A Picture of Youth: On Stephanie Insley Hershinow’s “Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel”

October 9, 2019   •   By Jason Pearl

Born Yesterday

Stephanie Insley Hershinow

“GROW UP!” “Get real!” We hear these commands as equivalent, inasmuch as adulthood is supposed to entail pragmatism, even skepticism. To be a grown-up is to be realistic, giving up youthful daydreams. The plot line of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, is much the same: the hero grows up and gets real, sees the world and becomes worldly. Indeed, the same has been said of fiction itself in 18th-century Britain, that it grew up and got real, maturing into the form of the novel, establishing the conventions of realism.

In Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel, Stephanie Insley Hershinow considers a number of young characters who perhaps grow up, biologically, but never get real, developmentally. These are rebellious heroines — they are chiefly adolescent girls — who maintain an inborn idealism, refusing the lessons that life, or their elders, especially men, would teach them. For the “novice,” to use Hershinow’s term, getting real amounts to accepting the world as it is, going along with its flaws and failings. They choose not to, and so stand at odds with the philosophy of empiricism, long held to be dramatized by characters who are born as “blank slates” and who learn only through experience. In fact, the characters discussed here are informed by an intuitive sense of right and wrong, by a notion of how things should be, not how they are, and this, the argument goes, makes them agelessly enlightened, not willfully foolish, possessed of a moral clarity absent in the older, more cynical characters around them.

Take Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), the story of a servant girl who insists that, despite her class level, she too is entitled — even required — to take seriously the ideal of chastity and thus the purity of her soul. Pamela, “the paradigmatic novice,” is indeed rewarded, though marriage to a would-be rapist will not seem like much of a reward. The point is that she maintains her inexperience, refusing to compromise on principle or adjust to circumstances. Rather, it is Pamela who changes others, setting an example that reforms the rake she marries and the servants of his household.

Born Yesterday, therefore, is a book about high ideals in otherwise realist novels. The title turns the rebuttal “I wasn’t born yesterday” on its head, so that being young and artless is a position of privileged insight. “Innocent,” after all, means naïve but also guilt-free, more disposed to basic values such as duty, honor, and justice, whatever their incongruence with the exigencies of modernity. “Naïve,” moreover, derives from “nativus,” meaning innate, natural, as opposed to learned or acquired. As Hershinow argues, “character functions in the early novel as a site of suspended possibility rather than a catalyst for development.” The inner world of the novice splits the novel in two, with factual and counter-factual plot lines — the real and ideal — that never coalesce. Critics favor the former, but Hershinow looks to the latter, claiming, “those unreal narratives threaten to take precedence, even when revealed to be empirically bogus, ontologically undone.” The effect is “a modest sort of utopia, a gesture toward another sort of world.” Of course, there is much to critique in these novels of family and marriage, not least their complicity in patriarchal gender norms, but Hershinow shows that we must attune ourselves to instances of resistance, attempts at alternatives, lest we portray what we critique as inevitable or inescapable.

The first half of the book sheds new light on familiar texts in the history of the English novel: Richardson’s Clarissa (1747–’48) and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), often seen as diametrically opposed examples of what the new genre might be. Hershinow demonstrates they actually have a lot in common. Clarissa and Tom, like Pamela, are naturally, instinctively good, a quality all three maintain against the pressure to mature and conform. Clarissa, for her part, is guided by timeless truths going back to the Garden of Eden, truths she carries into the modern world as an alternative to the life imposed on her. Not much happens in this very long book, which leaves its heroine to die at the end with her ideals unscathed. In fact, the infamous rape of Clarissa made a bigger impression on readers than on Clarissa herself since she is drugged beforehand and therefore deprived of knowledge, spared consciousness of a trauma that might have altered her developmentally. For Hershinow, “This violation must be understood as consistent with the rest of the novel, which has time and time again isolated Clarissa from experience.” And ironically, tragically, her lack of knowledge “marks both the depth of her subjection and the foundation of her moral authority.”

Tom, in contrast, is a lighthearted, largehearted playboy, an affable carouser, incapable of abstention but unfailingly generous — such were the demands of masculine, versus feminine, virtue. At the end of the novel, his failings are forgiven, regarded as youthful indiscretions — they are “cathartic,” not “constitutive” — since he is revealed to be a gentleman, in whom sexual dalliances must be forgiven. Tom, in effect, starts over with marriage, returning to innocence, discarding a series of potential identities without ever growing from any of them. Hershinow notes the double standard and the author’s involvement in “a larger cultural exoneration of criminal men.” Indeed, some readers will find little to admire in the pure-but-austere Clarissa or the genial-but-womanizing Tom. What is important is not their specific characteristics but the possibility they exhibit of standing outside one’s milieu and refusing to adjust to its standards.

