18th century

The History of Novels | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

A lecture delivered to first year undergraduates at RIASA Leeds on 22 September 2019 as part of the GEP4180 Research and Writing (II) module.

1st edition of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) — a 19th-century bestseller!

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘novel’ is ‘a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism’. We’ll come later on to this idea of ‘realism’ in the novel, and why we can distinguish some long prose works from actual novels. But the main purpose of this lecture is to give you an overview of the history of the rise of the novel, the social and cultural context behind its emergence, and its central place as a cornerstone of western culture.

MS of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The first ever novel written was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Many of you will be thinking that this is fairly ‘modern’, and, over the long course of human history, it is indeed fairly modern. So, let us go a little bit further back than the eighteenth century and into the 1500s and 1600s to see what people were reading then.

Early modern broadside ballad

Prior to the eighteenth century, most long, extended prose texts were either religious—the translation of the King James Bible or vast theological works—or they were history books, as we find with medieval and early modern chronicles. For entertainment, people usually turned to poetry or ballads—the latter were cheaply sold and often badly written songs which told a story. But with the growth of the publishing industry, we see the emergence of a new genre of writing: the prose romance.

William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1553)

One of the first fictional works, and one which has some claim to being the first gothic horror story ever written, was William Baldwin’s romance entitled Beware the Cat, published in 1553. Those who follow me on Twitter or who have sat in any one of my lectures will probably guess why I like this book: it features an underworld society of cats who listen in on the intrigues and plots going on in the courts of Henry VIII and King Edward VI—and all the cats’ activities are directed by the mysterious King of the Cats! But this was a very anti-Catholic novel—with England at this point a Protestant nation, there was a warning here: there are ‘Cats’ (Catholics) everywhere who plot against the nation!

But in spite of some early forays into fiction writing, English folks at this time were primarily known for the plays and poems—this was the era of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and Edmund Spenser.

It was the Spanish that really pioneered the writing of long fictional prose narratives with the rise of the picaresque novel. The word ‘picaresque’ comes from the Spanish word picaro meaning ‘rogue’, and the picaresque novel was often focused on society’s low lives. As examples of this, we have the anonymously authored texts Lazarillo de Tormes (1554)—which is unusual for depicting, at this time, a love affair between a black former slave and a white European woman—and The Swindler (1626). Yet these fictional Spanish works had little realism, and often featured a thief or reprobate getting himself out of hair-raising situations, many of which were simply unbelievable. But the important thing in these works was the moral message: the picaro went through a series of adversities, serving different masters, getting into trouble, becoming a man, and finally growing rich and triumphing against all the odds.

Furthermore, the Spanish—and Europe as a whole—loved the romance. This genre had very little to do with love, although there are love affairs in some of their plots, but rather was a term used to describe a work of fiction which, like the others we have discussed thus far, was not realistic in the slightest. And the biggest, international ‘hit’ novel in the 1600s was Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. And it has some claim to being one of the most ridiculous novels I’ve yet read: an ageing Spanish man, obviously suffering from some mental illness, has been reading too many medieval history books (the early modern equivalent of watching too much Game of Thrones perhaps!)—so, one morning he gets up and decides that he must go on a knight’s quest. It’s a bit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail—he co-opts a simple-minded half-wit peasant man to be his squire and they go and bravely do battle with windmills, which he thinks are giants; he rescues damsels in distress from bad knights, which in reality is just a tavern brawl over a local barmaid. In short, he’s batshit crazy! And it really was a hit throughout Europe, translated into several languages and continues to be so this day (and if anyone would like to read the graphic novel version, I’ll give it to you).

England did not as yet produce anything on the scale of Don Quixote. Instead, what we find in England is the emergence of the rogue novel, in emulation of the Spanish picaresque. They weren’t very long works, perhaps numbering about 50 pages at most and selling fairly cheaply. They told works of crime and vice among the lower orders but they’re not quite ‘realistic’ as many of them pretend to be supernatural or have actual supernatural works. And they are likewise very moralist, or didactic. So, the message, for example, in Thomas Dekker’s Bell-Man of London (1608), is that crime in London is very bad, and when a messenger of Satan rises from the underworld and enters into the London criminal underworld, he is set upon and beaten up by a number of rogue apprentices and robbed of his money—the message is that even hell is a more moral place than London’s streets and alleyways.

