The Rise of the English Novel Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Rise of the English Novel

The dominant genre in world literature, the novel is actually a relatively young form of imaginative writing. Only about 250 years old in England—and embattled from the start—its rise to preeminence has been striking. After sparse beginnings in seventeenth-century England, novels grew exponentially in production by the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century became the primary form of popular entertainment.

Elizabethan literature provides a starting point for identifying prototypes of the novel in England. Although not widespread, works of prose fiction were not uncommon during this period. Possibly the best known was Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, a romance published posthumously in 1590. The novel also owes a debt to Elizabethan drama, which was the leading form of popular entertainment in the age of Shakespeare. The first professional novelist—that is, the first person to earn a living from publishing novels—was probably the dramatist Aphra Behn. Her 1688 Oronooko, or The Royal Slave typified the early English novel: it features a sensationalistic plot that borrowed freely from continental literature, especially from the imported French romance. Concurrent with Behn's career was that of another important early English novelist: John Bunyan. This religious author's Pilgrim's Progress, first published in 1678, became one of the books found in nearly every English household.

In the second half of the seventeenthcentury, the novel genre developed many of the traits that characterize it in modern form. Rejecting the sensationalism of Behn and other early popular novelists, novelists built on the realism of Bunyan's work. Three of the foremost novelists of this era are Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson. Defoe's name, more than that of any other English writer, is credited with the emergence of the "true" English novel by virtue of the 1719 publication of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In the work of these three writers, the realism and drama of individual consciousness that we most associate with the novel took precedence over external drama and other motifs of continental romance. Contemporary critics approved of these elements as supposedly native to England in other genres, especially in history, biography, and religious prose works.

A number of profound social and economic changes affecting British culture from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century brought the novel quickly into popular prominence. The broadest of these were probably the advances in the technology of printing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which made written texts—once the province of the elite—available to a growing population of readers. Concurrent changes in modes of distribution and in literacy rates brought ever increasing numbers of books and pamphlets to populations traditionally excluded from all but the most rudimentary education, especially working-class men and women of all classes. As the circulation of printed material transformed, so did its economics, shifting away from the patronage system characteristic of the Renaissance, during which a nation's nobility supported authors whose works reinforced the values of the ruling classes. As the patronage system broke down through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, authors became free agents in the literary marketplace, dependent on popular sales for their success and sustenance, and thus reflecting more and more the values of a predominantly middle-class readership. The demand for reading material allowed a greatly expanded pool of writers to make a living from largely ephemeral poetry and fiction.

These monumental changes in how literature was produced and consumed sent Shockwaves of alarm through more conservative sectors of English culture at the beginning of the eighteenth century. A largely upper-class male contingent, reluctant to see any change in the literary status quo, mounted an aggressive "antinovel campaign." Attacks on the new genre tended to identify it with its roots in French romance, derided as a sensationalistic import antithetical to English values. The early targets of these attacks were those writers, including Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who had produced original English prose "romances" based on the conventions of the French style. At the same time, however, more women in particular were writing novels that made a display of decorum and piety, often reacting to detractors who charged that sensationalistic tales of adventure and sexual endangerment had the potential to corrupt adult female readers and the youth of both sexes. The outcome of this campaign was not the demise of the novel, but the selective legitimation of novels that displayed certain, distinctly non-romantic traits. These traits became the guidelines according to which the novel as a genre developed and was valued. Most venerated by this tradition are the three leading eighteenth-century male novelists: Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Modern students of the novel are often unaware of the tumultuous controversy that attended its first steps at the end of the seventeenth century. For the most part, feminist scholars have been responsible for generating the recovery of the novel's earliest roots and for opening up discussion of its cultural value in its many different forms.