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Outlines of English and American Literature
Influence of the Early Novels
by Long, William J.

The idea of the modern novel seems to have been developed by several English authors, each of whom, like pioneers in a new country, left his stamp on subsequent works in the same field. Richardson's governing motive may be summed up in the word "sensibility," which means "delicacy of feeling," and which was a fashion, almost a fetish, in eighteenth-century society. Because it was deemed essential to display proper or decorous feeling on all occasions, Richardson's heroines were always analyzing their emotions; they talked like a book of etiquette; they indulged in tears, fainting, transports of joy, paroxysms of grief, apparently striving to make themselves as unlike a real woman as possible. It is astonishing how far and wide this fad of sensibility spread through the literary world, and how many gushing heroines of English and American fiction during the next seventy-five years were modeled on Pamela or Clarissa.

In view of this artificial fashion, the influence of Fielding was like the rush of crisp air into a hot house. His aim was realistic, that is, to portray real people in their accustomed ways. Unfortunately his aim was spoiled by the idea that to be realistic one must go to the gutter for material. And then appeared Goldsmith, too much influenced by the fad of sensibility, but aiming to depict human life as governed by high ideals, and helping to cleanse the English novel from brutality and indecency.

Threefold Influence

There were other early novelists, a host of them, but in Richardson, Fielding and Goldsmith we have enough. Richardson emphasized the analysis of human feeling or motive, and that of itself was excellent; but his exaggerated sentimentality set a bad fashion which our novelists were almost a century in overcoming. Fielding laid stress on realism, and that his influence was effective is shown in the work of his disciple Thackeray, who could be realistic without being coarse. And Goldsmith made all subsequent novelists his debtors by exalting that purity of domestic life to which every home worthy of the name forever strives or aspires.

If it be asked, What novels of the early type ought one to read? the answer is simple. Unless you want to curdle your blood by a tale of mystery and horror (in which case Mrs. Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho will serve the purpose) there are only two that young readers will find satisfactory: the realistic Robinson Crusoe by Defoe, and the romantic Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith.


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