By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen is one of the world’s most widely read authors. Her novels are extensively available in print worldwide and have been translated into countless languages. Many of Austen’s works are frequently adapted for screen and stage. She has played a profound role in shaping the literary culture. In fact, in recognition of her contributions, she was featured on the Bank of England’s 10-pound note in 2017.
What Is a Novel?
Novel is a long work of prose fiction. Despite English literature’s long history of prose writing, including essays and historical texts—and despite an equally long tradition of fiction, such as myths, tales, and fables—there haven’t always been novels. A tradition of English-language novels began to emerge in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
In this period, novels were understood as a new literary form. In fact, the word novel comes from the French, nouvelle, meaning new. To make things more confusing, the word for novel in French is roman. Roman looks a lot like romance in English. Romances and novels were said to be closely intertwined kinds of writing then, but they were considered different, too.
Jane Austen knew this perfectly well, and she had strong feelings about their differences.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Austen and the Culture of Novels
It’s important to understand that when Austen was born, the novel’s position as a genre remained unsettled.
Today one might hear people say that Austen was writing romances or that she was the first writer of romance fiction. Such claims aren’t just misleading; they’re wrong, at least in terms of what that word meant then. Throughout her career, Austen distanced herself from the prose subgenre that her contemporaries called romance. Each of the books she published during her lifetime was labeled with the subtitle ‘A Novel’: Sense and Sensibility: A Novel; Pride and Prejudice: A Novel; and so on. It’s a clear distinction of type that she’s making.
That’s because, in her day, the word romance meant not just a story of love and manners. It also signified a kind of fiction that was fanciful, improbable, and usually set in the distant past, in a supposedly exotic location. In works of fiction that were called romance, good fought against evil, riches were lost and restored, and family members were dramatically torn apart. In the end, the good were rewarded, evil was vanquished, and long-lost family members were reunited. Romances with these features had been popular for more than a century by the time Austen was born.
When Austen was reading fiction, in the late 18th century, these type of incredible, coincidence-filled, happily-ever-after stories were called romances. If the story involved ghosts and the supernatural, then it was called Gothic romance. Austen considered such romances as not only improbable and ridiculous, but artistically inferior.
Instead, Austen threw her lot in with earlier mid-18th-century writers who built up a new kind of fiction, called the novel. It used present-day settings and more probable characters and actions. The novel was even declared to be a new species of writing.
Austen was following in the footsteps of two famous novelists, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.
Works of Richardson and Fielding
Samuel Richardson published his famous novels Pamela, Clarissa, and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, as morality tales set in the present. Austen liked the novel Sir Charles Grandison so much that it’s believed she adapted its story for performance on the stage. That adaptation wasn’t published in her lifetime, but it stands as proof of her appreciation for the drama and for Richardson. Richardson’s Pamela, a bestseller in the 1740s, was a powerful influence on Austen, as well.
Richardson’s author-rival, Henry Fielding, was actively writing in the 1740s, too. He set out to satirize Richardson’s bestselling novel Pamela. One of Fielding’s books was a spoof titled Shamela. Its full title was An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. It was a mock apology and a humorous work claiming to show readers that Richardson’s supposedly virtuous servant Pamela was a sham, a deceit. Fielding called his fiction a ‘comic epic poem in prose’, rather than a novel.
Influence of Richardson and Fielding on Austen
Richardson and Fielding had emerged as two of the most acclaimed fiction writers of the mid-18th century, 25 years before Austen was born. Richardson left behind a legacy of probable, moralizing stories set in the present. Fielding created comic, racy sendups of moralizing formulas, full of imperfect human motivations, opportunism, and foibles. Austen would have read the works of both the authors.
Austen’s family claimed she was influenced by Richardson rather than Fielding. But you don’t have to read too far into her novels to see debts to both authors. Her stories are every day and probable ones, like Richardson’s. But her heroines aren’t as faultless as his so often are. Austen shows us their faults, often through humor and satire, as Fielding did.
What’s important to recognize is that Austen’s stories were both like and unlike the other novels of her day. She flouted literary tradition when she started writing fiction in the 1790s; she emulated but also rebelled against earlier works of fiction. She read widely and respected literary traditions, but she was also a playful, irreverent innovator. She pioneered new methods for combining point of view, characterization, morality, humor, and social criticism.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s Contribution to Novels as a Literary Genre
During Jane Austen‘s time, the word romance meant not just a story of love and manners. It signified a kind of fiction that was fanciful, improbable, and usually set in the distant past, in a supposedly exotic location. In works of fiction that were called romance, good fought against evil, riches were lost and restored, and family members were dramatically torn apart. In the end, the good were rewarded, evil was vanquished, and long-lost family members were reunited.
Samuel Richardson left behind a legacy of probable, moralizing stories set in the present. Fielding created comic, racy sendups of moralizing formulas, full of imperfect human motivations, opportunism, and foibles.
Jane Austen‘s stories are every day and probable ones, like Samuel Richardson’s. However, her heroines aren’t as faultless as his so often are. Austen shows us their faults, often through humor and satire, as Henry Fielding did.