Prose fiction, which is believed to be of Graeco-Roman origin in the centuries before Christ, is ancient and ubiquitous. The Anglo-Saxons translated Apollonius of Tyre into Old English prose, which can properly claim to be the first novel in the vernacular. But if it can be argued that a broad tradition of popular fiction began with the work of Defoe and Richardson, Smollett and Fielding, then the springs or sources of its inspiration are most likely to be found in the circumstances of eighteenth-century London. The city was the centre of novelty and of change, of social mobility and of sociable excitement; most eighteenth-century novels are set in London or send their characters spinning in that direction, as if they were being drawn ineluctably by a “vortex” or a “lodestone.” The conditions of the novels of Smollett or of Fielding are populous and multifarious, with characters led by chance or exigency into one another’s company. The symbolic power of the capital was, therefore, immense. It was itself one giant novel.
Eighteenth-century fiction is hybrid and various, part realistic and part allegorical, combining heroism and farce in equal measure; it conflates epic with romance, and even includes critical theory. The tone is never constant, and the instability of the narrative mimics the fluidity of the action. At the time of the city’s greatest expansion, the novel is endlessly prolific. It has no boundaries of form or genre, mingling fact and fiction indiscriminately; in that sense, too, it reflects the nature of the city. Masquerades are to be found in Richardson’s Pamela, in Fielding’s Amelia and Tom Jones, in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, in Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle, in Defoe’s Roxana, and in a score of other fictions. 1 Upon these occasions a “strange medley” of persons in disguise disport themselves; this is the condition of the city, and also the nature of the novel. Masquerades represent the shifting crowd, an unnatural assembly in every sense which in Cecilia includes men dressed as “Spaniards, chimney sweepers, Turks, watchmen, conjurors and old women”; these are of course the inhabitants of the city itself who are here portrayed in caricature as if in homage to the genius loci. The fear of enforced touch, and of contagion, is also evident in the descriptions of untidy or unnatural couplings: “a Devil and a Quaker, a Turk and female Rope-dancer, Judge and Indian Queen, and Friars of several Orders with Fanatick Preachers, all pair’d.” There is a suggestion here of sexual licence underlying the incoherence and arbitrariness of the proceedings; the city itself is portrayed in eighteenth-century fiction as the haven for lusts natural or unnatural. As Addison remarked, “the secret history of a carnival would make a collection of very diverting novels.”
Many fictions present a journey towards the city as a colourful pilgrimage—the most celebrated example being that of Tom Jones—and in a similar spirit novelists such as Fielding and Defoe relish disorder and mutability. Just as the “low” can be disguised as their betters at a masquerade, so in eighteenth-century fiction servants and masters often find their roles reversed; Pamela is transformed from a chambermaid into a lady, even if her gentility is somewhat theatrical. But then this is also the condition of the city, where servants were chastised in pamphlets and tracts for dressing up as their employers and imitating their manners. The novel was often criticised, in oblique terms, for the size and nature of its audience. There is no doubt that the vogue for fiction helped to create a “reading public” but the moralists observed that fiction had become the especial delight of women, tradespeople and servants. The appeal to women is perhaps exemplified by the plethora of titles devoted to heroines—Pamela, Amelia, Cecilia—where the Anglo-Saxon and medieval tradition of female saints’ lives is continued in another guise.
Despite the complaints of moralists, however, fiction was far from being simply an entertainment or diversion for servants and tradespeople; it acted, on the contrary, as an instruction manual or “pattern book.” The fictions of the eighteenth century were on one level designed to “describe manners, paint characters, and try to correct the public.” It was advertised that Pamela was “published in order to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes; a narrative which has its foundation in truth.” Novels, however, were concerned with practice as well as principle. They were manuals of etiquette and guides to polite society. It is no simple coincidence, therefore, that “they depict more often than not attempts to acquire status (or wealth and power) through isolated and individual virtue and action rather than by inheritance or through corporate involvement.”2 So the elements of pantomime and masquerade also hold the slivers and glimmerings of individualism; just as the city is the true arena for the human striving after profit or power, so the novel celebrates individual and practical exertion.
It is striking and significant that Daniel Defoe, for example, should select as the subject of his fictions solitary and generally fearful individuals. Robinson Crusoe, who has variously been described as the representative of “economic man” and the Protestant conscience, has become a key figure of the English imagination; in that context, his earnest practicality and hesitant spirituality, as well as his position in “the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life,” are at least as important as the variety of his “strange surprizing adventures.” He was as isolated upon his desert island as in any London garret.
