The seventeenth and eighteenth century British society witnessed the paradigmatic shift from the earlier feudal hierarchy to the individualistic modern society. The return and response of the colonial trade destabilised the concepts of tier and status; the new social structure was headed by merchant princes. Rising merchant capitalism as well as the Calvinist and the Puritan theologies led to the emergence of individualism. Capitalism brought in economic specialization, combined with a less rigid and homogenous social structure. Following the Glorious Revolution (1688) the commercial classes rose to a political and economic power they had seldom enjoyed so far.
Reflected in the literary domain, this individualism influenced the new genre of the novel to rise. Instead of archetypes, individuals henceforth became the subject of serious literature. The influx of wealth changed the lifestyle; even the routine life of 'les petites gens' was now buzzed enough with charms and actions to attract the general reader. Realism came to be the idiosyncratic feature of the novel, and documented in literature the life and society of eighteenth century England. Contemporary writers also often borrowed the nomenclature of 'history' to explain their works. In Joseph Andrews (1742), Fielding sought to describe 'not Men but Manners'. This interest in 'manners' probably began with Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs (1756) and rapidly became a defining characteristic of histories and fictions alike. Nevertheless, while the historian treated personal experience as the part of a collective entity, the novelist's representation was highly individualistic. 'If the stage is a mirror of life,' Anna Barbauld observed in The British Novelists (1810), 'so is the novel, and perhaps a more accurate one, as less is sacrificed to effect and representation.' In The Progress of Romance (1785), Clara Reeve wrote that the novel 'is a picture of real life and manners, and of the time in which it was written.' Clearly, the novel became a reliable document of English life in the eighteenth century.
By this time, the subject of prose fictions changed revolutionarily. Instead of romance heroes and delicate heroines, the novel now offered the middleclass the portraits of middleclass humanity. So far, canonical English authors like Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Dryden had voted for the establishment by attacking the emergent individualism. On the other hand, early eighteenth century writers like Defoe and Richardson buoyantly approved and praised the heroes of economic individualism.
Wealth was at the centre of eighteenth century values. 'Gin Lane', a contemporary picture by William Hogarth, shows a child falling off from its mother's breast while she is greedily absorbed in counting her coins. Most of Defoe's protagonists pursue money, which he called 'the general denominating article in the world'. Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxana, Colonel Jacque, and Captain Singleton all illustrate this concept of 'homo economicus'. They pursue money methodically, according to the profit and loss book keeping, which Max Weber considered a distinctive feature of capitalism. A capitalist also relies on contracts. According to Locke, contractual relationships were binding even in the state of nature. Crusoe seems to be committed to Locke; when others arrive on the island he forces them to make agreements acknowledging his absolute authority.
Economic individualism also devalues traditional bonds, like families and guilds. Defoe's protagonists either have no family, like Moll Flanders, Colonel Jacque and Captain Singleton; or they leave it at an early age never to return, like Roxana and Robinson Crusoe. As Ian Watt observes in The Rise of the Novel (1957), Crusoe is xenophobic only when the economic virtues are absent. While they are present – as in the Spanish Governor, a French papist priest, a faithful Portuguese factor – his praise is abundant. On the other hand, he often condemns Englishmen, like the settlers on the island, for their lack of diligence. His family, to speak in a wider sense, is constituted with industrious people irrespective of their race and nationality.
Crusoe is hence not, like Autolycus, a commercial traveller rooted in an extended but still familiar locale; nor is he, like Ulysses, a weary voyager trying to get back home. Profit is his only vocation, and the whole world his territory. His profound unease to stay at home epitomises the mercantile zeal of the transitional era. Crusoe begins his account by recalling the restlessness responsible for his voyage. Precisely, this is a socioeconomic model of the 'uneasiness' that Locke had made the centre of his system of motivation in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690).
In this new economic discourse, every man was for himself. Invention replaced the ritual, experiment took the place of contemplation, and demonstration substituted the deductive logic. Consequently, mechanism as a social element came into existence long before the West actually turned to machines. The new bourgeoisie reduced life to an automata following mechanised routine habits with time bound working, dinning, sleeping and merry making. In Sterne's Tristam Shandy (1760-67), the methodical sexual intercourse of the protagonist's father coincided symbolically with the monthly winding of the clock. Waste of time became the most heinous sin in the Protestant work ethics, and nothing was quite free from the stamp of the almanac or the hourglass.
Women had a significant role to play in the eighteenth century novels. Fielding's sister Sarah provided in David Simple (1744) a notable contrast to the male novelists' treatment of female characters. While Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa struggle with threatening seducers, Sarah's heroines wryly recognise sexual harassment as a fabric of the social structure. In Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752), the protagonist Arabella turns from the sterner labours of her father's study to her mother's collection of French romances that she mistakes for historical accounts. By creating an ironic distance between the heroine and the narrator, Lennox uses the familiar ingénue motif to make a social comment on women's education. Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) uses the epistolary narrative of a woman asking her male mentor for advice. Cecila (1782) portrays an intelligent but naïve girl tricked out of her inheritance by an exploitative friend's husband. In drawing attention to the pitfalls of the ingénue in a corrupt environment, Burney contributes to the social debate on feminine status that the next century novelists would often join in.
