chapter  2
65 Pages

Early Stages of the Bildungsroman: Age, Genre and Illness in the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Explanations for the ‘rise’ of the English novel proliferate in literary histories; they are in a process of continual revision, and they are often told in the form of a story of ‘growth’ analogous to the form of an individual life story. In this evolutionary scenario, the novel of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is described as the genre’s unruly youth, given to experiment, not yet fully sure of itself and participating in many of the disparate forms and categories of narrative such as the sermon, letter-writing, journalism, factual writing or romance. According to many literary histories, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the novel has left the stage of childhood and early youth. With the emergence of psychological realism it has reached maturity: “By the time of Jane Austen, so the story goes, the novel form has finally come of age, and the fullest degree of social realism and psychological intricacy can co-exist with an exquisitely well-balanced form” (Terry Eagleton 94). The link between the novel and the structure of an individual biography is made explicit by Edward Said’s distinction between “three great human episodes common to all cultures and traditions” (4). Those are, firstly, the time of “beginning”, “birth” and “origin”; secondly, “the time from birth to youth, reproductive generation, maturity”; and thirdly, “the last or late period of life, the decay of the body” (4-6). Said identifies the period in the middle with “the bildungsroman or novel of education” (5).