Novels of the 1750s and early 1760s are often overlooked, like a middle child surrounded by her more illustrious siblings. Seen as either the disappointing sequel 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 emerging genres like the Gothic novel, the novel of sensibility and Jacobin fiction (which defined the 1770s-1790s), midcentury prose is rarely understood as a distinct literary entity in and of itself. These novels often provoke confusion more than admiration, and reflect their somewhat shapeless moment in literary history “without generic fixity or a clear market” (Clery 77).
As this critical bibliography shall show, the hodge-podge nature of literary production in 1750-1765 doesn’t exactly provide a forceful rebuttal to such teleological understandings of eighteenth-century literary history. If anything, my work reinforces what naysayers have known for a long time: that midcentury fiction can only be described as a bizarre bunch of prose. And yet, this strangeness is exactly what makes their study both interesting and important.
The topic of my study, midcentury novels specifically about women, is indeed a motley cluster that compels a variety of literary representations. Pious didactic novels with wallflower leads 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 an independent, delightfully self-centred young heiress in The Female Quixote (1752); the sexual maven occupies the traditionally male role of comic lead in Nancy Dawson (1760). Eloisa (1761) enacts the usual death-via-premarital-sex punishment plot, yet also fiercely defends its heroine, imbuing her with integrity, sexuality, and quick wit – not the expected personality traits in female characters of the time. 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, this project employs synchronic historicism, where the past is puzzled out in all its strangeness, not beholden to what came before or afterward. By presenting a micro-historical slice of time (fifteen years between 1750 and 1765), this critical bibliography and web exhibition records and displays the loose, unwieldy shape and intense variety of popular feminocentric prose 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 let its evidence speak for itself.
A slideshow of midcentury title pages, from both canonical and forgotten works.
In this light, one key impulse my project does not gratify is archival recovery’s tendency to claim forgotten fiction is chockfull of hidden masterpieces. (My reader will have to look elsewhere for such curiously consistent delights.) As Terry Castle writes, it is possible to recognize artistic inconsistencies and still assert their critical value: “sublimely bad” fiction is not “uninteresting or unimportant or – in a funny way – not worth reading” (137). One needn’t contort oneself to find subversive significance in yet another pious female protagonist (with all the personality of a houseplant) or feign excitement at a conduct novel, eight hundred tear-soaked pages long. Novels simply do not need to be artistic triumphs to be valuable or significant.
As is clear by now, I won’t pretend that every item on this bibliography deserves immediate revival. 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 query, ‘But should we attend to these novels? Should every novel be saved simply because it existed, no matter how dreadful?’ This bibliography provides a simple, though energetic, answer: Yes!
According to Simon Dickie’s useful distillation, in its simplest formulation, one can view history as dividing evidence 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, one neglects the dead ends, leaving behind the paths that went nowhere (13). But recognizing this tension between progress and its discontents seems the only way one can reasonably present a period of history. As Dickie notes, “suspending teleology is one of the oldest and most useful of defamiliarizing tools” and when practiced, it reveals an enormous mass of material that, though “irrelevant to teleologies of mainstream history,” nevertheless tells us a great deal about a particular literary historical period (12-3).
A single day in 1752, or 1757, or 1760, or any of the years in the project was probably full of moments that could nestle into historical progress (indications that the middle class was rising, hints of Enlightenment thought, suggestions of secularization, and all the other narratives that are projected onto the eighteenth century) and at the same time, though as Dickie notes, much more difficult to understand, saturated with persistent, older belief systems (arcane religious thought, staunch misogyny, dire poverty with no potential for upward mobility) (13). By selecting the short period of time between 1750 and 1765, this critical bibliography provides an unbiased snapshot of the past, representing all the narratives that fulfill my criteria, regardless of whether it is 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. This holistic approach attends to paratextual materials and contexts, which in turn produce a more thorough view of this complex time in literary history.
A brief manifesto concludes my thoughts on straightforward narratives of historical progress: if one wants to represent a period of time realistically, then one must attend to every aspect, from the exciting and likeable, to the boring and confusing, no matter how unpleasant this evidence may be.
This 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 figures such as Austen, Eliot, Dickens, 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 can tell us so much about their specific literary historical contexts.
With this in mind – all the scholarly models that omit and neglect – how can one thoroughly understand literary production in 1750-1765? This project has two suggestions: By setting aside the question of how this period relates to the novels that came before and 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 is true that not all the novels on this bibliography seem like enjoyable reads, one must remember that even these managed to sell well in their own time, achieving at least two editions within five years of their initial publication. Midcentury readers found something they liked in these works. Rather than baffling at their success, striving to understand their appeal seems a better way to comprehend this intriguing time in literary history.
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. Instead, this critical bibliography indicates a diverse range of genres, models of authorship, and extremely varied critical reception, amid uniform pricing practices and shared advertisement strategies.
And so, we come to this project’s main concern, the question that compelled your author to complete all the work ahead: What did popular fiction about women look like at midcentury? In some ways, it can only be described as ragtag and yet, this marketplace operated through certain shared assumptions and organizing principles. Critical bibliography provides an unbiased view of popular feminocentric narratives at a diverse moment in literary history, regardless of whether they seem good, bad, or sublimely bad.
This project begins to answer the following questions: What kinds of female characters inhabited the bestsellers of midcentury England? Which genres did they occupy? And of course, what has survived the evolution of English literary studies, what has been forgotten, and why? By reflecting the heterogeneity of 1750-1765 in all its variation, the following critical bibliography provides an analytical and holistic view of successful fiction about women at midcentury.
 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.