Why do we read novels? The literary scholar Frances Ferguson, puzzling at this question, argued that novels ‘hail’ us, like those pop-up ads for air filters or non-stick cookware that appear in the margins of our screens when we’re reading the news. Ferguson was calling attention to the way that fiction often provokes in us a strange, unsettling feeling of being seen and understood by the writer and the characters, even though we know that this is not the case. Which is why, to quote Ferguson again, ‘we continue to spend time in the company of imaginary characters and think that they are talking to us’.  

Counter-intuitive as the practice of reading novels is, it’s stranger still, I think, to remember that we haven’t always done it. English realist novels (arguably the most globally influential version of the genre) did not exist until the early eighteenth century: until 1719, on most reckonings. That was the year in which Daniel Defoe (already famous as a journalist, political advisor, and general loudmouth) did a late-life career pivot, and wrote Robinson Crusoe, Captain Singleton, A Journal of the Plague Year, Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders and Roxanna, all within the space of five years (1719–24). While it’s not quite true that the realist novel came out of nowhere, it did come together with a kind of strange finishedness in these six novels, which contain most of the topics, plot devices, formal qualities, and character types that have preoccupied Anglophone novelists ever since. In other words, though novels have changed in the three hundred-odd years since Defoe, they haven’t changed that much

Early novels in English – not just by Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding to name the most famous writers, but also Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding, and lots of others – don’t look especially thrilling or innovative to us now, in part because it was the very nature of their innovation to seem plausible and ordinary. In what is still probably the best short essay ever written about fiction, Samuel Johnson said in the Rambler in 1750 that these early novels show ‘life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world.’ Johnson’s account of how novels work is both elegant and precise: he pointed out that modern fictions ‘bring about natural events by easy means’ and ‘keep up curiosity without the help of wonder’.  

But as far as Dr. Johnson was concerned, these were not good things. Novels, he was saying, are engineered to be unobtrusive and ordinary-looking, which makes them slippery and dangerous, causing readers to slide unconsciously between what’s real and what’s imagined. Novels trap people into false beliefs and expectations; they cause us to forge relationships with imagined people and un-forge relations with the real. The earliest novels, indeed, encouraged just this, and they were printed with frontispieces advertising them as autobiographies or memoirs, true histories, and reported accounts of real events.  

In her beautiful and moving 2023 novel, The Long Form, Kate Briggs sets out to write a book that is both true to the early history of the form and embedded in the literary present. It’s about a new mother Helen, who embarks on the long journey of a single day caring, mostly on her own, for her very young baby Rose in a garden flat in a provincial city in England. Briggs’ writing inhabits the very minutes of Helen’s experiences with a lightness and precision that is unshowy, but virtuosic. The narrator doesn’t merely describe the small moments of a day lived in the sensory intensity and emotional rawness of new parenthood: her prose seems to pluck these experiences from the world and offer them to the reader intact, so they become our experiences too. Here’s a description of a baby breast-feeding: 

[Rose] knew what this sweet smell was – she knew it forcefully. But Helen’s heavy jumper and then her t-shirt fell over her face and she started to cry. … Against warm skin, the baby at last achieved her strong, airtight connection.  

For anyone who’s nursed an infant, the account is uncannily accurate: reading it I remembered the surprising strength of tiny limbs and the irritation of my own clothing being always in the way. But until Briggs’s novel it hadn’t occurred me that such unremarkable fragments of my experience as a mother belonged to others, too.  

Reading The Long Form was to feel, over and over, that I was seen in very small ways. Now when I make tea, I recall her description of how ‘the kettle, connecting with its base-power, puttered slowly into life’, a sound I’d heard thousands of times, but never consciously paused over. Briggs assembles myriad small details of being stuck in the routines of early motherhood and spending too much time in the same room: how a cloth covering an ugly sofa keeps slipping down, always on one side first; how there’s condensation on window-panes in spring, one drop heavier and bigger than the others. She conveys the sheer despair, the fury, of a baby not sleeping when she is meant to. ‘Come on come on come on. They could not do this, it was not possible to get through it fast enough’, Helen thinks as she loads the screaming Rose into a baby sling to get her to sleep while they walk, ‘her limbs thickened and reinforced by all her outdoor clothes’.  Quoted piecemeal, these sentences don’t convey how Briggs gets at the rhythms and drifting perceptions of life in a single day – the mélange of close-ups, feelings in mind and body, and memories and thoughts, often unfinished.  