Example of an English rogue novel: My copy of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, Vol. 2 (1671).

But all these gothic tales were unrealistic and the main characters were usually nobles or kings. The increasingly important middle classes wanted to see their own classes represented in fiction, and so, in the early eighteenth century, we see the appearance of the first English novel: Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This was a work which really celebrated the middle classes. At the beginning of the novel, Crusoe’s father tells him that

Mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind … this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches … the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

And Crusoe is the epitome of middle-class (and specifically Protestant) virtue: marooned on an island, he has to “make something of himself.” His first act when marooned is to build the essentials he needs to lead a “civilised” life—a table, a chair, a calendar. He then cultivates the island as well, acquiring a servant in the form of Man Friday, who converts to Christianity—it’s unsurprising that some scholars have claimed that Robinson Crusoe is the ‘prototype’ of a British imperialist, colonizing far off lands and converting the locals.

Robinson Crusoe was also the first novel to make a claim to realism. The story was written as though it was a memoir or autobiography—the book’s full title was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The character of Crusoe speaks in the first person; the novel, importantly, was set in the present day, and not in historical times, and his characters (supposedly) think and act just like anyone would do if they were in his situation. And the novel was a hit: it has never gone out of print, and two sequels appeared in the same year.

Suddenly the middle classes “saw themselves” in fiction, so to speak. The next major novelist, Samuel Richardson, also wanted to give readers a “realistic” novel. In 1740, he published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. This novel, set in readers’ own times (the 1700s for 1700s readers) was written as though it was a series of letters written by the title character, Pamela, a servant girl in the household of Lord B——, to her poorer family in the country. This format, used by many novelists since, including Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, became known as the epistolary novel. Now, Pamela was a pure and virtuous girl, but her depraved master, Lord B, is infatuated with her. He offers her many fine things, which she refuses, because she is virtuous. He spies on her undressing through the keyhole of her room, and even attempts to rape her, but she resists him. Then at the end of the novel, Lord B is so impressed with her virtue that he marries her, to which she eventually consents, for she has in fact fallen in love with him. Richardson’s message was clear: if a woman holds on to her virtue (if she doesn’t have sex before marriage) then she will be rewarded, either in this life or the next.

Pamela itself is such a dry novel, originally written in about 2 volumes. The moralism and high-mindedness have a tendency to bore even the modern reader, but it was a hit with middle-class readers who thought that their daughters might learn much about virtue from it. It even became a ‘multimedia’ event, and illustrations from Pamela were featured on numerous souvenirs like mugs, teacups, during the century.

But one author at the time thought that Richardson’s Pamela was indeed not a true reflection of how someone would really act in such a situation, and he disliked Richardson’s novel and the heroine he had created. This man was the brilliant playwright and novelist, Henry Fielding, who lived between 1707 and 1754. Fielding published a novel in 1741—one year after Richardson’s novel—called Shamela, or, to give the novel its full title: An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. It’s a direct parody. Instead of being the humble and virtuous servant girl of Pamela, Fielding says that she was just the daughter of a prostitute who was manipulative, kept leading her suitor Mr B——, whom Fielding calls Mr Booby, so that she can rise through society’s ranks and become Mrs Booby (the word had the same connotation back in the 1700s as it does now). Pamela was not a mere social climber. She was a mountaineer!—Lord B is a cad and has dubious morals, but Pamela, through some manipulation of her would-be rapist’s and then suitor’s feelings, has now truly “made it” in society—she is now a noblewoman!


