Romance Novels Written in the 1700s
The novel genre gained prominence in the 1700s. The democracy movement encouraged writers to focus on commoners’ lives.
Some critics claim that romance novels enslave women. But, in reality, they allow readers more pride and autonomy in their bodies and desires.
Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson is considered the first romance novel. It depicts the courtship of a lighthearted servant girl by a somber gentleman.
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
Pamela is one of a very few engaging primary texts that show what it was like at the sharp end of pre-industrial aristocratic power. Richardson was writing as both an educational and entertaining novel, a sort of manual that codified social behavior for women, servants, and families. He also innovated the narrative by making the letters themselves characters in their own right, sewn into Pamela’s clothes so that they become part of her body.
Richardson was not a feminist, but he did draw profusely from English popular fiction about women in the 1700s, including many novels that focused on love and courtship. He used the motifs to create a heroine that women readers could identify with, even though the story centered on a young girl of fifteen. Pamela resists Mr. B’s advances and her virtue is rewarded. The book was a bestseller and went through multiple editions. Richardson revised the story for each new edition.
Evelina and Cecilia by Francis Burney
A major influence on Jane Austen’s novels, Evelina is a comedy of manners and class. It satirizes the rigid social hierarchy of upper-class British society and parodies the idea that a nobleman is automatically virtuous simply by virtue of being born into such privilege. It also criticizes the preoccupation with etiquette and manners that organized social interaction in this period.
As the novel progresses, Evelina’s natural sensibility sharpens her awareness of the ways in which men present themselves as ignorant to manipulate and entrap women. Her letters document a repertoire of recurrent postures and gestures that she has learned to recognize in men like Mr Lovel and Sir Clement Willoughby.
The mix of social comedy and realism made this novel the first to gain a reputation in London society, and it reconciled Charles Burney with his daughter’s authorship. Its success led to the publication of her next work, Cecilia; or Memoirs of an Heiress, in 1782.
Tom Jones by Thomas Fielding
Tom Jones, or The History of the Life of a Foundling (1749), was a comic novel written in mock epic style and underscored by a bawdy humour that scandalized critics such as Samuel Johnson. The story depicts the romantic escapades and moral redemption of its memorable main character, Tom Jones.
A foundling of unknown parentage, Tom Jones is brought up by the kindly Squire Allworthy and falls in love with Sophia Western. He struggles against the cunning of his supposed father, Master Blifil, and other low characters to claim his fortune, legitimacy and true love.
The plot of the book is packed with minor characters exploring various human virtues and vices, including kindness, wickedness, greed, honesty and justice. These are contrasted with the shady characters, bullies and gossip mongers that populate 18th century English society. It also explores the position of women in a world that treats them like hares to be hunted and beaten.
Camilla by William Makepeace Thackeray
Before Bram Stoker’s Dracula there was Camilla, a tale of a young woman who is susceptible to the attentions of a female vampire. Thackeray’s novel is a satirical commentary on social mores and a critique of the morals of Victorian society.
It was published in 1778, but the author’s identity remained a secret for some time. The author, Fanny Burney, wrote in a feigned hand for fear of her father’s reaction.
A great writer in his own day, Thackeray had a gift for rapid character-drawing. He wrote a number of novels, essays and verses, and toured the country nationally as a lecturer. Vanity Fair and The Luck of Barry Lyndon are among his best works. His earlier books, such as The Yellowplush Papers and Pendennis, satirize high society, military prowess and marriage. He was also known for his fondness of roguish characters. During his lifetime he was considered a rival to Charles Dickens. Thackeray was born in India and later worked as a journalist and editor for several magazines.