Novel Beginnings


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Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction

Patricia Meyer Spacks

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A celebratory history and appreciation of the varied, wildly experimental nature of fiction in eighteenth-century England

In this study intended for general readers, eminent critic Patricia Meyer Spacks provides a fresh, engaging account of the early history of the English novel. Novel Beginnings departs from the traditional, narrow focus on the development of the realistic novel to emphasize the many kinds of experimentation that marked the genre in the eighteenth century before its conventions were firmly established in the nineteenth. Treating well-known works like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy in conjunction with less familiar texts such as Sarah Fielding’s The Cry (a kind of hybrid novel and play) and Jane Barker’s A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (a novel of adventure replete with sentimental verse and numerous subnarratives), the book evokes the excitement of a multifaceted and unpredictable process of growth and change.

Investigating fiction throughout the 1700s, Spacks delineates the individuality of specific texts while suggesting connections among novels. She sketches a wide range of forms and themes, including Providential narratives, psychological thrillers, romans à clef, sentimental parables, political allegories, Gothic romances, and many others. These multiple narrative experiments show the impossibility of thinking of eighteenth-century fiction simply as a precursor to the nineteenth-century novel, Spacks shows. Instead, the vast variety of engagements with the problems of creating fiction demonstrates that literary history—by no means inexorable—might have taken quite a different course.

Patricia Meyer Spacks is Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita, University of Virginia. A recognized authority on eighteenth-century fiction and culture, she is the author of numerous books, including Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.

"This survey, which ranges from the very start of the eighteenth century to the era of the French Revolution, manages to do justice, and then some, to the exuberant multiplicity and variety of eighteenth-century English fictions."—Deidre Lynch, author of The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning

"There is no other book that serves as such a good, broad introduction to the directions and issues of fiction in the eighteenth century as Patricia Spacks' Novel Beginnings. Kettle, Allen, and Lukacs might once have been able to offer a comprehensive sense of the landscape, but their studies are long out-of-date and in any case do not offer the sense of variety and differentiation that Spacks does here."—Paul Hunter, University of Virginia   

"While Patricia Meyer Spacks's Novel Beginnings . . . will serve as an excellent introduction to eighteenth-century fiction, it will also appeal to specialists, for Spacks's approach is innovative and compelling. . . . After reading Spacks's study, teachers may find themselves re-imagining syllabi and assignments. They may also find themselves wishing for a paperback edition of Novel Beginnings, which would make excellent required reading."—Christopher D. Johnson, New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century

"Patricia Spacks is a sure-footed guide... It would be difficult to come away from a reading of her book without a fuller, deeper understanding of the eighteenth century novel."---Robert Folkenflik, Times Literary Supplement

"Spacks's exuberant tone, relaxed diction, and tactical organization invite and then draw the reader into an insightful, thought-provoking, comprehensive study of eighteenth-century fiction. . . . This is an eminently teachable text wonderfully suited to get students excited about studies of the English novel while providing them with both excellent models for close reading and inter-textual analysis and a strong sense of the overarching development of the novel during the period."—Mary Ann Rooks, Ideas, Aesthetics, Inquiries

"This wide-ranging yet beautifully focused survey of the novel explores its varieties without assuming realism, or indeed any other quality, to be its generic goal." —Jane Spencer, The Scriblerian

"Though nonspecialists can read this lucid and engaging book without being mired in the complexities of long-standing scholary debates, scholars of the eighteenth century can—and should—read it too, as a resounding affirmation of what makes eighteenth-century literature so compelling, so strange, and so novel."—Helen Oesterheld, Eighteenth-Century Fiction

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2006 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300110319
Publication Date: May 1, 2006
320 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4