Fielding was on to a good thing satirising Richardson’s novels. So, if he can make money by ripping off Richardson’s high-minded Pamela, he’s going to continue doing it. So the year after Shamela—two years after Richardson’s Pamela was published—Fielding writes another novel called The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews. This novel is one which truly does make you laugh out loud. Joseph is Pamela’s brother who is a servant in the household of Lady Booby, the aunt to Pamela’s husband. Lady Booby falls in love/lust with the young, good-looking Andrew and tries to seduce him:

She then raised herself a little in her bed, and discovered one of the whitest necks that ever was seen; at which Joseph blushed. “La!” says she, in an affected surprize, “what am I doing? I have trusted myself with a man alone, naked in bed; suppose you should have any wicked intentions upon my honour, how should I defend myself?”

Joseph protested that he never had the least evil design against her.

“No,” says she, “perhaps you may not call your designs wicked; and perhaps they are not so.”—He swore they were not. “You misunderstand me,” says she; “I mean if they were against my honour, they may not be wicked; but the world calls them so. But then, say you, the world will never know anything of the matter; yet would not that be trusting to your secrecy? Must not my reputation be then in your power? Would you not then be my master?”


Joseph is too virtuous for her, however, and he refuses her advances, at which she becomes enraged and dismisses him from her service. Totally skint, he resolves to walk back to his hometown on foot where his childhood sweetheart Fanny Adams lives. What follows is a series of comical and unfortunate events which see Joseph get robbed by highwaymen and left for dead, almost seduced again by another woman, chased by a “Hunter of Men”—a seemingly Devil-Worshipping nobleman who likes to torture people, before Joseph marries Fanny in his home village, but not before Lady Booby tries to have them arrested for getting married. So, it’s a fun novel. And Fielding really changes the game. He switches between standard narrative and epistolary format, but the important thing about Fielding is that he unashamedly claimed to write fiction, while Defoe and Richardson claimed to write “real life.” So in Fielding’s novel, we get some very odd character names: Mrs Slipslop, Tom Suckbribe, Mrs Grave-Airs, Justice Frolick—all of which give indications to their moral characters. For Fielding, yes—fiction should be moralistic but it didn’t necessarily have to pretend to be “real.” The value of fiction—of the novel—lies in its ability to communicate moral and life lessons while being enjoyable. As Fielding says in the first part of Joseph Andrews:

Delight is mixed with Instruction … the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained.

This is why Fielding declares that although his characters are caricatura, he desires to show ‘human nature’, warts-‘n’-all, and how people of certain personalities would act in certain situations.

fielding 1
The wonderfully witty novelist, some-time playwright, and Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (1707–54)

But Fielding’s greatest work—his magnum opus—would be written in 1749: this was The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. It is a long novel, originally published in four volumes, most modern editions resemble a doorstep. But it’s not a heavy tome. This was a serio-comic novel. ‘Seriocomic’ is a contraction of ‘serious’ and ‘comic’, which gives you an impression of what the novel will be like, and tells the story of Tom Jones’s life. Abandoned on Squire Allworthy’s doorstep as a baby, the good squire decides to raise him as his own. Similar to Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, having been expelled from Squire Allworthy’s house after a misunderstanding caused by a scheming neighbour, embarks on a series of adventures which take him through Britain, during which, as in Joseph Andrews, he meets with a series of characters and experiences adversity until amends are made with Allworthy and it turns out that all along Tom was Allworthy’s nephew. What we have is the arrival of a new genre in English, a fusion of the picaresque and the realist novel: bildungsroman (‘a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education’). It’s impossible to overstate the popularity of Fielding’s Tom Jones; it went through four editions in the year it was published—not even modern novelists like J. K. Rowling have managed that yet.

Tom Jones gets into a brawl

So we now have what we call a ‘typology’ (which means a ‘classification of general ideas’) emerging in the novel genre: it claims to be as ‘real’ as possible; it must have a moral message; and the characters in it should all embark on a quest to rise through society’s ranks.