On the day chosen for the novel’s setting, Helen starts reading a copy of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Henry Fielding’s great mid eighteenth-century novel of human nature. She’s ordered it online, and ‘three days later, it was here – bringing its different energy. Its humour and its ideas. Its love stories. Its own household arrangements. Of all the novels, this one.’ Fielding’s novel was one of the first in English to track the minutiae of people’s domestic lives, while at the same time reflecting on how unwieldy the new imaginative form was for describing the subtleties of people’s inner states. The Long Form, with its debt to Tom Jones, is a novel about reading a novel, and also about writing one, grappling with what characters’ inner lives feel like to themselves, and how people communicate their inner states to others. Briggs picks up on Fielding’s phrase for realist fiction, which he called ‘a new province of writing’. Using it for a chapter title, Briggs begins: ‘with a large hair-knot balancing on the crown of her head, the recent pressure of the elastic band around her wrist, she sunk her attention into the novel.’ The new province of writing, in Briggs’s version, turns unremarkable shards of real life into objects of intense creative attention. 

Briggs is smart about how The Long Form is, and isn’t, a throwback to the eighteenth century. She’s thinking about what makes Fielding’s giant doorstop of a novel a defining moment in the genre, and more generally she’s asking what novels were then, and are now. While she doesn’t identify them specifically, Briggs has obviously thought a lot about other major writers from this early period too. Her prose is often closer to Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding’s great ‘rival’ novelist, than to Fielding himself. Richardson wrote the intro-to-English staple Pamela and the densely brilliant but endless Clarissa (both of which Fielding ridiculed), and was fond of saying that he wrote ‘to the moment’. What he meant was that he recreated on paper the precise conditions in which important feelings and perceptions occur. Richardson was a genius at showing how these big moments rarely seem momentous, or even coherent, at the time, because they’re folded into minor tasks like mending a piece of clothing or walking from one room to another.   

But Briggs’s novel is also deeply engaged with Fielding, who in Tom Jones interspersed funny, sporty action sequences with micro-essays about what this bizarre form of the novel was trying to do, and why. Fielding wasn’t the first writer to use chapters, but he was the first to see the comic possibilities of inserting these arbitrary divisions into stories with no natural pauses. Tom Jones has chapter titles like ‘Containing Little or Nothing’, and ‘Containing Matters Which Will Surprise the Reader’, which sound horribly arch and meta but are often amusing, because Fielding uses them playfully to nod at the contrivance of fiction, even as he writes a novel of real heft. The Long Form riffs on Fielding’s way of titling chapters. There’s a half page chapter called ‘Motherhood’ (‘one name – the most obvious and appropriate available name? – for Helen’s new form of life’); another called ‘Outside, Walking’ (‘she felt stirred up: with this small head against her breast-bone, these legs to either side of her waist’); or ‘I Only Saw Her for Five Minutes, but it was worth it’ (a line from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). These examples aren’t really doing Fielding or Briggs any favors. But in context they let readers feel very close to the writers’ efforts to transpose real life onto the page, and to play with form without losing its shape. At one point Briggs paraphrases Fielding by saying that the novel ‘want[s] to open – to unfold – its own fictional world. For this world to hold steady enough for someone else to believe in’. For Briggs, this is the bottom line of the novelist’s craft: holding steady with the small details of a world until it becomes believable. 

