The Conversational Circle: Re-reading the English Novel, 1740-1775.
There is at present a considerable revival of interest in female-authored novels of the mid- to late eighteenth century, and several are now available in print. Their editors usually try to recuperate them for feminism by adumbrating a 'political unconscious' to such novels as Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, Frances Sheridan's Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, and even Eliza Haywood's The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, subverting the submission to social control that is the ostensible significance of the events narrated. I am, admittedly, a male reader: but I sometimes suspect this to be a form of nominalism. If the novels in question had been attributed to Charles Lennox, Francis Sheridan, and Elisha Haywood there would be a much greater willingness to take them at their word.
Betty Schellenberg's project in this book is unfashionable by the above token, in that she wishes to explore a group of novels whose ideology is frankly conservative and reactionary, irrespective of the authors' gender. She puts together - somewhat arbitrarily, she confesses, and modestly in respect of her book's grandiose subtitle - novels that share a concern with the construction of a conversational circle, the purpose of which is to limit individual action and subsume it to a group consensus. In such fictions, 'conflict, which most commonly supplies the energy of narrative, is replaced by an impulse towards alignment, consensus, and mutual reinforcement' (p. 5). Sarah Fielding's David Simple, Richardson's sequel to Pamela (Part II) and his Sir Charles Grandison, Fielding's Amelia, Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall, and Smollett's Humphry Clinker come within her purview. Because she sees this novelistic project as a short-lived one, with a trajectory of ultimate defeat as the self-enclosed domestic circle comes to seem more and more idealistic, impossible to realize in a world hostile to it, she separates Sarah Fielding's David Simple into the first part, published in 1744, and the 1753 Volume the Last, which is given a separate chapter as the novel that makes most apparent the failure of the ideal friendship community to be instantiated on this side of the grave. Such novels as she explores have been dismissed as dull and boring because they are typically 'centripetal and static' rather than linear and goal-directed, and they do not turn upon the actions of an isolated, misunderstood protagonist defying society, but on an intimate circle dominated by a centrally authoritative persona such as Sir Charles Grandison. The canon of English novels has, she argues, been defined in terms of those that privilege individualism rather than those that valorize collective values.
The result is an absorbing, subtle study that, in its quietist emphasis, sometimes omits from her discussion of the novels material that is spiky and angular - giving a somewhat partial account of them therefore. Sarah Fielding's David Simple furnishes the readiest example: a novel crammed with challenging material on contemporary taste, uncomfortable material on 'toad-eating' and the nature of social dependency, anecdotal representations of the progress of atheism . . . one's reading experience of this novel does not quite square with the account given of it in Schellenberg's book. Apart from sensing that her theme is not always capacious enough to embrace what is most disturbing in the novels she reads - in Humphry Clinker, for example, the disturbing representations of the human body seem to sabotage from the outset any attempt to idealize the family unit - one might also comment on her project to refine our idea of the novelistic canon. In their own day, it was the other kind of novel that needed saving. Richardson's frustration of the desire for a tension-driven plot was a vast barrier that it seemed well-nigh impossible for new writers to negotiate. Far from being dismissed as eternally tedious, Sir Charles Grandison was a vast monolith whose cultural hegemony it was difficult to circumvent. Schellenberg's book, though it does not historicize its argument in this way, nevertheless provides valuable insight into why Richardson's less dramatic fictions should have exercised such a fascination in their own time, and why they no longer do so.
BREAN S. HAMMOND University of Wales, Aberystwyth
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|Author:||Hammond, Brean S.|
|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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