Origins and Development of the Novel, 1740-1890 Analysis


No primary genre of literature has been so often defined and redefined as the novel, and still, no consensus has been reached. Several scholars have suggested that the only valid definition of the novel is the history of the genre itself. The origins of the modern novel, however—the novel as it appears in the early years of the twenty-first century, encompassing both serious fiction and best sellers—are more easily traced. The modern novel in the eighteenth century and its rise in the nineteenth coincided with the rise of the middle class. In consequence, as Ian Watt observes in The Rise of the Novel (1957), one of the paramount features of the novel has been its focus on a detailed re-creation of the bourgeois interior: the clothes, the furnishings, the belongings of the middle class. The novel is also distinguished, Watt points out, by its emphasis on individual characterization, an emphasis that can be related to the social and political movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These movements recognized the dignity of the individual and the equality of all people. Despite all its transmutations and variations, the novel today performs the same function it has served since the eighteenth century: It offers reports on (to borrow a title from Anthony Trollope) “the way we live now.”

Since American literature was, in its early stages, merely an outgrowth of English literature, this survey will treat the development of the English novel before turning to the history of the form in America. It is well to note at the outset, however, that there are several notable differences between the English novel and the American novel. While generalizations about “the novel” in a given nation must always be hedged, it is true that, as Richard Chase observes in The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957), “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience,” while “the English novel has followed the middle...

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Eighteenth century background

Many factors contributed to the birth of the English novel in the eighteenth century. An important social phenomenon was the growing trend of country people gravitating to the cities, especially London. Although no reliable figures are available, the population of London appears to have at least doubled, from around 350,000 to 700,000, between 1650 and 1750. With the growth of the city came attendant blessings and curses: more rapid and wider spread of ideas, easier dissemination of reading material, and the development of a more commercial society (although England’s economy remained primarily agrarian until the Industrial Revolution) as well as the miseries of urban crime (which had been flourishing since the Elizabethan era, but never so widely), unhealthy living conditions, insufficient housing, disease, and what has been called the greatest social curse of the period, the high incidence of drunkenness. As late as 1780, infant and child mortality was still at a shockingly high level; it was rare for a family to have more than half of its children reach adulthood.

Such a lively and perilous time was, in a sense, made for Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), regarded by many critics as the first significant English novelist. As a small businessman (often a failed one), occasional spy, prolific writer under various names in a number of genres, Dissenter (one who refused to accept the established Church of England, though still a Protestant), and generally energetic citizen (who was accused of being a Trimmer, a person who switched from Whig to Tory, or vice versa), Defoe seems to represent nearly all the conditions that prepared the way for the appearance and popular acceptance of the English novel. These conditions include an emphasis on the individual, both as a social entity and as a being with a soul, and an interest in the individual’s daily affairs (Defoe displays this emphasis...

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1740 to 1764

In 1740, potential novel readers were chiefly interested in family life, the details of everyday living, and the problems of morality on an individual basis. Wide generalizations concerning what constituted ethical conduct, as were found in Alexander Pope’s poetry, may have been widely quoted, but they were not taken much to heart; also, the novel could do what no verse essay—even one by so skilled a versifier as Pope—could do: It could show morality being lived. Richardson’s Pamela satisfied these interests, and the book was extremely popular. The fact that Richardson tells most of the story by way of letters is an indication of the particularity of detail and expression and the interest in the individual that engaged the attention of readers near the middle of the century.

As to the economy and the stability of the government, the nation was in reasonably good condition. At this point, England was enjoying a rewarding trade relationship with its colonies in the New World and was in the initial stages of taking over India. The wars in which it engaged took place on foreign soil. George II (r. 1727-1760) was not a skilled ruler, but the country was controlled chiefly by ministers who were intent on keeping or increasing their power, always with an eye, however, to avoiding open conflict with the people. The most notable civil disorders of the era (not counting the abortive attempts to restore the Stuarts to the throne, which had little effect on the lives of ordinary citizens) were the Gordon Riots, an anti-Catholic outburst, which did not take place until 1780 and were confined to small sections of London, lasting but a few days.

Although the period was called the Age of Reason, and although the official philosophy was one of rationalism, the actual lives of most people were not lived according to such theories; this fact is more clearly reflected in the novel than in any other form of literature. The best-known heroes of the early novel are either criminals, such as Moll Flanders, or rebels against a hostile society, such as Clarissa Harlowe from Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) and Sophia Western from Tom Jones (the former running away from home and being drugged and seduced, the latter escaping from her father and nearly being raped). Tom Jones is turned out of his benefactor’s house on very slender evidence of wrongdoing; he is then beaten, robbed, and almost hanged, and it takes almost eight hundred pages for him to establish his innocence. (Typical of the increasingly middle-class morality of the time, one of the chief themes of Tom Jones is that virtue is what a person owes to others, while prudence is what one owes to oneself.) These works deal primarily with the lives of one or two central characters, further evidence of the eighteenth century emphasis on the individual.

