Origins and Development of the Novel, 1740-1890

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Last Updated on October 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Novels are defined as long works of prose fiction. In English, the story of the novel, as it were, begins with the revival of interest in the ancient Greek novel in the Renaissance, particularly as mediated through the French translations of Greek novels by Jacques Amyot. Longus's second-century novel Daphnis and Chloe influenced John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, published in 1578, and was translated into English by Angell Daye (importantly, the author of a popular letter-writing manual) in 1587. The printing press, a Renaissance invention, was the enabling technology for the rise of the novel.

Two major social and cultural changes provided an economic foundation for the rise of the English novel. The first was the growth of vernacular literacy, which created a potential reading public. The second was the rise of the middle class, which created an audience who could afford to buy or subscribe to novels.

In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this new middle class had a voracious appetite for self-improvement, investing in courtesy, and more importantly, letter-writing manuals. These collections of model letters gradually began to have characters and plots and led to the genre of the epistolary novel—that is, a novel in letters. Two of the most important early English novelists, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, were also authors of letter-writing manuals. Novels provided not only entertainment but also models for understanding how newly middle-class readers should conduct themselves in their new social circumstances.

By the end of the eighteenth century, circulating libraries provided readers with access to a vast array of novels. One of the most popular genres was the Gothic romance, with authors such as Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, and Anne Radcliffe offering suspense-filled, colorful tales set in exotic locales. The Gothic evolved into the sensation novel of the nineteenth century, which was defined by action-filled plots, mystery, and suspense. Opposed to the Gothic were the novels of Jane Austen, which depicted ordinary life in minute and realistic detail.

Over forty thousand novels were published in the nineteenth century, and the genre was very diverse. Romantic novels of the time, such as the works of the Brontë sisters, emphasized emotional intensity; more realistic novels, such as Trollope's, concerned themselves with meticulous character observation. Many novels were initially serialized in magazines, leading to a structure of episodes ending with "cliffhangers," such as in the works of Dickens. By the end of the nineteenth century, the long Victorian novel (often using a third-person narrator) remained popular, but more experimental novels, including those experimenting with new literary techniques and addressing social problems and gender roles, became increasingly common.

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