In the previous article, we learnt that it is difficult to trace the origin of the novel to a particular early fiction in verse or narrative. The novel as a genre of literature therefore emerged in the eighteenth century as a combination of several sub-genres that preceded it and has evolved into many genres which include the historical, gothic, epistolary, sentimental and bildungsroman novels. This is because as the genre was evolving, many authors wrote in different styles, genres and preferences.
The result is the emergence of the English novel as a type of literature “such as was never heard of in the world before” (Woods et al 1936, 255). The novel bases its story on real life experience as against tradition of classical literary Greek and Roman poets whose stories were derived mainly from mythology, history, legend or previous literature or the emphasis on individual experience rather than collective tradition (Woods et al 1936, 265). The English novel as a genre of literature therefore evolved during the 18th century and it “completely broke the traditions of the past and opened the door to a whole new generation of writers” (Doody 1996, 28) partly in response to an expansion of the middle -class reading public.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is regarded as the first step fictional story in narrative form that is not adapted from any source but from his imagination and experience. Defoe presented in Robinson Crusoe, a story that is based on individuality and originality so is regarded as the
major early work in this genre and is seen as pioneering the emergence of modern novel. Defoe is followed closely by Samuel Richardson with his Pamela (1740) and Clarissa; (1748) as the pioneers of the English novel. Another novelist of the earliest phase of the development of the novel is Henry Fielding with his comic masterpiece, Tom Jones. Other novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Walter Scott and others emerged over the years to give the English novel its unique place in world literature. In this unit, we will discuss the factors that influenced the rise or development of the novel.
The development of the novel is hinged on the media that enhanced its circulation to as many readers as possible. Although the novel is seen as the counterpart of prose narratives in the traditional society, it is much longer than the folktale and other forms of oral narratives, or various forms of early documented fiction in prose or verse. Also, the oral narratives do not have complex plot structure that is the hallmark of the novel unlike the oral narratives the story in the novel cannot be recounted with ease or be remembered with precision. The novelists needed a medium that would enable the story to be told correctly and consistently all the times and relayed beyond the immediate environment of the originator. The novels were therefore written and expected to be read beyond the immediate environment of the author and this to a large extent contributed to the rise of the novel.
Romance is a genre of fictional narrative that preceded the novel. It concentrates on the individual and tends towards the idealisation or glorification of the hero who usually lives in a world of dreams and illusions. It was the first form of fictional narrative that involves a complex plot characteristic of the modern novel and was popular with the aristocrats. It is presented in a heroic prose and thrived during the medieval and renaissance periods as a literary genre of high culture. Its popularity among the aristocratic class of the period is traced to its treatment of fantastic stories about marvel-filled adventures, often of a knight errant, the hero, and involves a quest by the hero. In many cases,
the stories were adapted from history, fairy tales, myths and legends. (Briggs 134) Some scholars opine that modern novel is more influenced by the romance than by any other medieval genre mainly because, unlike epics that were written in verse, early 13th century romances were written as prose (Lewis, 1954, 129). Romance dealt with traditional, courtly and chivalrous themes from folklore and presented tales of fairy characters who were transformed, more and more often, into wizards and enchantresses (Briggs 233). By the twelfth century, the focus shifted to the of recount marvelous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often with a super-human ability, who goes on a quest, gets involved in fights in which he defeats monsters and giants, and wins favour with a lady (Lewis, 1954, 129). However the focus of medieval romance was mainly on adventure and not on love or sentiment which is found in the modern romance that presents the romantic relationship between two people with an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending (Lewis, 1954, 132). The novel that evolved later differs from romance as it deals realistically with human relationships and the hero in relating to other people in the story, matures, grows in experience and progresses from innocence to knowledge and in many cases comes to terms with reality. Romance played a vital role in the development of the novel.
Literacy is an important factor in the development of the novel. As more people became literate in the 14th and 15th century more people joined in the reading of prose fiction. More women of wealthier households were among the literate class of this period and gradually literacy spread among the urban populations of Europe and increasing the number of
literate people and the readership of prose fiction. Another factor that influenced the increase in readership of prose fiction was the Protestant Reformation which enkindled propaganda and press wars that lasted into the 18th century. People were eager to follow the events, so, by reading the propaganda articles of the reformation they also read other treatise including prose fictional narratives. Some of the readers learnt to read and write through these publications. Thus, as reading and writing skills spread among apprentices and women of the middle classes, they joined the aristocratic in the reading of prose fiction that eventually evolved into the novel. In addition, as more people learnt to read and write, the personal letter became a favourite medium of communication among
men and women. Some epistolary novels were offshoots of such personal letters. Reading became very popular so many people bought popular titles not necessarily because of they liked the subject matter but “…because they were the books everyone had heard of, or books of an eternal value to be chosen if one was not too sure about one’s ability to judge. The prefaces exploited these insecurities praising the solid value of the old and well known titles” (Woods et al, 1936, 456). As time went on, issues like fashions, love, personal views, intimate affairs/feelings, secret anxieties, and code of conduct and gallantry became subjects of the novels as the reader identifies personally the characters in a novel. More people wanted to be part of this new culture and this increased the reading public and contributed immensely to the rise of the novel.
