Aphra Behn and the Changing Perspectives on Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel

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Aphra Behn and the Changing Perspectives on Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel

Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) remains one of the most influential texts in the study of the English novel. However, an increasingly strong case for a revision of both the work itself and the discourse it personifies has been gradually building over the past twenty years. While the initial stages of, first, feminist and, later, post colonial perspectives may have sought only to insert marginalised texts into the existing literary discourse, their long term ramifications are obliging a wider analysis of how we approach the English novel and the manner in which we link it to its surrounding culture. Its exploration reveals the methods with which we trace
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In clarifying this Watt shaped the manner in which literary studies examined the relations between the novel and the shifting face of English culture from the eighteenth century onwards. He provided the primary map from which to survey it as the mouthpiece of a nation undergoing the huge social, technological and economic changes which altered a largely agricultural society ruled by a landed aristocracy into a democratic, industrial empire, supported by a vast network of trade and production.

In particular The Rise of the Novel placed considerable importance on the way the genre “altered the centre of gravity sufficiently to place the middle class as a whole in a dominating position for the first time” (Watt, p.48). In the exploration of this Watt championed the Defoe/Richardson/Fielding lineage that continues to permeate literary historicism. This was not necessarily ground breaking, and Watt never claimed it to be so. As Margaret Reeves argues, he willingly “locates his work within an existing tradition of literary-historical knowledge” (p.26). Watt’s success, as Paul Hunter argues, was the manner in which he annunciated such a history in a manner plausible, workable and accessible. Hunter writes;

What most students of English literature liked best about Watt was its simple formation of the early history of the novel; it offered a

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