Daniel Defoe was born in Cripplegate, in 1660, the son of a tallow chandler; he shared that shopkeeper parentage with William Blake, whose father was a hosier, and Defoe can best be seen in the light of a broad tradition of London dissent. It is an honourable and old tradition, which has continued into the present century. He attended a Dissenting academy in Newington Green before taking up the trade of hosiery. He was never a successful businessman, however, and soon adopted the role of journalist and pamphleteer in the cause of William of Orange and the Whigs; the new king had invaded England in 1688, turning out the Catholic James II in the process, and reinstated a Protestant dispensation. Yet Defoe was not successful as a creature of party politics; he was constantly imperiled by bankruptcy and the threat of prison. As one of his most recent biographers has suggested, he had turned “from a conventional city merchant into a lonely, hunted and secretive outsider.” 3 He had experienced all the splendours and disasters of the city, in other words, and out of that confusion created the rapid and avaricious careers of Roxana and Moll Flanders. Yet he did not turn to fiction until he had exhausted his influence as a journalist; he did not believe his novels to be a substitute for, but rather an extension of, his reportorial and polemical work. He wrote discourses on family life and on trade; he wrote stories about pirates and thieves and murderers; he composed political as well as economic treatises; he wrote biographies of Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden; he finished a history of the Church of Scotland and a history of the devil; he issued a great many pamphlets and wrote down many accounts of London “marvels” such as hauntings and healings. Like many London writers, he tried his hand at anything.
It is important, also, to note that the novels sprang out of this prodigal inheritance and that they were conceived from Defoe’s confusion of fact and fiction. Robinson Crusoe was advertised as a true history “Written by Himself,” with Defoe’s name absent from the frontispiece. A Journal of the Plague Year is nothing of the kind, but a rich concoction of true report and fictive imagining, while A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain was written from Newington Green. If fact proves to be fiction, then Defoe’s fiction has often been granted a factual status. The adventures of Robinson Crusoe were taken to be literal truth, while in more recent years Moll Flanders has been identified as Moll King or Mary Godstone. Yet all of these characterisations and attributions are beside the point. In the eighteenth-century city Daniel Defoe discovered the poetry of fact, and in that combination of the marvellous and the real he found his true subject. It is a token once more of that hybrid art which London seems to nurture; in an unstable and fluid society, where all may walk in disguise, there is no value to be found in generic identity and stability. It could be said that Defoe’s fiction is a simulacrum of his journalism, but in truth there need be no distinction. This may be profoundly unsettling for the more solemn critics, who wish to find in “the English novel” some intrinsic virtue or some reliable touchstone of excellence, but it is true to the mixed and various nature of the English imagination.
Defoe loved sensation and adventure, excessive delight and character in violent action. The energy and motion of London fill his sentences with their rapid and impersonal beat, their digressions and divagations; all the fever and fearfulness of Roxana’s life, for example, can be sensed in the restless and repetitious cadences of her autobiographical narrative. The speed and acceleration of the London streets are visible in Moll Flanders’s quick way of explaining herself—“for the next time I try’d it at White-Chappel just by the corner of Petty-Coat-Lane, where the Coaches stand that go out to Stratford and Bow and that Side of the Country; and another time at the Flying Horse, without Bishops-gate, where the Chester coaches then lay.” The language of the streets emerges, too, in Moll’s strong phrases. “So there was her mouth stopped. . . . That’s by the way.” There is a wonderful scene in Newgate between Moll and a condemned woman. “Well says I , and are you thus easy? ay, says she, I can’t help myself, what signifies being sad? If I am hang’d there’s an End of me, and away she turn’d Dancing . . .” Here is farther confirmation of the foreign belief that the English disdained death as a cheat or a thing of no moment, but it is also a tribute to Defoe’s remarkable fluency. In recent years his tone has become a matter of debate. Is he being ironic at his characters’ expense, or does he expect the reader fully to sympathise with their respective fates? A similar question has been raised about his style, which has been praised as a triumph of literary artifice and condemned as artless and prolix. Yet these considerations need not apply, especially within the new form of prose fiction which confounds distinctions of every kind. Defoe was an instinctive and prolific writer who effortlessly combined all the materials that were closest to hand without any attempt to discriminate between them. In this context it is perhaps worth noting that “Defoe’s prose contains a higher percentage of words of Anglo-Saxon origin than that of any other well-known English writer except Bunyan.”4 The old language emerged naturally, almost instinctively.
