Terry Eagleton’s “What is a Novel?” is the first part of his 1983 book Literary Theory: An Introduction, which is recognized as a landmark text in literary studies. The essay acknowledges the basic formal features of novels—it begins with the fairly obvious point that “A novel is a piece of prose fiction of reasonable length” (1). Yet Eagleton is not merely interested in points like these but rather in the social and cultural significance of the novel as a genre, part of which is suggested by the quote you have selected.
In this quote, Eagleton is referring to a particular type of novel—the kind of realist novel that dominated literature in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He has in mind works like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. According to Eagleton, one of the things that makes the realist novel so special is the way it concentrates on matters of everyday life and, in doing so, is relatable to the average (middle class person). As Eagleton writes:
[A]rt finally returned the world to the common people who had created it through their labour, and who could now contemplate their own faces in it for the first time. A form of fiction had been born in which one could be proficient without specialist erudition or an expensive classical education. As such, it was especially available to groups like women, who had been cheated of such an education and shut out from such expertise. (19–20)
Earlier works recognized as having literary significance often required specialized education and knowledge to access and appreciate—think of the works of ancient Greek and Roman literature that were important to an educated person of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and were not always available in translation. By presenting a realistic, relatable world in common language, the realist novel subverted this class restriction on literature; as Eagleton writes, it “fostered a resistance to authority” while “becoming a resourceful medium of middle-class cultural power” (20).
Eagleton also asserts that this power was especially significant for women at the time, who were typically unable to access the education (and thus the literary world) available to men of their same class level. He believes that women were especially adept at understanding the kind of social world depicted in the realist novel and so were particularly successful as both readers and authors.