History of the novel

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


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

2 thoughts on “Life and Times of the Novel: Part 2

  • Thank you Barbara. I got to one point and was in such a muddle I never thought I would get out of it …


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