18th century

The Novel and 18th-Century Criminal Biography

Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

The expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which had required the pre-publication censorship of all printed matter, led to an explosion of published works during the 18th century; books, periodicals, and pamphlets poured forth from the press in great abundance. One of the most enduring genres which emerged during this perod, however, was the novel.

The first English novel is generally assumed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It had its roots in the romance genre which began on the continent with titles such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which usually took as their heroes members of the nobility acting within fantastical settings. Yet novels, in contrast, took for their subject real life, and usually purported to be the ‘life’ or ‘history’ of a real person, hence the full title of Defoe’s work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Their purpose was to provide entertainment and moral instruction to aspirant members of polite society, as Henry Fielding wrote in the preface to his novel, Joseph Andrews (1742):

Delight is mixed with Instruction…the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained.

Additionally, the novel also had roots in late 17th- and18th-century criminal biography. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), and many other individual titles detailing the life of a condemned felon, sought to mix entertainment with moral instruction by presenting readers with highly fictionalised lives of criminals, detailing their birth, life, and death, and making a moral example of them.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.

It was the readers of this type of fiction that the first novelist, Defoe, marketed his early works towards, by providing them with more sophisticated criminal narratives, as in his novel, Moll Flanders (1722). The full title of the novel is quite revealing:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Defoe himself also authored three ‘proper’ criminal biographies:

  1. The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724)
  2. A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724)
  3. The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725).

Defoe would continue to use the conventions of criminal biography in later novels, such as (and I quote the title in full to emphasise its “criminal” connections):

The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque, commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick−Pocket, was Six and Twenty Years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, Came back a Merchant; was Five times married to Four Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, is still abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General (1722).

Later authors such as Henry Fielding would also utilise the conventions of criminal biography in their works, as in Fielding’s novel, The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

These types of novels were popular with the reading public because, as we have seen, they told stories of ‘real life’ in contrast to the aristocratic romances of an earlier generation.

Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

But why did novels manage to build on, and eventually dominate, the market for criminal and rogue lives? John Bender says that:

The explanation lies in the parallel between the novel’s understanding of character as something susceptible to education and change and the analogous assumption that the individual can be reformed, an assumption that underlay the 18th-century penal system. It is certainly true that prisons and penitentiaries are recurrent motifs in early novels.

In addition, Lennard J. Davis suggests that the novel further satisfied the public’s desire for novelty and entertainment, desires which had been met before by other narrative traditions. This sentiment is echoed by Lincoln B. Faller in Turned to Account (1987), who says that:

The most valuable way to relate criminal biography to the novel…is not in terms of its inherent forms or concerns, but rather in terms of the “occasion” it made for reading and writing of extended narratives about…”problematic” lives. Defoe is of course its most obvious beneficiary. Criminal biography not only provided him with an audience trained up to have certain tastes and expectations, it may possibly have endowed him, too, with that other grand requisite of writers, a sense of mission.

The ‘sense of mission’ was the moral purpose of the novel, as Defoe exclaims at the end of Colonel Jack:

I recommend it to all that read this story, when they find their lives come up in any degree to any similitude of cases, they will enquire by me, and ask themselves, is it not time to repent?

The “problematic lives,” the protagonists of early English novels, were characters such as socially-climbing servants (Pamela), illegitimate children (Tom Jones), and fortune-hunting adventurers (Robinson Crusoe), prostitutes (Moll Flanders), and pirates (as in Colonel Jack). It was these types of “problematic” characters which readers first read in criminal biography, and in the early-to-mid eighteenth century could view also within the more sophisticated genre of the novel.

There was one difference between the criminal and/or socially deviant protagonists of novels, however, which is that they were rarely punished. Moll Flanders makes a new life for herself in America. Robinson Crusoe makes money by gaining riches in South America. Pamela, the “socially disruptive” servant girl of Richardson’s novel, ends up marrying her master, Mr. B.

These themes would have struck a chord with the middle classes, who constituted the primary audience for both criminal biography and novels, for these new novels depicted people getting on and advancing in life, as John Richetti says that:

Novels represent[ed] individuals from the middling ranks or classes of society… [and] attempts to acquire status (or wealth and power) through isolated and individual virtue and action rather than by inheritance.

Self-improvement was seen as a trait peculiar to the middle classes, hence in Robinson Crusoe’s diary of his life on the island, even though he has never picked up any carpenters’ tools in his life, he writes that ‘I began to apply myself to make such necessary things as I found I most wanted, particularly a chair and a table.’

Thus, as Hal Gladfelder says, novels, ‘produced an ideologically resonant and commercially proven model of open-ended narrative construction, staging the conflict between the transgressive individual and a normative community.’ In other words, novels drew upon an existing literary market in which the lives of the, often socially marginal people, negotiate their lives in settings that readers would have recognised. There was, therefore, two genres that contributed to the development of the English novel: romance and criminal biography.

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