History of the novel

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.


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

13 thoughts on “The Life and Times of the Novel: Part 1

  • I was taught that another pretender to the crown was Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which exists in a kind of no man’s land between the romance and the novel.

    • I hadn’t heard that Seamus but thanks for adding to the debate

  • This is great! – Like you, I was taught that it was Richardson – it’s yet another indication of the fact that ‘Nothing is certain – except death and taxes’ (Hopefully, as you indicate, the death of the novel is not on any horizon – and we must hope books remain (in the UK, anyway) at 0% VAT, grouped under a list of things like food, water and other ‘life necessities!’ (well, precisely!)

    • Rumours of the death of the book will be around for many years I suspect. Most likely it will survive but maybe in forms we don’t yet have. It wasn’t so very many years ago that no one had heard of e books was it?

  • I’m happy to see you here Judy. I’m an admirer of your family history blog – so much better organised than mine is! I did Eng Lit in the 70s too but it was very different from the way its taught now. it was of course in advance of all the feminist and post colonial criticism which was a shame

  • Interesting reading. I was a Eng Lit student in the 1970s and ploughed my way through Richardson and Fielding (but not Defoe) as they were considered the “start of the English novel”. Love the rest of your blog, which I’m now following.

    BTW: I came here because you posted a comment on my family history blog. We have fiction reading tastes in common too.

  • It’s interesting to think how that term ‘realist’ is used. If you compare these novels to what had gone before then yes they are realist in as much as they are not based on myths or traditional tales. However, I hope Tom Jones wasn’t really real:)

    • It’s also interesting to see how some authors mixed realism with other genre characteristics in the same novel – like Frankenstein (not a novel I like personally but it is very much a hybrid). I wonder if there are lots of Tom Jones lurking around even today??

  • That was fascinating. I’ve never really thought about it.

    • Once you start asking the questions, the difficulty is to know when to stop. The more I read, the more questions I end up with!

  • I’d always thought it was Robinson Crusoe…interesting that it’s a question with no hard and fast answer.

    • like much in fiction, there are many of the ‘it depends on….’ kind of answers I’ve discovered….and likely will find more of them as I continue reading.


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