The birth of the British novel
Just thought I’d do a quick post to recommend something that was on TV last night – Birth of the British Novel, a discussion of some of the earliest novels from the 1700s, when some genres and indeed the idea of the novel itself came to be established. It looks at Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin – also at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the birth of Gothic fiction, and Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela and Clarissa – two epistolatory novels that took up an inordinate amount of time in my early studies of the sociology of literature and that I frankly never warmed to, though many years on I can appreciate their importance even though I still find them ridiculously annoying to read.
Key point (taken from the programme blurb): ‘the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better.’ It may be difficult to think of Pamela and Clarissa as ‘subversive hand grenades’ but even they articulated an awareness of the place of women in what was then a highly patriarchal society, and perhaps suggested to their mainly female readers views and values other than those Richardson himself might have wanted to propose.
Even if you have a reasonable knowledge of the history of English literature you may find something in this programme you didn’t previously know, or see a connection you hadn’t previously made. I did.
Fronted by Henry Hitchings, author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (2008) and the just-published The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. It’s entertaining to see a programme about novels done by someone who looks like an ex-boxer, as though the analysis of the history of English involves pugilism. And maybe it does…
If you’ve missed it, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until next Monday. And it even comes with a warning: ‘Contains Adult Themes’. If you can’t get the iPlayer, I guess it’s possible that in time that it might turn up on the BBC’s Youtube channel.