The English novel emerged in the 18th Century with early English writers who made notable contributions towards the establishment of the present form of the novel in that Century. One of the important contributions of the Neo Classical Age (18th century) was the modern novel (Woods et al. 1936, 698). Before this, literature was mainly in verse and drama. Defoe set the pattern towards realism in the novel with his painstakingly detailed description of events and incidents in Robinson Crusoe and Pamela. Samuel Richardson also made notable contributions.
The circulating libraries also exerted great influence on the development of the novel. The readers of fiction relied heavily on these libraries, which might be likened to modern video stores where we rent video films. These libraries were not only outlets for the rental of books, but also exerted a profound influence on both form and content of the novel. Other factors that influenced the development of the novel in this century were religious, social, political and economical. In this article, we are going to discuss the history of England in the 18th Century and relate those historical events to the development of the English novel.
The close of 17th Century in England was a very turbulent period and this turbulence influenced the 18th Century a bit before the return of stability. The death of King Charles 11 brought King James 11, a catholic to the throne. He was driven away and was succeeded by his protestant daughter in what was known as the glorious revolution. The emergence of the Puritans and the Parliament changed the history of England. In 1702, Queen Ann ascended the throne and 1707 saw the unification of England and Scotland.
The 18th Century England was that of apparent stability. According to Lukas (1962), quoted in Ezeigbo, “the great English novelists of the 18th Century lived in post- revolutionary period. This gave their works an atmosphere of stability and security,and a certain complacent short-sightedness” (3). The society was “relatively secure; it was ruled by self conscious and enlightened alliance of landed gentry and the commercial gentleman” (Ezeigbo 1998, 4). The society witnessed the industrial revolution and it was a materialist society where money matters a lot.
Influences A number of factors influenced the development of the novel during this period.
The long drawn battle between the Catholics and the Protestants in England led to the emergence of the Puritans, the extreme protestant group. The Puritans asserted themselves and although, their activities were stopped by King Charles 11 during the Restoration Period, the puritan ideals persisted and influenced literature in general and the novel in particular. For instance, Daniel Defoe was a puritan. Puritanism was middle class oriented. Although the 18th Century puritans were not as strict as their predecessors, they gave devotion to God but were more practical. Inasmuch as they believed that their religion should come first in everything they do, they worked hard and offered value for what they got. This is seen in Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Robinson Crusoe worked hard and accumulated wealth while Moll Flanders, after her repentance worked hard and is rewarded at last (McKeon 1987, 24).
There is therefore a moral undertone in the novels of this period. Writers of this tried to extol virtues as seen in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740) which was composed “to cultivate the principles of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes” (McKeon 2000, 25). The novel focused on a heroine who would have been vulnerable because of her social status and her occupation as servant but exhibits such strength of character that reformed her antagonist and happiness for both of them in the end.
Socio-Political The establishment of parliament after the commonwealth and the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories also affected the novel in the 8th Century England. There was always a clash of interests between the Whigs and the Tories and the rising middle class, the aristocracy and the clergy were not left out. This affected who patronised who or what. In the social life, there emerged many coffee houses each patronized by one particular group. The writers and critics went to the Wills, the clergy to the Trubys, the scholars to the Grecian, the Tories to the Cocoa Tree, and the Whigs to the St James. News and gossips were rife in these coffee houses which in turn fostered journalism and literary output including the novel. Socially also, the age directed its focus on the common man and the writers also started featuring the common people as characters in their works. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe concerned itself with an ordinary man with the most ordinary pursuit, while Moll Flanders focuses on practical and realistic means of survival.
The Literary Perspective
Based on the factors above, issues were analysed critically and reason was applied into whatever is said. Consequently, prose ceased to be pastime or entertainment objects. The novels were not read just for interest, the language and the style of the author became objects of interest and not just the story told in the novel. Creative journalists, diarists and talented letter writers emerged. Some of these diaries and letters were transformed into novels. For instance, Richardson’s Pamela was written originally as a collection of letters. Emphasis on the novel
became reasoning and analysis and this gave rise to realism (Hunter 1990, 54) in the novel. The 18th-century also saw the raising of status of the novel to an object of debate which remains till date in form of literary criticism Novels tended to be published in three volumes because such a format enabled three people to be reading and renting the library’s novel at the same time. (Doody 1996, 25) And because writers were dependent for their livelihoods on having their books available through circulating libraries, these institutions were able to exert tremendous market pressure on authors, discouraging them from writing about subjects that might embarrass or confuse young readers, especially women.
The 18th Century saw the emergence of realistic fiction, the novel and this led to the definition of the novel as a form of fiction that is different from history. It was said that “valuable fictions defended a higher truth, a truth beyond the flat, factual and historical truth of every-day experience” (Woods et al 1936, 235). Critics saw in it, the imitation of nature while acknowledging the almost divine power of the writer to create worlds of a deeper significance in the second half of the 18th century.
The earliest English novels represented two major historical forces which were great influences each in its own way. The first one was the rising middle class while the second was the existing aristocratic, confident class that was secure in its own social position. The major preoccupation of these early novels was the exploration of the relationships between individuals, the classes and their larger social world.
The novel gives a glimpse of human lives as lived then but somehow there is an intersection between the lives of the novelists with the creation of their art. This is known as realism and this was a product of the 18th Century when novelists started portraying ordinary people with everyday experiences and realistic inter-personal relationships. The English novel right from this century has been fascinating and popular and has tremendous influence on the readers everywhere novels are read.