An Introduction

Novels of the 1750s and early 1760s are often overlooked, like middle children surrounded by more illustrious siblings. Seen either as disappointing sequels to the novel’s meteoric rise in the 1740s (which included hits such as Clarissa [1747-8], Roderick Random [1748], and Tom Jones [1749]) or as underdeveloped predecessors to emerging genres like the Gothic novel, the novel of sensibility, and Jacobin fiction (which defined the 1770s-1790s), midcentury narratives are rarely understood as a distinct mode of literature. These novels usually provoke confusion more than admiration and reflect what E.J. Clery describes as a somewhat shapeless moment in literary history “without generic fixity or a clear market” (77).

As this critical bibliography shall show, the hodge-podge nature of literary production in 1750-1765 doesn’t provide a particularly forceful rebuttal to teleological understandings of eighteenth-century literature. If anything, my work reinforces what naysayers have long claimed: that midcentury novels are either mediocre or bizarre–and yet, this strangeness is exactly what makes their study both interesting and important.

Midcentury novels about women (the topic of my study) are indeed a motley cluster, compelling 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 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 (1760), the English translation of Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse, enacts the usual death-via-premarital-sex punishment plot, even as Rousseau 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, 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), my critical bibliography and web exhibition record the unwieldy 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 speak for itself.

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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 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 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 and energetic answer: yes!

As Simon Dickie notes, history tends to divide evidence into two piles: what impacts the road ahead, and what falls by the wayside, disconnected from progress or change.[1] 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 to reasonably present a historical period. As Dickie notes, “suspending teleology is one of the oldest and most useful of defamiliarizing tools.” When practiced, this approach reveals an enormous mass of material that, though “irrelevant to teleologies of mainstream history,” reveals a great deal about a particular moment in literary history (12-3).

A single day in 1752, or 1757, or 1760 or any of the years explored 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) and at the same time saturated with older systems of belief (arcane religious thought, staunch misogyny, dire poverty with no potential for upward mobility). 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 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 AuthorshipPrices, 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 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 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 one thoroughly understand narratives about women in 1750-1765? I have two suggestions: by setting aside the question of 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 is true that not all of the novels on this bibliography seem like enjoyable reads, they 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, striving to understand their appeal is a better way to comprehend this intriguing time.

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. This 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 concern, the question that compelled your author to complete all the work ahead: What did popular stories about women look like at midcentury? In some ways, it can only be described as ragtag and yet this marketplace operated through some shared assumptions and organizing principles. Critical bibliography provides an unbiased view of popular feminocentric narratives at a diverse moment in literary history, regardless of their apparent quality.

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, I provide a comprehensive view of successful fiction about women at midcentury.

[1] 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.

Works Cited

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.