Trace the development of the novel as a literary form in England.

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The growth of the novel was impelled by the technology of print, decreasing prices of paper relative to wages, and a dramatic increase in vernacular literacy.

The very earliest English novels, such as Lyly's Euphues were strongly influenced by the Greek novels of the second sophistic, primarily as mediated through the French of Amyot. They were pastoral in setting and had much of the ornate language and episodic character of their rhetorical heritage, and lacked strong plotting and characterization. The next major phase in the development of the novel was also influenced by a rhetorical genre, namely the letter-writing manual. Many English Renaissance epistolary manuals, such as A Post with a Packet of Mad Letters and The Enemy of Idleness organized model letters in such a way as to achieve a nascent plot structure; Richardson and Defoe, both of whom composed letter-writing manuals before moving into novels, developed fully plotted and characterized novels in letters. Many of the 18th century novels were in the genre of the picaresque, following the escapades of a single colorful character (Tom Jones, e.g.). Next came the Gothic novel, a popular form with strong plotting, suspense, and exotic locales, followed in the Victorian era, by a wide range of works, some focused on character (Trollope, Austen, etc.) and others on plot (the sensation novel). Changes in the novel over the 19th century were influenced by mass literacy and cheap (acid) paper, lead to the gradual separation of the literary from the popular novel form, a bifurcation that is most apparent in the contrast between the modernist or experimental novel and the pulp, genre, and mass market fiction of the 20th century.

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As I am sure you can appreciate, this is a question that attracts much debate and criticism, with much fevered disagreement between the various academics that have tried to answer it. However, I will try and stick to the mainstream approach in responding to this question.

It is generally accepted that the modern novel was developed fully in the 18th century, and a number of the texts in English literature that jostle for the title of the first novel in English come from this time period. The one that most critics agree is the first modern novel is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. However, in this period, a number of different kinds of novel were developed, such as the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the historical novel, the epistolary novel and the libertine novel. Other texts that claim the title of the first novel are Don Quixote, Pamela and Pride and Prejudice.

In terms of the development of the novel as a distinct literary form, it is important to note that early epic classics such as Beowulf and the Aeneid are generally recognised as serving as literary stepping stones or transition points as the novel develops as a distinct literary form. Certainly it is after the 18th century that the novel begins to be a commonplace form of literature, with the Victorian years in particular allowing for its establishment and consolidation as many writers begin to use this form to publish their ideas and beliefs. Notable novelists from this period are of course Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Eliot to name but a few. It is interesting to reflect that the novel, which we so strongly associate with literature today, is actually only a relatively modern invention in terms of the history of literature.


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Development of the novel in England probably started with the novel's forerunners in Europe, widely read by English writers at the beginning of the 18thC--chiefly, works like Francois Rabelais'Gargantua (1534) and Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605).

The key to the development of the novel in English literary history is a concept known as verisimilitude, that is, the writer's ability to make his story true to life using characters and events everyone can recognize as existing in the real world.  Daniel Defoe is the most likely candidate for the first true novelist in English literature, using fictitious characters, generally from lower walks of life,  and loose narrative structures in Robinson Crusoe (1719, based on a historical character), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724).  Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) introduced allegory (something in the text refers to a greater meaning outside the text) but kept the allegorical elements believable because Swift's use of verisimilitude allowed his characters to act in ways every reader could recognize.

By the mid-18thC, writers like Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett had written a number of novels, using different narrative techniques to advance the plot, that provided readers with a realistic depiction of life in England.  Perhaps the greatest of these is Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) because it demonstrates Fielding's extraordinary skill in creating true-to-life characters from all walks of life and a highly-intricate plot that wraps up neatly at the end of the novel.  The 18thC English novel, almost without exception, ended like a modern fairy tale--all is well.  One novel--Tristram Shandy (1760-67) by Laurence Sterne--broke from the traditional narrative and character development forms by focusing much of the novel's energy on the inner self, a psychological focus that confused many of the novel's readers  (and still does).

By the end of the 18thC, it is safe to say that the novel had achieved its form in plot, character development, narration, and form.  Beginning with the 19thC--with Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Scott, Trollope, Thackeray, and Hardy--the focus of the novelist shifted to different segments of society and time periods, but the novel as a form was essentially developed in the 18thC.

In the 20thC, novelists like James Joyce and Virgina Woolf began to focus on narrative techniques like stream-of-consciousness, trying to depict the workings of the mind, with all its ambiguities, and how the external world is perceived in a character's mind.  The novel was cut loose a bit from the concept of verisimilitude because the novelist began trying first to depict accurately the working of a character's mind rather than to describe a character's place in the external world.

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