The Augustan Novel

The Evolution of the Novel Subgenres in the Augustan Age

The Augustan period (late 17th to early 18th century) saw a significant evolution in the field of novels.

Two significant cultural phenomena of the era - the 'craze' for travel stories and the rise of newspapers - played a significant role in the development of the modern novel. Moreover the changes in society not only made novels popular but also gave authors ideas to create different types of novels.

The Birth of the Novel in the Augustan Age:

The Augustan age was a time of profound societal changes. The emerging middle class, with its practical and down-to-earth outlook, demanded stories that resonated with their own experiences. This marked a stark shift from the fantastical tales of earlier periods. It was the perfect moment for the novel to emerge as a literary form capable of capturing the nuances of everyday life.

The Role of Travel Stories:

One of the key influencers was the widespread 'craze' for travel stories. These narratives offered readers a glimpse into distant lands and exotic cultures, igniting their imagination. The public's hunger for such stories reflected a broader curiosity about the world beyond their immediate surroundings. This fascination with travel narratives paved the way for the novel to take readers on journeys through the landscapes of human experience.

Example: "A New Voyage Round the World" by William Dampier

William Dampier's travelogue, "A New Voyage Round the World," published in 1697, is a fine example of the kind of travel stories that captivated readers during the Augustan age. Dampier tells about his adventures as a buccaneer and privateer, including his voyages to exotic locales like Australia and the South Pacific. By doing so he fascinated readers and provided them with a sense of exploration and discovery.

The Rise of Newspapers:

Simultaneously, the Augustan age witnessed the rise of newspapers. These publications not only reported current events but also provided a platform for essays, criticisms, and, most significantly, serialized fiction. Newspapers became a vital source of information and entertainment for the growing literate population. Authors saw in newspapers an opportunity to engage with a wide readership and experiment with new storytelling forms.

Example: "The Tatler" and "The Spectator" by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele

"The Tatler" and "The Spectator" were influential newspapers in the early 18th century. Edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, these periodicals not only covered current events but also featured essays, social commentary, and fictional narratives. The serialized essays and stories published in these newspapers helped shape the literary landscape of the time and played a crucial role in the development of the novel. In fact, it was in "The Tatler" that Addison and Steele introduced the fictional character Sir Roger de Coverley, which would later inspire character-driven novels.

Now, let's explore the five subgenres that blossomed during this era.

The Realistic Novel: Capturing Everyday Life

The realistic novel marked a departure from the fantastical tales of earlier periods. These novels sought to depict everyday life with exquisite detail, providing readers with a magnified view of contemporary experiences. It was akin to peering through a magnifying glass, offering a chronological sequence of relatable real-life events.

An example of this genre is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. This story immerses readers in the life of a mariner shipwrecked on a desert island, providing realistic details of his daily struggles for survival.

Utopian Fiction: Imagining Perfect Worlds

While less common in the Augustan age, utopian fiction was intriguing for its imaginative portrayal of ideal societies. These stories depicted worlds where societal problems had been solved, and harmony prevailed. The aim was to challenge readers to contemplate alternative social structures and question the status quo through utopian literature.

Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" is a classic example of utopian fiction. Lemuel Gulliver travels to a variety of fictional locations, each with its own distinct and frequently absurd socioeconomic structure, providing a satirical perspective on utopian ideas.

The Epistolary Novel: A Glimpse into Characters' Hearts

The plot of an epistolary novel is told through a series of letters, diary entries, or other written documents. By giving readers access to the characters' private thoughts and emotions, this narrative device creates an intimate and genuine reading experience.

Classic examples of epistolary novels are Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" and "Clarissa." These novels tell about the emotions, dilemmas, and personal growth of the characters through a series of letters and diary entries. The epistolary novel is the forerunner for today's first-person narratives.

The Picaresque Novel: Adventures and Resourcefulness:

Picaresque novels often feature adventurous and sometimes mischievous protagonists navigating a world full of twists and turns. The term "picaro" in Spanish means rogue, and these novels originated in Spain. They amuse readers with accounts of clever tricks and escapades, celebrating the resourcefulness of their characters.

Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones" presents the exploits of a young man as he wanders through 18th-century England, encountering various people and handling issues along the way.

The Sentimental Novel: Exploring Emotions and Morality

Sentimental novels predominantly focus on emotions and the moral development of their characters. These narratives often delve into internal conflicts and ethical dilemmas faced by the main characters. Sentimental novels aim to evoke empathy and sympathy in readers by emphasizing the emotional journeys of their characters.

The Augustan age gave birth to a diverse range of novel subgenres, each with its distinct attributes and contributions to the world of literature. This transformation was not isolated but deeply connected to the cultural shifts of the era, including the 'craze' for travel stories and the rise of newspapers. From the realistic portrayal of everyday life to the imaginative exploration of utopian societies, and from the intimate revelations of the epistolary novel to the adventures of picaresque tales and the emotional depth of sentimental novels, these subgenres offer a rich tapestry of literary experiences. The Augustan age, with its literary innovations, laid the foundation for the diverse and dynamic world of novels that we continue to explore and enjoy today.

Word List


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