The Edge of Seventeen

What did it mean to be an adolescent in the British eighteenth century? According to one influential argument, there simply was no such thing; the idea that youth represented a distinct life stage is, by this light, a modern invention only anachronistically applied to Enlightenment narratives. And yet, the era had a number of ways of thinking about the cusp of adulthood, what novelist Frances Burney would call the “entrance into the world.” The ancient Greek belief in climacteric years—milestones arriving in multiples of seven—lingered, making fourteen and then twenty-one key moments. Legally speaking, reaching twenty-one also meant you had achieved “man’s estate” (if, that is, you were a man…and, heck, it didn’t hurt if you had an estate). Of course, for the novel, marriage marks the social recognition that one has shifted to a different narrative, put away childish things. Entering the world means asserting one’s status as a social actor by proclaiming one’s eligibility, and the realist novel finds this distillation of social relationships (courtship, rejection, seduction, marriage) endlessly appealing.

We’re no better now at pinning down adolescence than were eighteenth-century writers, but the concentrated force of youth continues to make demands on our attention. We debate whether the Parkland activists are naïve or brave (or both) for articulating their bold political vision. “Indelible in the hippocampus” are Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s experiences of adolescent sexual violation. Climate advocate Greta Thunberg is just fifteen and also—perhaps even for this reason— the foremost leader of a global movement.

Teresa Michals has suggested that the British novel has, from the beginning, been the YA novel. (Adult fiction is the latter invention, in her bracing and convincing account.) No matter how we look at it, it’s clear that the early realist novel in Britain understood young people to make the best protagonists. The paradigmatic example is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela Andrews, the fifteen-year-old servant girl who, not knowing much of the world, expected it to be better and convinced others that they might make it so. Imitators and lampooners in Pamela’s wake continued to use the novel to think about youth and to use youth to experiment with the malleable form of the novel. After reading and teaching these books for a number of years, I wanted to understand why. I offer a few answers in Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel. By zeroing in on inexperience, I show how these young protagonists who haven’t seen much of the world nevertheless expose the world’s rules and expectations (both the routine and the sinister). We’ve tended to think of the early novel as setting empirical philosophy in motion—using description of the physical world to crystalize character psychology—but in elevating inexperience, these novels loosen empiricism’s grip on realism. Most remarkably, I found that eighteenth-century narratives about youth did not trace the paths of development we’ve come to expect. Instead, they find narrative value in stasis and recursion, false starts and suspended animation. 

Image: Sir Thomas Lawrence Portrait of Emily Mary Lamb, 1803.

Born Yesterday is a book about adolescence, but I focus my analysis most centrally on the narratives of young women. A strong vein of feminist literary criticism has asked what the female bildungsroman (or coming-of-age novel) looks like—what alternate narrative paths were (and are) available to women, when the very idea of development seemed designed to trace a man’s maturation? I approach this question rather differently in my book, choosing instead to sit with the unsettling observation that the women depicted in these narratives don’t trace paths of development at all, however we adjust or amend the term. That women were largely kept from fulfilling professional and experiential lives is no doubt a consequence of pervasive misogyny, but I nevertheless find in the narrative of inexperience conceptual sophistication and philosophical heft. Ingenuousness, in my account, comes to look like a robust ethical vision—one that refuses to accept sexual violation as given, that questions whether marriage is the only way to shape a life. For Terry Castle, Jane Austen’s heroines “unlearn their brainless ways and come…to see the world around them for what it really is.” She’s not wrong. Still, in the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve been moved and challenged by those heroines before them who, however green, see the world for what it could be.

My book gathers together readings of a series of eighteenth-century novels, but it’s also about what the novel as a genre can do. The coming-of-age story is a wildly successful cultural form, so much so that it’s limited our thinking about the variety of ways literary characters can operate. The naïve heroines of eighteenth-century fiction aren’t aberrations. Taking them seriously, we can expand our sense of what the novel is and what it might be able to do. 

Stephanie Insley Hershinow is an assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. She is the author of Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel.