Theses Doctoral

Novel Conversations, 1740-1817

Gemmill, Kathleen Doherty

“Novel Conversations” examines how and why eighteenth-century novelists came to represent people interacting in ways that registered as lively and real. Speech had long been crucial in literary genres as varied as drama, philosophical dialogue, romance and narrative poetry; but techniques for representing speech would proliferate in the eighteenth century as writers gave conversation a new centrality in the novel, seeking to capture the manner of speech over and above its basic matter. “Novel Conversations” explores this literary-historical development with chapters on four writers who were especially interested in the technical challenge of recording vocal effects: Samuel Richardson, James Boswell, Frances Burney and Jane Austen. They developed a set of tools for rendering in prose the auditory and social nuances of conversation, including tone and emphasis, pacing and pausing, gesture and movement. I argue that their experiments resulted in a new “transcriptional realism” in the novel. This term describes the range of techniques used to craft dialogue that faithfully approximates the features of real speech, while remaining meaningful and effectual as an element of prose narrative.
In developing methods to this end, eighteenth-century writers borrowed techniques from other genres, combined them, and invented new ones. One rich source was life writing, the broad category of documentary prose genres that both absorbed and influenced the novel form in its early stages. Writers also sought complementary techniques in drama, whose stage directions, tonal notations and cues about who is speaking to whom at what point in time could be readily adapted for prose narrative. The task at hand was to calibrate two often opposing styles: the empirically driven, transcriptional mode of life writing and the more overtly stylized mode of drama. Writers did so by developing two resources within the novel form: the narrator, who occupies a flexible platform from which to elaborate conversational dynamics with description; and print itself, with all of its graphic and spatial possibilities for shaping speech on the page, including accidentals, line breaks, and typography. What are in one sense formalist readings are complemented by a careful attention to the materiality of the manuscript page and the printed page. In approaching my primary authors’ texts from a technical perspective, I do justice to their experimental efforts to use writing as a technology for capturing voice: a recording device avant la lettre. This approach in turn gives me critical purchase to analyze the effect that this technology serves: detailed representations of characters operating in a lively, familiar social world.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 31, 2017