Eleanor F. Shevlin
Andrew W. Mellon Regional Fellow in the Humanities
2002—2003 Forum on The Book
Eleanor F. Shevlin
Assistant Professor of English, West Chester University
Novel Entitlements: Titles, Property, and the Making of the English Novel
With its themes of marriages made, inheritances lost, estates restored, identities reclaimed, bankruptcies endured, and fortunes earned, the novel as a genre-in-the-making bespoke 18th century English society’s ubiquitous concern with property and its regulation. Dr. Shevlin uses the concept of “property” to construct an alternative history of the 18th century English novel. In delineating the roles property played in the making of the English novel, this project addresses the novel’s simultaneous status as a material object and a socio-historical form, which thematically embodies 18th century notions of the contested nature of property. To consider these seemingly disparate concerns, Dr. Shevlin takes a closer look at a phenomenon that straddles the world of printed texts and the world of cultural conversations rooted in history – the title of the text. Not until the early decades of the 18th century did the title assume all its modern functions – referential, commercial, descriptive, interpretive, and legal. Once these roles were in place, the title emerges as literally tied to property, both as a text’s identifying sign and as its symbol. As a sign of property, the title records ownership claims exercised upon a work. As such, the process of entitling a text can mark a range of claims: stages in a work’s composition, marketing decisions made by publishers, legal restrictions of textual ownership, or revampings of textual meaning by reader-inspired title alterations. At the same time, as abstracts of the works they label, titles present ideological résumés of the “world-making” novels perform – they encapsulate the various views that early novels offered on how property should structure society. Held together by bonds of property, these intersections between the practices governing the titling of texts, the growth of literature as commercial products, and developments in English laws regulating property fashion a dynamic model of generic formation. This formation replaces responses to “what is a novel?” with ones that address how the English novel was made, how the “novel” as property became actually vested as a genre, and how this making integrates larger socio-historical developments defining England in the 18th century. More than just a project on the 18th century novel, Dr. Shevlin’s study also offers new avenues for generic theorizing, for integrating materialist approaches to literature with traditional bibliographic methods, and for constructing literacy histories within the frame of cultural and historical contexts.