Category Archives: History of the novel

My favourite literary era

classicsclub3Some of the monthly questions posed by the Classic Club have been fiendishly difficult to answer and involved much chewing of pencils and furrowing of eyebrows on my part before I could even think of a coherent response. But March’s question hasn’t created anywhere the same amount of angst.

What is your favourite “classic” literary period and why?

For me, there is no contest; it has to be the nineteenth century.

This is a period which witnessed massive and lasting change through the twin forces of industrial revolution and political revolution in France. The writers of the period turned to the novel as a way of representing and exploring those social changes. Reading many of the novels of this period gives me a chance to indulge in my love of history, particularly at the human level. Want to know what life was like for single women of no independent means? Read the Bronte sisters. Want to know about the effects of the new spirit of social mobility and economic potential? Read Dickens or Gaskell. If your interests lie beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, hop over to France to learn about working conditions for miners or the poor of Paris courtesy of Emile Zola or hitch a lift on a boat up the Congo river with Joseph Conrad for a look at the effects of colonisation.

George Eliot and Joseph Conrad: sharing the century but world’s apart in style

The variety of subject matter was also echoed by a tremendous variety in style and form.  At the start of the century the novel was still a relatively new (novel) form of writing. Through the early writers of the period it began to take shape. But once they’d found their feet as it were, they began to have even more fun with it, reshaping and reshaping it as they experimented with new approaches. They pushed against the boundaries as they looked for the form of writing that best gave expression to their ideas. Within the span of 100 years we moved from romance and the Gothic through the realism of George Eliot to the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins, the pastoral romances of Thomas Hardy and ending on the cusp of the new century with the emergence of the stream of consciousness style of narrative.

Diversity of form and diversity of subject matter make for a winning combination in my book.

Life and Times of the Novel: Railway Reading

In my dad’s view, a holiday only truly gets underway when he’s in the airport departure area and can Unknownspend an hour browsing in the bookshop. Buying a new novel is as much part of the holiday ritual as the pre-holiday haircut was for me when I was a mere sprog. I’m not really sure why it mattered so much to my mother that the esteemed citizens of Southsea or Bournemouth and later Majorca, should not see me with unkempt hair. But matter it did, just as it matters to my dad that he has a good book to read on the flight. It’s one of the characteristics he’s definitely passed down the generations since I too very rarely leave UK without at least one purchase before boarding.

Wind the clock back a century or more and the linkage between travel and reading seems to have been as strong then as it is for my dad today. Except of course that your average Victorian traveller was buying their reading matter at the railway station not the yet-to-be-invented airport. The story of how the age of the railways transformed many aspects of our lives — from timekeeping to mail delivery and the advent of fresher food — is well documented. But it seems the railways were also responsible for changing reading habits.

The first passenger service in the UK opened in 1825 between Stockton and Darlington. Five years later the first inter-city rail line opened to connect Liverpool and Manchester. From then, progress was rapid. By 1850, Victorian engineers had constructed more than 7,000 miles of track, making it possible to get to almost every sizeable town by train.

National newspaper industry is born

For newspaper and magazine publishers, it meant access to a rapid way of getting up to date information to readers well beyond the capital city. Before railways,  it would have taken about 30 hours to get a newspaper printed in London to readers in Hull; by 1845 it took just eight hours. It meant newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals could be printed in London and then whisked to Hull or any other major city on the same day so the information would still be news when it arrived.  As a result, a truly national newspaper industry was born in the UK as indeed in many other European countries.  It didn’t happen the same way in North America though — with the exception of USA Today, American readers have held very much to the tradition of regional newspapers.

Novels and the trains 

Railways offered a fast, efficient, and inexpensive way to enjoy time off which meant families could enjoy days at the seaside or visit relatives more easily than before. As the novelty wore off a little and they got tired of looking out of the window at passing scenery, these travellers sought other diversions. Newspaper publishers were quick to seize on the opportunity of such a captive market, opening newstands at major railway stations. The firm of W H Smith, which had been sending newspapers to the provinces by mail coach, was one of the earliest to grab a slice of the market, opening their first railway newstand at London’s Euston station in 1848.  

