Atlantic History The Novel in the Age of Revolution
Andrew Cayton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0066


The perspective of the Atlantic has transformed our understanding of the significance of long-form fiction written, published, and read in Europe and the Americas from the 1770s through the 1820s. Scholars seeking the origins of cultural independence in nations created by political revolutions once asked when American writers ceased imitating Europeans and developed a distinctive national voice. More recent scholars read the same texts informed by issues of class, gender, race, and sexuality that cut across political borders and expand conventional notions of revolution to encompass households and personal relationships. Challenging the nation-state as the primary category of analysis, they highlight the novel as a medium of circum-Atlantic conversation. Overwhelmingly, this scholarship has been in English, reflecting the reality of the production, distribution, and reception of texts in the Atlantic world. There were more far more readers of fiction in eastern North America, not only because of higher rates of literacy and disposable income, but also because the British Empire facilitated the availability of printed material. Although some native and African peoples were readers, white, middling people—the majority of them female—were the primary creators and consumers of novels. The books they wrote and read reveal the sensibilities of people experiencing a general revolution in social relationships. Particularly in the last two decades of the 18th century, novelists invited readers into open-ended conversations about the revolutionary possibilities of female influence, if not female power; the tyranny of fathers and husbands; the reformation of the patriarchal structures of marriage, courtship, sexuality, family, and inheritance; and the radical idea that individuals could change over time, that they could be awakened through sympathy and choose to improve themselves in commerce with lovers, friends, and relatives. Setting stories in places such as Saint-Domingue and the forests of Pennsylvania highlighted the Gothic qualities of late-18th-century fiction: dark-skinned characters in exotic places where slavery and war undermined marriage, family, and law exaggerated the plight of characters trying to navigate through a revolutionary world. Conversation about imagined possibilities contracted in the early 19th century and the sentimental novel found a competitor in the historical novel. Usually written by men, such as Sir Walter Scott, and attracting male readers, the historical novel organized the apparent chaos of decades of revolution and global warfare into personal narratives that celebrated the emergence of liberal nation-states that protected property and inheritance and normalized racial exclusion, heterosexuality, companionate marriage, and the role of women as domestic managers within affectionate families.

General Overviews: The Novel in History

Long-form fiction had a long gestation period in the early modern Atlantic world. But as a published form clearly distinct from history, tracts, and treatises, it came of age in the long 18th century in the German states, France, and Great Britain, as detailed in Donoghue 2002. Because their success depended on a literate population with discretionary income and the availability of printing presses and booksellers, novels were particularly successful in Britain and its empire, as Gottlieb 2014 explains. London by the late 18th century boasted dozens of printers eager to recruit authors and market their works and a growing community of men and women eager to take advantage of the possibilities. Publishers also eagerly reprinted English-language translations of novels by Miguel de Cervantes, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to name only the most popular authors, as well as editions of works by earlier English writers, including Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Laurence Sterne. Why did the novel become so popular in Great Britain and its empire? Watt 1957 is a landmark effort to locate the genre within the expansion of a public fascinated by stories of individual experience. The enormously influential work of Gilbert and Gubar 1979 sees fiction as a space where women could critique patriarchy in defiance of regular denunciations of the novel for encouraging women to indulge their imaginations. McKeon 2000 and McKeon 2002 argue for the innovative character of novels as a genre that allowed people to engage with a general crisis of authority, while Armstrong 2006 suggests fiction allowed readers to imagine their location within social networks. Davidson 1986 is a transformative work because the author took literature produced and read in the United States seriously as primary sources. Scholarship in the 21st century tends to read texts through the lenses of post-colonialism, transnationalism, subjectivity, and sentiment (Aravamudan 1999).

  • Aravamudan, Srinivas. Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

    A dense, postcolonial analysis of 18th-century texts (mainly in English) set in or about colonial spaces, not all of them Atlantic, distinguished by the interaction of multiple cultures.

  • Armstrong, Nancy. How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719–1900. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    Reading texts by Mary Shelley and Sir Walter Scott, among others, Armstrong traces the origins of “modern subjectivity” in the conservative tendencies of imaginative narratives of desire, focusing on the tension between individuals and society in categories such as autonomy, self-expression, and monstrosity.

  • Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    The foundational study of the role of the novel in the emergence of the United States. Notable not only for astute readings of neglected texts, but also for the attention to their production and reception, including fascinating discussions of marginalia.

  • Donoghue, William. Enlightenment Fiction in England, France, and America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

    Attending to fiction written in French as well as in English, Donoghue stresses the importance of sentiment in negotiating between skepticism and morality. Despite a lack of comparative or transnational analysis, the book provides reflections on the distinctive 18th-century vocabulary shared by many novelists.

  • Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

    In this classic feminist study of English fiction literature, Gilbert and Gubar make a powerful case for the novel as a critical site where women could assert themselves and challenge patriarchal authority and institutions.

  • Gottlieb, Evan. Romantic Globalism: British Literature and Modern World Order, 1750–1830. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2014.

    Gottlieb finds themes of globalization permeating fiction and poetry by writers elaborating on ideas about history, commerce, and development found in the works of the Scottish Enlightenment.

  • McKeon, Michael, ed. The Novel: An Historical Approach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

    A superb anthology of major efforts in the 20th century to understand the development of the novel as both a literary and a historically constructed genre.

  • McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1699–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    Originally published 1987. McKeon usefully shifts attention away from interpretations of the novel as an expression of middle-class culture and asks us to consider it as an innovative genre through which educated individuals engaged with rapid social change and a general crisis in the nature of authority, a development that intensified during the Age of Revolution.

  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001 [1957].

    A seminal work that identifies the emergence of the genre of the novel in the context of a philosophical shift from classical idealism to pragmatism with attention to personal experience as well as the growth of a “reading public” interested in knowing more about the lives of others.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.