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10 - The novel, the British nation, and Britain's four kingdoms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 January 2012

Robert L. Caserio
Pennsylvania State University
Clement Hawes
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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In eighteenth-century Britain many of the writings we now call novels functioned as a national form on a number of levels. As a technology of national consciousness along lines Benedict Anderson has described, eighteenth-century novels helped British readers imagine the simultaneous, intertwined existence of fellow Britons. While daily newspapers offered the most widespread and immediate version of printed matter consumed concurrently across vast regions, the circulation of novels throughout the nation and their subsequent reviews, imitations, and sequels, sometimes within the pages of periodical publications, would also underwrite a consciousness of shared cultural touch-points across a geographically diverse English reading population within a roughly contemporaneous time frame. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) illuminates this phenomenon in particularly high relief, and contemporary criticism of that bestselling book, whether affirmative or oppositional, frequently spoke of its impact on the nation. Within novels themselves writers developed narrative strategies for representing the consciousness of simultaneity that is crucial for imagining the nation – so much so that writers could poke fun at the convention. A discomfited Tristram returns “to my mother” several chapters after leaving her eaves-dropping on his father and uncle through a chink in the door. The intrusive narrator of Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, having broken off the narration of the near-rape of Fanny to relate the dialogue between a Poet and Player, doubles back to “poor Fanny, whom we left in so deplorable a Condition.”

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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