The metaphor of London as a stage also came spontaneously to Defoe, so that Moll Flanders may declare that “generally I took up new Figures, and contriv’d to appear in new Shapes every time I went abroad”; in particular, “I dress’d myself like a Beggar Woman, in the coarsest and most despicable Rags I could get.” Defoe himself dressed in strange shapes, and was for a long period a paid political spy in the service of Robert Harley; like Moll herself, he was consigned to Newgate Prison, which was “an Emblem of Hell itself, and a kind of an Entrance into it.” So he was always drawn to the condition of the confined and the desperate, and the birth of individual character in English fiction can confidently be ascribed to the condition of London itself. As Moll Flanders observes while living in the Mint, a poor area of Southwark, “I saw nothing but Misery and Starving was before me.” These are the afflictions which haunt Robinson Crusoe and Roxana, albeit in different guises. The general plot of Defoe’s fictions, which include the “true” histories of the criminals Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, is of a provincial’s journey to London; it is also a pilgrimage towards sexuality and crime, with the imminent threat of the gaol and the gallows.
Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, is itself a tabulation of fears. London “might well be said to be all in tears,” and Defoe’s frequent image of the city as a human body takes on a piteous aspect. It exudes “steams and fumes” so that its streets reproduce “the Breath . . . the Sweat . . . the Stench of the Sores of the sick persons.” In this world of steam and suffering the inhabitants of the city run mad, “raving and distracted,” with others “frighted into idiotism, and foolish distractions, some into despair and Lunacy, others into melancholy madness.” The Journal is in fact itself a narrative of melancholy madness, that condition to which the English were most prone. If London resembled an asylum, however, it was also compared to a prison with every house its own gaol since “here were just so many prisons in the town as there were Houses shut up.” Many people, naked and delirious, ran through the streets screaming or plunged into the Thames while others grew “stupid with the insupportable sorrow.”
In Defoe’s account we see as much evidence of the English imagination as of the London plague. It purports to be the work of “a Citizen who continued all the while in London” but in fact Defoe was a small child at the time of the distemper, and this highly wrought account is essentially a fiction with details taken from contemporary annals and memoirs. It is literally a work of sensation in the most strident urban style, relying upon anecdote and adventure, filled with short character studies of the afflicted and suffused with practical detail. Defoe is always seeking for extremes, so that the sensationalism is effectively a literary device. Here we may make the connection with Hogarth or with Gillray, whose vivid and animated visions dwell in the region of sublime distortion. The artists employed a “strongly engraved, expressive line,”5 just as Defoe coined a powerful and fluent style heavily influenced by short Anglo-Saxon derivations; all of them came out of a popular tradition of print or journalism, and all appealed to a varied and urban market. But if it was a London vision, it also rested upon a native spirit and tradition.
The theatricality and excess of Henry Fielding’s novels are not in doubt; he was a highly successful dramatist before he became a novelist. During his early career in London he wrote comedies and farces for the popular stage, composing some thirteen plays in less than three years, with titles such as The Author’s Farce, Rape Upon Rape and Tom Thumb . In the tradition of Defoe, he also found employment as a journalist before he turned to fiction; he became assistant editor of The Champion: or, The British Mercury and wrote most of its leading articles. He created a character upon the model of Addison’s “Mr. Spectator,” Hercules Vinegar, who with the members of his immediate family commented upon the affairs of the day. In fact he continued writing journalism for the rest of his life. He edited two political news-sheets, The True Patriot and The Jacobite’s Journal; even after the success of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he took on the editorship of a twice-weekly periodical called The Covent-Garden Journal. In that sense he shares a curious affinity with Charles Dickens, who edited Household Words and All the Year Round while engaged upon his great works of fiction.
