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Greenlit: The Birth of the British Novel, BBC4

The Birth of the British Novel – Author and critic Henry Hitchings argues that the evolution of the novel in 18th-century Britain was an extraordinary cultural revolution akin to those of 15th-century Florence or fin de siècle Paris.

In less than 100 years, the novel emerged as a new art form and reached maturity. In this period, all the major genres, from chick lit (Fanny Burney’s Evelina) to the political thriller (William Godwin’s The Adventures Of Caleb Williams) to the “modern” stream-of-consciousness (Laurence Sterne’s The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy) were perfected and the great masterworks of each remain unsurpassed.

Henry shows that the novel at this time was not, as often believed, light entertainment for ladies of leisure, but a revolutionary, often politically radical art form developed by larger-than-life personalities.

Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) invented the modern novel in the same entrepreneurial spirit with which he operated a brick factory or tried extracting perfume from civet cats; Jonathan Swift, a behind-the-scenes political manipulator, only wrote Gulliver’s Travels after falling from favour and both Horace Walpole and William Beckford, pioneers of the horror novel, created real-life gothic fantasies at Strawberry Hill and Fonthill Abbey.

Henry Hitchings’ polemic delves deep into 18th-century social as well as political history, and uses paintings by the great artists of the day to illustrate scenes from key novels.

Channel: BBC4

Producer: BBC Productions

TX: Autumn 2010 / Winter 2011

Source: BBC Press Office


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