The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities presents
The Intellectual and Literary History Public Seminar Series


The English Novel: a Genre of Enlightenment?

Ian Watt famously argued that the ‘rise of the novel’ was an English phenomenon, inaugurated by what he termed the ‘formal realism’ of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. As such, it occurred in the Enlightenment’s wake, and a significant body of scholarship, which indeed begins with Watt himself, sees the two events as connected. I want to argue, however, that the realist novel’s key sub-genre in its period of emergence—namely, the marriage plot—had a history which literary historians following Watt have overlooked. It is a theo-political history deeply embedded in tensions between church and state as they existed under a Court-Whig regime determined to project state power more widely across society, and for which marriage regulation itself turned out to be a central concern. In this paper, I will sketch an alternative account of the history of the English marriage plot and offer a brief reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to show how that history can illuminate our understanding of a particular key text and of the literary novel’s conditions of emergence more generally. I will then ask whether such a redescription of the early the English novel might help us towards a more expansive concept of enlightenment.

Lisa O’Connell teaches in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland. She is the author of Proper Ceremony: The Political Origins of the English Marriage Plot (Cambridge UP forthcoming 2019). Her current research includes a project on the rise of global literature and the preparation of two collections jointly edited with Dr Peter Denney (Griffith University) on ‘Spaces’ and ‘Natures’ of enlightenment.


Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower (Building #1)