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Vincent Newey

  • The Origins of the English Novel, 1660-1740 by Michael McKeon
    Johns Hopkins, 530 pp, £21.25, April 1987, ISBN 0 8018 3291 8

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.

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[*] Reissued by Hogarth on 17 September (319 pp., £3.95, 0 7012 0791 4).