The status of prose fiction

The eighteenth century

Before the Victorian period (1837 – 1901), the literary seriousness of the novel and the social status of the novelist were by no means fully accepted:

  • 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 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

Walter ScottIn 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 writers such as Milton and Wordsworth were held in high regard
  • This continued into the nineteenth century, with the respect shown to poets such as Lord Alfred 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
  • Novelists thus began to be seen as capable of using their fictions to form and influence the feelings and opinions of their readers
  • The novel was also seen as an appropriate form for observing and interpreting a rapidly changing and increasingly complex society.

Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1848) to W. M. Thackeray and in the Preface to that edition she writes:

‘I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day, as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things.'

In asserting Thackeray's social and moral responsibility, Brontë is asserting and confirming the enhanced status of the novel and associating herself with his perception of ‘the warped system of things'.

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