Reading in comfort on the train required ingenuity

But newspapers weren’t enough for these fickle readers. Newspapers didn’t fit easily into the pocket and were hard to open in a crowded carriage.  What they wanted was portable reading. The paperback novel was the the ideal solution for crowded rail carriages, just as it is today though we also have e-readers and smartphones to help while away a journey.

If a novel printed in paperback format was the perfect travelling companion, where could be easier to buy one than on the platform just before you boarded the train?  The smart brains at W. H Smith latched onto the idea by extending their newspaper business to include books, and opening more and more outlets. The era of the railway bookstore was born. W H Smith may have gone through many incarnations since but they’re still at every major railway station and airport in the UK.

The age of the yellowback

yellowbacks_spPublishers too saw they were onto a good thing and began rushing out cheap editions of popular works of fiction specifically for sale to entertainment-seeking travellers that they could pick up for a shilling or two, and even less, at  the W H Smith railway bookstalls.  Some publishers brought out special series with titles that made their target market very clear ,  ‘Longman’s Traveller’s Library’. Others capitalised on the increasing desire for sensational reading material with titles like Zingra, the Gypsy but it was an engraver by the name of Edmund Evans who was responsible for a publishing phenomena uniquely associated with the railways – the yellow paperback .  Evans combined sensationalised  illustrations with a lurid yellow glaze that meant the covers were instantly recognisable at the bookstall. Thousands of what became known as yellowbacks, were published from about 1850 featuring detective stories and authors like Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. The publisher Routledge alone produced more than 1,200 titles in a ‘Railway Library’ series.

You can buy some of these titles as original copies today though they’ll cost you rather more than the cover price of a shilling. Abe Books has a few available though the cheapest seems to be  around £55 and some titles are upwards of £300.

Maybe I’ll tell my dad he should hold onto that John Grisham book he just bought. It might just be worth something a few hundred years from now……

 

About this article

This is the fifth in a series of articles on the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the  novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution I started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

Life and Times of the Novel: Book Costs

Part 4 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at the changing costs of books over the centuries.

Even when I was grumbling recently about the price of books in the US, the rationale part of my brain told me to quit griping.  In reality we readers don’t do too badly, particularly when as a result of competition between online retailers, supermarkets and ‘real’ bookshops  means there are often heavy discounts on offer.  I noticed today for example that I could pick up a hardback version of Life after Life  by Kate Atkinson (which was published less than two weeks ago) for £10 at my local supermarket which is a huge discount from the cover price of £18.99. Average book prices in the UK do seem to be on a general downward trend — down by 10pence to £7.49 in 2012 apparently, as a result of widespread discounting. To put that in context it represents 1.46% of the average UK worker’s weekly income of £509 according to data from the Office of National Statistics.

While this doesn’t make it a luxury item, a regular book purchase still wouldn’t be something many families would contemplate in today’s uncertain economic climate. But for  the early readers of the novel form, it would have been an even greater burden. Although it’s difficult to generalise because —just as today – income levels varied greatly between regions and occupations,  various sources indicate that in the 1860s, a middle class worker at the low end of the income ladder would have earned around £150 a year (or 1125 shillings).  At the high end, doctors or successful lawyers could earn around £800. But labourers and governesses earned considerably less —Jane Eyre for example seems to earn just £30 a year while at Thornfield.  Although all her food and other expenses would have covered, its not a salary that gives much security let alone the independence Jane craves.

Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, book prices were high. The typical three-volume novel would cost between 15 and 18 shillings —more than most working class people earned in a week and around 25% of the weekly income of those at the bottom end of the middle class. Even allowing for inflation, deflation, decimalisation and any other kind of economic shenanigans between the early 1900s and today, that’s a huge difference in affordability.

librarySo if you were as keen a reader as young Catherine Morland is in Northanger Abbey, but come from a lowly family and have no money of your own, how can you possibly get your hands on the Gothic adventures in which she revels? If you were lucky you had a wealthy relative who had built their own library though the books Jane Eyre reads at her aunt’s home, were more educative than the latest offering from Ann Radcliffe or Maria Edgeworth.

Step forward the hero of the day, the circulating library, through which in exchange for a relatively low  monthly or annual subscription, you could borrow the latest titles. It proved a godsend to male readers but even more particularly to women readers like the Bronte sisters who were regular borrowers. Then as now, the concept of a library helped to democratise reading. These libraries not only influenced the form of the novel (they liked the three volume novel because it meant they could loan one volume to three separate readers), they made reading a popular leisure activity, becoming fashionable places in which to be seen. Remarkably, they survived well into the twentieth century when the advert of free public libraries rendered the circulating version redundant.

About this article

This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

Life and Times of the Novel: Women Writers

Part 4 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at the reasons for the growth of women as novelists in the Victorian era. 

Portait of domestic ideal of Victorian motherhood

From Austen to Ann Radcliffe and the Brontes, and from Gaskell to George Eliot and Margaret Oliphant; women writers seem to have been a dominant force in the novel market in Victorian Britain. It’s remarkable that they made such an impact given the strength of feeling in the nineteenth century that the proper place for women was at home, looking after the children and the family’s comfort, not dirtying their hands with any form of work.

Many of these women took up the pen because they needed the money.  Who can blame them? There were few other options available, particularly for middle class women who were expected to maintain a certain respectability befitting their status. They could have, like the Bronte sisters, become governesses but such a prospect wouldn’t have been all that attractive. For one thing, governesses occupied an uncomfortable middle ground where they lived with the family and were intimate with their domestic rituals and yet were not really one of the family. As unmarried women they were expected to exhibit behaviour above reproach and beyond even the hint of wayward behaviour.

There’s a passage in Jane Eyre in which the Ingram sisters recollect the way they tormented a series of governesses:

I have just one word to say of the whole tribe; they are a nuisance.  Not that I ever suffered much from them; I took care to turn the tables. The best fun was with Madame Joubert: Miss Wilson was a poor sickly thing, lachrymose and low-spirited, not worth the trouble of vanquishing, in short; and Mrs. Grey was coarse and insensible; no blow took effect on her.  But poor Madame Joubert!  I see her yet in her raging passions, when we had driven her to extremities—spilt our tea, crumbled our bread and butter, tossed our books up to the ceiling, and played a charivari with the ruler and desk, the fender and fire-irons.

Faced with that kind of daily torment, it’s not surprising that some women chose instead an occupation that could be pursued quietly and without the need for them to leave home. They could even write while rocking the baby’s cradle. Unlike poetry, the novel genre was also more accessible  to those without a classical education since it wan’t considered to be of the same high literary status.

Even then, many of them felt the need to hide the nature of their activities (including of course publishing their works under a male-sounding name as the Brontes felt compelled to do with their early works).  Charlotte Bronte  in fact wrote to the then Poet Laureate Robert Southey  that:

 “I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity which might lead those I live among to suspect the nature of my pursuits….. I have endeavoured not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel deeply interested in them.

That last phrase may hold a clue as to why the output of women’s writing proved to be so popular. As the idea of the new ‘realist’ form of fiction took shape, ordinary domestic lives and settings became of greater interest – and who better able to understand and convey that domestic dimension than those for whom home and hearth was considered their natural milleu? It was a subject on which they could speak with natural authority acknowledged by both men and women readers.

Provided they stayed within that space, their literary efforts would be socially accepted and even esteemed. But woe betide those like Mary Wollstonescraft who stepped outside those boundaries and refused to be confined within the moral, domestic and emotional perimeters of their allotted sphere. Such writers found themselves on the receiving end of severe criticism and condemnation.

About this article

This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

Life and Times of the Novel: Dangerous Novels

Part 3 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this article I look at concerns about the effects of the novel on its readers. 

There is one scene in the film Educating Rita which is guaranteed to bring on that watery eyed, sick-in-the-stomach feeling every time I see it. For those who don’t know the film, (based on Willy Russell’s stage play),  Rita is a twenty-something -year-old hairdresser who embarks on an Open University English literature degree. All she wants to do is to discover herself. All her husband sees is that all this reading and studying means she is drifting away from him and diverting her from what she really should be doing — having his baby. In frustration, he seizes her precious copies of Chekhov, Shakespeare,  E M Forster et al and sets them alight. All Rita can do is watch in tears.

Bookburning episode in Germany 1933

Bookburning episode in Germany 1933

The idea that books can change people’s attitudes and behaviours, that they are responsible for filling our heads with undesirable ideas isn’t just something that happens in films or plays.  Our history is littered with examples of regimes that burned or banned books they considered to be a threat to society. From Germany in the late thirties, to the McCarthy era in the USA  and the Cultural Revolution in China, we see examples of extreme measures taken to suppress dissenting and heretical views.

The early pioneers of the novel escaped wholesale prohibition but this new form of fiction wasn’t immune from concerns about its effects on readers. The fear was that readers would be so absorbed by these new forms of narrative, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between fiction and reality. Even worse, they could be led astray and end up thinking they should adopt the same behaviours and attitudes as the characters in those novels or begin to want the same experiences. They could indeed fall prey to the same perils as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, who yearns for the same kind of  mysteries and secrets as the heroines of the gothic novels she relishes, and whose lively imagination means she sees intrigue and ‘evil’ where none exists.

In The Progress of Romance, one of the earliest critical perspectives on the new novel form, the author Clara Reeve appears to castigate the novel for raising false expectations among young women.

A young woman is taught to expect adventures and intrigues — she expects to be addressed in the style of these books, with the language of flattery and adulation. If a plain man addresses her in rational terms and pays her the greatest of compliments, that of desiring to spend the rest of his life with her, that is not sufficient. Her vanity is disappointed, she expects to meet a hero.

Some of the attacks on the novel seem rather ludicrous and over-blown now. Here’s an example from a sermon by Dr Fordyce, a Scottish clergyman in the 1760s.

….. certain books are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, such horrible violation of all decorum that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute., let her reputation in life be what it will. But can it be true …. that any young woman pretending to decency should endure for a moment to look on this infernal brood of futility and lewdness. They paint scenes of pleasure and passion altogether improper for you to behold.

Strong sentiments and some inflated language indeed but it’s hard to take this seriously given his admission  “we have not read them.”  I would have expected more balanced and sympathetic reflections from Mary Wollstonecraft given her  own predeliction for unusual life styles and her advocacy of women’s rights. But even in her landmark work A Vindication of the Rights of Women she argued that novel reading ‘tended to make women creatures of sensation’ who are prey to an ‘overstretched sensibility’ that dooms them to unhappiness.

There’s more to this than moral indignation or religious fervour clearly.  Maybe one of the keys is that both Fordyce and Wollstoncraft specifically refer to the effects of novels on women. From the eighteenth century, and increasingly so in the nineteenth, the major consumers of fiction were women.  The growing ‘middle class’  and the accompanying notions of gentility meant a body of women were released from the necessity of work and gained more time to read. But with that freedom came increasing expectations about the behaviour and role of women in society.  A feeling emerged that women’s nature made them unfit for  intellectual or strenuous activity and if they persisted in pursuing such activities, the consequences could be fatigue, unhealthy mental excitement and even madness.

What women were expected to do was to manage the private, domestic sphere of children and the family, providing a well organised, comfortable and morally secure environment for their families while their husbands laboured in the public world. Women were meant to be devoted, submissive to their husbands;  meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all virtuous, taking their model from the wife in Coventry Patmore’s hugely popular sequence of poems The Angel in the House published between 1854 and 1861.

