The rise of the novel

John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.

The publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 was an extraordinary event in the history of literature. There had been prose narratives before this book, but never so sustained a fictional account of one individual’s experiences. This man’s story was singular and new. What distinguished Robinson Crusoe were elements that now seem essential to the novel as a genre. It told of an ordinary individual, even if his ordeals were extraordinary. It placed great emphasis on his inner life, though understood mostly in spiritual terms. And, above all, in the very manner of its narration, it asked the reader to believe in its ‘probability’. In the first decades of the English novel, this was the most common word for what made a narrative believable. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, it involved the narrator’s unwavering commitment to minute, objective description and circumstantial detail, Daniel Defoe’s brilliantly unliterary prose doing justice to the facts of one particular person’s experience.

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Illustration of Robinson Crusoe and title page from the first edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

This is the first edition of the famous castaway tale, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

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For Defoe, steeped in the works of devout Protestant autobiographers such as John Bunyan, narration meant religious self-inspection. Crusoe tells us that ‘my Story is a whole Collection of Wonders’ – that word ‘Wonders’ capturing both the narrator’s own amazement at his fortunes, and his dawning recognition of the influence of God’s care and guidance in his life. He is placed on the desert island, with only a Bible and the natural world to instruct him and ample time to look into his heart to understand the errors of his sinful past. Most of Defoe’s subsequent novels – Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and Roxana among them – are memoirs of remorseful rogues who have learnt religion from experience and introspection. All of his novels presented themselves on their title pages as if they were autobiographies. None bore Defoe’s name as their author. Indeed, there is evidence that one of them, The Journal of the Plague Year, was widely received as a true account of the experience of the Great Plague of 1665.

The word ‘novel’

So the novel begins as if it were a ‘true’ story. Yet Defoe’s fiction was not noticed by contemporary literary critics, and not included in discussions of the best literature of the age. From the number of editions that were published we know that his fiction was popular, but it was not regarded as properly literary. Many of his novels were lumped together in the public imagination with the published accounts of criminal lives that were popular in the period. Readers were not yet aware that a new genre was with them. The preface to Robinson Crusoe has many words for the narrative – ‘Story’, ‘Adventures’, ‘Account’, ‘Life’, ‘History’, ‘Fact’ – but none of them is that word ‘novel’. It is significant that readers did not yet use this word to describe this new genre. The noun existed, but it referred to what we might call a short story or novella: a genre of brief tales, often of forbidden romantic entanglements, usually published in collections. Many of the leading writers of these were women, of whom Delarivière Manley and Eliza Haywood were the most famous. Defoe’s last novel Roxana, the fictional memoir of a Restoration courtesan, owes something to this briefly dominant sub-genre of prose fiction, featuring as it does the scandalous affairs of courtly men and women.

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

First edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, 1719

The first page of the preface explains that ‘[t]he story is told with modesty, with seriousness, and with a religious application of events’.

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We owe the phrase ‘the rise of the novel’ to the critic Ian Watt, who used it as the title of a hugely influential book, first published in 1957. The crucial event was the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740. This novel, which told of the heroic efforts of a 15-year-old servant girl to resist the attempts of her ‘master’, Mr B, to seduce her, was an immediate best-seller. A work of great moral intensity, it powerfully made the claim for the novel to be taken seriously, morally speaking. Some of its detractors mocked its literary pretensions, not least because Richardson himself was a relatively uneducated, self-made businessman. He had begun as a printer’s apprentice and had risen to establish his own successful printing business. He turned to novel writing only in his fifties.

Pamela by Samuel Richardson

Illustration of Pamela and Mrs Jervis, with Mr B eavesdropping on them from behind a curtain. From volume I, facing page 123, 1742 edition.

First published in 1740, the epistolary novel Pamela is viewed as the first work to move the previously sensational or romantic genre of the novel into the respectable mainstream.

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Pamela was as proudly humble in its origins as its author. The novel is written in letters, almost all of them penned by its heroine. In Richardson’s earliest version she is colloquial and unrefined, catching her experience with a stylistic immediacy that his first readers found irresistible. (In later editions, Richardson polished her language, thereby rendering her less vivid and believable.) The reader lives through her perplexities and apprehensions, knowing no more than she does. The letters are essential to the novel’s plot. Pamela has to hide and smuggle them. Mr B intercepts them. As we are reading her account of her ordeals, so is he. And her letters begin to work on him. The novel demonstrates its moral power by converting its own would-be villain.