There is in fact a skein of associations and resemblances between these three London novelists. Dickens wrote for the stage, also, and enjoyed great success as an amateur actor for much of his life. And all three men were touched by the shadow of the prison-house. Defoe was incarcerated at various times in Newgate, the Marshalsea and the King’s Bench, while Dickens’s youthful experience of London included the imprisonment of his father for debt in the Marshalsea. In turn Fielding was arrested and imprisoned for debt; he may have escaped Newgate, but he could not have avoided the “spunging house” or half-way house to gaol. Defoe’s fiction is filled with images and scenes of imprisonment; the novels of Dickens are preoccupied with prison and prisoners; the opening chapters of Fielding’s Amelia are set in a London gaol, and Tom Jones may be said to have been incarcerated with Moll Flanders in Newgate. It might also be mentioned here that for five years William Hogarth’s father was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet.
Fielding, like Defoe and Dickens, also wrote essays on social and political matters—among them “An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Hanover Rat” and “A Dialogue Between the Devil, the Pope and the Pretender.” Like Defoe, he composed poetical satires and dubious “factual” accounts of famous criminals. His Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great is a classic of its kind, supplanting even Defoe’s True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild. These London authors were prodigal of genres as well as words so that urban writing becomes the stuff or material out of which are shaped novels, newspapers and pamphlets. Fielding himself called the novel “a newspaper, which consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not”; but he also described Tom Jones as “this heroic, historical, prosaic poem.” Just as the eighteenth-century term “cartoon” could be applied equally to a caricature and to an historical painting, so the word “history” applied to Joseph Andrews as well as to more sober narratives. Out of many forms came that formless jumble, the English novel.
The truest metaphor for Fielding, however, remains that of the theatre. The master of burlesque and farce, once called “the English Molière,” he translated his talent for stage comedy into another sphere. In defending his heterogeneous entertainments, filled with the spirit of “contrast,” he invokes “the inventor of that most exquisite entertainment, called the English pantomime” who mixes “the serious and the comic.” In Hogarth’s frontispiece to Fielding’s collected works, the image of the novelist is placed above the masks of comedy and tragedy in true interpretation of his genius. In Jonathan Wild he compares the political life of the nation to a street theatre—“these Puppet-shows,” as he puts it, “which are so frequently acted on the GREAT stage.” That is why his own work was often considered to be “low.” His reputation as a writer of farce and burlesque was held against him, and he was accused of importing these qualities into his fiction. His characterisation was implausible, his plots impossible, and his characters disgusting. “Common charity, a f——t,” exclaims Mrs. Tow-Wouse. In Tom Jones Squire Western declares that he regards his sister’s politics “as much as I do a f——t.” Which word “he accompanied and graced with the very Action, which, of all others, was the most proper to it.” Whereupon the periodical Old England described Tom Jones as “a Book so truly profligate, of such evil Tendency, and offensive to every chaste Reader, so discouraging to Virtue and detrimental to Religion.”
Dickens avoided any taint of obscenity and impropriety—there could be no Hogarth or Fielding in the nineteenth century—but his own fiction was also derided for inconsistency and implausibility. The plots of his later novels were considered to be unrealistic “twaddle.” It is the response of earnest intelligence to an urban sensibility which embraces the pantomimic and the scenic, which revels in energy and adventure, and which betrays little interest in psychological or moral complexity. It is no accident that both Fielding and Dickens, for example, defended their use of coincidence in plot-making as a natural device; their experience of the city convinced them that coincidence is a strong force in human life and that it reflects a greater underlying network of relations. Theirs is a London vision.
If we reflect upon the different virtues of Tobias Smollett and Samuel Richardson, however, we may understand the actual capaciousness of that vision. Smollett was born and educated in Scotland, but moved to London in order to pursue his career as a surgeon. Very quickly he assumed the role of a London writer, however, by becoming in quick succession a journalist, dramatist and pamphleteer as well as a novelist. He helped to edit the Critical Review, he compiled a selection of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages and wrote a history of England; he even tried his hand at farce and tragedy. A recognisable pattern of prodigal achievement once more emerges.
Charles Dickens had Smollett’s novels by heart, having first encountered them in childhood when living in lodgings beside the Marshalsea Prison. Smollett was himself imprisoned in the King’s Bench, just south of the Marshalsea, affirming in his own life the connection between urban fiction and the London gaols. As a result, perhaps, his art is one of extremity and intensity. When Roderick Random, the eponymous hero of The Adventures of Roderick Random, meets his benevolent uncle who releases him from debt and confinement, “I was utterly confounded at this sudden transition . . . and a crowd of incoherent ideas rushed so impetuously upon my imagination, that my reason could neither separate nor connect them.” This is a fair measure of the sudden and rapidly changing sentiments which invade Smollett’s characters, and which prompted Sir Walter Scott to suggest that he “loved to paint characters under the strong agitation of fierce and stormy passions.” His metaphor of the “crowd” here suggests, in fact, how his sensationalism and excitation are related to the feverish life of the city. It is the life which he portrays in Humphry Clinker, where Matt Bramble remarks of Londoners that “All is tumult and hurry; one would imagine that they were impelled by some disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest . . . how can I help supposing they are actually possessed by a spirit, more absurd and pernicious than any thing we meet within the precincts of Bedlam?”
