Jane Austen’s Contribution to Novels as a Literary Genre

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By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

Jane Austen is one of the most widely read authors in the world. Her novels are widely available in print around the world and have been translated into countless languages. Many of Austen’s works are frequently adapted for screen and stage. It played a profound role in the formation of literary culture. In fact, in recognition of her contributions, she was featured on the Bank of England’s £10 note in 2017.

A photo of shelves full of old books.
The tradition of English-language novels emerged in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. (Photo: Reinhold Leitner/Shutterstock)

What is a novel?

The 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 is no not always had novels. A tradition of English-language novels began to emerge in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

At that time, novels were understood as a new literary form. In fact, the word novel comes from French, New, meaning new. To make matters more confusing, the word for romance in French is Roman. Roman looks a lot like romance In English. Romances and novels were then said to be closely related types of writing, but they were also considered to be different.

Jane Austen knew this perfectly well, and she strongly felt their differences.

This article comes directly from the content of the video series The life and work of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Austen and the culture of novels

It is important to understand that when Austen was born, the position of the novel as a genre remained unstable.

Today you might hear people say that Austen wrote novels or that she was the first writer of romance novels. Such claims are not only misleading; they are wrong, at least as to what that word meant at the time. Throughout her career, Austen veered away from the subgenre of prose that her contemporaries called romance. Each of the books she published during her lifetime was tagged with the subtitle “A Novel”: Meaning and sensitivity: a novel; Pride and Prejudice: A Novel; etc It is a clear type distinction that it makes.

This is because in his time, the word romance meant not just a story of love and manners. It also meant some kind of fanciful, improbable fiction, usually set in the distant past, in a supposedly exotic location. In works of fiction called romance, good fought evil, riches were lost and restored, and family members were dramatically torn apart. In the end, the good were rewarded, the evil was defeated, and the long-lost family members were reunited. Romances with these characteristics had been popular for over a century at the time of Austen’s birth.

When Austen was reading fiction in the late 18th century, such 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 viewed these romances as not only improbable and ridiculous, but artistically inferior.

Instead, Austen set her sights on mid-eighteenth-century writers who constructed a new type of fiction, called the novel. He used current settings and more likely characters and actions. The novel has even been declared to be a new species of writing.

Austen was following in the footsteps of two famous novelists, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

Cover of the 1741 edition of Pamela by Samuel Richardson
by Samuel Richardson Pamela was a powerful influence on Jane Austen. (Image: Olaf Simons/Public Domain)

Works by Richardson and Fielding

Samuel Richardson published his famous novels Pamela, Clarisseand The story of Sir Charles Grandisonlike morality tales set in the present. Austen liked the novel Sir Charles Grandison so much so that it is believed she adapted her story for stage performance. This adaptation was not published during his lifetime, but it shows his appreciation for the drama and for Richardson. by Richardson Pamelaa bestseller from the 1740s, also exerted a powerful influence on Austen.

Richardson’s rival author Henry Fielding was also actively writing in the 1740s. He set out to satirize Richardson’s best-selling novel Pamela. One of Fielding’s books was a parody titled Shamela. His full title was Apology for the life of Ms Shamela Andrews. It was a false apology and a work of humor purporting to show readers that Richardson’s supposedly virtuous servant, Pamela, was a sham, a deception. 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 become two of the most acclaimed fiction writers of the mid-eighteenth century, 25 years before Austen was born. Richardson left behind a legacy of probable and judgmental stories set in the present. Fielding created comedic and racy send-offs of moralizing formulas, full of flawed human motivations, opportunism and shortcomings. Austen is said to have read the works of both authors.

Austen’s family claimed she was influenced by Richardson rather than Fielding. But you don’t have to read too far into his novels to see debts to both authors. His stories are daily and probable, like Richardson’s. But his heroines aren’t as flawless as his so often are. Austen shows us their flaws, often through humor and satire, as Fielding did.

What is important to recognize is that Austen’s stories were both similar to and different from other novels of her time. She flouted literary tradition when she began writing fiction in the 1790s; she imitated but also rebelled against earlier works of fiction. She read widely and respected literary traditions, but she was also a cheerful and 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

Q: In Jane Austen’s day, what stories were called romances?

During Jane Austenit’s time, the word romance meant not just a story of love and manners. It meant some kind of fanciful, improbable fiction, usually set in the distant past, in a supposedly exotic location. In works of fiction called romance, good fought evil, riches were lost and restored, and family members were dramatically torn apart. In the end, the good were rewarded, the evil was defeated, and the long-lost family members were reunited.

Q: What literary legacy was left by Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding?

Samuel Richardson left behind a probable legacy, moralizing stories fixed in the present. Fielding created comedic and racy send-offs of moralizing formulas, full of flawed human motivations, opportunism and shortcomings.

Q: How are Jane Austen’s stories influenced by Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding?

Jane AustenThe stories of are everyday and probable, like that of Samuel Richardson. However, his heroines aren’t as flawless as his so often are. Austen shows us their flaws, often through humor and satire, as Henry Fielding did.

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