English 141. When Novels Were New

Instructor: Deidre Lynch
Day & Time: Tuesdays & Thursdays 1:30-2:45pm
Course Website
What was it like to read and write a novel at a moment before that term named a stable category and before the genre’s conventions were established? How did it feel to be a writer or reader in an era when the novel was (as some authors put it in the middle of the eighteenth century) “a new species” or “a new province” of writing?  

This class is devoted to the remarkable record of literary experimentation that forms the history of the early novel. As we study works by Aphra Behn, Mme de Lafayette, Daniel Defoe, Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen, we’ll attend particularly to questions of genre and genre hierarchy, fictionality and realism. To investigate what was novel about novels, we will ponder, for instance, how novels differ from epics or histories or the news in newspapers. That pondering will give us rich new insights into the formal devices that empowered this new kind of fiction as it claimed--unlike its predecessors in the narrative line-- to tell the truth: a claim that would eventually, by the time of Jane Austen, underwrite the novel’s emergence as the crucial genre of modern times. At the same time, we will also investigate what this emergence can tell us about modernity itself--about love, sex, and marriage, consumer capitalism, race, and empire.  We’ll cap our reading by pairing Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with an extraordinary novel in letters from 1808 (only recently rediscovered, and anonymously published), The Woman of Colour: A Tale.