The Rise of the Novel
DEVELOPMENT OF THE NOVEL IN FRANCE
The modern novel had its roots in the
verse romance, or fabliau, though it is a long line
development with many sideshoots.
Geoffrey Chaucer is a key figure in
the change to more modern modes of
narrative, with his unusual interest in character for its
own sake and his realistic observation of
contemporary social life; the first novels in this, modern,
sense are the picaresque stories associated
with Spain and above all with
Cervantes. Thereafter, the
most important developments are,
arguably, to be found in France and England and, just as the
English romance was largely derived
from (and inferior to) the French fabliaux, early
French narratives had a marked influence on the
English novel of the 18th century.
In matters of style, Italy was still the
European leader. During the Renaissance, earnest efforts were
made to reproduce the theatres of Classical times, which
eventually led to the adoption of the proscenium arch and the
proliferation of scenery and 'special effects', features that
were adopted throughout Europe in the course of the 17th
The first professional actors were those of the commedia
dell'arte, popular comedies based on a traditional plot with
the actors wearing masks and employing much improvisation, also
deriving ultimately from Classical theatre. The traditional
characters, Harlequin, Pulcinella, Pantaloon, etc., developed
only gradually into fixed stereotypes. These companies seem to
have included female performers from an early date. Because they
travelled widely outside Italy, they influenced other countries
and were probably responsible for the admission of women to the
acting profession much earlier in France and Spain than in
England, where the commedia dell'arte did not venture.
The 'sentimental comedy' of the 18th century was hardly an
improvement, and can now be seen as a kind of dress
rehearsal for Victorian melodrama. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), born into a theatrical family in
Dublin, restored the edge to English comedy by reviving the
'comedy of manners', which in his hands achieved new
heights. His first play was The Rivals (1775), set in
the fashionable spa town of Bath. It was a shambles on the
first night but, after hasty rewriting, became very popular.
The character Mrs Malaprop has given a new word to the
language, malapropism. As she says, 'Sir, if I reprehend
(comprehend) anything in this world, it is the use of my
oracular (vernacular) tongue, and a nice derangement
(arrangement) of epitaphs (epithets)'.
Even better is
for Scandal"(1777), the best play of the century,
ingeniously plotted, extremely funny and frequently revived.
Like The Critic, Sheridan's third great comedy, it
was written for the Drury Lane Theatre in which he had an
The revocation of the Edict of Nantes (removing toleration
of the Huguenots) in 1685 is often taken as a convenient
marker for the changing literary era in France.
and other satirists notwithstanding, Romance was not yet
Madeleine de Scudéry was still alive, and though her
improbable tales of love and war set in antiquity had mostly
been written in the 1650s, they remained popular. However,
the romance was transformed by the
Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette,
in particular by her La Princesse de Cleves (1678),
with its sympathetic study of character. (It was a good time
for women in literature, though as writers they still used
synonyms, and the wonderful Letters of Mme de Sevigne
were not published until 1725, nearly thirty years after her
death.) Another important influence was
Jean de La
"Fables" ('The Grasshopper and the Ant' etc.),
drawn from a wide variety of sources, were published between
1668 and 1694.
Paul Scarron, first husband of the future Mme
de Maintenon - Louis XIV's mistress and (secret) wife — was
the author of the two-part Le Roman Comique, the
Comic Novel (1651 and 1657), the story of a theatrical
company in Le Mans which gives a lively account of
provincial life. However, as far as the novel is concerned,
the 17th-century heritage is not especially impressive, yet
by the end of the century the novel was set to become a
Alain-René Lesage (1668—1747) was a prolific author,
said to have been the first French writer to live
exclusively by the pen who, often with others, wrote about
100 popular comedies for the fairground stages of Paris.
Many were based on Spanish originals. His Le Diable
Boiteux (1707) is an imaginative, picaresque-satirical
tale, but of interest chiefly as a rehearsal for his
masterpiece, The Adventures of Gil Bias Santillana,
which was published in instalments between 1715 and 1735.
One of the most successful novels in French literary
history, it was, along with
Rabelais, probably the single
greatest French influence on the English comic novels of
Smollett (who translated it into English).
Again, the Spanish influence is strong; in fact
accused of plagiarism. The form is broadly picaresque — the
adventures of Gil Bias as he travels across Spain, with
extraneous tales inserted here and there, written in a
lively, earthy style, with a sharp but relatively benign eye
for human idiosyncrasies and presenting a detailed panorama
of contemporary life and manners.
"Manon Lescaut" (1731) represents a big step forward.
