The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.


18 thoughts on “The Novel Recipe

  1. Here you again put me to shame, Stefy, for although I know of all three authors — indeed I’ve even read Sterne’s final writing — I confess I’ve never finished any of the titles you’ve mentioned. Richardson I never did more than glance at in a bookshop, the Defoe I’ve read in those paraphrases children are always consoled with, and as for Sterne, I’ve actually got two editions of ‘Tristram Shandy’ in the expectation of getting round to it sometime …

    But what a glorious introduction you’ve given for these pre-Victorian works, enlightening and inspiring! I’ll go as far as putting Tristram Shandy on my bedside table in the hopes that when the mood takes me it’ll be there at hand! Grazie mille!

    • Those were books I was obliged to read at university rather than personal choices. I have to confess that I skipped all of the descriptive pages about what Robinson succeeded in taking ashore from the ship ( even more) and I consider a great success the fact that I read at least 500.000 of the million words Clarissa is made of, Pamela was just ok, but Tristram Shandy, oh, that was pure genius, I did love it, but I am not going to suggest you anything this time. 😉

  2. I confess most of this flew well above and behind me . . . reinforcing the nagging notion that the odds of finding success as a writer are stacked well and high against me.

  3. I think the works of Richardson and Sterne are more interesting than the old epic novels.
    I believe Sterne is a genius and that he is more modern than the time he lived in.
    Richardson through letters manages to arouse interest in readers.
    Both authors describe the psychology of the characters and makes the story very interesting.

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