A literary critic as well as a novelist, Briggs intelligently weaves a huge amount of scholarly work on the novel into her book without overburdening it. She gives readers a snapshot of scholarship about the eighteenth-century novel by Ian Watt, Catherine Gallagher, and other major modern critics. Briggs is also an admired translator and essayist, and these abilities are apparent in her references to swathes of European literary theory by Bahktin, Barthes, and others, which she glosses at the end in a short appendix. As a scholar of the eighteenth-century novel myself, I was helped by The Long Form to think in new ways about the interconnectedness of the ‘greatest hits’ of eighteenth-century novels: how we get from Robinson Crusoe, to Pamela, to Tom Jones, to Tristram Shandy, and beyond. They’re so different from each other, yet also constitutive of what novels in English will do for the next three centuries. Defoe is obsessed with writing about objects and transactions; Richardson insinuates himself into his characters’ minds and bodies; Fielding sees how we load meaning into the things we do and the objects we touch, making them surrogates for our human relationships; Sterne captures the ways emotions, memories and half-formed thoughts tangle together in our minds and merge with the tangles going on in other people. Briggs picks up on all these developments and folds them skillfully into her study of domesticity and intimacy. 

At the heart of Briggs’ novel is an interest in how people share their innermost selves with others: what intimacy really is, in short. Never is this question so pointed as when a mother holds her infant. Briggs describes the bond of love that mothers experience at a level far beyond conscious thought, while at same time feeling alienated, often irritated and numbly removed from their babies. Removed not just from the mini person they’ve caused suddenly to exist in the world, but also from the sprawling clutter of stuff that babies are always surrounded by. Briggs is at her best on those hideous multi-sensory play-mats that eat floor space, onto which new parents hopefully deposit their indifferent infants: ‘One of the mat’s zones looked agricultural: satin crops of different shades of green furrowed with dark-brown artificial fur’. In another instance, Briggs depicts the drifting thoughts of a delivery guy (he brings the used copy of Tom Jones to Helen) who goes through the day desperately hoping to get an affectionate text from his girlfriend, with whom he’s had a row. His phone is his conduit to her: ‘he had spent the past few hours speaking quietly to it, coaxing it, willing it to light up … Not just anything from anyone but a message addressed to the core of him’. Briggs’s delivery guy longs, in other words, to be hailed – the gift of intimacy that novels engineered in part because that kind of personal transparency was so elusive in real life. To be cute about Briggs’ character for a moment, we could read the delivery guy as a rewrite of Tom Jones himself: peripatetic and longing for love, rowing with the woman he loves. But in 2023 he’s displaced to the outermost edge of a mother’s awareness, where in the eighteenth century he was at the centre of Fielding’s fictional world. 

In the Rambler essay about the dangers of reading fiction, Dr. Johnson lamented that novels were read by the ‘young, the ignorant, and the idle’, describing such people as having ‘minds unfurnished with ideas’.  Johnson’s image of an unfurnished mind is great: empty rooms lacking stable and enduring ways to organize thought, through which random perceptions come and go. Briggs does a nice line in unfurnished minds herself, flashing back to moments from Helen’s inane conversations as a younger woman, or bringing us into the delivery driver’s consciousness. But the most revealing sentence in Dr. Johnson’s essay is his concern that the events of novels will ‘take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will’. This is a big claim – that fiction is powerful enough to suspend the will and take possession of the mind, even a mind as great as Dr. Johnson’s.  Briggs, likewise, is interested in this question of what happens to our minds and attention when we encounter fiction. She’s fascinated by the idea that the novel, just like the foundling baby in Tom Jones, can seize our attention with ‘no advance warning’. This capacity novels have to grab our interest can be disconcerting. Like Fielding’s middle-aged Mr. Allworthy, who is unexpectedly moved when he finds a baby in his bed, readers’ feelings can be hijacked by novels. Fiction can ‘interfere with (divide, multiply and disconnect), shift or expand the purview of [our] concerns,’ as Briggs puts it. Pace Johnson, she believes that while novels can take minds by surprise, leaving us ‘feeling unexpectedly addressed … and wanting to go on’, there’s no violence. The beauty of reading novels is that even as they grab our attention we can ‘put a novel down (face-down) on the carpet’ and ‘make it wait’. 

