Monday, August 4, 2014

The Novel - Public Menace Number One

Here we sit in the 21st Century, writing novels, and writing blogs about writing novels, and yet the novel had a very infamous beginning. Particularly at the beginning of the 18th Century when the novel had risen to some levels of popularity and was considered a vastly different proposition to the Epic Poem, or the Chivalric Romance or the Religious Allegory. At the time there emerged a moral panic about the influence the novel was having on the unwary, vulnerable female. The following quote made me laugh:

“Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels […T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mistresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemina”
- Sylph no 5, October 1796: 36-37, quoted in John Tinnon Taylor, Early Opposition to the English Novel (York: The King’s Crown Press, 1943).

My all time favourite author, a contemporary of this time period recognised this panic, and decided to parody it in her novel ‘Northanger Abbey’. Austen’s character, Catherine Moreland’s fascination with novels, especially the Mrs Radcliff sensational Gothic Horror stories, was a central theme to this story, and Austen was not above poking fun at her own occupation and craft.
Austen’s Mr Thorpe is very loud and robust on the subject of novels:

“Novels are so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones...they are the stupidest things in creation.” Northanger Abbey Chapter VII

Sitting here some 200 years later, it is a little hard for us to fathom the outrage, panic and controversy that a small thing like a novel managed to stir. But then, I guess it really shouldn’t be so hard to imagine when we consider some titles from our own era:

The Da Vinci Code; Fifty Shades of Grey; Lolita; The Colour Purple; The Harry Potter Series

However talented the authors of these titles might be, and however popular they proved to be on the market, I daresay most of us would have heard something by way of moral panic for one reason or another.

And then there is our dear old friend Daisy from the very funny British comedy Keeping Up Appearances. Daisy is a voracious reader of the mass market paperback romance, living vicariously in the pages of her little erotic novel world. Onslo, her rather boorish, unattractive, slovenly husband, doesn’t quite meet her needs in the romance department. We laugh at Daisy, and she is very funny, and completely out of touch with the real world.

When thinking about some of the journey the humble novel has travelled, and seen some of the influence it has had, both positive and negative, it begs the question, what about the work that I produce and submit to the readers of this world. Am I a moral liability, or is there something more. I like very much this quote from Georg Eliot:

“If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls: and the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is, that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.” (George Eliot, Letter to Charles Bray, 5 July, 1859)

I bear in mind that when Harriet Beecher Stowe released her classic work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to the readers of her time, she had that intention: that her readers should better imagine and feel the pains and joys of those who were under the burden of slavery. This novel evoked moral outrage and controversy, and yet when we read it today, we do not understand the strength of purpose for which she intended it, or the influence it had on readers of her time.

I love to entertain my readers, and hope they connect with my characters and are deeply engaged with my plot – but I hope above all else that somewhere along the line readers will be moved, inspired, encouraged or challenged.

PS – I’ve just started a subject at University called ‘The History of the Novel’ – can you tell?

Meredith Resce

Author of Mellington Hall; Cora Villa; For All Time and The Heart of Green Valley Series


  1. Great post Meredith.

    What a great quote to start with - it's actually quite uplifting to think of the lady in the miserable garrets and the maids in the kitchen reading novels :). It reminds me of Henry Lawson's short story 'A Child in the Dark and a Foreign Father' in which the pioneer mother in the bark hut has been attempting to write poetry only to suffer a migraine (a story based on Henry's own mother). The mother in the story is condemned for neglecting her duties but I could feel a great deal of sympathy for her in her efforts to transcend the drudgery and restrictions of her existence and exercise the creativity and intelligence God gave her.

    A good reminder about the impact our work can have too.

    1. Hey Lynne, the beautiful violins were also once frowned upon in church services, just because they were played in brothels!

  2. Things like this always remind me of the response Ira Sankey received when he first started using an organ in church services. People were horrified as, up until then, organs had only been used in pubs.
    As with anything, novels can be used for good or bad. It is the person using them, whether creator or wielder, who decides whether that use will be for good or evil.

  3. Thanks for that Meredith - and yes, I was wondering if this was part of your current studies - LOL. Thanks for sharing it with us. It's fascinating to see how ideas have changed. From the shocking organ music Lynne talked about to the shocking novel. I wonder what that 18th century critic would say about today's reality TV?

    I remember reading somewhere that Uncle Tom's Cabin did more to change people's attitudes to slavery than any other document written at the time. To Kill a Mockingbird would have done the same during the civil rights movement. As you note, novels help people empathise with others in different situations and help us walk in their shoes more than we would if we were just reading non-fiction. Good on you for keeping the flag flying Meredith :)

  4. Very interesting post Meredith. And how learned you are! Yes, I did guess you may have been studying some of it. Well done. Amazing to think of the controversy caused by novels in days gone by. Wow! I think we are fortunate to live in this day and age with novels being an accepted form of entertainment and also far more than that. Thanks for the education we've enjoyed through your blog! :)

  5. Wonderful fun post, Meredith. Thankfully our faith-based novels are in a different category than the ripped bodices & bare chested hunks on covers that catch the eye of emotionally starved ladies.Even so without the blatant sex, most Christian novels still have the romance we all enjoy and sometimes the unrequited love that saddens us. But nowadays I can't imagine us sobbing our hearts out over ill-treated heroines. Maybe we've just become too used to the callous treatment of women real life we see on TV?
    Yes, our stories need to show human nature as it is, but it's great that as believers we can bring the spiritual side into the story and show true love and compassion with all its blessings.

  6. I found your post fascinating! Thanks for sharing - will you tell us more when you've finished your subject? Hope so :)

  7. Hi Meredith,
    That sounds as if it must be one of the most fascinating courses of the semester. Thanks for getting us thinking about the history of the novel. However infamous, it's clear how much of a pull a good one had from the very start. If we can fit our purpose somewhere between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ann Radcliffe, we'd be doing well.

  8. Yes, I daresay my next blog will be due about the time the course on History of the Novel is finished...See what else I can find out before then.

  9. Thanks for your wise words Meredith. What a great blessing it is for the novelist if even just one reader came nearer to God as a result of reading their work. As for me, I have been blessed countless times as a reader of Inspirational Fiction.

  10. Great blog Meredith. Such fun to think about the journey of the novel. Sometimes we need to be outrageous to get attention, and thank goodness the novel did.

  11. When thinking about some of the journey the humble novel has travelled, and seen some of the influence it has had, both positive and negative,