What are the most significant differences between the early novel (e.g.,Robinson Crusoe) and the Victorian novel (e.g., Jane Eyre)?
It is believed that the circumstances that contributed to the rise of the novel came from changes being experienced in the 18th Century, as well as social concerns of that time. Population was exploding, for example, in London, as more and more people chose to live in cities rather than the country. With this came the spread of ideas and increased production of reading materials. Other characteristics of the time included crime, poor living conditions and housing, excessive drunkenness and still an alarmingly high incidence of infant and child mortality even as late as 1780.
The advent of the novel is often credited to books like Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders—both by Daniel Defoe, and Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Two basic characteristics shared among the early novels were the presence of a story and a storyteller. The novel is a "prose narrative form," along with epics and romances. However, among the types of narratives, there are clear distinctions, in this case between the novel and the romance. The novel concentrates on representing realistic characters and experiences.
...what distinguishes the novel from the romance is its realistic treatment of life and manners. Its heroes are men and women like ourselves, and its chief interest, as Northrop Frye said, is 'human character as it manifests itself in society.'
DeFoe may be considered the father of "realistic" fiction. He was a small business man, a spy, a productive writer (in a variety of genres), as well as a [religious] Dissenter, etc.
Defoe...represent[ed] nearly all the conditions [needed] for the appearance and popular acceptance of the English novel.
Defoe was one of the first writers who did not base his characters on mythological or historical figures, or legends. He did not engage in the retelling of old stories. He presented a new kind of plot and protagonist—presenting exciting characters and their grand adventures.
In terms of the novel during the Victorian era, readership was leaning away from poetry and drama, looking for stories that dealt with the lives of average people alive at that time. All of a sudden, the stories were no longer primarily about the upper-classes, but about the middle and working classes. More people were reading than at any time before. And the focus of these novels, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, now included more women and even servants.
Since the eighteenth century, and particularly since the Victorian period, the novel, replacing poetry and drama, has become the most popular of literary forms...The novel became increasingly popular as its social scope expanded to include characters and stories about the middle and working classes. Because of its readership, which included a large percentage of women and servants, the novel...most addressed the domestic and social concerns of these groups.
It is also important to note that novels of the Victorian Age had more angst. In Victorian England, although there was a superficial sense of optimism, beneath the facade, there was a great deal of anxiety. According to Walter Houghton in The Victorian Frame of Mind (1957):
'Studies in this area have emphasized only a few characteristics, notably moral earnestness and optimism, to the obscuring of others, equally important, like enthusiasm and anxiety.'
In light of this, novels would have presented a valuable distraction for the Victorian audience.