Since the colonial trade was exclusively a patriarchal enterprise, women were somewhat marginalised and cocooned in the home. The patriarchal society in the other side of the threshold was quite dangerous for them. Still, there was a notable change in the male attitude to women. The conventional 'amour courtois', or courtly love, could not provide the connective or structural theme which the novel required. It was primarily a leisure fantasy invented to gratify the noble lady, whose actual social and economic future had already been decided by her marriage to a feudal lord. Various socioeconomic changes in the eighteenth century led to regard love as a practical affair. In Pamela (1740) the relationship of the lovers has all the qualities of romantic love; yet it can realistically be made to involve various problems of everyday life – conflicts between social classes and their different outlooks, for example, and conflicts between the sexual instinct and the moral code. The relationship between Pamela and Mr B. can carry the whole weight of the literary structure in a way that was impossible in the earlier romances.
Nevertheless, the middleclass oriented novel hardly presented a complete social picture. The aristocrats still indulged in luxurious leisure, and the life of the poor drastically deteriorated. The novel was restricted to the middleclass, and did not present a complete cross-section of contemporary society like the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. All but the destitute could spend a penny now and then to visit the Globe theatre; it was worth a mere quart of ale. On the other hand the price of a novel, however less than costly volumes of poetry, would feed a family for a week or two. Nor was it privileged as a literary genre. Poetry still continued with its esteemed place, while the common mass voted for the drama.
The early eighteenth century English novel does not portray the reality of lower class life, but how they were perceived by the middle and upper-middle strata. The feudal psyche was still very much there; comic servants limited to stock responses were preferable to recognisable working individuals. In Moll Flanders (1722), the protagonist's intense childhood aversion of 'service' offers Defoe a scope to elaborate her individualism he could not do otherwise.
The major novelists of the mid century who followed Defoe more or less grounded their narratives in social inevitability and class stratification undermined by characters like Moll. Richardson's correspondents in Clarrisa Harlowe (1747-48), for instance, assume the existence of a world of anonymous or interchangeable workers as the sustaining backdrop for their epistolary self-elaborations. Servants are mostly perceptible through the eyes of their leisured masters. Even when they represent their own voices the discourse is marked by grammatical or orthographic awkwardness, indicating their unredeemable state in contrast to the freedom their masters enjoy. On the other hand, Pamela's fluent and correct writing foretells her social elevation.
Four of the novelists used the rural ideal, of pastoral and georgic tradition, for thematic and aesthetic purposes in their works. Fielding's Joseph Andrews focussed on it as a moral order, while Smollett's Humphrey Clinker (1771), as ecological. It is aesthetic in Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and religious in Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Indeed these writers depict the rural ideal in different ways, employing to varying degrees sentiment and irony; but they all use it as comic and satiric conventions. Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) is overtly ideological in its comic transformation of eighteenth century society. But the defecating or begging people who intrude here seems intractable, unable to be used for anything but a satiric composition to work out a striking incongruity. The philosopher Square, with his pseudo-geometrical claim to control experience, is caught in a posture closely related to the sexual one he has just been in; this comparison suddenly forces him into the natural awkwardness that he denies.
The protagonist in Humphrey Clinker is 'a shabby country fellow' taken on by the Bramble entourage as a temporary servant on their journey from Bath to London. He offends Tabitha by the sight of his bare posteriors, which show through his clothes as he rides ahead of her. As Smollett records, 'his complexion was of a sickly yellow: his looks denoted famine; and the rags that he wore, could hardly conceal what decency requires to be covered.' Humphrey thus represents the rural proletariat for whom work was varied, seasonal, and uncertain. He seems to be materialised out of nowhere, one of the faceless masses available for labour emergencies. Nevertheless, his personal entity is quickly absorbed by the satirical purposes of the novel. His physical particularity provokes the comic stereotypes of Tabitha's prudery and indifference, while also illustrating the moral breakdown of English social order that Matt excoriates as he travels. Humphrey, as Matt observes, seems more a satiric device than an individual, an opportunity for moral declamation: 'Heark ye, Clinker, you are a most notorious offender – You stand convicted of sickness, hunger, wretchedness, and want'.
Truly, the prospects of the humbler classes degenerated drastically in the eighteenth century. The mass enclosure of land compelled the destitute to swarm to towns. But there was no job either; the industrial revolution was still far away. One or two generations perished in hunger before their grandchildren entered the factories to toil. The steady immigration from the country overburdened the towns. Houses and cellars were densely crowded; ten to a room was common in Manchester shanties. There was hardly any sanitary system. An open cesspool in the court served the richer inhabitants, and the poor made a public convenience of every nook and cranny. The narrow unpaved street often served as the dustbin. No wonder, crime was a next door thing in these ramshackle warrens of filth and poverty.
