In this article, we will discuss some of the earliest English novelists and their contribution to the development of the English novel. There is a controversy on the novels that comprises the earliest English novels. We are not concerned with that in this unit but we will discuss four of the novelists in that category. We are familiar with two of them; Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding but not much is known about the remaining two; Frances Burney and George Smollett. These early novelists influenced later novelists and the form of the modern novel.
In the last article, we traced the origin of the modern novel to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which is generally accepted as the first English novel. However, there are other novels that were written at about the same time but Defoe seemed to be luckier than others and was projected more than his contemporaries. In this unit, we will discuss some of those earliest novelists. We will also see why Robinson Crusoe is considered the first English novel.
Daniel Defoe was a literary artist and a journalist who is perceived to be one of the greatest journalists of his time. Defoe as the son of a butcher was not born or raised as a gentleman but he became a gentleman and subsequently, he changed his name from Foe to Defoe and bought a coach with his coat of arms on its door to suit his elevation to a higher class. He was a prolific writer with over three hundred and seventy (370) known publications that he had the ability to write on almost any topic” (Wikipedia Online Dictionary).
However, many of his contemporaries believed that he was a writer who wrote to please a section of the society, as “a man who sold his pen to the political party in office” (Mckeon 1987). They regarded him as a man who lacked integrity, therefore was not taken seriously in the literary circles at that time though they acknowledged his skill at writing. His reputation as a writer was in decline for several years.
For instance, readers were shocked by the language and content of Moll Flanders and his other novels that featured rogues as the main characters. However, with the publication of a succession of biographies and editions of his works from 1780 to1830, his profile as a literary star started rising because, despite these negative reactions, by 1860 the number of criticisms on his books in the journals, and essays about him increased dramatically and this contributed to his being acknowledged as one of the great eighteenth century writers and his novel, Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel. Robinson Crusoe has become so popular that it has been subjected to so many interpretations by critics and scholars.
For example, in 1719, within four months, Robinson Crusoe became a financial success as it was printed six times. Defoe decided to capitalise on that success to write, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and recycled some essays as Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe both did not record the expected success. However both later became parts of Robinson Crusoe which was at first printed with both the first and second parts and in about 1860 the modern practice of publishing only the first part of Robinson Crusoe started.
Robinson Crusoe was so successful that it was immediately pirated, abridged, imitated, translated and adapted for the stage as pantomime and as drama because of its universal appeal (Price, 2003, 143). The novel has continued to be published, adapted, and translated into several languages over the centuries. Critics and readers all over the world acclaim that Robinson Crusoe is Defoe’s greatest work. The novel will be discussed in details in our previous articles.
Frances Burney (1752 -1840) also known as Fanny Burney was an English novelist, diarist and playwright, self educated, who started her writing career at the age of ten with what she referred to as “scribblings”. She got married to a French exile, General Alexandre D’Arblay, and became Madame d’Arblay. Her long writing career and travels took her to France but she finally settled in Bath, England, where she died on 6, January 1840. Frances Burney wrote a total of four novels, eight plays, one biography and twenty volumes of journals and letters but the focus here is on her novels.
Her first novel, Evelina, was published anonymously in 1778 and it brought her an immediate fame because of the unique narrative technique and comic aspects of the novel. She published her first novel anonymously but later her identity was revealed and her other novels include Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796), The Wanderer (1814). All her novels explore the lives of English aristocrats, and satirise their social pretensions and personal foibles in addition to issues that bother on the politics of female identity (Delvin, 1987, 67).
Although her novels were very popular during her lifetime, her reputation dwindled after her death because critics argued that she did not depict accurate lives of the English aristocrats of her time and that later novels offered a more interesting and accurate portrait of eighteenth-century life. Luckily, the posthumous publication of her extensive diaries in 1841 rekindled public interest in her works.
Consequently, modern critics are re-examining her works with a renewed interest especially on her gender perspective in the presentation of the social lives and struggles of women in a predominantly male-oriented culture. Scholars have therefore continued to “value Burney’s diaries as well, for their candid depictions of eighteenth-century English society” (Doody, 1988, 141) as well as her wit and talent for satirical caricatures.
Frances Burney was encouraged to write by her father and family friend Samuel Crisp but they dissuaded her from publishing or performing her dramatic comedies because they felt it was inappropriate for a lady to publish. She persisted despite the setback caused by social pressure on the female writer at that period and was able to support both herself and her family with the proceeds of her later novels and her works are “…now widely acknowledged for its critical wit and … deliberate exploration of the lives of women” (Delvin, 1987, 87).
Burney was a talented storyteller who was influenced by her extensive reading of book in her father’s library, as well as from her “journal- diaries” – correspondence with family and friends in which she recounted some of her life experiences and her observations on those experiences. Her diary contains mostly experiences with her sister Susanna. Burney’s sense of impropriety towards her own writing made her edit earlier parts of her diaries in later life and “destroyed much of her own diary material in revising the manuscripts”. (Rousseau, 2004, 23). This sense of impropriety reflects her father’s influence and the societal perception of women in that age.
