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.
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.