Smollett was aware of the violence and despair which are the condition of the city, London “being an immense wilderness.” Roderick Random is beaten, robbed, press-ganged, swindled until he eventually languishes in the Marshalsea Prison with an “imagination haunted with such dismal apparitions, that I was ready to despair.” One critic has written of this novel that there “can be no movement but from one extreme to another, from shock to shock, from terror to hysterical laughter.”6 The life of the novel then replicates the life of the streets, filled with rapidly changing scenes and imbued with a certain spontaneity or incoherence of tone. All is action and confusion. When it is farther concluded that, in the novels of Smollett, “each statement is in competition with all the other statements; there is no remission from the struggle for attention”7 we are truly in the little world of London. Here are strident “types” who may clamour for notice—“There were also my Lord Straddle, Sir John Shrug, and Master Billy Chatter, who is actually a very facetious young gentleman”—but they must also struggle to be seen and heard among “the modish diversions of the town, such as plays, operas, masquerades, drums, assemblies, and puppet-shows . . . surprisals and terrifications.”
Prison and pantomime, death and excremental farce, are all in consort together. The city then becomes a kind of dream or hallucination in which irreconcilable states are jumbled together. “I could not believe the evidence of my senses,” declares Roderick Random, “and looked upon all that had happened as the fictions of a dream!” Life, for Henry Fielding, is no more than “an idle, trifling feverish dream.” “It was all a troubled dream?” asks Richard Carstone at the end of his unhappy life in Bleak House. It is the great dream of London.
If there is one aspect of Smollett’s art which is of particular significance, however, it lies in his creation and embellishment of eccentric character. A general delight in eccentricity, in all its forms, in fact animates the English genius. It is related to the habits of individualism and defensive privacy which the English have adopted; eccentricity then becomes the natural, if unacknowledged, issue of a native virtue. So Smollett introduces certain stock characters, such as the formidable Mrs. Trunnion who “by the force of pride, religion and Coniac, had erected a most terrible tyranny in the house.” But her unfortunate spouse, Commodore Trunnion, is of quite another order of creation. He is perhaps the first eccentric in English prose fiction. With his companions, Pipe and Hatchway, he lives in a nautical dream. “I have been a hard-working man, and served all offices on board from cook’s shifter to the command of a vessel. Here, you Tunley, there’s the hand of a seaman, you dog.” He is the immediate ancestor of innumerable Dickensian characters, from Captain Cuttle to Major Bagstock, and the preposterous if amiable ex-seaman has entered the list of English immortals. He calls his house a “garrison,” has a drawbridge over a ditch, and sleeps in a hammock; he “swears woundily” but “means no more harm than a suckling babe.” He is located in an English county “bounded on one side by the sea,” and he can be seen as a burlesque upon the private and enclosed English character. That is why he has achieved such exemplary status. His constant memories of the sea, and of nautical battles, render him an Anglo-Saxon revenant; his fear of women and his whimsical sentimentality can also be seen as marked characteristics of the English temper. He is a reluctant and hen-pecked husband who finds comfort with his male companions, generally in the tavern, but he makes a very good death. On his death-bed he declares, of his gravestone, that “it may not be in-graved in the Greek or Latin lingos, and much less in the French, which I abominate, but in plain English, that when the angel comes to pipe all hands at the great day, he may know that I am a British man, and speak to me in my mother tongue. And now I have no more to say, but God in heaven have mercy upon my soul, and send you all fair weather, wheresoever you are bound.” It has been said that Smollett based the death scene upon that of Shakespeare’s Falstaff; in the calm dignity and cool despatch there are resemblances, but it might also be fair to claim that in its reticence and disinclination to lament it is a very English death. The sensibility endures to the very moment of its surcease.