It was the last of a scries of novels by the
Prévost (1697— 1763), whose work as a translator
Richardson did much to popularize English literature in
France. The Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon
Lescaut, its original title, tells of the love of the
young aristocrat, des Grieux, torn disastrously between his
conscience and his - stronger — passion for the beautiful
but treacherous courtesan, Manon Lescaut. It was enormously
successful, and later inspired operas by Alassenet and
"Manon Lescaut" appeared in the same year as the first
part of Marianne, a novel by Pierre Marivaux, best
known as a playwright, who gave the French language the term
marivaudage, light-hearted banter.
THE EPISTOLARY NOVEL
An important minor form of the early novel, written in the
form of letters or a diary, dates from the 17th century, an
early example being the French Letters from a Portuguese
Nun. The chief proponent of the form in England was
Samuel Richardson, whose work, translated by the
Abbé Prévost, was an influence on
Jean Jacques Rousseau's
Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), in
which the love story is mingled with a survey of
contemporary ideas and customs. It was so popular when first
published that libraries used to charge readers by the hour.
The novel as memoir, which also originated in 17th-century
France, took the form of autobiography, though in fact
fictional. Early examples are on the whole less interesting
than genuine memoirs of the time, of which there were many,
the Memoires of the Due dc Saint-Simon, which cover
the last years of the court of Louis XIV, being the
DEFOE AND HIS TIMES
One reason for the comparatively late development of the
novel as a literary genre was that relatively few people
could read. Literature was written for a comparatively small
elite, and everyday stories of country folk were not in
great demand. In 18th-century England, however, most males
(fewer females) of the middle and upper classes, together
with perhaps half the male working classes, could read.
Production, as usual, expanded to satisfy the market. In
spite of promising beginnings in the Elizabethan era,
realistic English narrative fiction made slow progress in
the 17th century, partly no doubt because political turmoil
turned writers in other directions. Bunyan emerged as the
first proletarian writer, though his literary method was
practically medieval, and it was not until the turn of the
century that the real beginnings of the English novel
(1660-1731) was himself something of a
picaro, who served spells in prison, even the pillory, and
was not noted for his high principles either in life or
literature. He was a prodigious writer, and a complete
bibliography of his works poses a formidable challenge to
the most assiduous researcher armed with the heftiest
computer. He took to fiction late (though there is a fair
amount of it in his historical works), adopting a true-life
"Robinson Crusoe" (1719), his story
of the experiences of a shipwrecked sailor which was
calculated to appeal to a public fascinated by travel
stories. It displayed
Defoe's talent for organizing an
effective narrative and his eye for telling and convincing
detail. It was an enormous success (it still is) and he
followed it with five more novels, the most famous of which
today is Moll Flanders (1722), a picaresque novel of
a female rogue.
Defoe has little time for form and structure
- his novels simply go on until they stop and are liberally
sprinkled with inconsistencies - but Moll Flanders
in particular is a novel of character, not just another
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a gifted but
complex person and a writer of incandescent talents,
variously described as a poet, pamphleteer and satirist, who
devoted much of his energy to propaganda for the Tory cause.
From 1714 he was a virtual exile from the London literary
scene as dean of St Patrick's in Dublin, his birthplace. His
The Conduct of the Allies (1711), against the further
prosecution of the War of the Spanish Succession, is often cited as the
greatest work of its kind in English, but the book that established his
immortality in literature is
, published anonymously in 1726.
Gulliver makes four voyages of which the first two, to
Lilliput, where the people are very small, and to
Brobdingnag, where they are very large, are the best known.
They are usually published in abbreviated versions that make
them more suitable for children. For some critics, the last
section, in the country ruled by the rational Houyhnhms, who
arc horses, and their subjects, the bestial Yahoos (one of
many Swiftian inventions that has entered the language), are
more or less humans, is the best. When Gulliver finally
returns home, he prefers to live in a stable, where the
company is more congenial.
Travels" is, m the first place, a good
story, which can be simply read as that and little more.
However, it is also a seering political satire, guying
contemporary politics and politicians, and, most powerfully,
it is a savage indictment of human intolerance, meanness and
small-mindedness, as relevant today as it was in the 18'th
century. Swift was no novelist and
little structural coherence or characterization.
Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular, most often
reprinted books ever written, and the main reason for its
success is clearly its brilliantly imaginative narrative.
Swift was a friend of the essayists
Richard Steele (1672—1729), leading figures
in the London literary scene who contributed to Tatler and
founded The Spectator (1711). They had none of
Swift's satirical violence, but wrote on a variety of
subjects in beautifully simple and coherent prose, achieving
a standard of journalism seldom equalled, let alone
excelled, thereafter. The journal contained the work of a
fictional group of gentlemen, the Spectator Club,
representing various walks of life (the Army, trade, etc.),
in particular a country gentleman, Sir Roger de Coverley.
