"On Novel Reading"
Essay 14 of Essays Moral and Literary (1778)
If it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the
preceding, the great multiplication of Novels has probably contributed to
its degeneracy. Fifty years ago there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom.
Romances, indeed, abounded; but they, it is supposed, were rather
favourable to virtue. Their pictures of human nature were not exact, but
they were flattering resemblances. By exhibiting patterns of perfection,
they stimulated emulation to aim at it. They led the fancy through a
beautiful wilderness of delights: and they filled the heart with pure,
manly, bold, and liberal sentiments.
Those books also, which were written with a view to ridicule the more
absurd romantic writers, are themselves most pleasing romances, and may be
read without injury to the morals. Such is the immortal work of Cervantes.
Perhaps the safest books of entertainment for young people are those of
decent humour, which excite a laugh, and leave the heart little affected.
Books are more read in youth than in the advanced periods of life; but
there are few perfectly well adapted to the young mind. They should be
entertaining, or they will not be attended to. They should not be
profound, or they will not be understood. Entertaining books there are in
great numbers; but they were not written solely for young people, and are
therefore too unguarded in many of their representations. They do not pay
that reverence which Juvenal asserts to be due to the puerile age.
That Richardson's Novels are written with the purest intentions of
promoting virtue, none can deny. But in the accomplishment of this purpose
scenes are laid open, which it would be safer to conceal, and sentiments
excited, which it would be more advantageous to early virtue not to admit.
Dangers and temptations are pointed out; but many of them are dangers
which seldom occur, and temptations by which few in comparison are
assaulted. It is to be feared, the moral view is rarely regarded by
youthful and inexperienced readers, who naturally pay the chief attention
to the lively description of love, and its effects; and who, while they
read, eagerly wish to be actors in the scenes which they admire.
The cultivated genius of Fielding entitles him to a high rank among
the classics. His works exhibit a series of pictures drawn with all the
descriptive fidelity of a Hogarth. They are highly entertaining, and will
always be read with pleasure; but they likewise disclose scenes, which may
corrupt a mind unseasoned by experience.
Smollett undoubtedly possesses great merit. He would, however, have
been more generally read among the polite and refined, if his humour had
been less coarse. His Peregrine Pickle has, I am convinced, done
much mischief; as all books must do, in which wicked characters are
painted in captivating colours. And it is advisable to defer the perusal
of his works, till the judgment is mature.
The writings of such men do, however, display the beauties of that
genius, which allures and rewards the attention of the discreet reader.
But the memoirs, private histories, and curious anecdotes, imported from
our neighbouring land of libertinism, have seldom any thing to recommend
them to perusal but their profligacy. Yet even these, adorned with
specious titles, and a pert vivacity of language, have found their way to
the circulating libraries, and are often obtruded on the attention at an
The English Press has teemed with similar original productions. That
coarse taste, which was introduced in the reign of Charles the Second, was
greedily adopted by the juvenile reader. At an inflammatory age, the fuel
of licentious ideas will always find a ready reception. The sentimental
manner seems of late to have supplanted it. But it is matter of doubt,
whether even this manner is not equally dangerous. It has given an amiable
name to vice, and has obliquely excused the extravagance of the passions,
by representing them as the effect of lovely sensibility. The least
refined affections of humanity have lost their indelicate nature, in the
ideas of many, when dignified by the epithet of sentimental; and
transgressions forbidden by the laws of God and man have been absurdly
palliated, as proceeding from an excess of those finer feelings, which
vanity has arrogated to itself as elegant and amiable distinctions. A
softened appellation has given a degree of gracefulness to moral
The languishing and affectedly sentimental compositions formed on the
pattern of Sterne, or of other less original Novelists, not only tend to
give the mind a degree of weakness, which renders it unable to resist the
slightest impulse of libidinous passion, but also indirectly insinuate,
that the attempt is unnatural. What then remains to support the feeble
efforts of remaining virtue, but the absence of temptation?
Such books, however pernicious in their tendency, are the most easily
attained. The prudence of their publishers suggests the expediency of
making them conveniently portable. Every corner of the kingdom is
abundantly supplied with them. In vain is youth secluded from the
corruptions of the living world. Books are commonly allowed them with
little restriction, as innocent amusements; yet these often pollute the
heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions at a distance
from temptation, and teach all the malignity of vice in solitude.
There is another evil arising from a too early attention to Novels.
They fix attention so deeply, and afford so lively a pleasure, that the
mind, once accustomed to them, cannot submit to the painful task of
serious study. Authentic history becomes insipid. The reserved graces of
the chaste matron Truth pass unobserved admist the gaudy and painted
decorations of fiction. The boy who can procure a variety of books like
Gil Blas, and the Devil upon Two Sticks, will no longer
think his Livy, his Sallust, his Homer, or his Virgil pleasing. He will
not study old Lilly, while he can read Pamela and Tom
Jones, and a thousand inferior and more dangerous novels.
When the judgment is ripened by reflection, and the morals out of
danger, every well-written book will claim attention. The man of
application may always find agreeable refreshment, after severer study, in
the amusing pages of a Fielding; but the fungous productions of the common
Novel-wright will be too insignificant to attract his notice.
The extreme insipidity of some of our later Novels, it might have been
supposed, would have prevented their reception. But insipid minds find in
them entertainment congenial to their nature. And, indeed, the futility of
the modern Novel almost precludes its power of causing any other mischief,
than the consumption of time that might be more usefully employed.
If, however, Novels are to be prohibited, in what, it will be asked,
can the young mind employ itself during the hours of necessary leisure? To
this it may be answered, that when the sweetened poison is removed, plain
and wholesome food will always be relished. The growing mind will crave
nourishment, and will gladly seek it in true histories, written in a
pleasing style, on purpose for its use. Voyages and travels, when not
obscured by scientific observations, are always delightful to youthful
curiosity. From interesting narratives, like those of Telemachus,
and Robinson Crusoe, a mind not vitiated by a taste for
licentious Novels will derive a very sensible pleasure. Let the boy's
library consist of such books as Rollin's History, Plutarch's
Lives, and the Spectators; and, together with the
improvement of his morals and understanding, which he must derive from
reading them, he will have it in his power to spend his vacant time in
such mental amusements as are truly and permanently delightful.