The Early Novel

A novel is a work of fiction written in narrative prose that usually has more than 50,000 words. According to some, the novel can be traced as far back as the Ancient World; for others it dates back to the Middle Ages.

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Table of contents

    Elements of the Novel

    The main elements of the novel are:

    • A planned, structured plot or storyline
    • A realistic (believable) setting
    • Complex characters
    • Convincing narrative (usually first person, third person, or omniscient)

    The plot will usually follow a three-act structure: a beginning, a middle and an end.

    The beginning serves to set up where, who, and when the action takes place; the middle develops the main story (what the hero or heroine need to achieve, obstacles they need to overcome) and the end resolves the main story (ie 'they all lived happily ever after'), tying up any loose threads ('and their pet cat finally returned').

    Even in a fantasy novel the setting, or world, of the novel has to be built in a believable way, which is often done most effectively by adding detail: the walls are built with marble, stone, or wood; the market may sell magical swords - but only on Tuesdays; those who inhabit the forest are called Elves and those who inhabit the caves are called Trolls, and so on.

    The question of detail also applies to the characters. In order to make them believable, the writer has to add details and layers to their personalities:

    “Eldred, who lived with his sister Armita in a small village by the Fens, was an impatient, shy individual who repeatedly mislaid his spectacles.

    'His sister, a student of the dark arts, would get as far as casting a spell, but then find she had left out the most important ingredient and could be seen racing down the hill to Madame Odd, shouting out 'mandrake!' or 'cobwebs' as she went.

    'They were regarded as a little strange, but generally harmless.''

    (Warren, StudySmarter Original, 2022)

    The more details added, the more the reader can build a picture of the characters (and setting) which can help them engage with the story.

    Characteristics of the Early Novel

    Early novels contained some kind of plot, although the main purpose was to share personal human experience. The author might want to poke fun at certain conventions (satire) or simply make a comment on society and its norms.

    Typically these early novels would take the form of a:

    First Novel Ever Written

    The first novel ever written in the world could be The Tale of Genji (1008) by Lady Murasaki, and, at 750,000 words, is also one of the longest. The story is set at the Imperial Court and follows the life of Prince Genji and his descendants. It contains vividly portrayed characters and lively descriptions of court life, with themes covering human relationships and the transience of life. It has also influenced Japanese literature ever since it was written.

    However, in English Literature, the origins of the novel lie closer by, and if by 'the first novel' we mean the first Modern Novel, we should probably look to the 18th century. This was when the novel began to be taken seriously and was viewed as a 'respectable' art form.

    History of English Novels

    The word 'novel' was originally another term for novella, meaning 'new' in Italian. Chaucer introduced the concept of the serialised novella to England with his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) even though it is almost completely written in verse.

    'Novel' or 'novella' by the mid-17th century had come to mean romantic tales of illicit love, perhaps with some adventures and sensation thrown in for good measure: as long as it was entertaining, it sold. There were exceptions for there are some writers who used the form to express their own views on humanity, justice and philosophy. Two of these were Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, who have each been credited (by critics such as Ian Watts in his work The Rise of the Novel ) with writing the first novel in English.

    Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe

    Aphra Behn was an English professional writer, playwright and occasionally a secret agent in the service of Charles II. In 1688 she produced her last work Oroonoko (1688), the story of an enslaved West African prince who is transported to Suriname. It is told in the first person by a female narrative, and describes the injustices of slavery and colonialism. It became something of a bestseller and was adapted for stage several times. The novel is written in a documentary style, and its concept of the 'noble savage' lay at the heart of the movement for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries - even though Behn did not fully oppose slavery. Oroonoko is not considered the first ever English Novel because critics argue it is too short and resembles a novella.

    Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719. The story is told in the first person by Robinson who directly experiences shipwreck, isolation and survival on a desert island until rescued by pirates twenty-eight years later. Although the book shows signs of little planning, it does combine allegory, memoir, romance and a convincing, realistic portrayal of personal human experience, all of which together make it a 'novel'.

    The term novel was interchangeable with novella or novellae (meaning a collection of stories) until the late 18th century when the term 'novel' began to be used to mean longer, more serious works of fiction.

    For example, Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, although popular, was not called a novel when it was first published and was described by Defoe himself as 'the stories of' or 'the adventures of' Crusoe. It contained all the elements of the novel but was not understood as such until later on.

    The Age of the Early Novel

    It was not until the 18th century however that the novel evolved into a popular genre in Europe with novelists such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Madame de Stael, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and Samuel Richardson.

    The English novel developed further over the course of the 18th century and came to be recognised as serious literature with the works of:

    • Samuel Richardson - Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748), Sir Charles Grandison (1754)

    • Henry Fielding - Shamela (1740), Tom Jones (1749)

    • Tobias Smollet - The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751),The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)

    • Laurence Sterne -The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

    Many of these early novels were called 'Histories' instead of 'novels'; the term 'novel' in the modern sense of the word came more into use towards the late 18th century.

    These early authors, while very different in personal style, covered many aspects of life experience, from poor to rich, from youth to old age, from amoral to moral, and described this experience in a realistic, credible way that readers could understand and engage with.

    Characterisation in the Early Novel

    They also wrote realistically about complex characters who were each given detailed personalities, inner thoughts and opinions - these works began to look inside the characters and their inner lives and so broke with the tradition of generic types of earlier literature.

    In other words, they moved away from the universal to focus on the detail, the everyday and banal.