Letters Written to and for Particular Friends by Samuel Richardson, 1741

Printed title page from Letters Written to and for Particular Friends by Samuel Richardson

This letter-writing manual by Samuel Richardson was an inspiration for Pamela. It also demonstrates Richardson’s ability to use the appropriate verbal register for characters from a variety of different backgrounds.

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Richardson’s success provoked the earliest fictional experiments of his most accomplished contemporary, Henry Fielding. Fielding’s career as a writer of politically satirical drama had been thwarted by a new law requiring the state licensing of all new plays. So he turned to fiction. His response to Pamela was Shamela, published anonymously in 1741. This transformed Richardson’s heroine into a worldly and entirely cynical narrator, who knows well the value of her fake ‘vartue’ and contrives to push her wealthy, foolish master into marrying her in order to obtain it. It also parodies Richardson’s narrative technique of ‘writing to the moment’, capturing experience even as it happens.

An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews

An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews

The first page of the first edition of Shamela, Fielding’s parody of Pamela.

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Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones: Journeying through contemporary society

Fielding would go on to compose his first full-length novel Joseph Andrews as a more subtle riposte to Richardson. Fielding is conscious that he is engaged in a new ‘Species of Writing’, even if he does not have a name for it. Joseph, the book’s hero, is also a servant (the supposed brother of Pamela, in fact) who must learn a little worldly wisdom in the course of his misadventures. Fielding makes much of the clash between his highly literary style and his supposedly ‘low’ subject matter. His second full-length novel, Tom Jones, is a kind of mock-epic, whose vulgar events provoke him to much allusion and quotation. The novel is also elaborately and elegantly plotted, another reason why it would be much admired by Victorian novelists. Both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones feature protagonists who travel the roads of England, encountering characters from every class. This idea of a novel as a journey through contemporary society was highly influential, imitated by, amongst others, Tobias Smollett in works such as Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Printed title page with illustration of a woman on a country lane, from the The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

First published in 1749, Tom Jones was an instant success and went on to inspire writers such as Dickens with its realistic approach to characterisation.

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Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, was also written in letters, but this time he featured several different fictional correspondents. Again it is a tale of attempted seduction. The virtuous Clarissa is wooed, beguiled, deceived and assailed by the rakish Lovelace, a highly sophisticated libertine. We are given both the correspondence between Clarissa and her friend Anna Howe, and that between Lovelace and his fellow rake Belford. We can see the difference between what Clarissa supposes and what Lovelace plans, and we can also be drawn into the villain’s schemes and obsessions. To Richardson’s horror, some of his most devoted readers seemed themselves to be seduced by Lovelace. In later editions he rewrote the novel to make Lovelace more obviously villainous.

Clarissa is a massively long novel, and it is also challenging to modern readers because of the artificiality of its use of letters. How could its protagonists have had time to write so much? Yet it is a work of great psychological complexity and tragic ambitions. It inspired authors across Europe (Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses and Rousseau’s Julie; ou a nouvelle Hélïose were both written in emulation of it), and convinced many readers that the novel was not a minor genre but could indeed be great literature. Even Fielding admired it. Novelists who came after Richardson were able to feel that their chosen genre had achieved respectability, perhaps even literary dignity.

Tristram Shandy

In some ways the most ‘literary’ novel of the 18th century was the next big commercial success: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first two volumes of which were published in York in 1759, then in London in 1760. Sterne, an obscure Yorkshire vicar until his book became a popular sensation, was the only novelist of the century to have had a university education, and Tristram Shandy was duly packed with learned jokes and parodies of other books. These were combined with bawdy jokes, sentimental set pieces and elements of extraordinary narrative experiment. The novel veers unpredictably backwards and forwards in time, and uses an array of witty visual devices, all to tell the story of the utterly eccentric Shandy family. Some critics were disapproving, but readers loved it. Sterne came to London and relished his role as a celebrity author. Tristram Shandy used a great deal of autobiographical material, and encouraged readers to identify the author with his fictional narrator. By being composed and published in five separate instalments over the course of some seven years, it was able to respond to its own reception. Uncharitable reviewers of the first two volumes were duly mocked in the next two.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

Box containing nine volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

This rare set contains first editions of all nine volumes of Tristram Shandy, signed in three places by Sterne himself.

