The Dangerous Novel

Novels are so ubiquitous in our society it’s difficult to imagine life without them. Hardcovers, paperbacks, CDs—one click will bring them to your doorstep, computer, tablet or phone. Book clubs and blog sites bring together like-minded aficionados and public readings are more popular than ever. What’s not to like about a good story?    

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There was a time, however, when novels were seen as anything but a legitimate art form. In his 1943 classic Early Opposition to the English Novel: The Popular Reaction from 1760 to 1830, Dr. John Tinnon Taylor begins his literary journey through 18th and 19th century England with a telling summary:

“Significantly enough, the new novel and the new reading public grew up together; and during the very years when the form was establishing its right to exist, a group which had been illiterate and unthinking came into intellectual life. Reacting upon each other, these two forces began to wield a powerful social influence in a world which was not too willing to accept them. Although the increase of a great body of readers contributed toward making the novel popular, it also brought to that species of writing two definite types of opposition. On one side were the moral judgments imposed upon the novel by a middle-class conception of conduct and practical morality. On the other were the warnings of critics and moralists who considered any wide reading by the lower orders to be inconsistent with their life of manual labor, in particular any reading which seemed diabolically designed to unsettle the stolid peace of mind necessary to the acceptance of such a lowly status.”

Diabolical, indeed. Novels were seen as deleterious to Britain’s rigid class system. The dubious merits of reading for amusement and instruction? “It has been well observed, that the reading of novels is to the mind what dram-drinking is to the body,” announced the periodical, the Miniature. And who could disagree with the novel’s harmful effects upon women, singled out as being the most susceptible to the dangerous thoughts that sensational prose inspired?

“Objections to the ‘reading Miss’ were not new; they had their foundation in an older animosity toward any education for the female sex. It was, therefore, only after decades of struggle that enough shackles were removed for young women to gain either the opportunity or the ability to read, much less to find themselves in the dangerous habit of devouring novels, that species of composition so ingeniously characterized by the Miniature as ‘a descriptive manual of speculative debauchery, with infallible rules for reducing it into practice.’ Also, reading unfitted women for her household duties.”

What exactly was it about novels that caused such hand-wringing and pronouncements of doom? The concept of the novel had been around since the days of the Greeks and Romans. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, generally recognized as the first European novel, was published in 1605. Though widespread public education had yet to take hold, people were well familiar with folktales and epic historical narratives. The novel should have been considered a logical progression.

Unlike plays and poetry, which could trace their lineage back to antiquity, common novels for common readers was a new idea, and both they and writers were not held in high regard. The ease of printing and distributing books through circulating libraries, extremely popular among the growing middle class, contributed to unfettered access to writings normally reserved for the privileged. And it didn’t stop there. Stories began to address the issues of daily life and questioned one’s place in the world, while romance and perilous journeys beckoned with breathless prose. Everybody, it suddenly seemed, had a story to tell, and an argument at that time used to prove novels despicable was the contention that everybody wrote them. Particularly strong were the denunciations of the influence of this craze upon the lower classes. One writer longed for the days of Cicero or Vergil when erudition was “a fine thing” rather than this age in which “everybody is so very learned, that there’s scarce a Tradesman in the city of London, but what thinks himself qualified an Author.”

Thoroughly in line with this was the idea that novels would unfit the mind for more solid pursuits and intoxicate it with a morbid sensibility. James Beattie (a Scottish poet, moralist and philosopher) felt called upon to end his seventy-page discussion, “On Fable and Romance,” with a warning to youth concerning all works of fiction:

“A habit of reading them breeds a dislike to history, and all the substantial parts of knowledge; withdraws the attention from nature, and truth; and fills the mind with extravagant thoughts, and too often with criminal propensities. I would therefore caution my young reader against them: or, if he must, for the sake of amusement, and that he may have something to say on the subject, indulge himself in this way now and then, let it be sparingly and seldom.”

We’ve come a long way since then, gentle reader, and good for us that there are always new ideas and new corners of the world to discover. Still, the next time someone asks, “Why are you reading that?” be sure to smile knowingly. You’re in good company.