    Samuel Richardson's works broke away from the popular romantic fiction of the time: Richardson was concerned with moral behaviour in all of his novels and it was this that helped establish the novel as something separate from sensationalist fiction. He gave his characters a direct voice - they express their thoughts, fears and passions in the first person through their letters (all of Richardson's novels are epistolary) and the reader is allowed to enter their world and share their experiences.

    Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, follows Pamela, a maidservant, in her prudent navigation of a relationship with her late mistress's son, until ultimately she marries him. The story is narrated mostly through Pamela's letters and journal entries to her parents.

    An immediate bestseller, Pamela was widely imitated - although not always admiringly: Fielding published his satirical parody Shamela only 5 months after Pamela came out. In Shamela, also an epistolary novel, the virtuous Pamela is revealed to be in fact a very naughty woman who deliberately manipulates her wealthy master into marrying her. Fielding wrote his parody in protest at what he considered the moral hypocrisy of Pamela. It is possible that a certain amount of envy influenced the early critics of Richardson.

    Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison both contain similar storylines, with kidnappings and attempted seductions as recurring elements.

    In Clarissa, parental control is added to the mix, which contributes to the fatal result - Clarissa, a young woman of virtue, resists the libertine Lovelace despite threats, kidnapping and violence. Ultimately, her health destroyed, she makes her will and dies in hiding. Lovelace is challenged to a duel and is fatally wounded, saying with his last breath " let this expiate!

    Sir Charles Grandison rescues Harriet from abduction at a masked ball and leaves her in the care of his married sister. Although Charles and Harriet form an attachment, Charles has a previous understanding with Clementina, an Italian aristocrat. This is ultimately resolved when Clementina declares she cannot marry a non-Catholic. The novel ends with Charles marrying Harriet and their friendship with Clementina, who chooses to become a nun.

    Fielding's Tom Jones was written in response to Sir Charles Grandison and follows the comic adventures of Tom Jones as he struggles to be united with his childhood sweetheart, Sophia.

    Tom Jones, a foundling, is discovered at Squire Allworthy's house; the Squire, suspecting it is the child of one of his servants, adopts the boy.

    Tom and Sophia, daughter of Allworthy's neighbour Squire Western, grow up together and develop a relationship, but Tom is banished after his rival Blifil lies about his character. Tom travels across half of England meeting a wide variety of characters before discovering his true parentage (he is in fact Squire Allworthy's illegitimate nephew). Finally, Tom is reunited with Sophie and they marry.

    Smollett's The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker are both satirical; Peregrine Pickle is a picaresque novel about the adventures of the scandalous rogue Pickle who later repents; it was less popular than Humphry Clinker owing to its viciousness and libellous passages.

    Picaresque comes from the Spanish word 'picaro' or rogue. Picaresque novels first appeared in 16th century Spain; these were stories about roguish servants who served several masters. Later examples in English include Smollett's Peregrine Pickle (1751), Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Fielding's Tom Jones (1749). Picaresque has since come to mean (18th century) episodic novels that describe the adventures of a dishonest yet engaging hero as he moves through various places and levels of society.

    Humphry Clinker also goes on a journey: Matthew Bramble, a rather cross but essentially kindhearted character, travels with family and servants around the UK. They meet various eccentric characters, and on the way home, Bramble encounters an impoverished and naive young man called Humphry Clinker. After several adventures, Bramble discovers this is his natural son. The novel ends with happy reunions and general contentment; it is one of Smollett's gentler novels and offers an up-close account of 18th-century society.

    Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is the longest shaggy dog story ever written; it has no real middle or end, as the beginning takes up two-thirds of the novel. Chronologically the story barely moves beyond the birth of Tristram. This first section is filled with details about his eccentric family members. It also contains surreal typography, including pages with rows of asterisks, blank pages, and diagrams. It is recognised as both unique and as an early 'stream-of-consciousness' work.

    With these novels also came the concept of the subplot. This, in addition to length (Clarissa is considered one of the longest, if not the longest novel written in English), helped to distinguish the new 'novel' from the novella.

    Subplot: one or more storylines that follow minor or secondary characters in the book

    The narrative can take many forms, including omniscient, first or third person, shared narratives, journals, letters and diaries.

    The Early Novel - Key Takeaways

    • The first novel ever written in the world could be The Tale of Genji (1008) by Lady Murasaki
    • The word 'novel' was originally another term for novella
    • The English novel developed further over the course of the 18th century and came to be recognised as serious literature with the works of
      • Samuel Richardson
      • Henry Fielding
      • Tobias Smollett
      • Laurence Stern
    • The early authors covered many aspects of life experience in a realistic, credible way that readers could understand and engage with.
    • They also wrote realistically about complex characters
    • The main elements of the novel are:
      • A planned, structured plot or storyline
      • A realistic(believable) setting
      • Complex characters
      • Convincing narrative (usually first person, third person, or omniscient)
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Early Novel

    What is the history of the English novel?

    The word novel was originally another term for novella, meaning 'new' in Italian. By the 17th century they were usually allegories or romantic tales of adventure or illicit love. 

    What were the early forms of the novel?

    Early forms of the novel include romance or picaresque plots, or explore the satiric mode as 17th century authors critiqued their governments of societal concerns. 

    Which is the first novel in English Literature?

    One of the first novels in English Literature is considered either Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), or Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688). Other early novelists include Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, and Henry Fielding. 

    What is an early novel? 

    An early novel includes The Tale of Genji (1008) by Lady Murasaki, which has 750,000 words. However, an early English novel is noted by Ian Watts as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719).  

    What are the elements of the early novel? 

    A planned, structured plot, a realistic setting, archetypal yet complex characters, and an allegorical message or satiric mode

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    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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