Evelina or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, is her first novel published anonymously in 1778 without her father’s knowledge or permission. She was afraid that the publisher might recognise her writing and link it to her father for whom she worked, so she copied the original manuscript in a disguised hand. The publisher rejected it because of its anonymity. Nobody suspected that the novel was written by a woman because a woman was not expected to put herself deliberately into the public eye by writing. Burney did not give up but colluded with her eldest brother who posed as its author to publish the novel in her second attempt. She received only twenty guineas as payment for the manuscript because of their inexperience in negotiating.
The novel was an instant success as critics, and respected individuals extolled its realistic portrayal of working-class citizens of London and for its presentation of the foible of wealthy English society through a comic mode. Burney’s father read public reviews of the novel before he realised that the author was his own daughter. Although the act of publication was radical for a woman at that time and of her age, he was impressed by the favourable criticisms the book received so supported her exceedingly realising the social advantages of having a successful published writer in the family.
The novel was written in an epistolary form and portrays the English upper middle class from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old lady of a marriageable age. It presents the oppressive patriarchal values and other social hypocrisies that affected young women in 18th Century England. It is a comic and witty satirical novel and its popularity was reflected in the way it went through four editions before the end of its print run. In 1971 it was still considered a classic by the writers of Encyclopedia Britannica, which stated that “addressed to the young, the novel has a quality perennially young” (Delvin, 1987, 89).
Henry Fielding is one of the forerunners of the English novel with the publication of the novel Joseph Andrews in 1742. He was born in 1707 into an aristocratic family and educated at Eton and later in Poland. He started his writing career as a playwright before writing novels. His novels include epic of the nation in Tom Jones; and comic epic in Joseph Andrews the popular Moll Flanders.
His characters follow the general pattern of growth from innocence to maturity; from egoism to experience and self-knowledge. He influenced the main tradition of the English novel through the eighteenth century (e.g., Smollett) and the nineteenth century (e.g., Dickens and Thackeray). According to Eustace Palmer, his works “…exposes the fallacy of the hypothesis that the eighteenth century is the most inaccessible period in English literature for a non-European student” (33).
The reason normally adduced for this view is that this century, with its tremendous social stability and cohesion was concerned with elegant manners and elaborate conventions in writing. But he wrote in “…formally elegant prose, upholding the Augustan virtues of decorum and good sense using Augustan conventions as the norm with which he measures deviations from that norm” (Palmer 1996, 33). The success of his novels lie in their “gloriously comic atmosphere” and his readers identify with “his moral and spiritual health, his geniality, his humanity and his rather modern protest against evils of the system…” (Palmer 1996, 33).
Fielding’s greatest contribution to the development of the English novel is a sense of structure in the novel. In his tightly structured Tom Jones (1749), a comic masterpiece and his best known work, every detail has a purpose so some critics refer to it as one of the best plotted novels in English. He introduced a new kind of fictional “hero who is good hearted, well intentioned, a generous young man with ordinary human weakness, one who yields to temptation with women and makes errors in judgment” in the character of Tom Jones (Battrestin 1959, 35).
His last novel Amelia was published in 1751 and was said to be a biography of his former wife, Charlotte, in which she is portrayed as the heroine. However, the novel was poorly received by the audience because, as a biography, it was said to contained several factual errors. Fielding also tried to give dignity and status to the novel by relating it to the classical epic as espoused in his theory of the novel expressed in Joseph Andrews (1742).
Tobias George Smollett
Tobias George Smollett (1721 – 1771) was a medical doctor, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. He was born in Scotland and his father was a judge and land-owner. Tobias was educated at the University of Glasgow where he qualified as a surgeon but his medical career came secondary to his literary ambitions. The novels that popularised him were his picaresque novels like The Adventures of Roderick (1748) and The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), which influenced later novelists such as Charles Dickens. The Adventures of Roderick Random
brought him to limelight and fame and his second novel, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle was equally successful and with that he was recognised as a leading literary figure. He also wrote The Life and Adventure of Sir Lancelot Greaves (1760), Travels through France and Italy (1766), and The History and Adventure of an Atom (1769) in which he used the guise of a tale from ancient Japan to present his view on British politics during the seven- year war. He published his last novel, The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker in 1771, the year he died.
The novel is the last genre of literature to be developed but has since become the most popular genre. In this unit, we have discussed some of the early English novelists since we cannot discuss all of them. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is regarded by many scholars as the first novel. This is attributed to the fact that the novel received positive criticism from the critics. Among the novelists discussed here, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding stand out so they will be discussed in details in previous articles.
In every aspect of life, there are always pioneers. In the history of the development of the novel as a literary genre, some writers cleared the path and led the way for others to follow. Some of those pioneer writers and their contribution to the development of the novel were discussed in this article.