George Lewes’s review of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley in 1849 somewhat reflects that view:

The grand function of woman, it must always be recollected is, and ever must be Maternity and thus we regard not only as her distinctive characteristic and most endearing charm, but as a high and bold office.

And this from a man who lived with George Eliot for many years ostensibly as husband and wife  and actively supported her writing career. Double standards maybe?

But given those beliefs, it’s easy to see how anything that ran counter to those models of behaviour or caused women to become dissatisfied with their lot in life could be considered a risk to the social equilibrium and thus had to be castigated.

About this article

This series of articles looks at the history, characteristics and the changing attitudes to the purpose and features of the novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

Life and Times of the Novel: Part 2

Part 2 of a series about the development of the English novel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This time I’m exploring the topic of realism. It’s a complex topic. I’m not sure I’ve done it justice but I am sure that without the help of   Ann at Thinking in Fragments it would have been full of errors. Thank you Ann!

Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten. A soul mate of Samuel Richardson?

Woke up this morning with this bizarre idea that Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding had something in common with the  Sex Pistols and the Cubists. Obviously I don’t mean Sammy and Henry went about in the eighteenth century equivalent of a slashed bin bag or took to painting geometric shapes. But they did share with Johnny Rotten and Pablo Picasso an urge to tread new ground, to depart from established conventions and to forge new ways of representing the world as they saw it.

Today novels are so commonplace that I can buy them in a supermarket or a petrol station along with a carton of milk  and a loaf of bread. It’s easy therefore to forget that at the time when Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, and Henry Fielding were publishing their ‘best sellers’, the novel was such a novelty that ideas about its characteristics or its purpose, were only just being formed. It needed these writers and others who followed in their footsteps to define and explain what this new narrative form was about.

The Reality Effect

And how they explained it initially was to draw a distinction between this narrative form and the Romance  – a form of fiction that had been around in different guises since medieval times. Where the Romance narratives were essentially fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, Richardson and co focused on the here and now.

The name of the game was: reality.

Courtly love and chivalric endeavours were a hallmark of the Romance narrative

Courtly love and chivalric endeavours were a hallmark of the Romance narrative

Clearly I’m not talking here about reality as found in the likes of Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here TV programmes. The kind of reality in literature — what became known more formally from the 1830s as realism — featured real people.   Not the kings and queens or fairy tale figures found in the Romance  but the more prosaic sort of people you might see in your town or village. People who didn’t have heroic traits or magical skills and didn’t go on adventures where they engaged in sword fights to rescue damsels in distress. The leading characters for the new generation of writers were just ordinary people living very ordinary lives as maidservants and footmen, orphans and governesses.

Clara Reeve, one of the earliest women novelists, was apparently one of the first to try and define the novel as a literary form, declaring:

The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the time in which it is written. The Romance, in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. (The Progress of Romance, 1785)

What that ‘picture’ constitutes, how it should be composed and what degree of invention would be permissable is something that literary critics and authors debated throughout the next 150 years. So far I’ve found essays on the topic by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Henry James and  Joseph Conrad but I suspect that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Dipping into these it’s clear that they had vastly different opinions and vastly different ideas about how writers should try to create an illusion of reality in their work.

Creating Reality

Fielding’s approach was to give his leading character probably one of the most commonplace names that ever existed: Tom Jones, and then label it ‘a history’, thus giving it the cache attached to the subject of history. Dickens went down a different path, using details from his own life to authenticate the experiences of his characters. So his father’s time in a debtor’s prison gets incorporated into Little Dorrit and his own experience as a court reporter is turned into a scathing commentary on labyrinthine court cases and legal arguments in Bleak House. When he used seemingly non-realist elements (such as the spontaneous combustion death in Bleak House), he defended them by pointing to factual evidence. In the 1853 preface to the first edition of that novel for example, he argues that thirty recorded cases and the opinions of several distinguished medical professors support the existence of this phenomenom.

