ‘plotting’, the unintended fissure which Fielding wrenched open in his counter-critique, Shamela. Richardson and Fielding, however, like the characters they created, are parts of a single whole, and they regularly change places across the progressive-conservative divide during their sustained discourse about the form and purposes of the novel. Though rivals, they occupy a common threshold where moral and social pedagogy – Fielding explained even comic romance as the disclosure of behaviour inconsistent with status – exists alongside a modernity of which the most obvious sign is a betokening of the triumph of the creative mind – in Richardson, above all the protagonist’s, and in Fielding the mind of the author-narrator who has taken to himself the virtues of justice and charity, which he omnisciently dispenses to a disordered world.

Pedagogy is nowadays an unfashionable thing, even in its post-Romantic form of an upvaluing of human spirituality and of literature (which has itself become a monolithic category) as the repository of a superior wisdom, the new Logos. Even the hegemony of ‘realism’ has been broken, and we hear much of the self-sufficient enclave in which the writer conducts his aesthetic games, or of the autonomous play of language and its yield in a tissue of signs. A considerable novelist like John Fowles can take as the starting-point of A Maggot the weaving of an apparently inconsequential pattern – for a ‘maggot’ is, in one of its meanings, a dance-tune.

But Fowles is here an interesting case, because he actively recalls the 18th-century novel. In the Epilogue to A Maggot he comes down, as Defoe had done, on the side of ‘upright Ends’: novelists are no mere jesters, since, though ‘we ... demand a far-fetched faith, quite often absurd in relation to normal reality,’ there are ‘truths behind our tropes [that] ... can “work” ’. The concerns behind A Maggot are ones objectively redeemed from the epoch in which the novel originated: it is, for example, a story told by a series of witnesses in a way that at once confirms and undercuts the notion of ‘historicity’, and a story of social hierarchy and progressive aspirations, not least those of a prostitute who enjoys a religions conversion and mysterious visions of a future communistic utopia. And in the Epilogue Fowles pedagogically underscores his moral and social position, for the child born to the heroine at the end of the narrative is no less than Ann Lee, founder of Shakerism, a once-flourishing branch of Dissent, in whose desire for ‘a more humane society ... all that is conveyed in “more love” ’ he finds an inspirational opposition to Mammon. Ann Lee was a radical, so much so that her vision and her virtue could find a home only outside the country of her origins and beyond normal society: but Fowles is here, in the final analysis, an exponent of a decidedly conservative ideology, pleading for ‘simplicity’, sanity and humane sensibility – ‘more love’ – in a present dominated by ‘excess’ and ‘obsession with self’. Like Fielding or Swift, he attacks materialism and self-interest – but with nostalgic detachment, less relish for the fight.

This last point is an important one, suggesting that, although Fowles deals with questions of truth and questions of virtue, he does so in a way that seems knowingly belated, on the margins, in comparison with both the early novelists and the high seriousness which the Victorians wove into their narratives and authorial interventions, or even the covert idealism that functions in latterday stories of upward mobility where – in Gissing’s Milvain or Braine’s Joe Lampton – material success is felt as an imposition, a betrayal of the spirit. A Maggot, brilliantly inventive in its writerly strategies, proclaims after all, perhaps, the triumph of aesthetic form – and reminds us that the status and purposes of the English novel are now themselves questions that the novel critically poses.

‘Self’, in a sense, however, has become of course one of the novel’s great sources of life and inspiration. Elsewhere in Fowles’s own work or in another text directly celebrative of the 18th-century achievement, Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, we see, for example, one particular, very thriving dimension of modernity that may be tracked back to the early period – a concern with the less conscious levels of the mind, the shadow side of the psyche, the struggles of the isolate self in a field of unaccountable forces – the legacy, above all, of Puritan inwardness and its confessional modes.

Michael McKeon’s study does not consider the rise of introspective self-consciousness in depth, not even in Clarissa. But The Origins of the English Novel is a powerful act of retrieval and revaluation. It is one of the most rigorous and penetrating books I have read – and one of the most widely researched, in its coverage of texts, theory, and historical developments such as ‘news’ and ‘class’, political absolutism and capitalism. It will clearly affect the thinking of scholars in a permanent and continuous way, and is too firmly engaged with the vital substance of history and literature ever to become, like one famous study of the rhetoric of fiction, a volume everyone respects but not many have digested. Manifestly it goes in some ways well beyond Watt’s account, while building on it. Popularly influential classics like The Rise of the Novel are, however, something special, and with the public at large McKeon’s scholarly virtues of close exposition and determined foraging over a very broad range of material may tell against him. Before his best ideas gain the general currency they deserve, they will require prolonged sifting. The Origins of the English Novel is a book for more than the few, but definitely for the fit.

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