In response to the cultural and political conditions in late 18th century Europe, Romanticism, or at least "romantic sensibilities," spread westward from Germany, France, and Italy into Britain, reshaping its literary and artistic landscape. No longer believing that the universe was a static machine, British Romantic authors and artists developed a "mystic ecstasy" in their works to emphasize a connection between the individual and a dynamic universe in which nature became a life-force of inspiration.
Romantic poets of the time advocated revolution and the language of the common man. As such, they endorsed fiction and non-fiction as much as poetry. There was no better synthesis of poetic language, fiction, and non-fiction elements than the novel. It also helped that advances in printing techniques allowed for wide distribution of books, pamphlets, and newspapers--all of which laid the groundwork for the novel to spread its wings.
The Romantics reduced poetry to sudden flashes of insight: gone were the days of the epic, mythology, and romance. In were the scientific, philosophical, and plain-spoken dialogues that the novel afforded.
In terms of specifics, Enotes says it best:
- The novel gained in popularity as literacy increased and the middle class expanded. Reading for pleasure, rather than for instruction or religious purposes, became a favorite pastime.
- Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) is often cited as the founder of the modern English novel. Defoe established principles for the genre that are still followed today. Those rules include a dominant, unifying theme, a strong thesis, and an attempt to depict reality.
- Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) was the first writer to call himself a novelist. Though many of his contemporaries considered the form “lowbrow” writing and shied away from the title of novelist, Fielding embraced it.
- Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) is often characterized as the greatest novelist of manners. Her books deal exclusively with the minutiae of upper-class society and landed gentry.