So You Want To Read Some Eighteenth-Century Literature


The main thing to know about 18thC literature is that literary realism isn’t a thing, yet. You may not really know a lot about psychological realism as a literary technique because it won the “what are books” battle decisively in the 1830s and most novels have had psychological realism as their foundation ever since; it’s the water you’re probably swimming in, basically. Psychological realism focuses on things like expressing character’s complex inner states, conveying their surroundings through rich and particularized details, and telling stories about personal change with emotional arcs. (I think, I dunno; I don’t study realist literature.) If you read The Castle of Otranto looking for those things you will be very disappointed.

The pre-realist literature that I love so much is still interested in people and emotions, because it’s still literature, but in ways that can take some getting used to. I wrote a lot of stuff here, but honestly, if you want advice on how to read and enjoy pre-realist literature, this Toast post on Pamela is kind of perfect. Key quote:

So Pamela’s position is fixed, and Mr. B’s position is fixed, and there’s only one winning move that she can make, and that is topping from the bottom like a motherfucker. And she DOES. GUYS, SHE DOES IT SO WELL. She drives him bananas and pretends she’s not doing it at all, which of course makes him even more bananas, and it’s terrific.

The stories are like logic puzzles in some ways, where you’re trying to figure out all the constraints, and the characters are also trying to figure out all the constraints, and you’re trying to figure out which characters are going to figure things out first, and what outcomes are possible and what outcomes are good, and the novel is constantly throwing wacky new stuff at you so you have to change everything you thought you knew, and it’s 50% reflecting on the fallibility of the human mind and the difficulty of making sound judgments and 50% gazing in awe upon majestically subtle manipulative women running an endurance race through the entire patriarchy.

So in THAT context, some recs!!

To get your feet wet:

Capital-R Romances about women (the good stuff!):

Classic courtship novels:

Comic novels about men:

Plays that maybe aren’t even 18thC any more but the theatre is where you get all the good crossdressing:

Sad poems:

SO THAT IS A LOT OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY LITERATURE!!! I tried to focus on things that I really liked, that I don’t think most people have read or even heard of, that have at least a chance of making sense and being satisfying without context. Sorry that this is sort of the “30 flavours of jam” version of making recommendations – if you do give any of these a try, I would love to hear about it!!!