Review: Birth of the British Novel (BBC Four)

Yesterday I watched Birth of the British Novel, a BBC Four documentary hosted by author Henry Hitchings, first shown on TV in 2011. By it I was given an entertaining and eye-opening exploration of the lives and works of Britain’s pioneering 18th century novelists who, according to the BBC, in just 80 years, established all the literary genres we recognise today.

The programme note continues:

It was a golden age of creativity led by Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin, amongst others. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy are novels that still sparkle with audacity and innovation.

On his journey through 18th-century fiction, Hitchings reveals how the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better. He travels from the homes of Britain’s great and good to its lowliest prisons, meeting contemporary writers like Martin Amis, Will Self, Tom McCarthy and Jenny Uglow on the way.

Although 18th-century novels are woefully neglected today compared to those of the following two centuries, Hitchings shows how the best of them can offer as much pleasure to the reader as any modern classic.

I’m not an English literary expert but someone who is developing a keen interest in exploring English literature, especially reading the classics. So this documentary has served as a helpful introduction to this subject for me.

In just a short one-hour long show, Hitchings has managed to pack in delightful thumbnail sketches of the lives, works and historical context of some of the notable literary luminaries of the 18th century. He also discusses the genres – from horror, satire, chick-lit to political thriller – that were birthed in that period.

I came away from watching Birth of the British Novel feeling – often with wide-eyed wonder – that I’ve learned something about British classics and my own woefully inadequate experience in reading them. For example:

  • I’ve never heard of Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney, and William Godwin.
  • I’ve never read most of the novels mentioned in the show, except Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.
  • Women novelists outnumbered their male counterparts in Britain between 1780 and 1810, and earned more!
  • The birth of the British novel was a revolution, not just for literature, but also for British society. Writing fiction back then was a dangerous and subversive enterprise.

If there’s one thing that the documentary hasn’t answered well, it’s this question: What is a novel? Author Tom McCarthy, interviewed for the documentary, answers it this way:

A novel is something that contains its own negation. A novel isn’t a novel unless it has an anti-novel lodged in it. It’s like an oyster isn’t interesting unless it has a bit of grit in it; that not-oyster bit that produces the pearl. The central drama of its book is its own undermining.

Well, to be honest I haven’t the slightest clue as to what he’s talking about. It’s incoherent and sounds like gibberish. It doesn’t help at all to enhance my understanding of what a novel is.

One good takeaway for me from watching this show is that I will definitely add some of the novels mentioned to my TBR pile. It will be an exciting reading adventure to look forward to.

Overall, it’s a fascinating documentary to watch and I recommend it highly. You can watch it here:

How has your experience been in reading British classics? Please share your thoughts below.

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