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All of the novels that we now think of as the greatest of the 18th century were also best-sellers. In the eyes of some contemporaries, the sin of the Novel was that it was a commercial product. Novels were among the new literary goods on which a new group of entrepreneurs, 18th-century booksellers, depended. These men (and a tiny number of women) combined the roles of publishers, retailers and sometimes printers too. Novels helped to make the fortunes of several, men like Andrew Millar, who published Fielding, or Robert Dodsley, who published Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Below this exalted rank were less celebrated booksellers who made a living producing and marketing whatever ephemeral, usually anonymous, novels could latch on to the latest fictional fashion. They catered for an expanding genteel readership with money to spend on cultural pleasures.

Portrait of Samuel Richardson by Mason Chamberlin, c. 1754

Painted portrait of Samuel Richardson, seated next to a desk and writing on a handheld board

This portrait of the author Samuel Richardson was painted by Mason Chamberlin in or before 1754. Richardson was a printer and bookseller by trade.

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Held by© National Portrait Gallery

Circulating libraries

The novel encouraged new kinds of literary consumption, and then profited from them. The growth of circulating libraries in Britain is contemporary with the growth of the novel from the mid 18th century. In return for a subscription, readers would be able to borrow a certain number of volumes at one time. The surviving catalogues and advertisements for some of these libraries confirm that much of their available stock consisted of novels. By the late 18th century, even small provincial towns had circulating libraries. These were crucial, for a novel was still a luxury purchase. They also encouraged the idea that some kinds of books were not to be lodged forever on a shelf, but consumed voraciously.

Book reviews

Also accompanying and fuelling the rise of the novel was the development of book reviews in specialist magazines. The Monthly Review, which began appearing in 1749, was the first such publication and it was soon joined by others. Though its reviews were not limited to novels, these were among its (highly profitable) staple fare. Meanwhile, the very irresistibility of the rise of the novel ensured that moralists warned of its dangers. Contemporary moralists – some of whom were themselves novelists – invariably depicted the typical novel reader as an easily misguided young woman, who was deluded or over-stimulated by all the novels she read. However, such moralists were also mocked. Sheridan’s comedy of contemporary manners The Rivals, first performed in 1775, features a heroine, Lydia Languish, who, with her maid’s help, has to hide her novels from her guardian, Mrs Malaprop. The audience was clearly expected to recognise and laugh at the foolish authority figure who disapproves of novels. When Sir Anthony Absolute, whose son is courting Lydia, describes the circulating library as ‘the evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge’ he is deliciously absurd. And he is doomed to be thwarted.

Manuscript copies of poems from Evelina and contemporary reviews of the novel

Frances Burney's handwritten copy of a review of her novel Evelina

Frances Burney carefully copied out reviews of her first novel. This one, from the Monthly Review of April 1778, says her work is ‘sprightly, entertaining, & agreeable’.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

In fact, by the 1770s the novel was increasingly respectable. Frances Burney ached with anxiety about the likely response of her father when he discovered that she was the author of the novel Evelina, published to some acclaim in 1778. In fact, she need not have worried: he was delighted to have a daughter who had written such morally a impeccable, as well as entertainingly satirical, book. Burney’s novel was one of many that adopted the epistolary form that Richardson had pioneered. Its narrative of a naïve young woman’s ‘entrance into the world’ was all the fresher for being told in her own, variously perplexed or excited, letters. Burney, whose subsequent, less sprightly novels Cecilia and Camilla, were much admired by contemporaries, also showed that women were not just the supposed consumers of this now dominant genre. They could be successful writers of novels too. The young Jane Austen read her avidly and followed her example.

Evelina by Frances Burney, fourth edition with frontispieces by John Mortimer

Printed title page from Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World

In her preface to Evelina, Burney confronts the fact that novels are ‘disdained’ as ‘inferior’. She defends the worthy authors – like herself ‒ who are writing in this genre.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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