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The Prose of Things

Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century

The Prose of Things

Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century

Virginia Woolf once commented that the central image in Robinson Crusoe is an object—a large earthenware pot. Woolf and other critics pointed out that early modern prose is full of things but bare of setting and description. Explaining how the empty, unvisualized spaces of such writings were transformed into the elaborate landscapes and richly upholstered interiors of the Victorian novel, Cynthia Sundberg Wall argues that the shift involved not just literary representation but an evolution in cultural perception.

In The Prose of Things, Wall analyzes literary works in the contexts of natural science, consumer culture, and philosophical change to show how and why the perception and representation of space in the eighteenth-century novel and other prose narratives became so textually visible. Wall examines maps, scientific publications, country house guides, and auction catalogs to highlight the thickening descriptions of domestic interiors. Considering the prose works of John Bunyan, Samuel Pepys, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, David Hume, Ann Radcliffe, and Sir Walter Scott, The Prose of Things is the first full account of the historic shift in the art of describing.

288 pages | 17 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


"A book that is at once magisterial and charming, generous and shrewd."

Studies in English Literature

“In this agile, exuberant, and important study, Cynthia Wall observes eighteenth-century British observers and, by reconstructing the changing ways in which they saw and in which they made their seeing legible, helps us to historicize modern habits of perception. The Prose of Things tells a new and absorbing story about the evolution of early modern prose as it tracks the literary and cultural ascent of description, the ascent that, by the nineteenth century—the heyday of the prosy, detail-thickened novel—had led to description’s ‘domestication’ in narrative and its ‘gentrification’ in culture. Panoramic in scope, The Prose of Things is nonetheless unfailingly sensitive to details.  That is only fitting for a book that will leave its readers with a new appreciation for the skillfulness and brio that enabled eighteenth-century writing to reimagine details into meaningfulness.”

Deidre Shauna Lynch, Indiana University

“Learned, imaginative, far-reaching, and provocative, Cynthia Wall’s study recaptures in lively prose the meanings and the pleasures of things and spaces as rendered in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English writing. Investigating varied texts—from auction bills and guidebooks to Richardson novels—Wall delineates changing conventions of description and reveals the messages of pots and chairs, rugs and gowns and galleries.   The book that accomplishes all this is, moreover, fun to read.”

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar Shannon Professor of English Emerita, University of Virginia

"A bold and stimulating thesis about the changing nature of description, one which suggests directions for future work—both in poetry and in prose—in this period."

Leya Landau | Times Literary Supplement

"Wall’s study is highly stimulating, and engages a question of fundamental importance that should be of interest to historians of science, especially early modernists. . . . Wall performs a wonderfully eye-opening exercise in what might be called ’literary phenomenology’: the study of how prose has been used in different ways to register perceptual realities as constituted by interactions among persons, things and spaces. . . . Wall succeeds in getting us to see such things no longer merely as objects of cold economic utility, but as heralding the materialization of a new perceptual order."

British Journal of the History of Science

"Wall offers a valuable contribution to the history of the eighteenth-century novel. By reading novelistic prose in relation to other forms of contemporary prose, The Prose of Things weaves an intricate tapestry of texts that defined, celebrated, and required spatial description."

Tita Chico | Eighteenth-Century Fiction

“In The Prose of Things, Cynthia Wall takes up a topic that all of us who work in the field have touched upon but have not had the courage nor the ambition nor the vision to consider in just the way that she has done here. Her study is a rich and intense meditation, an examination of the various ways in which description is transformed and revalued through the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. Wall’s scholarship is exemplary, rigorous, and comprehensive. This is a very careful book, speculative and even daring when it has to be, but always grounded in pertinent critical and scholarly discussions.” —John Richetti, University of Pennsylvania

John Richetti

"A book that combines Samuel Pepys with Alexander Pope and Josiah Wedgwood and Virginia Woolf runs the risk of falling apart, but the strength of Sundberg Wall’s argument holds the work together in a tour de force. It will change the way you think about things."

Journal of British Studies

"Rich both in information and in thought."

Modern Language Review

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. A History of Description, a Foundling
Some Definitions of Description
The Rhetorical History of Description
2. Traveling Spaces
Descriptions and Excavations: Stow to Strype
Traveled Spaces: Ogilby, Bunyan
3. Seeing Things
Subspace and Surfaces: Hooke, Boyle, Swift
Diaries and Descriptions: Pepys and Evelyn
Collections and Lists: The Philosophical Transactions, Swift, Pope
4. Writing Things
Emblems: The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part II
Things (1): Defoe
Things (2): The Castle of Otranto
5. Implied Spaces
Spaces (1): Behn, Haywood, Aubin, Davys
Spaces (2): Pamela, Clarissa
6. Worlds of Goods
Worlds of Goods
Theories of Description
Shopping and Advertising
Auctions and Catalogs
7. Arranging Things
Furniture and Arrangements
Domestic Tours
8. The Foundling as Heir
The Gothic: Reeve and Radcliffe
Historical Novels: Scott
Historiography: Hume and Gibbon
Afterword: Humphry Repton


Modern Language Association of America: James Russell Lowell Prize
Honorable Mention

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