But it’s still a period of experimentation with fiction and the novel. And then comes the most bizarre novel I’ve ever personally read: Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in nine volumes between 1761 and 1767. Taking his cue from Fielding, Sterne produced a seriocomic novel. This is the purported biography of one man from the moment he was conceived in the womb, although his conception was disturbed because, at the moment of copulation, his mother asked his father if he had remembered to wind up the Grandfather Clock. This set all of his humours out of balance for the rest of his life. It was also a difficult birth, because the Man-Mid-Wife pressed down too hard on the forceps which he used to extract Shandy out of his mother; the forceps caught his nose and he was forever cursed with a crooked nose. Although framed as a biography, there’s very little of his life actually in it, and mostly it’s about his opinions of those around him, drawing upon contemporary philosophers such as John Locke. However, Sterne showed that you could also play with readers’ expectations. Fiction should be written for its own sake, and sometimes, despite the novelists’ best intentions, a novel could not always express thoughts, feelings, and sentiments of its characters—of “real life”—in words. This is why we have some odd symbols and markings on the page, and why, when the beloved Parson Yorick dies, all we get is a blank page.

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one has yet attempted to film Tristram Shandy—it would probably make for a rather ridiculous movie.

But with all this supposed realism, did people yearn for a good old-fashioned gothic romp? Yes. They did. So, in 1764, Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, published The Castle of Otranto. The official categorization of this novel is a gothic novel. These types of novels generally feature supernatural, or seemingly supernatural, occurrences; the revealing of family secrets; ancient ruined castles; mad monks; damsels-in-distress—many of our modern-day horror movie motifs come from this novel.


Although Otranto maintains a sense of realism by claiming to be the translation of an ancient manuscript, the plot is rather ridiculous. Set in medieval Italy in the (real) Castle of Otranto, at Otranto, in Italy, at the beginning, the nobleman, Manfred, his son, and the rest of his family and their retinue, sets out to the local church in order for the son to marry a beautiful young girl named Isabella. Suddenly, a giant stone helmet falls from the sky and crushes the young son to death. This presents a problem for Manfred, for his line must continue. Looking at his wife and seeing that she’s a bit past her prime, he immediately decides that he should instead marry his dead son’s fiancé. A young peasant lad named Theodore helps Isabella to escape from Manfred and they hide out in a local church. Soon Manfred’s soldiers catch up with them and Theodore is imprisoned. But before Manfred can do anything to Theodore, a large army of knights carrying a huge, huge sword approaches the castle. Manfred’s daughter frees Theodore who goes in search of Isabella, finds her, falls in love with her, and it turns out that Theodore is the true heir of Otranto, and Manfred cheated his way into ownership of the castle (in the vaults of the castle they also find a large stone foot). Manfred determines to kill Isabella for not marrying him but accidentally kills his daughter instead. Isabella and Theodore then marry and he becomes lord of the castle.

At the time, Walpole said that his story was

An attempt to blend the two kinds of Romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success.

People certainly copied Walpole: during the eighteenth century, there were tons of gothic novels published such as Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), and of course culminating in Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Frankenstein was both a gothic horror but also gave birth to a new genre: the science fiction novel. Frankenstein expresses Shelley’s unease at science going “too far” in trying to beat natural processes such as death.


Whereas Defoe and Richardson tried to mask the fictional nature of their works, by presenting them as memoirs and histories, as a result of Fielding openly declaring that he was writing fiction, these later novelists were not shy about admitting that they were writing fiction for fiction’s sake. The novels should of course have a moral message, and he as ‘realistic’ as possible, but there was no need to try and ‘con’ people, so to speak, which was pointless as everyone knew that early novels were fiction anyway.

Fanny Hil
Illustration from one of the first pornographic novels, Fanny Hill

So, before we move out of the eighteenth century, what we have is novels depicting people acquiring status in the world found a ready market amongst this emerging class, many of themselves on the make. Reading novels would supposedly help the bourgeoisie to emulate ‘the manners, the air, the genteel address and polite behaviour’ of those represented in these novels. Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing for the novel. They could be controversial. Novels such as the pornographic Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, written by John Cleland and published in 1748, was officially banned in 1749 for “corrupting the King’s subjects.”

Moralists in the press thought that one could read too many novels: women’s passions might be led astray with “romantic” notions and give them false expectations in life. Men might become too effeminate from reading novels, which some saw as primarily a genre for women; some novels might be so heart-breaking that they might cause people to lose all grip on reality and commit suicide, as the first English translation of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1778, allegedly did, for some men committed “copycat” suicides in emulation of the title character. Whether this actually happened or not is the subject of much debate. Some of you more younger gamers here may recognise echoes of such fears in the modern debates about violent video games and their effects, or alleged effects, upon the minds of impressionable youths.

