Review: Birth of the British Novel, BBC4

Birth of the British Novel, BBC4Birth of the British Novel is back on BBC4’s freeview TV channel.

Author Henry Hitchings explores the lives and works of Britain’s radical and pioneering 18th century novelists who, in just 80 years, established all the literary genres we recognise today. It was a golden age of creativity led by Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin, amongst others. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy are novels that still sparkle with audacity and innovation…

On his journey through 18th century fiction, Hitchings reveals how the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better. He travels from the homes of Britain’s great and good to its lowliest prisons, meeting contemporary writers like Martin Amis, Will Self, Tom McCarthy and Jenny Uglow on the way.

Although 18th century novels are woefully neglected today compared to those of the following two centuries, Hitchings shows how the best of them can offer as much pleasure to the reader as any modern classic.

A whistle-stop tour of key novels, this show plays like a BA Eng-Lit Foundation course. Or, less kindly, ‘a York Notes Primer’ for those who can’t be bothered to read any of the works discussed.

Hitchings gets full marks on passion for his subject. He successfully makes the case for these works retaining their place at the head of the novel’s evolution. It’s difficult in a one-hour show to span the birth of so many genres: satire, social commentary, psychological novel. What could have been a breathless headlong rush was delivered in a calm, thoughtful and entertaining show. Keen to position the novels in their social mores, Hitchins gave delightful thumbnail sketches of the authors’ lives and careers. He attempted to give a sense of place – from Hogarth’s morally debased, gin-soaked London to Walpole’s fantastically gothic palace at Stawberry Hill.

The analysis was not uncritical. Richardson came in for the usual mauling; Pamela for its’ sickly, moralistic monontone and Clarissa for its’ “repulsive” and misogynist lingering on its’ heroine’s violation and death.

If anything spoilt the show, it was the selection of talking heads commentating on the genres. Will Self put in a well-informed word for Swift as the father of British satire, but then Self, like Uglow, Amis and McCarthy are regulars on this kind of show. Does British literature not have any other opinions worth consulting?

I have to nod to author Jane Davis’ blog (

At last, an answer to the question of ‘what is a novel?’ as provided by author, Tom McCarthy. Interviewed for The Birth of the British Novel (BBC4):

“A novel is something that contains its own negation. A novel isn’t a novel unless it has an anti-novel lodged in it. It’s like an oyster isn’t interesting unless it has a bit of grit in it; that not-oyster bit that produces the pearl. The central drama of its book is its own undermining.”

So, nothing to do with characterisation, plot, providing an insight into the human condition or even social commentary, then?

It was the one thing that spoils an otherwise excellent, if a little over-earnest show. Why did Hitchings or the director let McCarthy get away with this up-its-own-tailpipe, self-reflexive academic BS? Almost as if scared to ask for clarification? Surely the entire audience shouted WTF? at that point?

If you’re familiar with all the works, this surface skimming  disappoints. If not, you’ll wonder at the significance of some of them. It’s the peril of the ‘Brodie’s Notes’ approach to literature. Hitchings is a competent, low-key presenter, worth watching if he gets to make further programmes.

One last thing: I still don’t know what is the point of BBC4? Come on BBC, what’s wrong with doing your thinking on BBC2? RC