Changing status of novels and the novelist, The

The eighteenth century

Before the Victorian period, the literary seriousness of the novel and the social status of the novelist were by no means secure:

  • Poetry was regarded as being at the top of the hierarchy of literary genres: in the eighteenth century, epic poetry was accorded the highest status, but with the rise of Romanticism, lyric and visionary poetry rose to prominence

  • Realistic prose fiction developed with the rise of an urban middle class with comfortable homes, more disposable income and increased leisure

  • The readership for this developing form was often defined as women, servants and the young

  • It was seen as a non-serious kind of writing, suitable for filling leisure hours, but offering the reader nothing of any substance

  • Many early novelists were women and in a male dominated society this, too, led to a down-grading of the seriousness of prose fiction

  • It was felt that realism could be dangerous because novels recounted believable behaviour by recognizable people in familiar surroundings, and could thus set a poor example to their readers.

The rising status of the novel

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the novel began to rise in status.

    • Sir Walter Scott, the leading novelist of his time, added a new seriousness of purpose to historical fiction

    • In 1816, Scott reviewed Emma by Jane Austen, hailing it as a triumph of a new domestic realism, combining entertainment with moral purpose

    • As the century progressed, the novel's capacity to address the concerns of a rapidly changing society began to be recognized

    • Fiction, with its broad social appeal was thought especially appropriate in the context of rapid industrialization and urbanization

    • The realist novel appealed to the contemporary appetite for complex narratives, which again answered to issues faced by an evolving society

    • It also appealed to a taste for varied entertainment: the length and scope of the novel enabled it to encompass comedy, romance and tragedy as part of its treatment of serious issues.

The status of the novelist

Over the same period, the status of the novelist also began to rise:

  • In previous generations, poets had been regarded as great teachers, with the capacity to articulate universal truths, so that authors like Milton and Wordsworth were held in high regard

  • This continued into the nineteenth century, with respect shown to poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning

  • At the same time, however, the ways in which they addressed a broad range of social, religious, philosophical, political and moral concerns brought increasing respect for novelists

  • Authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens began to be seen as capable of forming and influencing the feelings and opinions of their readers.

Developments in Victorian novels

Many Victorian novelists drew fruitfully on the traditions of fiction to create their novels:

  • Sources included fairy stories and folk tales, so that at one level the appeal was to a love of story-telling that might re-connect readers with their childhood
  • Early Victorian writers were much influenced by the eighteenth-century novelists and drew on both the form and tone of their picturesque comic narratives

However, Victorian novels were also characterised by:

  • A concern with social issues that gave novels an added urgency and contemporary relevance

  • Increasing complexity of plot echoing the new links and relationships formed by a changing urban society
  • The use of serialization to respond to the needs of a more popular readership

  • The enormous popularity and moral status of the novelist in society.
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