Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel, by Stephanie Insley Hershinow

Charlotte Jones enjoys an account of early English fiction exploring what novelists made of their naive unworldly heroines

October 10, 2019
Jane Austen
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“You really want to know how to stay alive?” Haymitch asks Katniss before the 74th Hunger Games. Forget combat training or survival skills: “You get people to like you.”

Because the annual games (The Hunger Games, of the book’s title) are compulsory viewing, Katniss has accumulated a lifetime of vicarious experience; she can predict what audiences will demand and what Gamemakers will offer. She is a proficient hunter. But her final move – threatening a double suicide that would rob the Capitol of a winner – is a clever act of rebellion, so her allies craft an image of sweet guilelessness so to present her as incapable of orchestrating the strategy she has just enacted. Katniss’ masquerade as a love-struck naïf saves her life, obscuring the knowingness that makes her a threat to the regime, for, writes Stephanie Insley Hershinow, “only a novice (whether genuine or counterfeit) can survive in a world that weaponises the appeals of adolescence”.

It’s a brave book on 18th-century fiction that ends by comparing young-adult dystopian fiction to Jane Austen. But Born Yesterday pulls it off. Hershinow’s question is why early realist and gothic novels so often choose adolescent protagonists, crossing the threshold from private to public life, whose inexperience lingers even as the plot exposes them to various experiences.

This is a fascinating approach. Histories of the novel are dominated by a too-easy alignment of novelistic form with individual formation, associating the depiction of character over narrative time with attaining psychological maturity – hence literary criticism’s longstanding focus on moments or arcs of education or enlightenment: epiphany, Bildung, anagnorisis, the fall. Hershinow suggests that we read inexperience as a persistent site of suspended possibility, rather than a condition only to be subsumed into experience. The novice character-type brings different hopes, expectations and assumptions to their interactions with the world – so what happens if we give those “counterfactual inexperiences” equal precedence? Hershinow models “a method of reading that finds as much narrative heft in the assumptions of the novice as in the eventual correction of those assumptions”.

In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), this is a genre-defining risk. Richardson centres his narrative on the limits of his protagonist’s perspective while ultimately endorsing that perspective; Pamela’s good faith towards her master and fellow servants makes our cynicism look ungenerous, even when we’re proven right (because Mr B does indeed prey on her). Immaturity, her refusal to be shaped by experience, solidifies Pamela’s position as the novel’s moral centre. Far from being cautionary, the plot resolution asks us to hold in tension our superior knowledge about the world’s operations and Pamela’s more speculative vision of a better world. (Richardson grapples with the danger of endorsing Pamela’s inexperience – quite literally the danger of rape – in Clarissa [1748], where Hershinow usefully contrasts Anna, the ingénue, with Clarissa, whose story is not one of maturation through social accommodation but rather self-preservation through withdrawal.)

Hershinow’s examples aren’t all heroines – on Henry Fielding’s “approximate” libertine, she asks: “How can Tom Jones have so much sex and still seem so unknowing?” – although the ethical and aesthetic terms of constrained life make the novice “prototypically female” (more could be said about class and sustained inexperience as socio-political privation). Born Yesterday reconceptualises the formal and epistemological grounds of realism, emphasising its investment in wishes, hopes and longings to create an alternative reality – even if the odds may not be ever in the novice’s favour.

Charlotte Jones teaches English literature at King’s College London.


Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel
By Stephanie Insley Hershinow
Johns Hopkins University Press, 192pp, £37.00
ISBN 9781421429670
Published 27 August 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The possibilities of innocence

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