Novels of the 1750s and early 1760s are often overlooked, like middle children surrounded by more illustrious siblings. They’re either seen as disappointing sequels to the novel’s meteoric rise in the 1740s (which included hits such as Clarissa [1747-8], Roderick Random , and Tom Jones ) or as underdeveloped predecessors to genres like the Gothic novel, the novel of sensibility, and Jacobin fiction. In both cases, midcentury narratives are rarely understood as a distinct mode of literature. Instead, they provoke more confusion than admiration and reflect what E.J. Clery describes as a shapeless moment in literary history “without generic fixity or a clear market” (77).
My critical bibliography will not rebut these ideas. If anything, it reinforces what naysayers have claimed for a long time: midcentury novels are either mediocre or bizarre—and yet, this strangeness is exactly why we must study the fascinatingly hodge-podge literature produced between 1750-1765.
Midcentury novels about women (the topic of my study) are indeed a motley cluster. They compel a variety of literary representations: pious didactic novels led by wallflowers jostle against scandalous romans à clef, centred by moody, violent anti-heroines. Whore memoirs, joyous spoofs, and comic rambles are competitively priced with sentimental epics and bleak biographies.
Tropes of femininity run wild: the stereotypical heroine of romance also happens to be a delightfully self-centred young heiress in The Female Quixote (1752). Meanwhile, the sexual maven occupies the traditionally male role of comic lead in Nancy Dawson (1760). In Eloisa (1760), the English translation of Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau goes for the usual death-via-premarital-sex punishment plot, though he also fiercely defends his heroine, imbuing her with integrity, quick wit, and a new kind of virtue based on expressing emotion. How does one fit these contrary women into established histories of the eighteenth-century novel?
Perhaps a better question is whether one should. While diachronic historicism uses the past to understand the present, I decided to use synchronic historicism in this project. Synchronic historicism allows us to see the past in all its strange glory; it gives us a view of these books that is unbeholden to what came before or afterward. By presenting a micro-historical slice of time (fifteen years between 1750 and 1765), my critical bibliography and web exhibition record the unwieldy variety of popular narratives aboutwomen at midcentury. I do not try to integrate my evidence into a grander narrative about the rise of the novel. I prefer to offer this period a rare privilege: the opportunity to speak for itself.
A slideshow of midcentury title pages, from both canonical and forgotten works.
In this light, one tendency my project does not gratify is archival recovery’s, shall we say, conspicuous ability to discover hidden masterpieces. My reader will have to look elsewhere for such curiously consistent delights. As Terry Castle writes, novels do not need to be artistic triumphs to be valuable or significant: “sublimely bad” fiction is not “uninteresting or unimportant or—in a funny way—not worth reading” (137). Some prose in this project is boring, clunky, and derivative—the worst possible option: bad, but without the pleasures of “sublime badness.” And so, in plain view of this difficult subject matter, let’s address The Question head on.
Any archival project invites some version of the following question: “But should we attend to these novels? Should every novel be saved simply because it existed, no matter how dreadful?” My bibliography provides a simple and energetic answer: yes!
As my supervisor Simon Dickie notes, history tends to divide itself into two piles: what impacts the road ahead and what falls by the wayside, disconnected from progress or change. By only considering how the past influences the present, we neglect the dead ends, leaving behind the paths that went nowhere (13). Instead, recognizing the tension between progress and its discontents seems like the only way to reasonably present a historical period. As Dickie notes, “suspending teleology is one of the oldest and most useful of defamiliarizing tools.” When practiced, it reveals an enormous mass of material that reveals a great deal about a particular moment in literary history, precisely because it is “irrelevant to teleologies of mainstream history” (12-3).
In other words, I’m interested in misfit history—the stuff that makes us stop and wonder, “where the hey did that come from?”
After all, a single day in 1752, or 1757, or 1760 or any of the years in this project, was probably full of moments that could nestle into historical progress (indications of the middle class’ centrality, hints of Enlightenment thought, suggestions of secularization, and all the other narratives projected onto the eighteenth century). At the same time, these years were also saturated with older systems of belief (arcane religious thought, staunch misogyny, dire poverty with no potential for upward mobility) and experiments that flourished for only a brief time.
By selecting the short period of time between 1750 and 1765, my critical bibliography provides an unbiased snapshot of the past, representing all the narratives that fulfill my criteria, regardless of whether they are remembered or forgotten, good, bad, or sublimely bad (see Criteria). I represent not only these novels, but their world through short essays on Authorship, Prices, Advertisements, Book Design, and Reviews.
A brief manifesto concludes my thoughts on straightforward narratives of historical progress: if someone wants to represent a period of time realistically, then they have to think about every aspect, from the exciting and likeable to the boring and confusing, no matter how unpleasant this evidence may be.
My soliloquy on historical teleology finds its mirror image in the evolution of the English literary canon. Yes, the eighteenth century produced the rise of the realist novel, which in turn influenced titans such as Austen, Dickens, Eliot and more. But as in history, this narrative disregards the “misfit forms,” as Lorri Nandrea would call them, the shirked genres that never went anywhere long term, even though their brief existence and proliferation tell us so much.
With all this in mind, how can someone thoroughly understand narratives about women in 1750-1765? I have two suggestions: by setting aside how this period relates to the novels that came before or after, and by examining what contributes to the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature, instead of categorizing novels as one group or the other.
While it’s true that not all of the novels on this bibliography seem like enjoyable reads, they all managed to sell well in their own time, achieving at least two editions within three years of their initial publication. Midcentury readers found something they liked in these works. Instead of scratching our heads at their success, trying to understand their appeal is a better way to comprehend them.
More broadly, the sheer variety of successful novels at midcentury is itself remarkable—an immediate rebuttal to anyone who insists that literary history moved along in a straightforward evolution. My project reflects a diverse range of genres, models of authorship, and extremely varied critical receptions, amid uniform pricing practices and shared advertisement strategies.
And so, we come to this project’s main concerns, the questions that compelled me to complete all the work ahead. What kinds of stories about women did people actually buy at midcentury? Which female characters inhabited the bestsellers of 1750-65? Which genres were most popular? And of course, what survived the evolution of English literary studies, what was forgotten, and why?
 For a thorough and rousing discussion of teleology in eighteenth-century literary scholarship, see Dickie’s introduction, “The Unsentimental Eighteenth Century, 1740-70”, cited below.
Castle, Terry. “Sublimely Bad.” Boss Ladies, Watch Out! Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing. New York: Routledge, 2002. 137-144.
Clery, E.J. “The Novel in the 1750s.” The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 2: English and British Fiction 1750-1820. Eds. Peter Garside and Karen O’Brien. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. 73-91.
Dickie, Simon. “The Unsentimental Eighteenth Century, 1740-70.” Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 1-15.
Nandrea, Lorri. Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the English Novel. New York: Fordham UP, 2015.
Webpage created on March 5, 2017. Last updated on April 27, 2017.