This essay focuses on the “witness-protagonist”: a recessive but still identifiably major character who observes the developments of the main plot from a position on its margins. Such characters are familiar from modernist novels, but this essay turns back to a formative stage in their history to recover their forgotten political significance. Working across four central cases (Samuel Richardson’s “man of feeling” Sir Charles Grandison, Charlotte Smith’s self-effacing protagonist Lionel Desmond, Walter Scott’s “mediocre heroes,” and Jane Austen’s “creepmouse” heroine Fanny Price), the essay describes witness-protagonists as characters with an uncertain relation to the novel as a whole. Straddling the functions of narrator and character, witness and agent, they pose at once a formal problem (of where to place the character in relation to the story) and a political one (of who can participate in the life of the collective) that had particular salience in the era of emergent mass politics.

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