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Friday, 13 February 2009

The novel is a mirror to my heart.

“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion”

Robert Burns, 'To a Louse'

To you precious few who care to read, and care, i apologise for taking so long to write.

Watching a BBC4 documentary the other day has set me thinking. The piece was called 'How reading made us modern' and laid claim to the idea that the liberalisation of printing through the ending of the Licensing Act in 1695 created the foundation for mass literacy and a mass social transformation both public and private. Within a few years Britain went from having but a handful of books available and only at Royal discretion, to a cacophony of script, from book to journal to journalism and newspaper.

From the literary torrent came a rising tide of literacy and a new form of literature that spoke to a people keen to listen. The novel gained prominence as a style, and helped create a whole new wider group of readers, particularly in women.

Presenter John Mullan noted the link between the novel and the rise of the female 'bluestocking' salon (with examples like Elizabeth Montague), and its role in finding a voice for women - through the empowerment of literacy and the opportunity to meet and discuss the themes contained within the stories.

It also made me wonder about the role of the novel in our emotional development.

Peter and Carol Stearns amongst others have already highlighted how angry and unrestrained emotions were in the UK and Britain around this time. They also showed how during the 18th and 19th century these feelings began to become more controlled and 'civilised'.

Of course I couldn't claim the novel was the sole key to this, not least as the Stearns have shown plenty of other factors.

However, as Mullan pointed out the novel told people about themselves by writing about others. It held a mirror up to society and allowed it to see itself as others saw it. And in seeing themselves might not it have given them an empathy previously lacking, bestowed some greater compassion that recognised the impact of those brute emotions and realised the need for more control in various public and private spheres?

If the novel is accepted as transforming our private intellectual life, it cannot fail to have done something similar to our emotional life.

Is the novel still that same transformer, a redeemer to reflect our current iniquities? if the novel withers, or grows stale, what then shall take its place?

Surely not blogs?

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