The 18th-century vel developed amid an emerging emphasis on individualism that clashed with long-cherished beliefs in heriarchy and stability. Though the comic velists, unlike Defoe and Richardson, avoided total involvement in the mind of any one character, they were netheless fundamentally concerned with the nature of consciousness. In Character and consciousness in 18th century comic fiction , Elizabeth Kraft examines the kind of consciousness central to comic vels of the period. It is, she asserts, individual identity conceived in social terms - a character's search for his or her plane in a precarious secular order. Understanding this concept of character is vitally important to a full appreciation of 18th-century comic fiction. To respond validly to these fictional characters, Kraft claims, the 20th-century reader must recapture, or recreate, the 18th-century self. In readings of five vels - Henry Fielding's Tom Jones , Charlotte Lenx's Female Quixote , Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy , Tobias Smolett's Peregrine Pickle , and Fanny Burney's Cecilia - Kraft explores the relationships among consciousness, character, and comic narrative. Fielding, Lenx, and Sterne, she argues, question the validity of narratives of consciousness. Each seeks to define the limitations as well as the virtues of the form in representing individual and communal lives. Smollet and Burney, on the other hand, address a readership that expects the vel to offer meaningful renderings of personal experience. These velists accept the validity of the narrative of consciousness but place this narrative within the context of the larger community. As a thorough analysis of relations between narrative and the construction of character and consciousness, Kraft's study should prove an important addition to our understanding of the theoretical formulations of 18th-century fiction.
Elizabeth Kraft is a professor of English at the University of Georgia. Among her other books, she is the author of Character and Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Comic Fiction and coeditor of The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld (both Georgia).