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Which is the first English novel? Do we really have a particular prose fictional work that can conveniently be referred to as the first English novel? Many scholars refer to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe published in 1719 as the first English novel. Does this mean that no prose fictional work existed in Britain before that date? Scholars therefore do not seem to be sure of which work should stand as the first English novel. Consequently, a number of works of literature are said to be the first English novel. In this unit, we will list some of such works but will not discuss them in details for want of space.

However, we will review the criteria that determine what the novel should be and decide if these works fit into the category of the first English novels. This review will aid the determination of the works that could be called novels, and decide if the works discussed in this unit are novels or not and then give reasons for the decision. John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will be used as illustrative texts in the subsequent units of this module. In our discussion here, we will examine the claims that some works should be classified as the first English novels and confirm or refute such claims.

The First English Novels

As stated earlier, a number of prose fiction narratives lay claim to being the first English novels. The following works of literature have each been listed in Wikipedia as the first novel in English. I hope that you know the difference between the first English novel and the first novel in English? The former denotes a novel written by an Englishman or woman with British background reflecting on the socio-political, economic and cultural British experience at a particular age. While the latter refers to a novel written by anyone about any culture but written in the English language. We will present a brief study of some of the not too popular early novels in this unit and study John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in detail because the texts are available and some of us are more familiar with the stories than other early novels. Different scholars have variously ascribed the following fictional literary works as the first English Novel. • ThomasMalory – Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) • WilliamBaldwin – Beware the Cat (1570, 1584) • John Lyly- Eupheus: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Eupheus and his England (1580) • Philip Sidney – The Countess of Pembroke (1581) • Thomas Nashe – The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594) • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) • George Ashwell (translator) – Philosophus Autodidactus (1686) • Aphra Behn – Oroonoko (1688)

  • Simon Ockley (translator) – The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan (1708)
  • Daniel Defoe – Robinson Crusoe (1719) • Daniel Defoe – Moll Flanders (1722) • Samuel Richardson – Pamela (1740) • Jonathan Swift – A Tale of a Tub (1704) • Daniel Defoe – The Consolidator (1705) • Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  • (culled from
  • Generally, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is regarded as the first English novel and this is because it gained wide acceptance because of the impact of its influential study by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957) which popularised the novel. )

Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (1485)

Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur) is a prose fiction narrative in the romance genre which is made up of tales about legendary figures like King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table and was compiled by Sir Thomas Malory. The composition includes Malory’s original composition (“The Gareth Story”) and an interpretation of existing French and English stories about these historical and legendary figures. Since this is a compilation of existing stories and contains many stories, the book cannot be called a novel. This book has been described as “the best-known work of English- language Arthurian literature today” (Doody, 1998, 32) but because it is not an entirely imaginary composition with plot line and fictitious characters in interpersonal relationships found in the novel, it is not a novel and so cannot pass for the first English novel. However, it influenced other modern Arthurian Writers like T. H. White and Tennyson.

William Baldwin – Beware the Cat (1570)

Beware the Cat (1561) is a prose narrative that is slightly longer than a short story but not as long as the novel written by William Baldwin who was also a poet. The work which predates Shakespeare by some decades though “… has similarly archaic language and ideas that are typical of the 1500s in England,” was not published immediately due to some political and religious issues and when it appeared eventually in print, it

received almost no attention from literary scholars (Woods et. al 1936, 124). It is set in London on a cold Christmas night during the reign of Edward VI. The plot which unfolds through the narrator, Master Streamer, recounts a complex cycle of inter related stories to two of his friends as they share his bed. The first two sections of the plot are essentially horror stories, and the book is then lightened with a third and more comic section (Wood et. al 1936, 127). Characters in the story include an Irish werewolf, the grimalkin, and an underworld society of talking cats, among several other horrors in form of characters, magical and supernatural elements like an ancient book of forbidden lore and magic potions.

It is presented in the first person narrative technique and the language though in archaic English, the use of dialogue is remarkable, highly advanced for the time and the characters are delineated clearly and the incidents, actions, characters and environment are presented with vivid description. The subject matter contains an anti- Catholic undercurrent and because of this anti-Catholic sentiment critics placed the work in the realm of propaganda (Mckeon, 2000, 65). It is a remarkable work which is regarded as the first horror prose fiction that is longer than a short story. However it could not pass for the first English novel because it is shorter than the novel and contains unrealistic characters and incidents thus deviating from the concept of verisimilitude which is the hallmark of the novel.

