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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: November 2016

2 - Short Prose Narratives of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries


In his survey of British short fiction in the early nineteenth century, most of which was first published in periodicals, Tim Killick argues that the perceived lack of imaginative fecundity of the short fiction narratives published between 1800 and 1830 resulted in a large corpus of short fiction being marginalized in the history of the modern short story. The same point can be made about the original short fiction published in the eighteenth century, and there was a good deal of it. Robert D. Mayo catalogued 1,375 titles of fiction at least 5,000 words long that appeared in British periodicals other than newspapers between 1740 and 1815, about half of which were written by British authors, and he emphasizes that his catalogue lists but a tenth of the fiction published in periodicals during that period. Shorter pieces, he reports, enjoyed a ‘vast preponderance’. Benjamin Boyce estimates that this remainder could amount to as many as 15,000 to 18,000 pieces. In the beginning of the century, the bulk of this short fiction consisted of ‘tiny tales and diminutive sketches’, but over the course of the century these tiny tales became the literary groundwork for the tradition that British authors in the middle of the nineteenth century disrupted to create the modern short story, a genre with aesthetic qualities based on narrative brevity that distinguish it from the story that is merely short. This chapter traces the transformation of those tiny tales into full-blown stories.

The beginnings of the modern British short story can be located at the opening of the eighteenth century when innovations in publishing launched fiction on a course of development that steered it towards the modern short story. This is not to say that short fiction did not exist previously, but it is to assert that a variety of circumstances hindered fiction's development. Almost all the short fiction available to English readers was imported. These stories were primarily translations of Roman and Greek authors familiar to the classically educated and classical European authors of interest to those who were, or wanted to be, familiar with Continental literature; French writers of romance who told stories of the sexual escapades of Europe's elite; and, towards the end of the century, fables and exotic tales from the East.

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The Cambridge History of the English Short Story
  • Online ISBN: 9781316711712
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