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Prefaces to Fiction

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The development of the English novel is one of the triumphs of the eighteenth century. Criticism of prose fiction during that period, however, is less impressive, being neither strikingly original nor profound nor usually more than fragmentary. Because the early statements of theory were mostly very brief and are now obscurely buried in rare books, one may come upon the well conceived "program" of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones with some surprise. But if one looks in the right places one will realize that mid-eighteenth century notions about prose fiction had a substantial background in earlier writing. And as in the case of other branches of literary theory in the Augustan period, the original expression of the organized doctrine was French. In Georges de Scudéry's preface to Ibrahim (1641) and in a conversation on the art of inventing a "Fable" in Book VIII (1656) of his sister Madeleine's Clélie are to be found the grounds of criticism in prose fiction; practically all the principles are here which eighteenth-century theorists adopted, or seemed to adopt, or from which they developed, often by the simple process of contradiction, their new principles.

That many of the ideas in the preface to Ibrahim were not new even in 1641 becomes plain if one reads the discussions of romance written by Giraldi Cinthio and Tasso. The particular way in which Mlle. de Scudéry attempted to carry out those ideas in her later, more subjective works she obligingly set forth in Clélie in the passage already alluded to. There it is explained that a well-contrived romance "is not only handsomer than the truth, but withal, more probable;" that "impossible things, and such as are low and common, must almost equally be avoided;" that each person in the story must always act according to his own "temper;" that "the nature of the passions ought necessarily to be understood, and what they work in the hearts of those who are possess'd with them." He who attempts an "ingenious Fable" must have great accomplishments—wit, fancy, judgment, memory; "an universal knowledge of the World, of the Interest of Princes, and the humors of Nations," and of both closet-policy and the art of war; familiarity with "politeness of conversation, the art of ingenious raillery, and that of making innocent Satyrs; nor must he be ignorant of that of composing of Verses, writing Letters, and making Orations." The "secrets of all hearts" must be his and "how to take away plainness and driness from Morality."

The assumption that the new prose fiction could be judged, as the Scudérys professed to judge their work, first of all by reference to the rules of heroic poetry is frequent in the next century—in the unlikely Mrs. Davys (preface, Works, 1725); in Joseph Andrews of course, where the rules of the serious epic and of the heroic romance are to aid the author in copying the ancient but, as it happens, nonexistent comic epic; and in Fielding's preface to his sister's David Simple (1744)....