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)

But let’s move into the nineteenth century and come to my most favourite novelist, Sir Walter Scott, who lived between 1771 and 1832, who was a novelist, poet, historian, and progressive Tory politician. I promise I’m not exaggerating his influence just because he’s my favourite. He invented the serious historical novel: everyone recognised that Walpole and the old gothic novelists of the past were a bit ridiculous, so Scott aimed to present a wholly realistic view of the past. He wrote 23 novels in total. Novels such as Ivanhoe, published in 1819, is set in England in the 1190s and features characters drawn from historical sources such as Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood, along with fictional characters, were mistaken for being “real” history: Scott prefaced his novel with a fictional letter allegedly written by Dr Dryasdust to Sir Laurence Templeton, in which they discuss the value of “translating” (note—they don’t say “fictionalising”) the past for modern readers. His novels contain footnotes directing readers to certain sources where they might find the sources certain passages were based upon. But Scott essentially looked back to the past to find answers to the political and social problems of the day; Ivanhoe, with its warring Saxons and Normans who come together in peace at the end, was essentially a plea for national unity in Britain at a time of strikes, high food prices, and political instability: the year Ivanhoe was published was of course the year of the Peterloo Massacre when government forces in Manchester killed at least 15 pro-democracy demonstrators and injured upwards of 600 more; it was also the period of the Corn Laws, which were tariffs of imports of grain from the Americas which kept the price of food high, sometimes too high, for the British working classes. So Scott’s trying to deal with pressing issues in a meaningful way, and of course highlight the plight of the oppressed to his predominantly middle-class readers.

And people loved Scott: his novels sold by the millions. He was emulated by many later novelists in Britain such as Edward Bulwer Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth, although these men could not match Scott’s powers of description. Perhaps the only writer who came close to matching Scott at this point was the American author, the historical novelist James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans.

So, let’s just take stock: eighteenth-century novels were concerned with moralism but they were all about the middle classes, or bourgeoisie. They aimed to show human nature and point out right or wrong conduct in characters, drawn from real life, and give them as a lesson to readers. Yet Scott proved that serious fiction, even if it was historical, could grapple with social and political issues in a meaningful way.

It was concern over the way the country was run that led to the emergence of the Victorian social novel in the 1840s, which dealt with “the condition of England” question. Britain, in the throes of the industrial revolution, had experienced rapid industrialisation and urbanisation since the 1780s—it was the era of “dark Satanic mills” as the poet William Blake put it. The novels of writers such as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Elliot shined a figurative light on to the problems faced by the working classes—Dickens’s Oliver Twist, published in 1838, for example, highlighted the abuses of the Workhouse system; another novel he wrote, titled Hard Times, printed in 1854, highlighted the often harsh behaviour of factory owners in northern mill towns towards their workers. The novels of all these writers might be classed as bildungsroman—they usually feature a character who, like Tom Jones before him, faces a number of adversities in life, experiencing harsh treatment at the hands of factory owners, spells in debtors’ prisons, estrangement from family members, before finally “making it” in society: this is why, as anyone with any exposure to a Victorian novel will know, most of the main characters by the end of the novel turn out to be the long lost heir to a dead aristocrat’s estate—what better symbol of having made it, after all, than being elevated to the highest rank in society! Although it should be said: however friendly Dickens and his contemporaries were to the working classes’ plight, there was still some snobbery: one of the reasons why Oliver does not turn to crime like the rest of the working-class boys in Fagin’s gang is because he turns out to be the son of a wealthy upper middle-class family, and hence, and good morals are almost written into his biological makeup, unlike working-class boys like the Artful Dodger.