Most of the new towns were still, constitutionally speaking, villages. They usually had no more than two parish constables to keep order. London, Bristol, Liverpool and a few other large corporate towns were better off since they had resident justices who could read the Riot Act, but even their forces for keeping order were pitifully inadequate. Burning, looting and hooliganism were commonplaces. Gambling was favoured by all the social classes. The rich preferred stocks, cards and lottery tickets; the poor relied on crown and anchor, pitch and toss, or bull baiting and cock fighting. In 1725 James Arbuckle wrote an article in the Dublin Journal which condemned the reading of novels. He attacked those 'fabulous adventures and memoirs of pirates, whores, and pickpockets wherewith for sometime past the press has so prodigiously swarmed.' His complaint had some validity, since early English novels were mostly picaresque. Moll Flanders for example was the daughter of a convict, herself a prisoner, and after her varied career of whoredom and theft, settled with a jailbird as well. Lesage's Gil Blas was a popular text even in England, and Smollett followed the model in Roderick Random (1748). Jonathan Wild was yet another robust rogue.
Prefaces to contemporary novels were often detailed apologies of their criminal associations. The image of the criminal in contemporary fictions were often complex, serving at least two differing and opposing purposes. On the one hand, the criminal signified sinfulness, evil and degeneration. His or her life is to be avoided and the fate deplored. Simultaneously, the same abhorrent account served as a means to lead the criminal, along with the reader, to repentance and salvation. Public execution, or the threat of execution, was a required element in the criminal novel like the repentance. Moll Flanders, for example, when faced with Newgate Prison's 'hellish noise, the roaring, swearing and clamour, the stench and nastiness' as well as her imminent death, becomes 'covered with shame and tears for things past.' Even the unrepentant criminals, like the notorious Jonathan Wild, who picks the pocket of the Chaplain of Newgate on his way to the gallows, serve to emphasise the power of the law and of religion if only by negative example.
Like criminality, the eighteenth century fiction was also obsessed with law; with its operations, justifications, and limits. This was an important change that the new novelists heralded. The universe of the seventeenth century romance was bounded by cosmic justice, reflected in the quasi-mythic narrative structure. The paradigm of eighteenth century fiction, on the contrary, upholds different aspects of human law. Captain Singleton's way of life is set when his Gypsy Mother is hanged. Moll Flanders begins with a complaint against the lack of social provision for convicts' children like the protagonist. Roderick Random is effectively dispatched on his travels by his grandfather, the 'hard-hearted judge' who 'was remarkable for his abilities in the law, which he exercised with great success ... particularly against beggars, for whom he had a singular aversion.' Goldsmith's major device for reducing the Vicar of Wakefield and his family to the extremes of indigence is not natural disaster, but a 'statute of bankruptcy.' In Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), the action hinges on an unpleasant legal trick by Sir John Belmont. Radcliffe's The Italian (1797) is concerned with the law of sanctuary, and again without this rather dubious device the polarities of guilt and innocence set up in the text could not function.
Following the shift from cosmic to human law, the poetic justice transfers from the virtuous to the lawful. Defoe invents an unexpected new series of legal problems toward the end of Captain Singleton (1720), regarding the pirates' problems to take their goods safely back to England. The marriage settlement which virtually ends Pamela is given to us in full length detail. This counteracts the equally legalistic argument earlier in the book in which the protagonist responds to a series of articles drawn up by her Master. Roderick Random's return to grace also has an eminently practical tinge.
The eighteenth century marks a notable change from faith to reason. In the earlier picaresque novels we find a didactic effort to take sinners back to the ways of religion. Repentance thus came hand in hand with crime, and Moll Flanders provides a good example. Towards the end of the century, the French philosophers like Rousseau and Montesquieu seriously problematized faith's position as the supreme Christian virtue.
The common man in the eighteenth century was thus in a dilemma. The spiritual pantheon had lost its glory, the material pangs were also unbearable. The filthy and overcrowded towns were the dens of disease. Butchers' refuses decayed in the streets, horse manures were trodden underfoot and draggled on skirts. Even the rich did not often take baths, and the poor almost stitched up their children in clothes during the long winter. Maladies were rampant and unchecked, deformities and open sores were frequent. Epidemics of smallpox, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery made death a commonplace. In the early part of the century, only about one child in four, born in London, managed to survive. In the mushroom towns of the north, the rate of infant mortality was even high.
No wonder people wanted to escape from this wasteland. The French Revolution (1789) and the rise of the Romanticism opened up new vistas. Consequently, English literature turned to nature from the drab reality of suburban life, and subjective poetry got the preference to prose. It was the epoch of imagination, and not representation; there are hosts of great poets in the contemporary canon but only a handful novelists like Scott and Austen. Nevertheless, fictionists regained the popularity in the Victorian period, while commemorating the contribution of their forebears in representing the English society.