Its amusing character sketches contributed to the
development of the English novel.
THE NOVEL COMES OF AGE
Defoe had no obvious successor,
Pamela (1740), generally regarded as the first true
English novel, was in some ways a reaction against the kind
of risque, incident-driven, narrative tradition that
represented. Its heroine is a virtuous servant, who resists
the advances of a young gentleman and gains the reward for
her virtue in the form of marriage. A priggish tale perhaps,
but Richardson knew the human heart, and had an instinctive
understanding of the feelings of ordinary folk.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), known as 'Serious' as
a boy, was a printer by trade, who discovered an aptitude
for writing model letters for the illiterate, and when he
turned late in life to novel writing (Pamela was
followed by Clarissa, 1747, perhaps his best, and
Sir Charles Grandison, 1753), he adopted the epistolary
The limitations of that form and
Richardson's image of
rigid, middle-class respectability provoked the antagonism
Henry Fielding (1707—54), who mocked him in
and set out to do so in Joseph Andrews (1742), until
plot and characters took him over and his satirical purpose
was largely forgotten.
Richardson's reputation has undergone severe ups and downs.
Immensely popular in his day, especially with female
readers, he was denigrated in the 19th century, especially
in comparison with
Fielding, but has since risen again in
critical esteem. Still, few people would read Clarissa
Tom Jones (1749), Fielding's masterpiece.
Tom Jones is a foundling, brought up by the benevolent
Allworthy along with his own nephew and heir, the devious
Blifil, who is destined to marry Sophia, Squire Western's
daughter, with whom Tom falls mutually in love. As a result
of indiscretions with a gamekeeper's daughter, Tom leaves
Allworthy's household and embarks on a series of adventures,
which are enhanced by
Fielding's brilliantly drawn minor
characters. The construction of the novel is masterly -
Fielding planned it with great care - and the story carries
real suspense up to the highly satisfactory conclusion. Tom
Jones is no Richardsonian hero, being impulsive and even
foolish, but a generous, open-hearted soul. Sophia, the
heroine, is a thoroughly convincing character, not a
personification of feminine virtues. With
Jones, the English novel came of age.
Fielding, a gentleman by birth, wrote many plays and other
works - skillful, inventive, often amusing. He was a man of
large human sympathies who from 1748 was a highly committed
magistrate in Westminster. His powerful, deeply felt
opposition to social injustice and judicial corruption is
manifest in a series of essays.
"His designs were strictly honourable,
as the phrase is; that is, to rob a lady
of her fortune by way of marriage."
Fielding, Tom Jones, bk. xi, ch, 4.
Tobias Smollett (1721-71), a Scot by birth, was a
ship's surgeon, and made excellent use of his seafaring
experience in his first and best-known novel, the picaresque
Roderick Random (1748). His stories are violent and
boisterous, and the comedy is sometimes spoilt by crudeness.
But Smollett is still enjoyably readable, although he lacks
the vision of
Fielding and his major characters, especially
his heroines, are hard to believe in. Of his later novels,
perhaps the best is the last, Humphrey Clinker
(1771), written in a modified epistolary form in which the
same events are seen through the eyes of different
characters. It contains some fierce, sometimes unconvincing
satire on English fashionable society, but in general the
humour is less coarse.
Even by the standards of Church of England clergymen,
Laurence Sterne (1713—68), a parish priest in Yorkshire,
was very odd. An admirer of
Cervantes, he wrote
one great novel,
and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman", published in instalments from 1760. At first
sight it is total anarchy. The hero is not even born until
the third book, and the narrative is an apparently
incoherent succession of episodes, conversations, strange
digressions, bawdy humour, mini-lectures and sentiment, with
unfinished sentences and even blank pages. All this,
however, is by design, since
Sterne wishes to convey that
life and the human mind are not orderly. For all his
sympathy with the miseries that human beings endure (Sterne's
wife was a manic depressive), he sees them as essentially
comic, even in appearance. Sterne had some formidable
Shandy, though it sold
well, was not really appreciated until after his death.
Sterne are the giants of
the first great period of the English novel, but they were
Prince of Abyssinia"
(1759) is largely a
tract in the form of a novel, but
Oliver Goldsmith's The
Vicar of Wakefield (1766), another 'novel of
sentiment', has proved to be of long-lasting popularity.
The late 18th century produced two masterpieces in France.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos was published in 1782. The form was
Richardson, but it is a very different kind of novel, a
cynical treatise on the art of seduction.
The second was
and Virginia" (1787) by
Jacques-Henri Bernardin de
Rousseau. The story is of two children raised in a Rousseauesejue state of nature, brought to destruction by
the dire influence of modern society.