But one might say that the novel became too “real,” and that the market was saturated with these tales of woe in the mid-Victorian period; there were many of these—the flourishing penny press was likewise full of these tales, with G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London, published in weekly instalments between 1844 and 1846, one of the most famous examples in the realms of cheap literature. So, what we find in the latter half of the Victorian era is the rise of adventure fiction and the “imperial gothic.” The imperial gothic has the usual gothic features—family curses, ancient prophesies, crumbling and decaying civilization—but they’re set, as the name implies, in the British colonies. What should be obvious now is that novels have always reflected society’s concerns but also its ideology: in the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Empire reached its greatest extent. As Britain began to establish direct rule over many overseas territories, we find some novelists, taking their cue from the American Fenimore-Cooper, begin writing stories set in the colonies, whereas the British Empire and colonialism had never featured much in novels before, say, the 1850s. The turning point came with the publication of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! in 1855, which tells the story of a young boy joining Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to South America.

But imperial fiction really gets going between the years 1884 and 1914, the former year being when the Conference of Berlin was held, when European “great powers,” quite literally, got a map of Africa and divided the continent between them. Until this era of “new” imperialism (called “new” imperialism to distinguish it from the “old” settler-colonial imperialism of the eighteenth century). So, we find the likes of Henry Rider Haggard writing tales of adventure, with brave explorers venturing into the “dark” corners of the empire.

H. Rider Haggard’s She was then adapted for film which then inspired the Wicked Queen of Disney’s Snow White

One of Haggard’s novels, King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1885, gave birth to one of the most famous characters of the age, Allan Quatermain, who “discovers” the lost kingdom of Kwala and helps to overthrow its tyrant king. Quatermain then became the main inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. Another perhaps more famous character whom Haggard invented was the all-powerful ruler/goddess: She, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the immortal queen of the lost kingdom of Kor. The portrayal of She in the first 1930s film version of the novel then inspired the depiction of the wicked queen in Disney’s later Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie.


Likewise, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, published in 1883, is subtly imperialist because (ahem) I say so in my book on the British Empire. Why? Because it features a boy who needs to make his way in the world; he sets off on an adventure to find treasure that’s been left on an island, a map to which he found crumpled in the pockets of an old dead pirate who stayed at his mother’s inn. Stevenson paid homage to all the old adventure fiction writers at the beginning of the novel by writing a little poem:

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,

Storm and adventure, heat and cold,

If schooners, islands, and maroons

And Buccaneers and buried Gold

And all the old romance, retold,

Exactly in the ancient way,

Can please, as me they pleased of old,

The wiser youngsters of to-day:

—So be it, and fall on! If not,

If studious youth no longer crave,

His ancient appetites forgot,

Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,

Or Cooper of the wood and wave:

So be it, also! And may I

And all my pirates share the grave,

Where these and their creations lie!


This makes the empire sound all very exciting, doesn’t it? Dashing pirates and buried treasure! And Stevenson’s novel featured one character who has perhaps outlasted Stevenson’s novel: Long John Silver, who gave us our image of a pirate, with a parrot on his shoulder, one leg, tough, and who has recently featured in the popular TV series Black Sails, envisaged as a prequel to Treasure Island.

Of course at this time we get less able, more popular writers like G. A. Henty writing overtly imperial novels (over 50 of them in total he wrote) which all feature young British boys going off to serve the empire in some way. Henty was overtly racist, and some of his novels are distasteful to read today, featuring as they do the “N” word and portraying black people as “uncivilised”—he’s best left, in my opinion, in the dustbin of literary history. His counterparts like Stevenson wrote much better stories anyway.

