The Novel

The Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century

“We have to admit that we are exacting, and, further, that we find it difficult to justify our discontent by explaining what it is that we exact. We frame our question differently at different times. But it reappears most persistently as we drop the finished novel on the crest of a sigh—Is it worth while? What is the point of it all?”Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction” 1919

The Novel as a Literary Genre

While historians argue about the “first” novel, the definition of the novel could be a separate argument itself. With the different perspectives associated with the novel, the definition as it emerged in the 18th century included many facets. Different definitions of the novel include: an imaginative re-creation of reality, a history, a scary conveyor of truth that demanded scrutiny, a biography, a harmless amusement, a travel narrative, a romance, a tale of spiritual journey. Despite the contradictions that exist within these varying perspectives on the 18th century novel, several key features among them can be picked out as components of the novel as a new textual medium.

Contamporaneity became a common theme within the novels, writers were more inclined to show the life of the present day versus life as it was in the past. Characters and events were made to be believable, as if to mirror the people and events in the every day world of the time, lending the novels credibility. Characters within the stories were presented in a manner similar in social rank to the people reading the novels, not as kings or queens; this afforded a level of familiarity with the readers. With familiarity, readers were able to identify and empathize with characters in the novel. Writers also began to reject traditional plot types; stereotypical plots such as those found in earlier aristocratic stories were avoided. Instead, writers paid greater attention to self-consciousness and the process of thought. As a result, stories reflected more of their individualism and subjectivity. They were engaging ideologies and composed with a guiding design that created presiding themes. On occasion novels would digress, but in a way that operated under the pattern and design guiding the plot. Despite these improvements, some people were afraid of the novel’s rise into literature. Why was the novel scary? First, it demanded scrutiny; it appeared to look into the very reality of the reader himself. Secondly, it conveyed a scale of truth. Author Joel Weinsheimer claims that “the legitimate end of fiction is the conveyance of truth” (3). Whose truth was conveyed? Everyone’s. The novel created “a true world, familiar and recognizable to shoemakers and philosophers alike” (3). Ultimately, with its variety of definitions and various features, the novel emerged as a literary form about people and experiences familiar and to its readers.

Evolution of the Novel Form

In the 21st century, where the novel is quite possible the most popular form of literature, it is hard for one to believe that its form is relatively novel for the world. Prior to the 18th century, there were no known literary pieces in existence that fit the definition of a “novel” (refer to above section for definition). Before discussing the novel itself, it is important to examine its evolution. Traditionalism in literature was a key to success prior to the latter half of the eighteenth century. Authors such as Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, were responsible for telling stories in which the people were familiar with. The fiction that was produced before the introduction and development of the novel were never based on actual people but on characters whom everyone was familiar with, Hercules, Adam and Eve, etc. Thus, the success of an author was mainly based on whether or not he could re-invent an already popular story and model the traditional classics from the days of yore. According to Ian Watt, author of The Rise of the Novel: Studies of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, Daniel Defoe was the first author to truly break the “protocol” of story telling. Usually, writers were rated on how well they represented historical events and/or their ability to re-tell stories that everyone had already heard. Defoe, in the eighteenth century, pulled away from this tendency of re-telling stories and began to develop protagonist characters that were new to the literary world. Defoe began writing novel-like works about a character and their life, often using autobiographical information to fuel his writing (14-15).

1740 Samuel Richardson’s Pamela

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1719 Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

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1726 Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

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Author Ian Watt, and many others for that matter, usually credit Daniel Defoe as being the author of the first English novel (Chapt. 3). The first novel is usually credited to be Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which was first published in 1719 (Lee). The novel is about a man, Crusoe, who spent 28 years on a deserted island and the adventures in which he encountered while on the island. However, this is debatable and a “true” first novel has not really been absolutely unanimously determined. Some critics claim that other stories such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are actually just a series of stories about one character and his experiences. There is not a truly lengthy series of events that take place with one protagonist over a prolonged period of time; rather, the character simply re-enacts bits and pieces of his life that the author feels is interesting enough to reiterate. Therefore, stories like Robinson Crusoe stand up as much more likely candidates as true “novels” because Defoe explains the entire life of the protagonist, even the seemingly mundane details. Thus, other novels began to be written in succession after Defoe’s first. Next, there was the publication in 1740 of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (Lee). Followed by a multitude of other books that would be termed “novels” such as Henry Fielding‘s Joseph Andrews. After these first novelists became successful, a menagerie of other authors would quickly evolve in the years to come. Authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen‘s to name a few, would soon become some of the world’s most famous novelists having perfected the art of the novel.

The following time line
shows the evolution of the novel through the eighteenth century:

17th Century
Birth of Daniel Defoe .
1660-1669 Diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703).
1665 Great Plague destroys much of London’s population.
1667 Milton’s Paradise Lost .
1678 Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
1687 Newton’s Principia Mathematica .
1688 Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is published. Telling the story of the violence of the slave trade, it is one of the earliest examples of English literature by a woman.
1689 John Locke argues that Parliament needs to be divided into the executive and legislature. Bill of Rights and Toleration Act. Birth of Samuel Richardson .
1695 Press allowed to become free.

18th Century
1702 Daily newspaper appears for first time.
1707 The Act of Union unites Scotland and England. Birth of Henry Fielding .
1713 Birth of Laurence Sterne .
1719 Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe .
Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders .
1726 Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels .
1740 Pamela or Virtue Rewarded , by
Samuel Richardson .
Henry Fielding ‘s Tom Jones .
Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) publishes his English dictionary.
1758 Voltaire’s Candide mocks the religious establishment. Shortly afterwards Jean-Jacques Rousseau publishe Emile and Social Contract .
1764 Birth of
Ann Radcliffe .
1771 Birth of
Walter Scott .
1774 Reforms to prisons begun at the behest of Howard. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther .
1775 American war of independence from Britain begins. American Declaration of Independence follows in 1776. War with America continues until 1783. James Watt invents steam engine. The pace of industrialization and urbanization accelerates as a result. Birth of
Jane Austen .
1789-1832 Romantic period in the arts emphasizes individuality, subjectivity and irrationality, rejecting the rationalism of the earlier
Enlightenment .

