Everyone’s an original
the problem of originality in 18th century novels

by Dana Snell


The eighteenth century was an era very concerned with originality. The groundbreaking novels of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding had changed literature, creating a new culture of realism interested in particular rather than universal truths and verisimilitude of characterization and setting. There was an increased critical interest in originality and the means to attain it. The word "original" was changing its meaning from the first of something to "exhibition of original thought or action; the character of independently exercising one’s own faculties; the power of originating new or fresh ideas or methods", and the words "originality" and "novel" changed to the definition we know today. Humphry Clinker coined a new usage of "original", and Evelina dealt with themes of originality in imitation.

At the same time, the burgeoning novel market was crowded with mediocre works and imitations. The epistolary novel developed into a popular literary form, drawing its basis from a cult of letter writing that had arisen in Richardson’s time. Both Smollett and Burney experimented with it, and attempted to distinguish their works within the form. Burney in particular dealt with issues of imitation and originality in the preface to Evelina, and stated her intention to create a novel different from the work of past masters and contemporary peers. Both writers used the epistolary form as a characterization device to great effect. Burney used it to show her character developing over time, and Smollett manipulated the form to create overlapping letters that reinforced characterization. Smollett and Burney deal with the challenges of writing in the eighteenth century in different ways and their attempts to set themselves apart from other writers met with differing degrees of success. But examining the ways they saw originality and imitation, and their strategies of achieving the former and avoiding the latter, are valuable insights into what it meant to write during a time when originality was everywhere praised, but imitation everywhere practiced.