The Conversational Circle

The Conversational Circle: Rereading the English Novel, 1740-1775

Betty A. Schellenberg
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 176
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jp5t
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    The Conversational Circle
    Book Description:

    The Conversational Circleoffers a model for exploring a range of novels that experiment with narrative patterns. It makes a compelling case that teleological approaches to novel history that privilege the conflict between the individual and society are, quite simply, ahistorical. Twentieth-century historians of the early novel, most prominently Ian Watt, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Terry Castle, have canonized fictions that portray the individual in sustained tension with the social environment. Such fictions privilege a strongly linear structure. Recent reexaminations of the canon, however, have revealed a number of early novels that do not fit this mold.

    Betty Schellenberg identifies another kind of plot, one that focuses on the social group -- the "conversational circle" -- as a model that can affirm traditional values but just as often promotes an alternative sense of community. Schellenberg selects a group of mid-eighteenth-century novels that experiment with this alternative plot structure, embodied by the social circle. Both satirical and sentimental, canonical and non-canonical, these novels demonstrate a concern that individualistic desire threatened to destabilize society. Writing that reflects a circular structure emphasizes conversation and consensus over individualism and conquest. As a discourse that highlights negotiation and harmony, conversation privileges the social group over the individual.

    These fictions of the conversation circle include lesser-known works by canonical authors (Henry Fielding'sAmeliaand Richards'sSir Charles Grandisonas well as his sequel toPamela), long-neglected novels by women (Sarah Fielding'sDavid Simpleand its sequelVolume the Last, and Sarah Scott'sMillenium Hall), and Tobias Smollet's last novel,Humphrey Clinker. Because they do not fit the linear model, such works have long been dismissed as ideologically flawed and irrelevant.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5907-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Narrating Sociability in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England
    (pp. 1-7)

    In 1742, David Hume published an essay entitled “Of Essay Writing,” which begins with a pair of apparently self-evident classifications: “The elegant part of mankind, who are not immersed in mere animal life, but employ themselves in the operations of the mind, may be divided into thelearnedand theconversable.”¹ Hume goes on to describe an exclusive and leisured “world” devoted to conversation:

    The conversable world join to a sociable disposition, and a taste for pleasure, an inclination for the easier and more gentle exercises of the understanding, for obvious reflections on human affairs, and the duties of common...

  5. 1 Consensus, the Conversational Circle, and Mid-Eighteenth-Century Fiction
    (pp. 8-21)

    It is generally accepted that the instability of English political structures in the seventeenth century left eighteenth-century English society a legacy of uncertainty about the unquestioned right of any particular model of political authority. Linked to questions about political authority were debates in the realm of belief—over the nature of the monarchy, the place of revelation in the face of an increasingly empirical and psychological understanding of (human) nature, and the social implications of pietistic Christianity. Furthermore, the development of newly complex and intangible economic structures contributed to a sense of flux and financial vulnerability. Thus, as J.G.A. Pocock...

  6. 2 Constructing the Circle in Sarah Fielding’s David Simple
    (pp. 22-35)

    Although little is known about the life of Sarah Fielding, the extra-literary traces that have remained, particularly in correspondence by, to, and about her, indicate the precarious dependency of the unmarried gentlewoman of very limited means, exacerbated by the suspicion with which the mid-eighteenth-century female of intellectual tastes and aspirations was viewed. The principal feature of human life as it is portrayed in the fictions of Sarah Fielding might be said to be the mutability of circumstances and relationships; perhaps from knowledge of that fundamental uncertainty of earthly existence comes an obsession with finding rest in an intimate and accepting...

  7. 3 Social Authority and the Domestic Circle in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela Part II
    (pp. 36-50)

    Critics have generally found Richardson’s 1741 sequel toPamela; or, Virtue Rewardedeasy to dismiss. For T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D.Kimpel, “the great fault of the continuation ofPamelais that there was nothing which could happen in it, and the best excuse that can be offered for it is that Richardson was evidently forced to write it, without any urge from inside.” Even Margaret Anne Doody’s relatively sympathetic reading of the sequel is entitled “PamelaContinued: Or, The Sequel that Failed.”¹ Summarizing these and other evaluations in her recent discussion ofPamelaPart II, Terry Castle concludes with...