The book’s second half turns to Gothic and sentimental novels, by Ann Radcliffe and Frances Burney, respectively. For many scholars, these genres depart from the realist tradition established by Richardson, but again Hershinow sees a through-line in the form of character. Radcliffe was famous for the convention of “the explained supernatural,” that twist at the end that demystifies the paranormal and, ostensibly, allows the heroine to develop. And yet Adeline, in The Romance of the Forest (1791), seems to retain her belief, never giving in to disenchantment, so that otherworldly phenomena get relocated to character and “spooky what-if imaginings.” Burney herself was seen as preternaturally youthful. She burned her juvenilia and erased her adolescence, appearing on the scene a prodigy. She did the same with the protagonist of Camilla (1796), removing the arc of development plotted in earlier drafts, “paring away the novel’s Bildung,” until youth in fiction, like youth under the law, was reduced to a period of unsuspecting blamelessness, a time when mistakes and embarrassments simply could not stick. Again, some readers will be left cold, unable to admire characters beholden to superstition and ingenuousness. The point is that these novels enable alternatives to the status quo, spaces where different ways of life might be practicable. That, after all, is the point of utopian literature: to show the contingency of things as they are, to establish the possibility that they could be different. Darko Suvin called this “cognitive estrangement”; Fredric Jameson calls it “thinking the break.” The worlds imagined by Hershinow’s novices are in this sense constructive regardless of the specific content of their ideals.

Born Yesterday is a very focused book about a large and diffuse subject. The epilogue follows the later history of the novice from Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) all the way to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (2008–’10) — another narrative about a young heroine notable for a virtue that stands outside and opposed to the adult world around her. One could extend Hershinow’s insights in other directions, as well. Long before Richardson, the so-called “noble savage” of the Americas, mentioned in the introduction, was imagined as comparably naïve and virtuous. The idea of utopia, as a place, was premised on distance, which functioned as a shield against the vicissitudes of modernity. Writers such as Margaret Cavendish, also cited, explored the possibility of alternative worlds within, worlds that, like the novice’s, could only take shape as a figment of the imagination. In the Romantic period, poets fled the vices of the city in search of the virtues of solitude amid ancient ruins and vistas of natural beauty. Then there is the literature of Quixotism, another instance in which belief supplants perception, which Hershinow touches on without discussing at length. This way of thinking, exemplified in the 18th century by Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), expressed a closely related idealism based on nostalgia for medieval and Renaissance romance. I offer this list not to point out omissions but to suggest new connections, connections Hershinow herself makes possible.

I myself could not help thinking of the different degrees to which young people can be “just kids.” Even today, girls, like Clarissa, are expected to be chaste; boys, like Tom, get a lot of latitude. “Boys will be boys,” so why can’t “girls be girls”? Of course, this is to say nothing of how children of color are treated by our criminal justice and immigration systems. Hershinow states that “the novice is prototypically female” in part because girls were kept at home and sheltered from experience but also because it is an act of rebellion when girls themselves insist on their childhood, when they refuse to become adults in a world that is hostile to them. She explains,

[W]e must be willing to hold two propositions in tension: one, that these figures speak to conditions of sociopolitical limitation and privation; two, that they at the same time offer complex and even powerful encapsulations of aesthetic and ethical ideas. As such, this argument requires what I sometimes think of as a kind of suspension of feminist disbelief: a willingness to think through the terms of a constrained life without (or before) emphasizing what is left out.

Not all childhoods are equal, but all children can make meaning within their varied circumstances.

Ultimately, to read this book was to confirm my suspicion that the best close readers are the best writers of literary criticism. The good reader takes pleasure in nuance and complexity; the good writer tends to repeat the qualities that inspired that pleasure. Hershinow’s readings, in other words, are filled with the insights of discerning study; her prose is filled with wit and humor, always intellectually serious but also gracefully playful in a way uncommon in academic writing. The too-easy escape of Adeline from the Marquis de Montalt is described as an instance of “[d]efenestration ex machina.” We are advised, “Let us not forget that the novel [Tom Jones] is responsible for the stage name of its Welsh Sex Bomb namesake.” A modern novice, the main character of the TV show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–’19), is said to suffer a case of not paranoia but “pronoia: the delusion that the world is conspiring to help you.” Brimming with possibility — both as a whole and even at the level of the sentence — this book embodies the spirit of the vibrant characters it studies. The original Tom Jones was excellent company, exuding high spirits and optimism. Hershinow’s book offers the same pleasures itself.


Jason Pearl is an associate professor of English at Florida International University.