Availability of Paper
Before the invention of paper, the verse epics were presented in parchment and their owners recited them on festive occasions. The parchment was prestigious but was too expensive to be used for stories that one would read for leisure. Consequently, only libraries and a few wealthy individuals could afford them. The invention of paper made books cheaper and available to a wider audience and an individual could buy a book exclusively for him or herself read it as many times as possible without going to borrow from the library. Consequently, novels were produced in large quantities, different formats and sizes to enable the reader carry it with ease or kept to be read privately at home or in public without the support of a table. This made it possible and fashionable for people to read novels in coffee houses or on journeys.
Many novels of the Victorian period were published in serial form in journals. Many of the novels made their debut in such journals as chapters or sections appeared in each edition of the journals so like modern soap opera, readers eagerly awaited the appearance of the unfolding and conclusion stories of novels. This helped to sustain the reader’s interest in such novels and increased the eagerness of readers to see each new appearance of the novel and the introduction of some new element in the plot twist or a new character. The authors who published serially were often paid on an installment basis and this may be responsible for the popularity of the three-volume novel during this period.
The circulating libraries contributed immensely to the rise of the novel. The libraries were established in Britain in the 18th century with a cheap and affordable subscription rate. They stocked wide varieties of novels in different genres to cater for the reader’s interest. It may not have been possible for a reader to buy all the published works, so many people patronised the circulating library especially the lower class like tradesmen, housewives, farmers, shopkeepers who could not afford to buy the novels but could borrow them from the library. This increased the demand for the novel which in turn influenced the development of the novel positively.
Initially, the novel developed as aristocratic entertainment but as the spread of the novel increased, its readers included almost all classes as the scope of readership widened and the reading habits differed as more people irrespective of class tried “to follow fashions” by reading more books. Novels were read for leisure mostly by women who were left on their own a greater part of the time since “most men led full and busy lives and were hardly at home for most of the day, weeks or even months depending on their profession” (Ezeigbo, 1998, 5). The women therefore spent their leisure reading voraciously since they could not be part of in their husbands’ leisure activities. In addition, the ladies and their daughters in the affluent families who afforded nannies, valets and servants who did all the household chores were idle so had time to read as many novels as possible.
Also after the industrial revolution, women had more time for leisure because of the provision of factory-made goods like soaps, bread, cloth and other household goods which were previously produced manually by them. They therefore had more time for leisure so novel-reading became a form of entertainment for them.
The popularity of the novel lies more in its presentation format in prose which is easier to be read and understood than verse and drama. Consequently more novels and short stories were produced to meet the demands and interest of the ever increasing reading public.
Shifts in Reading Taste
The emergence of the prose fiction heightened the reader’s interest in secular subjects and in turn influenced the development of the novel. This is against the medieval practice whereby most literate people in Britain read the Bible and other books for spiritual growth at their leisure. The industrial revolution brought with it economic and social transformation which increased interest in secular issues presented as articles in journals or in books. More people devoted their leisure to reading novels as the writers invented new styles to meet the changing tastes of the reading public. The reader was exposed to a new life with every new novel as against the stories of the Bible and other devotional books which remained the same. People preferred the novelty of the story in each new novel so voraciously devoured every new title as topical issues became the subject matter of the novel. Also the novelists shifted their foci from the isolated hero of the romantic fiction of the Medieval Ages to the early novel in which the story was driven by plot. The individual hero is still preset as portrayed in the novels Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, and Clarissa but the plot is different from the old romantic fiction as the novel presented more realistic individuals and incidents.
The Printing Press
The invention of printing complemented the invention of the paper in the acceleration of the growth of the novel. Printing aided the creation of a medium of comparatively cheap entertainment and knowledge through the chapbooks which appeared in the 17th and 18th century. The chapbooks presented a more elegant production known as the belles letters, a popular genre that transformed into an amalgamation of the poetry and fiction genres of literature which gained popularity in late 18th century but the genres were separated in later centuries. The statistics of the genres printed showed that prose fiction especially the novel was the highest and continued to increase as “…the press output and the money made with fiction have risen disproportionately since the 18th century” (Barnet et al, 1987,132).