Introduction: From Passions to Language

  • Rebecca Tierney-Hynes
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


This passage from the preface to William Congreve’s 1692 novella, Incognita, was very often used about 30 years ago to talk about an incipient distinction between novel and romance.2 After Michael McKeon’s magisterial Origins of the English Novel, we tend to understand it instead as exemplary of what McKeon explains as the dialectical relationship of romance and the novel.3 But in fact Congreve’s story about reading tells us far less about how we might identify and distinguish these amorphous genres than it does about what people in the late seventeenth century thought about what happens to us when we read.4 Romance, according to Congreve, ‘elevate[s] and surprise[s] the Reader’ and then brings him down to earth with a thud. Comedy and the novel have neither the same high, nor the same hangover. In other words, these are both less extreme and less absorbing genres. Despite the fact that the novel ‘Come[s] near us’, it still allows us critical distance. We can be ‘warn’d’ and ‘made asham’d’ by comedy’s depiction of vice, Congreve says elsewhere, because we can also reflect while we experience it.5 It is this reflective capacity, this critical distance, that Congreve is attempting to assign to the novel by comparing it with comedy. In contrast, the ‘lofty Language’ and the ‘impossible Performances’ of romance seem to prevent reflection and ‘transport[]’ the reader out of familiarity and into ‘wonder’.


Eighteenth Century Literary Practice Figurative Language Early Eighteenth Century Automatic Imitation 
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    William Congreve, Incognita (1692; rpt Menston: Scolar, 1971), Preface.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Maximillian E. Novak, ‘Congreve’s “Incognita” and the Art of the Novella’, Criticism 11 (1969): 329–42.Google Scholar
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© Rebecca Tierney-Hynes 2012

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  • Rebecca Tierney-Hynes

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