This 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.