Philip Sidney- Old Arcadia (1581)

The book, generally known as the Arcadia which evolved from the Old Arcadia which according to Sidney is a short entertainment piece he set out to write for his sister, Mary Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke. In the 1580s, Sidney reorganised the original story and added episodes which helped to increase its volume. The work is presented as books that are separated from each other with a set of poems though the narration runs in a chronological order. There are different versions of Sidney’s original version but all of them were almost forgotten until 1908, when antiquarian Bertram Dobell discovered that a manuscript of the Arcadia he had purchased differed from published editions so he bought two other versions of the manuscripts (Lewis, 1954, 129) and redirected attention to the work. It was also discovered that the version of the Arcadia known to the Renaissance and later periods is substantially longer than the Old Arcadia. Sidney’s revised Arcadia was published in two differing editions after his death.

Old Arcadia (1581) is a romance based on the household of Duke Basilius and the steward of Dametas’s family which is narrated in “Sprawling Renaissance Prose”. The plot is structured in five books or acts in the style of classical dramaturgy of exposition, action, complication, reversal and catastrophe and combines serious and comic elements so it is often called a tragicomedy. The combination of verse and prose forms in the book coupled with the presentation of the plot in the structure of classical dramatic style denies this book a place as the first English novel.

Aphera Behn, Oronooko (1688) Aphera Behn is regarded as the foremother of British women writers, and her work, Oroonoko is a crucial text in the history of the novel. She worked as a spy for Charles II at the onset of the Second Dutch War but was poorly remunerated so she returned to England as a destitute and even spent some time in a debtor’s prison (Lewis, 1954, 68). She turned to writing to make a living and luckily she made remarkable success as a poet and a playwright, her poems sold well, and a number of her plays were staged successfully. Her fame as a writer was established in her own lifetime but she started writing extended narrative prose towards the end of her career.

Consequently her prose fiction Oroonoko which some scholars regard as one of the earliest English novels was published less than a year before she died. Oroonoko or The Royal Slave is a short work of prose fiction that presents a love story of its hero, an enslaved African, Prince Oroonoko in Surinam in the 1660s. He falls in love with Imoinda, the daughter of the king’s top general but the king also falls in love with Imoinda and marries her. Unwillingly, she spends some time in the king’s harem but sees Oroonoko secretly. They are discovered and sold to slavery separately but are reunited as Caesar and Clemene.

Imoinda becomes pregnant and Oroonoko petitions for their return to their homeland but his request is turned down. Frustrated he organises a slave revolt but the slaves are overpowered and punished. Oroonoko decides to kill Byam to “avenge his honour, and to express his natural worth” (Lewis 1954, 68). He knows that he would be killed too so he kills Imoinda to protect her from violation and subjugation after his death. Imoinda, smiling, willingly dies by his hand. Later Oroonoko is found mourning by her decapitated body and is prevented from killing himself, but is later executed publicly. He dies “by dismemberment … calmly smokes a pipe and stoically withstands all the pain without crying out” (Woods et al 1936, 342)

The work is presented in the first and third person narrative technique. The love story of the ill-fated lovers is mixed with the narrator’s experience in which she presents herself as a witness of the actions that took place in Surinam, West Indies. The story is concluded as the narrator leaves Surinam for London. This work is not regarded as the first English novel because of its length; it is very short and tilts towards a historical account.

Legitimacy of the Novel

What gives the novel its authority and makes it a unique genre of Literature is what we refer to as the legitimacy of the novel. Novel like every other literary genre is made up of form and content. Content is the theme, the central idea which the writer explores in the novel generally known as the theme. Theme is explicated through the interpersonal relationships of the characters. To a large extent the success of a novel depends on the liveliness and interaction of the characters that are used to explore the theme in order to entertain and educate the readers. Form is the totality of the author’s technique by which the novel achieves its meaning, unity and integrity. It includes the language, structure, setting and characterisation which are organised to achieve a single purpose of relaying a message in an entertaining manner. This technique is further divided into three as follows: • basic elements – plot, setting and characterisation • literary devices – imagery, symbolism, irony, etc • structure and style. We will discuss the basic elements in the next unit.