Individuality, as a concern and thematic focus, is most strikingly advanced in the entertaining but often nearly surrealistic Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), by Laurence Sterne (1713-1768). Some critics believe that Sterne’s book did more than any other to open the way for the later psychological novel. A concern for individuality was also indicated by the spread of Methodism, whose first meetings were held in 1729. In its early stages, before it hardened into an established denomination, it was an emotional movement that went back to the individualistic roots of Protestantism. The focus on the life of the individual is also reflected in the earlier, and continuing, enthusiasm for biography. Defoe augmented this tradition by basing Robinson Crusoe (1719) largely on the experience of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island for some four and a half years. Typically, Defoe transforms Crusoe into a resourceful, God-fearing middle-class man who hardly changes at all during more than twenty-five years on the...

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1764 to 1800

The date 1764 is of special significance in the history of long fiction because it clearly marks the beginning of a distinct change in the direction of English culture, especially as reflected in the novel. The first genuine gothic novel (the novel of suspense, terror, exotic setting, and effects) was published in that year. The Castle of Otranto (1765), by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), enjoyed enormous success and signaled a shift in public taste toward the exotic, the extraordinary, and violent passions—toward the Romantic movement, adumbrations of which can be found this early.

Another early sign of Romanticism is a different sort of novel, also the first of its kind: The Vicar of Wakefield (1766),...

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1800 to 1832

The first decades of the nineteenth century were the peak of Romanticism in English literature, its chief exemplars being the five great Romantic poets John Keats (1795-1821), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), William Wordsworth (1770-1850),Lord Byron (1788-1824), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). These artists wrote verse that emphasized the imaginative intuition of the individual as the way to achieve truth.

Scott was a powerful force in the popularization of both Romantic poetry and the Romantic novel. His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803) capitalized on the widening interest in old ballads and folktales, especially of the rural type. Scott turned to the novel as an act of self-defense...

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1832 to 1870: The early Victorian age

Although Victoria did not gain the throne until 1837, several events suggest the year 1832 as a suitable date to designate the opening of the era that bears her name. The designation indicates the complexity of the cultural and historical period. It followed epochs that have been labeled according to their obvious characteristics: the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the age of Pope, the age of Johnson, the Romantic age. A seventy-year period named after the reigning monarch is something of an evasion, but the era was so complicated and contradictory that the choice is understandable. As Walter Houghton notes in The Victorian Frame of Mind (1957), “Studies in this area have emphasized only a few characteristics, notably...

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1870 to 1890: The late Victorian age

The era referred to as the late Victorian age is often said to include the last decade of the nineteenth century; it is also known as the realistic period. The generation opened with the death of Dickens in 1870 and the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. In the same year appeared one of Hardy’s early novels, Desperate Remedies. This gloomy title not only indicates the grim philosophy that Hardy revealed in nearly all of his novels but also suggests the plight of many of the inhabitants of Great Britain, who had encountered several political and cultural realities: the repressive policies of Lord Palmerston, prime minister in 1855-1858 and 1859-1865; the...

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Background of the American novel

By general consent, the first American novel was The Power of Sympathy: Or, the Triumph of Nature (1789; also known as The Triumph of Nature Founded in Truth), attributed to William Hill Brown. Numerous literary achievements had been seen in America since the founding of the settlements at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, but no memorable fiction was produced until late in the next century. Most of the earliest works were practical, semihistorical pieces, such as Captain John Smith’s A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of That Collony (1608) and A Description of New England: Or,...

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1789 to 1820

Several conditions prevailed prior to that period in England that hindered the development of the novel there. These conditions also existed, but with greater impact, in the colonies until the time of the American Revolution and afterward, lessening as the decades passed; they are important in understanding why the American novel did not develop as quickly as its European model. Apart from the problem of colonial, then state, loyalties (Alexander Cowie, in The Rise of the American Novel, 1948, points out that most citizens, even after a national identity had been established, would identify their “country” as the state from which they came), the conditions included a scattered population, making the dissemination of...

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1820 to 1865

The unrest at the heart of the American novel, especially in the nineteenth century, is particularly evident in the work of James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). It is not so evident in a lesser book, such as Satanstoe: Or, The Littlepage Manuscripts, a Tale of the Colony (1845), as in the more famous novels: The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826), The Prairie: A Tale (1827), The Pathfinder: Or, The Inland Sea (1840), and The Deerslayer: Or, The First War-Path (1841)—the central titles in his famous Leatherstocking Tales, which recount the adventures of one of the most influential characters in early American fiction, the redoubtable Natty Bumppo. Cooper’s presentation of...

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Clayton, Jay. Romantic Vision and the Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Addresses the theme of transcendence in the English novel, with discussion of Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Little Dorritt by Charles Dickens, Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence.

David, Dierdre, ed. Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of eleven essays analyzes such issues as readership, publishing, aesthetics, gender, sexuality, economy, and science in the Victorian novel....

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