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Abstract

From the early eighteenth century onward, the novel was either hailed by its proponents as the modern heir to the epic tradition or denounced by its detractors as a popular arriviste without proper precedent. In time, however, and specifically in the long Romantic period, it came to be identified with a classical tradition of its own. This dissertation argues that a reappraisal of the relationship between the novel and classical antiquity in British literature over the century between 1740 and 1840 reveals new aspects of the novel’s rise to canonicity and a concomitant transformation in the use and status of the classical tradition within contemporary culture. The novel is the chief proponent of a persisting but importantly new kind of literary classicism in this period, one grafted onto vernacular forms and native subject matter in poetry and prose. From the 1740s on, the novel begins to be viewed as a narrative form with the capacity to fulfill the function of moral exemplarity associated with classical literature, as evidenced by both the classicizing of novels in prefaces, digressions, and paratexts and by the novelization of ancient classical texts, which were read in terms of the developing discourse of feeling. Scott’s Waverley Novels were crucial to classicizing the novel: their depiction of human nature in historical periods with changing manners classicizes both national past and genre alike. In the 1810s and 20s, partly in response to Scott, criticism theorizes the novel’s status as literature in relation to canons and critical practices structured by the exemplarity of classical texts. Scottish critics, John Gibson Lockhart in particular, devised the concept of the “classical novels of the English tongue” and transformed the idea of “the classical” into “the classic” by expanding its frame of reference to texts that did not originate in Greco-Roman antiquity but which resembled them in their exemplary character. Over the course of the century, the novel renovated the classical tradition to be accessible to a mass public, creating a new kind of classicism that became more normal than normative, or more quotidian than qualitative, yet still burnished with ancient prestige.

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