Handout: Approaching Anti-Novel Sentiment

"Handout: Approaching Anti-Novel Sentiment"
Advice about Love seminar

Sarah Raff
Pomona College

Ovid is the surest Guide,
You can name, to show the Way
To any Woman, Maid, or Bride,
Who resolves to go astray.
-Matthew Prior, “Lines Written in an Ovid” (1718) [1] 

“The power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without intervention of the will.”

-Samuel Johnson, Rambler 4, 1750 [2] 
“Miss reads—she melts—she sighs—Love steals upon her—
And then—Alas, poor girl!—good night, poor honour.”
-George Colman the elder, Polly Honeycombe (1760) [3] 

“Jamais fille chaste n’a lu des romans, et j’ai mis à celui-ci un titre assez décidee pour qu’en l’ouvrant on sût à quoi s’en tenir. Celle qui, malgré ce titre, en osera lire une seule page est une fille perdue; mais qu’elle n’impute point sa perte à ce livre, le mal était fait d’avance. Puisqu’elle a commencé, qu’elle achève de lire: elle n’a plus rien à risquer.”

[Never has a chaste girl read novels, and I have given this one a title sufficiently decided that upon opening it one knows what to expect. The girl who, despite this title, dares to read a single page, is lost. But let her not impute her loss to this book. The evil was done in advance. Since she has begun to read, let her finish: she has nothing left to risk.]

-Rousseau, preface to Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) [4] 

“[The novel] The Way to Lose Him is very proper to debauch all young ladies who are still undebauched.”

-The London Magazine, 1772 [5] 

“Novels ... are the powerful engines with which the seducer attacks the female heart; and, if we may judge by every day’s experience, his plots are seldom laid in vain.”

-Lady’s Magazine, 1780 [6] 
[Those “pimps” or novelists are to be condemned]
Who, kindling a combustion of desire
With some cold moral think to quench the fire. ....
Howe’er disguised the inflammatory tale,
And cover’d with fine-spun specious veil,
Such writers, and such readers, owe the gust
And relish of their pleasure all to lust.
-William Cowper, “The Progress of Error” (1782) [7] 

“[The novel is] a descriptive manual of speculative debauchery, with infallible rules for reducing it into practice.”

- Miniature, 1804

“Literature is a seducer; we had almost said a harlot.”

-Westminster Review, 1824 [9] 

“Not tonight, dear. I’m reading Jane Austen.”

-Slogan on t-shirts for sale at a Jane Austen Society conference, c.1996 [10] 


[1] The Poetical Works of Matthew Prior, 261. BACK

[2] Samuel Johnson, Rambler 4 (March 31, 1750), 176. BACK

[3] Colman, Polly Honeycombe, xv. BACK

[4] Rousseau, Julie, 4. BACK

[5] Taylor quotes this complaint in the course of describing an angry exchange of letters between representatives of a circulating library and the editor of The London Magazine in 1772 (Early Opposition, 48). BACK

[6] Lady’s Magazine XI (Supplement, 1780), 693, quoted in Taylor, Early Opposition, 77. BACK

[7] William Cowper, “The Progress of Error,” lines 315-21. BACK

[9] Westminster Review 2 (1824), 346, quoted in Halperin, “Introduction: Jane Austen’s Nineteenth-Century Critics” in Halperin, ed., Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, 3-42: 5. BACK

[10] Quoted in McMaster, Jane Austen the Novelist, 13. BACK