19th century
1810 Birth of Elizabeth Gaskell .
1812 Birth of
Charles Dickens .
1813 Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice .
1816 Birth of Charlotte Bronte.
1818 Birth of
Emily Bronte .

(This time line has been edited to only include names of authors and other people relevant to the topic of the novel. Please click here to see the time line in its entirety. )

Historical Context of the Rise of the Novel:

John Leech illustration, Punch magazine, 1855

Although the early 18th century was Britain’s golden age of satire, the Teaching Company’s novel expert Dr. Timothy Spurgin notes that the mid-to-late 1700s segued into its golden age of fiction. Indeed, several factors favored the emergence of the novel at the time. (Spurgin, The English Novel.) (Watt, The Rise of the Novel.)

Rise of realism–the novel as an effect of the Enlightenment

After the start of the Scientific Revolution, people began applying the newfangled deductive method to all sorts of social concerns. Specifically, Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Rene Descartes proposed that individuals could discern important truths about life through careful observation of details, and no longer had to rely upon the establishment for their intellectual enrichment. Writers picked up on this trend and penned a new genre that focused on realism–books that had believable plots and believable characterizations–and a public already primed on realistic fare such as biographies, memoirs and personal journals eagerly embraced the English novel. (Brooklyn College’s Guide to the Study of Literature.) (Sutherland, Classics of British Literature.)

Rise of the middle class–the novel as an offshoot of capitalism:

While the populace was busy looking for new ways to educate itself about the world, Britain was busy becoming the world’s first capitalist economy. As a result, the country’s middle classes expanded, and they became obsessed with ways of increasing their income and social standing. And for the first time in British history, a subject’s social standing did not depend upon inheritance, but upon ambition. Authors catered to this potential reading public by writing works about love and marriage—works in which the main characters married up the social ladder. (Previously, novelists had been patronized by rich benefactors and confined their serious pieces to classical concerns.) Still, one vestige of Britain’s fading feudal system was its paternalistic tradition that the ruling classes should provide for society’s poorer members. This tradition translated into an early English novel convention of producing stories with happy endings; stories in which virtuous working women were absorbed into their libidinous masters’ aristocratic homes. (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a good example of this convention, in which a servant girl marries a master who had pressured her to become his mistress. ) At any rate, if the elites didn’t mind marrying down, the uppity middle classes seemed to consider it taboo–see the illustration from Punch magazine below, which shares a popular sentiment from England’s industrial age: snubbing your own kin. (Spurgin, The English Novel .) (Sutherland, Classics of British Literature.)

Rise of commercial fiction–the novel as an affordable and available literary form:

Besides giving members of the lower classes new riches and reasons to drop their old friends, another benefit of the Industrial Revolution was bringing affordable books to the masses through the creation of commercial printing houses. As it went, after the book industry noticed the public demand for the novel, it upgraded its infrastructure and increased its output in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, on account of 18th-century technological advances in printing. Once the new presses were in place, publishers kept them profitable by persuading novelists to put out salable works. Thus, the novel changed form from rare manuscripts circulated in rarefied circles, to the popular published form sold today. (Sutherland, Classics of British Literature.) (Weiner, The Long 19th Century.)

Rise of literacy and lending libraries–the novel as a product of Puritan values:

Not all Britain’s people prospered from industrialization–many members of the working classes still couldn’t read or afford to buy novels at retail. To bridge this gap and build public education, concerned philanthropic groups established literacy programs and lending libraries. These lending libraries preferred novels that were published in three volumes, so they could spread out their titles between borrowers. As a consequence, the early English novelists wrote their works following a formula that put a cliffhanger in each volume. One downside to the novel’s Puritan sponsorship was the accompanying Puritan censorship. In time, writers grew weary of watching their words, and of breaking their works into multiple editions after their fellow countrymen could well afford to buy their own copies. By the close of the Victorian age, then, a more prosperous and less pious reading public no longer patronized lending libraries, and the era of the serial novel came to an end. (Bucholz, Foundations of Western Civilization II.) (Sutherland, Classics of British Literature.)

Works Cited:

Bucholz, Robert, D.Phil. Foundations of Western Civilization II: A History of the Modern Western World. Course guidebook. Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2006.
English Department, Brooklyn College. A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature. 20 May, 2008.
Hammond, Brean and Shaun Regan. Making the Novel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Lee, Danny and Sierz Alekis. The Story of the Novel: Timeline. Jul., 2003. 20 May, 2008. <>
Moore, Andrew. Short History of English Literature. 8 May, 2008. <></span>>
Richetti, John. The English Novel in History. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Spurgin, Timothy, Ph.D. The English Novel. Lecture transcript and course guidebook. Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2006.
Sutherland, John, Ph.D. Classics of British Literature. Course guidebook. Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2008.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957

Weiner, Robert I., Ph.D. The Long 19th Century: European History from 1789 to 1917. Course guidebook. Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2005.
Weinsheimer, Joel. The Idea of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Robert W. Uphaus. East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1988.


Jaclyn Criscuolo – Contenders of the Novel/The Novel as Literary Genre
Stefany DeVincentis–Evolution of the Novel Form
Lisa Marsilii–Historical Context of the Rise of the Novel