Epistolary Novels

Richardson and Fielding

As the 18th century progressed, the novel began to take shape with the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740 and Clarissa (1748). These were written in the form of letters and again this lent a false ‘realness’ to the enterprise and started something of a vogue in epistolary novel writing. It is Henry Fielding, though, who is seen to have established the English novel form, oddly enough in direct reaction against Richardson. Joseph Andrews (1742) was initially conceived as a satire on Pamela but became much more than mere ribbing or criticism. Like Richardson he became a novelist almost by accident when the 1737 Licensing Act censored the stage to the extent that Fielding abandoned writing for it. He wrote with a great sense of irony and satirized the manners and values of his time (especially those extolled by Richardson). He would certainly not be the last to use the novel to poke fun at his contemporaries, something enjoyed later by Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne, and Jane Austen .

With Tom Jones (1746) Fielding displayed an entirely new degree of skill in plot development and technical innovation. Further, Tom Jones himself was a new kind of hero: flawed, ordinary, weak and un-heroic in spite of his good looks and bravery. Smollett took this a stage further with his many novels centred around caricatured, despicable and dehumanized heroes (in the adventures of Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and so on). Smollett was a curmudgeon and an appalling grouch (see his hilariously grumpy Travels Through France and Italy (1766) for proof) and his sociopathic attitudes infiltrated his fiction. Even in his best and most humane novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), the character Lismaho is described as resembling a rather unpleasant-looking insect. Smollett depicted his characters as he saw the world: as a vulgar and absurd parade. Everyone was exaggerated and caricatured. Nothing was sacred.

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