  8. 4 Socializing Desire and Radiating the Exemplary in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison
    (pp. 51-68)

    Although Samuel Richardson tells his readers, in the guise of Editor ofSir Charles Grandison,that with this novel he has “completed the Plan, that was the Object of his Wishes... to accomplish,” the notion of completion has become considerably more complex than it was in the case of the sequel toPamela.¹ On one level, this “public View [of] the Character and Actions of a Man of TRUE HONOUR” is a companion piece toClarissaas an intimate anatomy of the “Heart, always excellent, refined and exalted” of the “truly Christian Heroine”; the active, public, masculine self is offered...

  9. 5 Silencing the Center in Henry Fielding’s Amelia
    (pp. 69-87)

    For Samuel Richardson, increasing literary authority is accompanied by a growing confidence in the power of his model of the conversational circle to socialize individualistic desire. Henry Fielding would appear to share this expansive confidence in his early “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” in which he renders in prose Pope’s image of the circle expanding from self-love to social responsibility:

    If a Man hath more Love than what centers in himself, it will certainly light on his Children, his Relations, Friends, and nearest Acquaintance. If he extends it farther, what is it less than general Philanthropy,...

  10. 6 Authorizing the Marginalized Circle in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall
    (pp. 88-101)

    Recent readers have been intrigued by Sarah Scott’s 1762 novel,A Description of Millenium Hall,particularly by its embedding of a utopian community of women within the narrative of “A Gentleman on his Travels,” in its turn the anonymous work of a female author. Feminist analyses of this narrative structure have variously labelled it subversive or conservative. George E. Haggerty represents the former view, arguing that this is a lesbian narrative, eroticizing the maternal in a challenge to conventional patriarchy, while Vincent Carretta sees the novel’s embedded structure as reinforcing the necessity of hierarchical order and a masculine agent in...

  11. 7 Mobilizing the Community, Immobilizing the Ideal in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker
    (pp. 102-116)

    LikeSir Charles GrandisonandAmelia,Tobias Smollett’sExpedition of Humphry Clinker(1771) is a final novel, published just a few mondis before its author’s death. Typical of such a career placement is the novel’s shift in plot and structure away from the author’s earlier fictions, in which the protagonist is a placeless wanderer, even a picaro, at odds with an unsympathetic and alien society. Indeed, Smollett’s very successful first novel,Roderick Random,published virtually simultaneously withClarissaandTom Jones,has probably contributed with these novels to the generalization that the novel genre is fundamentally committed to portraying the...

  12. 8 Disembodying the Social Circle in Sarah Fielding’s Volume the Last
    (pp. 117-130)

    In 1744, Sarah Fielding concludesThe Adventures of David Simplewith the confident assertion that “as strong a Picture as this is of real Happiness, it is in the power of every Community to attain it, if every Member of it would perform the Part allotted him byNature,or hisStation in Life,with a sincere Regard to the Interest and Pleasure of the whole.” Even more optimistically, she envisions a world in which “all Mankind [were] contented to exert their own Faculties for the common Good”; in such a world, “real Happiness would be attainable,.. . and the...

  13. Conclusion: A Failed Plot? The Fate of the Conversational Circle in English Fiction
    (pp. 131-136)

    I began this study of mid-eighteenth-century fictions of the conversational circle with these and other statements suggesting a widespread contemporary interest in the conversational circle as a paradigm for a renewed sociability. A significant number of the period’s writers clearly felt a moral responsibility to both describe and model such a circle, thus at once claiming it to be a natural social formation and revealing it to be the product of the writers’ desire for consensus and stability in the face of perceived societal fragmentation. The attempt to realize in fiction a social ideal that would in fact circumscribe and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 137-160)
  15. Index
    (pp. 161-166)