The emphasis upon eccentricity of behaviour or demeanour is also part of a larger English preoccupation, best exemplified by what became known as “the novel of character.” Its first and best practitioner was another urban writer, a tradesman and pamphleteer who like his contemporaries in eighteenth-century London seemed to adopt the novel form almost by accident. Samuel Richardson once confessed that “I almost slid into the writing of Pamela.” Thus was born the novel whose intense interest centered on the development of character under the pressure of circumstance and extremity, with a highly coloured presentation of the individual formed upon the anvil of adversity. Richardson’s novels betray their London origins.
Richardson himself, in characteristic London fashion, was a businessman and pamphleteer before turning to the business of writing novels. He was a printer by trade, with a shop at the top end of Fleet Street, who had already fashioned a successful career out of publishing political literature and periodicals such as the Duke of Wharton’s True Briton; he had a license to print parliamentary debates and launched himself into the public domain with a scholarly account of seventeenth-century English diplomacy. His fictional skills emerged out of that practical or pragmatic interest which has served the English imagination so well; he had been asked to compose a manual on the art of letter-writing “in a common Style” for the use of “Country Readers,” and on the basis of these models he hit upon the plot of Pamela which is itself an epistolary novel. The story of the kidnapping and imprisonment of the unfortunate heroine took him two months to complete; in fact it can be said, of all the eighteenth-century London novelists, that they wrote fast and furiously, as if in consort with the life all around them. In a period when a pamphlet could be written in the morning and printed (by Richardson among others) in the afternoon, when a play and its prologue could be ready in published form the day after their first performance, there was a premium upon speed of execution.
Written at this rapid pace, Pamela instinctively and effortlessly incorporates such familiar characteristics as melodrama and theatrical caricature. The portrait of Pamela’s unofficial gaoler, Mrs. Jewkes, has been variously described as resembling Hogarth and Dickens but the family likeness is clear. “Her face is flat and broad; and as to Colour, looks as it had been pickled a month in Saltpetre: I dare say she drinks. She has a hoarse man-like Voice, and is as thick as she’s long . . .” She might be the procuress in A Harlot’s Progress or Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. She is, in other words, a London type. She has an “ugly horse-lip,” calls Pamela “lambkin” and tells dubious jokes. “Hey-day! why so nimble, and whither so fast?” she calls out. “What! are you upon a wager?” Yet the principal emphasis is upon the intense and heightened sensations of Pamela herself, all the time fearing that she is about to be raped by her “master,” and the novel is filled with apprehension and passionate reproach. It is written in the form of apparently artless and spontaneous letters, so that everything happens in the foreshortened space of a day or a passing hour; the intensity of the action is proportionately increased. It is not difficult to enter the movement of feeling, therefore; the reader keeps pace, as it were, with the consciousness of the principal characters.
In that sense, if in no other, Samuel Richardson changed the course of the English novel. He had a direct influence upon the work of Jane Austen, who, in her Sanditon, reveals a character very like herself whose “fancy had been early caught by all the impassioned & most exceptionable parts of Richardson; & such Authors as have since appeared to tread in Richardson’s steps, so far as Man’s determined pursuit of Woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling and convenience is concerned.” It has also been said that the novels of Richardson, with their steady attention to a sequence of fleeting impressions, materially influenced Virginia Woolf and James Joyce; in addition, he affected European writers as diverse as Rousseau and Goethe. Diderot composed a poem in his honour, “O Richardson, Richardson, first of men in my eyes, you shall be my reading at all times!” So did this successful and somewhat prim London tradesman enter the history of European romanticism.
It could be said that Richardson provided a peculiarly English contribution to that history since, according to Paul Langford in Englishness Identified , the “English novel, the single most potent agent of English culture on the Continent, was par excellence about character and manners.” By the latter half of the eighteenth century, “it was the sensibility of the English novel rather than the brutality of English history that informed Continental assumptions.”8 A French critic said, of innkeepers, that “the English novel writers who are so fond of painting these characters copy from a given model which, though it admits of but little scope for variety, is nevertheless true to nature.” Fanny Burney’s novels were celebrated for forming “a history of National Manners in themselves”9 while an Italian critic believed that the novels of Fielding and Smollett comprised a vast encyclopaedia of “English manners and peculiarities.” As Mr. Langford remarks in another place, “Continental observers were fascinated by the English preoccupation with originality of character;”10 it is manifest no less in portrait-painting than in satirical caricature, English drama and English fiction.