In Briggs’s view, in other words, we’ve learned a good deal about how to handle fiction since the novel appeared three-hundred years ago. Johnson, also the author of the most influential English dictionary of his age, had defined fiction as ‘the thing feigned or invented … a falsehood, a lye’, thereby condemning it as mere deception, an act of duplicity. Briggs doesn’t think about the immersive power of fiction in these terms. Like the literary critic Catherine Gallagher, to whom she often refers, Briggs finds the arresting, distracting quality of fiction to be freeing and playful. Briggs paraphrases Gallagher’s landmark essay ‘The Rise of Fictionality’, which argued that realist fiction was crucial in the eighteenth century because it depicted ‘believable stories that did not solicit belief’.  For Briggs, the pleasure of reading fiction depends on describing events that ‘might actually have happened’, but which we know did not, because they’re contained between the covers of a printed book. Working closely with Gallagher’s essay, Briggs writes joyfully about fiction as ‘stories’ that ‘remain in close, deliberate contact’ with the events of a ‘more or less ordinary’ human life. She doesn’t think readers’ minds are static or fixated; rather, they are capable of sympathetic and imaginative leaps. At one point she notes that Helen’s reading brain works differently from the way marketing algorithms have imagined that it will, since these, ‘mak[e] calculations based on the stability of what she was like’. But Helen is not changeless, and reading changes her.  

This idea that fiction was in ‘close, deliberate contact’ with reality, while also being disturbingly untrue, bothered early eighteenth-century readers, too. In 1725, an anonymous column in the London Journal complained that Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was ‘a most palpable Lye from beginning to end’, and lamented that readers got pleasure from a story that was ‘groundless, false and fictitious’. The writer – a well-known clergyman and political commentator – had put his finger on something at the very heart of public fears about the new form, namely that novel-readers were in a state of simultaneous belief and doubt, experiencing fiction as if it were both real and invented. Far from being mutually exclusive, these confusing, potentially anti-social conditions were fundamental to the pleasures of reading. Briggs makes the point that Fielding self-consciously parts ways with the earlier convention of presenting fiction as though it were true, proclaiming clearly thathe’s writing an ‘imaginary history’, not a true account. ‘I am at liberty to make what laws I please’, Fielding announces, and Briggs uses Fielding’s account of realism to describe her own, explaining that even as both she and Fielding give themselves over to invention, their fictional worlds nonetheless stay true to what’s probable and likely. 

The purpose of realism, for Briggs as for Fielding, is to bring people – both readers and characters – into greater intimacy and sympathy with one another, and to allow them deeper knowledge of their own inner lives. The attempt to know oneself and others was the great undertaking of the eighteenth-century novel, and this is why Helen’s choice of Tom Jones is so important in The Long Form, a study of a mother’s intimacy with herself and her baby. In the eighteenth century, the longing to see into people’s inner selves often appeared unresolvable. This was a world torn apart by three centuries of religious and political conflict; it was a world in which people’s private thoughts had often done incalculable damage. It was also a world in which domestic intimacy was being taken seriously for the first time as socially and politically important, as generations of literary critics have pointed out. The anonymous author in the London Journal who called Robinson Crusoe a ‘lye’ gave himself the pseudonym Momus, a character from the satires of Lucian, who criticized the god Vulcan for not having forged a window in man’s breast, to make his interior life visible. The poet Alexander Pope riffed on this idea in a 1716 letter to Mary Wortley Montagu: ‘If Momus’s project had taken of having windows in our breasts, I should be for carrying it further and making those windows casements: that while a man showed his heart to all the world, he might do something more for his friends, e’en take it out, and trust it to their handling.’ Momus’ paradox about the desire to overcome the privacy and solitude of humans’ interior lives – the condition that makes humans human – had wide currency; references can be found in writing ranging from the Letters of the African-British abolitionist Ignatius Sancho to Lawrence Sterne’s digression on window-panes in Tristram Shandy.   

In The Long Form Kate Briggs returns to these big questions raised in eighteenth-century novels about the nature of human intimacy and the possibility of true sympathy among separate, isolated individuals. Can we really be seen by other people, can we truly see ourselves — and do novels help us, or make it harder? Unlike Fielding, though, she answers them in miniature, across a single day, with only a handful of characters. Towards the end of the book, the delivery guy does, finally, get a text from his girl, ‘his phone jumping on the dashboard’. It’s what he hopes for; he’s been seen, known at last. He smiles. ‘The outward changes in response to this release (release from waiting) were infinitesimal. The feeling, though, was immense.’