Novel Readers: The Young & the Restless

Marguerite Gérard, "Lady Reading in an Interior" (1795-1800)

Marguerite Gérard, “Lady Reading in an Interior” (1795-1800)

Today I turn to my dissertation advisor for help with my blog post. Or more accurately, to his book Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century Fiction. J. Paul Hunter is interested in how this explosive new (novel) literary form came to be, who was reading it, and what kinds of experiences readers were having. As a result, Before Novels offers up fascinating insights into how the novel shaped and guided people’s lives.

Looking at historical studies of literacy rates, Hunter is able to identify four characteristics of novel readers of the time. They tended to be urban, ambitious, mobile and young.  The fact that such people were reading novels accounts for some of the attacks against the genre. For instance, Samuel Johnson described readers of novels as “the young, the ignorant, and the idle.” Here’s how Hunter interprets Johnson’s disdain:

[H]e was certainly right in his first adjective . . . and knew what he meant by the second, that the people he had in mind ignored classical truths and traditional values, trusting modernity, innovation, and subjectivity over received formulas and conclusions. But in using the third adjective, Johnson simply mouthed the cliché of his contemporaries; there is no evidence that readers of novels were more idle than non-readers, except perhaps at the moment of their “passive” contact with print, and there may be in Johnson, as in many of his moralist contemporaries, some deep suspicion of the contemplative life and some distrust of time invested strictly in curiosity, the basic Judeo-Christian intellectual dilemma. The evidence is, in fact, that novel readers, like most other readers and like Johnson himself in spite of his self-flagellation about his perceived indolence, were less idle in their aspirations, less passive about themselves and their prospects than non-readers. Ambition was, in fact, what moralists worried about. Novels and other works of fiction and imagination were widely believed to stimulate too warmly a reader’s sense of what might be.

Those in the rising classes most likely to be ambitious enough to learn to read were also most likely to be willing to be mobile . . . and their mobility was most likely to take them from their native rural pasts to a present in the growing towns and cities. Motivation to read, ambition to rise in the world, and desire to migrate to places associated with progress all coalesce in an increased taste for commerce with a larger world (whether of trade or ideas) and a commitment to modern life more generally.

In addition to opening up readers’ imaginations, Hunter says that novels performed another function that I find particularly interesting. They provided companionship in place of missing family:

Mobility, especially among those just beginning their careers or ambitions to raise their place in the world, involved special incentives to be literate, not just because writing and reading were skills valuable to a variety of professions but also because the act of leaving familiar surroundings for lesser known places involves, in itself, a necessity to provide cultural substitutes for home, family, and community. Books are not, of course, brothers or sisters, but printed materials had already begun to seem comparable to intimate friends, and they did provide a kind of companionship that was, however inadequately, often a substitute for human contact.

Hunter’s ideas provide the foundation for the way I teach the 18th century novel and Jane Austen. I’ll share tomorrow what he has to say specifically about young readers of the time.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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