By the time the nineteenth century was in its last throes, the determination to achieve exactitude and get the facts right had become so prominent that for his research for Germinal ( a novel about the working and living conditions of coal miners in Northern France), Emile Zola paid lengthy visits to mining towns, went underground at a working mine and observed a miners’ strike. Even then he was accused of exaggeration.

How can we recognise realism?

With so many different approaches and ideas about what constitutes reality and how it should be represented, it’s impossible to develop a set of hard and fast ‘rules’ that would indicate a realist text. All we can really say is that a realist novel has certain conventions:

  • Settings: these will be easily recognisable and will often include actual place names. Episodes will often be set in places like inns, coffee houses, blacksmiths and factories rather than in castles or baronial halls.
  • Characters: realist novelists put an emphasis on the individual so they give their characters real names (such as Biddy and Joe in Great Expectations or Susan, John and Mary in Trollope’s The Warden). These characters are rounded people, not ‘types’ — they develop as the book progresses and we see different sides of their characters through their relationships with others.
  • Narrative: third person omniscient narration tended to be the main form used though authors also experimented with free indirect discourse which blended third and first person voices (Jane Austen was one of the masters of this technique).
  • Language: the dialogue in a realist novel seems very natural with voices and expressions we might actually hear in real life.
  • Concrete detail: realist novels tend to include a large amount of information about clothes and places. The information can be very specific (for example, Dickens gives the exact number of headstones Pip sees when he visits the graveyard in Great Expectations).
  • Plot: the realist novel will progress in a linear fashion without using flashbacks for example or the story within a story approach that is a hallmark of Gothic novels.
  • Events:  Realist authors will focus on recognisable experiences but that doesn’t mean they ignore the unexpected event such as the way Dorothea in Middlemarch unexpectedly meets Ladislaw in Rome. But ghosts or apparitions will not  make an appearance and all the events can be explained even if they do rely a bit heavily on coincidence
  • Issues: in these novels, the author will appear to look for answers to moral questions and will also show characters trying to deal with moral issues and the conflict that might cause. A good example would be Dr Lydgate in Middlemarch who finds that in trying to do ‘to do good work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world’,  he faces personal ruin. Realist novels often have a critical or questioning relationship with the society portrayed — hence in Dombey and Son we find Dickens critiquing the dehumanising effect of industrialisation and commerce.

But for every example that could be used to illustrate the points above, I can think of multiple exceptions. From the early days of the novel through its golden period in the nineteenth century, the conventions were under constant challenge as writers explored and experimented with the novel format. In a future article I’ll look at the contrasts between George Eliot, the author considered to have come closest to writing the ‘pure’ realist novel; Emile Zola who took realism into a new era with his concept of naturalism and the challenge presented to the realist novel by the sensation narratives of Wilkie Collins and Margaret Oliphant.

About this article

This is the second in a series of articles about the novel – its history and characteristics and the changing attitudes to its purpose and features during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. All posts on this topic are indexed here

Sunday Salon: On the novel trail

sundaysalonThis week, a piece of literary knowledge I’d retained for some thirty years turned out to be wrong. For all those years I’ve thought it was Samuel Richardson who wrote the first recognisable novel in the English language. But digging into this topic in pursuit of my  2013 book reading resolution to learn more about the craft and history of the novel, I discover that there isn’t really a definitive answer. Instead this has one of those infuriating ‘it depends’ kinds of answers. In this case whether you think the first novel was written by Daniel Defoe or John Bunyan or one of the string of other contenders,  depends on how you define ‘the novel’. Frustrating not to get a clearer answer but I now know considerably more about the early pioneers than I ever did before.

Just after I wrote my article about this quest, I found a BBC program called ‘the Birth of the Novel’ which examined the role of Defoe, Richardson, Henry Fielding and Frances Burney in laying the foundations for the novel’s rise in popularity. There were some interesting connections made between the techniques of these pioneeers and modern day authors (Lawrence Stern’s technique in Tristram Shandy was likened to James Joyce’s Ulysses for example).  There seemed more than enough content for an in depth series but unfortunately I had to make do with just the one hour.

