Study of the Eighteenth-Century Novel is more alive and relevant than ever… thanks to Twitter. Discuss.
I’m shamefully aware that it is as fashionable to regard Twitter with objectionable disdain as it is to hashtag your breakfast, and believe me when I say that I envision myself as being much closer to the former camp that the latter. But, as a researcher of eighteenth-century print culture, I can’t help but find the whole thing fascinating and the parallels to my own period of research seemingly endless and increasingly sophisticated.
I’m far from the only person to pick up on analogies between the rise of print and the rise of the internet: it’s a conversation I’ve witnessed and participated in at conferences and in classrooms across the country; it even snuck into a BBC4 documentary about the rise of the novel a couple of years ago. I also recently saw a play called ‘iShandy’ at the York Theatre Royal which went to great lengths to pitch Laurence Sterne’s digressive novel as something closely resembling the World Wide Web. The analogy, I think, is supremely fruitful. We live in a culture where suddenly anyone can ‘publish’ anything, where the nature of communication is changing and where boundaries of authenticity and public and private utterances are being challenged. This is a sentence which could just as easily be applied to early Eighteenth-Century London.
Consider my own motives for joining Twitter. I intended to use it for networking (see Authorial Self-Fashioning), to quickly disseminate ideas (see Scribal Communities and Manuscript Circulation) and **subscribe** to people and groups I was interested in (surely that one writes itself? If not, see c18th Subscription Lists). There’s plenty more to be said about this by people who know more about it all than I do. However, I did witness an interesting discussion recently when teaching Francis Burney’s 1778 epistolary novel Evelina, which has led me to suspect that future generations may engage with such texts in a different and potentially more natural way.
Evelina is an epistolary novel. This means that it consists of fictional letters, written by characters within the novel. Burney’s conceit is that by utilising the form of the private letter she is offering readers an intimate insight into what her characters are thinking (and these are often female characters, such as Evelina, who might not openly express their feelings in public polite society). In the case of Evelina particularly Burney tries to create a sense that the reflective distance between Evelina thinking something and writing it down is massively diminished. Evelina’s written letters take on the characteristics of verbal and unrehearsed speech, often approaching something similar to stream-of-consciousness:
I believe I am bewitched! I made a resolution when I began, that I would not be urgent; but my pen – or rather my thoughts, will not suffer me to keep it – for I acknowledge, I must acknowledge, I cannot help wishing your permission.
(Evelina, OUP, p. 26)
The gap between which an event happens and Evelina commits it to paper is also often significantly reduced, as our heroine experiences events in almost the present tense; recording them in her letters as they are happening. This was something that Samuel Richardson did more frequently in earlier novels such as Pamela and Clarissa, and it became known as ‘writing to the moment’. It is an epistolary device which certainly tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and memorably became remorselessly parodied in Henry Fielding’s Shamela:
Thursday Night, Twelve o’Clock
Mrs. Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come – Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present tense, as Parson Williams says. Well, he is in bed between us, we both shamming a Sleep, he steals his Hand into my Bosom, which I, as if in my sleep, press close to me with mine, and then pretend to be awake.
(Joseph Andrews and Shamela, OUP, p. 318)
Fielding also, appropriately, problematizes the extent to which we can trust these epistolary heroines. They may want us to believe that the reflective distance has been entirely removed, but the moment they commit their words to paper they are not necessarily offering some authentic insight into the workings of their mind, but instead a written (and constructed) representation. This is particularly overt in the letter form as the register, character and persona of the writer is entirely determined by the identity of the intended recipient.
Anyway, suffice to say, my students initially found the conceit behind the epistolary novel difficult to swallow. When I asked them how they felt about Evelina they suggested that she needs to get out more. They asked: ‘When does she actually do anything? She must spend all of her life writing letters?’ and ‘Why would anyone write all this stuff into their letters – some of it isn’t even interesting’ (You should try Clarissa, I thought). Another group suggested that they didn’t trust her stream-of-consciousness moments: ‘Fair enough, rules of grammar and decorum might be abandoned in a private letter, but would anyone actually write words like ‘Oh!’ or ‘Heavens, Sir!’ in a real letter?’
All sound objections, and moments of epistolary fiction which have perhaps, historically, rendered the conceit of the form a little problematic; drawing attention to the fictionality of the genre.
Until someone mentioned Twitter, and then it suddenly seemed a lot more plausible.
It was pointed out Evelina’s instant and breathless style would not seem out of place on Twitter, where verbal exclamations are frequently written in this context and there have been countless high profile cases in which a diminished ‘reflective distance’ has landed people in the media, in court, or even in jail. Twitter allows individuals to express potentially private and unpolished thoughts to a public audience – instantly. It gives everyone the opportunity to ‘write to the moment’; as seen in the recent trend (pun intended) of ‘live-tweeting’ at academic conferences and other events.
In fact, I recently attended a University ceremony at which a large screen of ‘live-tweets’ was projected onto stage throughout the event. This revealed that members of the audience were privately making public comments about the event whilst they were still attending it – in real time. Similarly, I was surprised to check Twitter after the aforementioned Theatre trip to see ‘iShandy’ only to discover that some members of the audience had been tweeting during the play (and the actors had been responding immediately after the final curtain. See interaction between actors and audiences Restoration Theatre). This all begs the question: Why would you report on or record an event whilst it is still in progress? Aren’t you at risk of missing out on the present tense experience?
I think the logic behind tweeting during an event is similar to that which prompts people to experience live concerts down the lens of an iPhone camera. When I see this practise I do often wonder when they are going to watch the footage back (imagine: you’re at a friend’s house and they mention that they have recently seen a band that you like. Suddenly they’ve got their laptop out and they’re loading blurry handheld footage consisting of flashing lights and largely undistinguishable loud noises and shouting. Shudder.).
I don’t imagine that many people do watch the footage they record – but there is an understandable impulse there to try and record what is happening; or rather, an anxiety that the memory that they are experiencing might be lost if they don’t make some attempt to save it (see Romanticism: memory, nostalgia and imagination).
As our discussion progressed that initial protestation to the way Evelina documents her life began to take on a new relevance, and we realised collectively that this first chastisement of Evelina could have easily been against either my students or myself (although I was reluctant to let on to that at the time):
‘When does she actually do anything? She must spend all of her life writing letters? Why would anyone write all this stuff into their letters – some of it isn’t even interesting?’
When considering the sheer amount of casual record keeping we amass these days- in the form of such things as live tweets, Facebook updates or Instagram photo’s – suddenly Evelina’s inclination to write letters about everything that ever happens to her in almost real time is not only plausible but highly relatable.
For this reason I’m beginning to think that the current social media generation might be able to relate to these texts in a way that was unimaginable only ten years ago, and the questions that these texts raise are suddenly more pertinent that ever.