Even though it’s my birthday today and I knew I would be unwrapping some bookish presents (well what else would you buy an avid reader??), I couldn’t resist the temptation yesterday to add to my TBR pile. When you find a title that so many people have recommended and its at the incredible bargain price of £1 (roughly equivalent to 75 US cents) it would be madness to leave it on the shelf wouldn’t it? Particularly when the proceeds are going to a good cause (heart disease research in this case) and I’m making a contribution – admittedly small – contribution to the British economy.
Having seen the film 84 Charing Cross Road at least a dozen times, I’m hoping the book will be just as brilliant. Helene Hanff as portrayed by Anne Bancroft comes across as a wonderfully dry-witted character that would be a tremendously entertaining dinner party guest. Wonder if that comes across in the book?
Maggie O’Farrell is an author whose work I was introduced to when I friend bought me The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I found riveting with its interwoven narratives whose connections only slowly become apparent. The Hand that First Held Mine was just as good so I’m looking forward to reading O’Farrell’s third novel The Distance Between Us.
There’s been a lot of media attention recently for The Reluctant Fundamentalist which has just been released as a film featuring Kiefer Sutherland and Riz Ahmed. This story of a Pakistani man whose life in the U.S. changes dramatically after the 9/11 attacks, won acclaim from several quarters and was also Was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The last book in my pile, Edward Marston’s The Railway Detective, is a wild card for me. I’ve not heard of this author before or this series but the cover just appealed to me. Maybe there was also a subliminal connection to the reading I was doing earlier this week about the connection between railways and novels for a posting as part of my history of the novel challenge. Hope it proves to be a lucky coincidence.
As for what delights lie in store as birthday gifts, I have to wait unfortunately until Mr Booker Man can drag himself out of slumberland so I can open them…
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: 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.
They’ve done the research; spent hours in libraries or on line checking their facts (or maybe their paid researcher actually did the grunt work); the book is now out – and guess what? Some tweed jacket wearer sporting a handlebar moustache spots an anachronism and can’t wait to point out said defect to the author.
Do we set too great an expectation on our leading authors? Undoubtedly there are some books where the writer has made a fatal flaw that anyone with just a modicum of common sense would recognise (I hate it when authors use twentieth century expressions – usually of American origin – in narratives set in an earlier period). Then there are other novels that contain errors which make no material difference to the narrative. You note them but push them to one side because you’re enjoying the story so much?
Booker Prize Winner Ian McEwan apparently spent two years observing a neurosurgeon for his novel Saturday.The surgeon was less than pleased to find McEwan had his protagonist use a paintbrush to apply antiseptic prior to an operation (not a tool that is common in an operating theatre it seems). I can recall the gruesome details of the surgical procedure in that novel but can’t honestly say that knowing whether the surgeon used a paintbrush or an artist’s brush matters much.
Even his winning novel Amsterdam came in for close scrutiny. After it was published McEwan received a letter from a World War 2 veteran that he’s used the Americansm “on the double” instead of the ‘at the double” term used by British soldiers of his day.
Maybe I’ ve been fortunate but I’ve not often seen something amiss in a work of fiction published by one of the reputable houses. I imagine the texts go through a pretty rigorous process before the print button is pushed. Self- published works are a completely different matter however since the same protective screen is nowhere near as exhaustive. My frustrations are usually where one or more characters is a journalist or the plot requires some news item to be reproduced in the text – unless the author is, or has been a journalist themselves, they usually get this wrong. The fictional journalist never behaves as any real journalist would (they don’t check their sources for example, dont ask basic questions) and as for the so called news reports, they make me wonder if the author has ever read a newspaper. The worst offender I’ve come across in recent years was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen byPaul Torday where the so-called newspaper article read more like a government report. Dire.
Have you ever found a mistake in a novel? I don’t mean a spelling error – those are not the fault of the author anyway, but more a problem in typesetting and proofreading. I mean factual errors or anachronisms? If you spot them are you inclined to write to the publisher to point out the mistake or do you just shrug and move on?
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