This course will chart the success of a radical experiment in literature: the creation of the novel in eighteenth-century Britain. We will be able to experience this eighteenth-century experiment by conducting an experiment of our own: the course will be held in the Rare Books Room of the Boston Public Library and will result in a public rare books exhibition on Daniel Defoe. We will work with original novels from the eighteenth century, placing the rise of the novel in its “cheap print” and “hand press” contexts. Although we all know what a novel is, we will try to erase that familiarity and imagine a time when the novel was “novel.” What are the rules of the novel, how were they invented, and who invented them? What is the material shape of the novel—what did early novels look like? What is the content of the novel, how does it connect author and reader, and how does it invent ideas such as “individualism” and “realism”? What are the economics of the novel; how was it printed and circulated and how did it become popular?

To answer these questions, we will explore two basic plots—the domestic romance and the picaresque-adventure—that are developed in the eighteenth century. We will also examine the novel’s sub-genres, including the Gothic (“haunted castle”), the sentimental (“crying men”), and political (“utopian”) tales. Our readings will be book-ended by the works of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen. At the heart of the course will be a lengthy novel; we will read excerpts from an abridged version of Clarissa (the longest novel in the English language) and Tom Jones, which we will use to re-create the eighteenth-century reading experience. We will connect our novels to the adventure- and scandal-filled episodes depicted in William Hogarth’s engravings.

To understand why the rise of the novel occurred in the eighteenth century, we will also investigate the century’s social history and visual art. Taking advantage of our Boston Public Library location, we will stress “book history” approaches to the novel in addition to current critical understandings of our course texts. This course will examine the book as an artifact, exploring its manuscript, print, and digital forms. By literally getting our hands dirty by working with old, new, hyper, and rare texts, we will be able to ask how historical changes in the book’s form connect to the invention of new literary forms, such as the novel. For example, what happened when printing press technology made books inexpensive and readily available to a buying public? How do institutions such as libraries and bookstores create a reading public? How do changes in buying and reading lead to changes in literary form—again, helping to invent the novel? To allow us to experience these questions, the class will spend much of its time working at the Boston Public Library, in addition to exploring on-line resources. We will practice archival research and think deeply about the rare books and manuscripts the Boston
Public Library holds, the cataloguing system it employs, and the methodological approaches we can bring to these wonderful literary treasures!