The structure of every work accords with its style, and the style of an author is unique to him or her and adapted to suit a particular purpose that fits the experience presented in the novel. The style of a particular novel is therefore not a general style for all novels. The structure of the novel is the organisation of incidents in such a way that the character is revealed and the conflict, suspense, climax, and resolution of conflict are achieved. It is also the arrangement that provides unity, builds

relationship between characters and situations in the novel building effect gradually and cumulatively to heighten the intended impact. The novel is seen as the closest imitation of life because of the empathy and sympathy whereby a reader can identify with the characters presented. Characters must therefore be true to life and engage in realistic actions. This is why the terms fiction and realism are applied exclusively to the novel. It is the imagination of the author (fiction) yet it must be credible and be as close as possible to life (realism). In the novel the reader encounters many character-types confined in one.

These details are taken from different aspects of life and are made whole through the art form. The novel is therefore a synthesis of many incidents in life that are artistically fused to give it its unified form. Novels are not read only because they are recommended texts but they are like life companions for those who value the genre. Novels offer hours of pleasure and good novel offer insights into lives and issues that are not quantifiable. A good novel, like other forms of great literature, “…has the capacity to enrich our understanding of life, extend the range of our sympathies, develop our minds, satisfy our curiosities and even deepen our knowledge of the social, political and historical issues…” (Lewis 1954. 23).

Through the novel the reader learns more about virtues and vices, about other countries and culture and in fact about every facet of human existence. There is hardly a subject that has not been explored in the novel and if you are a voracious reader, you must have read a lot about corruption, neo-imperialism, political instability, polygamy, slavery, greed, oppression and many others issues that are part of the problems facing the countries from which the novels emanated. In addition, some novels try to uphold universally accepted morals, values and standards and sometimes, the simple joy of reading novels obscures our awareness of the deeper roles they play in our lives. Novels help to sharpen our intellect, fulfill some of our emotional needs, increase our awareness on certain issues that concern us and shape our perception of ourselves and of the world around us.

The impact and significance of the novel is especially obvious in the case of the English novel because it emerged at a period when England experienced a spastic social transformation which produced the world’s first modern, capitalist economy (Woods et al 1936, 243) which provided the themes explored by the early novelists. It was also a period when traditional social values and narrative forms were getting outdated so the great English novelists emerged with an eagerness to create something new and different. They broke from the tradition of featuring aristocrats and noblemen in stories and focused on the ordinary people capturing the rhythms of everyday life. They also reacted to a number of larger historical developments like industrialisation and urbanisation,

democratisation and globalisation which were copiously depicted in the novels. The distinguishing factor of the early English novel was its preoccupation with issues of class and status based on stories of courtship, love, and marriage and in most cases virtue is rewarded and justice meted out. However the plots and characters of particular novels could be related to larger movements in English history.

For instance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice responds to deepening worries about the moral authority of the ruling classes, while Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles reflects the influence of new discoveries in science, including Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. A novel is expected to be an original imaginative creation of the author so it excludes the retelling of stories as presented in Le Morte d’Arthur. A novel is expected to present realistic characters, environment, incidents and actions; it is different from romance so Arcada and Le Morte d’Arthur are excluded. A novel is expected to be of a certain length so excludes Oroonoko, and Beware of Cat which may be categorised as novella. Unity of structure is a vital aspect of the novel so works that are presented in a disjointed episodic pattern are excluded..


The novel is an imaginative work of art created by the author with an adherence to the concept of verisimilitude. Many prose narratives lay claim to be the first novel but most of the narratives lacked some of the elements of the modern novel so are not regarded as novels. The novel is different from romance, allegory, fable and other forms of tales. It is presented in a long narrative form and not in verse. It means therefore that none of the works discussed in this unit qualifies as the first English novel. The English novel appeared in England with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1772). These were followed by Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48); Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742). It can therefore be said that the credit for writing the first English novel goes to these novelists who are often referred to as “the founding fathers of the English Novel” (Ezeigbo, 1998, 3).

In this article we have seen some early prose narratives that lay claim to being the first English novels and why they are not qualified to be categorised as such. We have also studied some of the criteria used in the determination of what a novel is. Some of these earlier works were largely unknown but were rediscovered by scholars later. However, many of them do not qualify to be categorised as novels because of their narrative techniques and the treatment of the subject matter. Some of them are written in verse though they present stories in a logical sequence while in some; the stories are episodic and disjointed. In some others, the stories presented are too fantastic to be real. Consequently, we do not regard any fictional work in this category as the first English novel.


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