Novels & Human Rights Part 7: Historical Context (Social)

Last week we talked about 18th-century changes leading to Pamela’s impact, mostly in the book trade and in rising social classes. This week, we’re focusing on social changes, especially those that took place within all classes.

Daniel Defoe. Wikipedia

For instance, religious books had traditionally made up more than half the number of total books published, but tastes became increasingly secular in the 18th century. Defoe and Richardson compromised by writing nonreligious books that stated moral lessons, thereby appealing to both audiences. Ian Watt and other commentators also stress the rise of individualism. For novels as we know them to exist, “The society must value every individual highly enough to consider him the proper subject of its serious literature; and there must be enough variety of belief and action among ordinary people for a detailed account of them to be of interest to other ordinary people.” The slow rise of capitalism in this time encouraged individual achievement. Furthermore, division of labor among the working classes differentiated people and their experiences. Protestantism, specifically Calvinism, exerted a major influence with its emphasis on “religious self-scrutiny” and “internalization of conscience.” Robinson Crusoe, perhaps the ultimate example of an individualist novel, prominently displays self-scrutiny and conscience as well. Richardson encouraged this trend with his novels about individual women.

Changes in love and marriage more directly affected Richardson’s content. Economic and social changes made marriage more important for women than before, but also more difficult. The concept of an “elementary,” “conjugal,” or now “nuclear” family developed, meaning a woman’s marriage partner determined her future. Men married later for economic reasons, and families no longer needed spinsters – originally a term referring to unmarried women who supported their extended family by doing hand work. Without a need for those contributions, and a lessening importance of the extended family, “spinster” became a negative term referring to a dependent. Servant girls, noted above as a large group, generally worked until the age of 21 or until they married. Employers often forbade them from marrying until that age to keep them in service. Additionally, an 1801 census revealed that England simply had many more women than men. The imbalance presumably extended back through the 18th century in order to manifest at that point, and made marriage even more difficult to accomplish. Pamela showed a young servant girl marrying above her station, and the trope became a standard in the romance industry.

Pamela Fainting, Joseph Highmore
Pamela Fainting, Joseph Highmore

In contrast to the Catholic tradition of honoring celibacy, Protestant and Puritan trends emphasized marriage. Under those religious influences marriage took on a deep fascination, particularly for women, but at the same time girls were to treat all sexual references with horror until and unless marriage had been achieved. This, along with a typically Puritan emphasis on restraint of the passions even after marriage, can be seen clearly in Pamela and confirmed in Richardson’s letters. In Pamela, Richardson produced a fully-formed example of the feminine role he conceived as ideal. With the book’s popularity, that model became commonly accepted. Pamela faints at any sexual advances, is horrified by any propositions other than marriage, and refuses to entertain even the idea of marriage until an actual proposal has been issued. She fiercely defends her virtue, both sexually and regarding other qualities such as honesty. After marriage to a proper and gentlemanly husband, she submits entirely to his virtuous bidding. The middle class had embraced this sensibility in Richardson’s time, blaming the upper class for licentiousness.

A new interest in private experience formed a final element of cultural change. Individual bedrooms became conventional in the 18th century, even for servants, and internal doors gained locks. Corridors replaced room-to-room architecture, limiting interruptions in private rooms. “Closets” also appeared — small writing studies adjacent to bedrooms where women in particular could write letters to each other, as Pamela often does. Eighteenth-century England boasted an unrivaled post office, which allowed for a wide expansion of letter-writing for non-business reasons. People became interested in sharing their internal lives with each other through letters. Richardson was creating a guide to letter-writing for the poor, later published as Familiar Letters, when he got the idea for his novel.

Next week we’ll make some causal links and tie everything up in a conclusion!

2 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 7: Historical Context (Social)

  1. You know, in traveling through Europe and visiting pre-18th century estates, I never thought about there being a corridor and what the purpose/implications of that were, but those houses do always feel a bit strange because of the room-to-room connection. I love how something like how our homes are constructed says more than we even realize.



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