Coming of age in the eighteenth-century novel

Katherine B Gustafson, University of Pennsylvania


This project argues that the eighteenth-century novel and the modern formation of adolescence developed concurrently and in response to each other. Initially seeking to explain why novels in this period so frequently portrayed adolescent protagonists, it has evolved into a project of cultural recovery. While few scholars have studied adolescent readers in the eighteenth century, evidence from bookstore records, marketing materials, reviews, and novels suggests that adolescents (or “young persons” as they were known in the eighteenth century) were a key group of literary consumers, whose penchant for fiction inspired authors’ creativity, publishers’ ambitions, and critics’ anxieties. ^ Integrating quantitative research with analyses of canonical novels, my work demonstrates that in the late 1730s and 1740s, the publishing industry responded to cultural concerns about adolescents’ enthusiasm for novels with a new type of fiction. Proffering itself to the “Youth of Both Sexes,” Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740) promises an experience tailored to the needs of young readers. Richardson helped define “Youth” as a literary audience distinct from children and adults, and encouraged a representational style that was simultaneously realistic and idealistic. Pamela served as the standard by which novels were judged until the 1790s when writers, such as Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith, and Maria Edgeworth, began to push against these traditional parameters with new rhetorical strategies and characters. ^ Between the 1740s and the 1800s, marketing practices reflected the growing status of young persons as a distinct audience. New ideas about youth pervaded not simply novels’ packaging but also their contents, as works focused more explicitly on the experience of growing up. Moreover, through its representation of young readers and characters, the publishing industry joined in cultural debates taking place in medicine, law, and education about the defining characteristics of the young. By mapping these dynamics of print culture, my work demonstrates how an important demographic of novel readers changed the subject and form of novels themselves, and how novels, in turn, contributed to a broader cultural discourse about a developing social category. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Gustafson, Katherine B, "Coming of age in the eighteenth-century novel" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3509067.