Origins of the English novel
Although long-standing debates about the origin of the English novel and the first English novel continue, it is both convenient and just to state that it is with the fiction of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) that the first novel appeared, especially in the sense that term came to have in the late eighteenth century and continues to have today. Without considerable injustice it may be said that the novel first developed out of a series of false starts in the seventeenth century and a series of accidents in the eighteenth. The reading public, having been exposed to large amounts of novelistic material, fictions of various lengths, epics, and prose romances, appears to have been ready to receive a form that went beyond Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, The History of the Royal Slave (1688), John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), and the prose works of earlier masters such as Sir Thomas Malory, John Mandeville, Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Nashe. Such a form would emphasize unified action of some plausibility, individualized and articulate characters, and stories presented with such verisimilitude that the readers could find in them highly wrought illusions of the realities they knew best.
The literary children of the eighteenth century, the novel and its sibling the short story, created a taste for fiction of all varieties in a middle-class readership whose ranks were swollen by a newly literate mercantile class. This readership appears to have wanted and certainly received a literary medium of their own, filled with practically minded characters who spoke the same middle-class English language and prized the same middle-class English goals (financial and familial success) as they themselves did. In general, the novel helped make the position of the individual in new, expanding, and increasingly urban social contexts more intelligible; frequently addressed directly to the “dear reader,” the novel presented unified visions of individuals in society, reflected the cultural and social conditions of that society, and supported the presumed rationalist psychology endemic to the age, which was fostered by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke.
The novel was influenced by historic events and societal developments, especially tidal changes that involved the class structure of English society. The merchant class had existed for centuries and had steadily grown in the Age of Discovery and during colonization in the seventeenth century. In that century, a number of events conspired to begin the disestablishment of the feudal, medieval world, a disestablishment that would become final in the early nineteenth century. The beginning of the English Civil War (1642) marked the most noteworthy outbreak of religious and class strife England had yet seen. The subsequent regicide of Charles I in 1649 and the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords by the House of Commons in that year signaled the formation of the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-1660) and the first rise to political dominance of the middle class, a much-contested context. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament invited William of Orange and his wife, Mary, the Protestant daughter of the Catholic James II, to rule England. James II (the “Old Pretender”) fled to France with his son Charles (the “Young Pretender” or Bonnie Prince Charlie), established himself in exile, and began plotting a return to power that would eventuate in the Scottish rebellions of 1715, 1719, and 1745-1746 on behalf of the Stuart monarchy. The Glorious Revolution may, in part, be seen as establishing the principle that the English middle class, through Parliament, could choose their own ruler; it may also be seen as another...
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