The Life and Times of the Novel: Part 1

Ten million copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy were sold in the UK alone last year while the Hunger Games trilogy notched up two million.  Three months after J K Rowling’s first non-Potter book The Casual Vacancy hit the book shops, it reached 350,000 sales. And it’s not just physical versions of novels that are in high demand: the rising popularity of e-readers saw sales of digital versions of novels rocket by 188% in the first six months of 2012.  The literary merits of some of these titles may be debatable but their evident commercial success is a clear indication that hundreds of years after the novel was born, it continues to be one of the most popular and accessible of all forms of literature.

But just how many hundreds of years old is this phenomenon called the novel? And which was the first book to be categorised in that way? When I began creating a list of books for the Classics Club challenge, I thought I would start with the first novel ever written in English and then work my way steadily through the decades. That idea proved considerably more challenging than I ever imagined because the title of  ‘first novel in English’ has been accorded to many different works of literature over the decades, including Beware the Cat published by William Baldwin in 1533. Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson and — at some point each of these has been named as the writer of the first novel in English.

Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson: the first novelist?

Those of us who passed through the British university system in the 1970s led to believe  that it was Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by the printer Samuel Richardson that was the first true novel to be published in English.  Issued in 1740 it became so immensely popular that many other writers tried to cash in on its success with unofficial ‘sequels’, comedies and operas. The literary elite however were rather more sniffy. They castigated Richardson for not only transgressing the boundaries of good taste by creating a protagonist of dubious morality, but also for transgressing literary conventions and standards.

It was precisely that break with tradition however that made Pamela such a watershed work of fiction. By featuring an ordinary girl as the heroine, by concentrating on a single action (the courtship) and by showing characters caught in a moral dilemma, Richardson’s narrative purported to represent a realistic picture of believable characters and events. Such characteristics were fundamental to the realist novel, the genre which became the dominant literary form in the nineteenth century.

So a pioneer, certainly. But the first novelist?  Richardson and  his contemporary Fielding did view themselves as founders of a new kind of writing. The literary critic and historian Ian Watt supports the view that their work marked a departure from the romances of the past. In his seminal work The Rise of the English Novel: Defoe, Richardson and Fielding however, Watts argued that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe published more than twenty years before Pamela, was just as deserving of the descriptor ‘the first novel in English’. For Defoe was the first writer whose plots were not based on mythology, history or legend. “After Defoe” says Watts, “Richardson and Fielding in their different ways continued what was to become the novel’s usual practice, the use of non traditional plots, either wholly invented or based in part on contemporary incident.”

And he was also the first, Watts claims, to create individual characters rather than types and to present their environments in details – techniques that above all others distinguish the novel from other forms of prose and from earlier works. Treating characters as individuals meant for Defoe and later Richardson and Fielding, that they gave the people in their novels, names that would be found in real life — Pamela, Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Moll Flanders — instead of using the names to denote their characteristics or to denote literary and historical associations as earlier writers such as Aphra Behn and Philip Sydney were apt to do.

Watts’ book does help explain why its so difficult to answer the question, ‘which is the first novel in English.’ Because the answer seems to be one of definition. What Watts focused on was the origin and development of a particular type of novel — the realist novel — and so he places the contributions of Defoe et al in that context. It doesn’t mean earlier works can’t be considered as novels or even as ‘first novel in English’, just that they are not the first ‘realist’ novels and not part of the genre that became the most popular with writers and readers alike and dominated the world of literature for more than a century.

After all this I don’t have a definitive answer to my original question though I do have an answer of a kind. But now I have another question – what does the term ‘realist novel’ actually mean?  But that will have to wait for another time…..

About this article

This is the first in a series of articles about the novel – its history and characteristics and the changing attitudes to its purpose and features. It’s in support of a resolution started in 2013 to understand more about this particular form of literature. Data about book sales is sourced from The Guardian report on 2012 Nielsen data.

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