A selection of novels by G. A. Henty

Yet it wasn’t all fun and games in the empire. At the same time as Britain was expanding its empire, some pseudo-scientists became obsessed with building the Anglo-Saxon “master race,” because the rank-and-file of the British army, composed primarily of working-class people, were generally unhealthy, living in cramped, crowded conditions and prone to disease. A number of volunteers for the Boer War, which Britain waged against South African farmers between 1899 and 1902, had to be turned away because they were medically unfit (during this war, also, the British came up with the first ever concentration camps). So, concerns over national and imperial “degeneracy” filtered into the novel: works such as Richard Jeffrey’s After London, published in 1885, depicted a United Kingdom of the future whose empire had fallen, and the country having become a backward place, overgrown, with only peasants working the land on what had once been the industrial and financial centre of the world. We also find works such as H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, published in 1896, express philosophical concerns over the idea that man can “intervene” in nature to “improve” it, or what we might now call genetic engineering. In Wells’s novel, a crazed scientist (they’re usually “mad” in novels), on his own private tropical island, has spliced human and animal DNA together and created some truly grotesque specimens of nature—grotesque to look at, that is, although some of them have good hearts. Indeed the novel forces us to question, a bit like Frankenstein in the earlier part of the century, who was indeed the “monster” in the world: the scientist or his creations? Whichever interpretation one chooses from a novel, of course, although it sounds clichéd, there is no right or wrong answer—it’s often in fiction, much like in films today, that complex philosophical, social, and political questions are raised, causing the reader to think.


Although Queen Victoria died in 1901, the “Victorian” age is usually said to have lasted until 1914—people’s way of life, with the exception of some new technological advancements like the radio and the automobile—remained largely unchanged. That is until the outbreak of World War One—involving nearly all of the Western world, South America, India, Russia, and Africa—it was the first “industrial” war. The carnage was unprecedented. There is a popular saying, I forget who it is attributed to, but it goes something like: the state makes war and war makes the state. It was clear after this that the old Victorian social hierarchies and British culture at large would never be the same again. There was a sense that people were less deferential to their “betters,” workers were demanding better housing conditions, labour-saving devices meant people were hiring fewer servants. Change was definitely in the air and writers and intellectuals were casting off their Victorian heritage; the ideologies of imperialism and strict social hierarchies began to be attacked by writers and intellectuals. Most tellingly, in 1918, Lytton Strachey published Eminent Victorians in which he satirized leading men and women of the Victorian era: the “saintly” Florence Nightingale was portrayed as a veritable demon to those working under her; General Gordon, the British general who died at Khartoum (who disobeyed orders trying to hold the city when the British government specifically said they were not interested in gaining possession of it) was portrayed as a religious nutjob zealot (he didn’t want the Muslim Mahdi taking control of it and undermining British, Christian “honour”).

Virginia Woolf

Strachey was a member of the Bloomsbury Group—a group of bourgeois poets, novelists, literary critics, and philosophers whose members included Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, and E. M. Forster—who cast off the Victorian literary tradition, with its focus on society, and instead stressed the ideology of individualism. From now on, novels would not attempt to grapple with or answer the big social questions of the day but instead depicted an individual character attempting to adapt to changing personal circumstances. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925, for example, depicts a woman trying to arrange a “society party,” and through this we meet several characters who are all going through personal struggles: there is the veteran Septimus Smith and his wife, to take one example, who are trying to cope with the former’s mental illness.

Now, and perhaps I’m biased because I just don’t like post-Victorian novels, but the Victorians knew that they were writing to entertain readers. Yes, Victorian novels could grapple with complex social questions, but they could be enjoyed by readers from all classes (and most people in the Victorian era possessed a basic degree of literacy). And many writers like Dickens, early in their careers, were poor themselves—Dickens was a skint court reporter before he became a novelist. But in the twentieth century, sad to say, the novel becomes very bourgeois and very elitist, many writers seem to have forgotten that they were supposed to, you know, entertain people; instead of the primary purpose being to tell a good story, modernists attempted to “encode” their works multiple layers of meaning; they wanted their readers to ponder every phrase and metaphor used.

In the modernist novel we also find fairly “new” literary techniques such as the “stream of consciousness” in which, to give the impression of realism, characters engage in long inner monologues, often with no punctuation on the page. Take this example from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):

a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office the alarmlock next door at cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so that I can get up early.

“Before Joyce,” argues Declan Kiberd, “no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking.” Joyce’s novel—said to be the epitome of modernist literature—even set about “experimenting” with the arrangement of the text itself: there are no chapter headings or titles—it was a literal break with the literary tradition of the past. I struggle with Joyce’s novel, as do many in fact. Give me a fun Victorian novel any day (I don’t have to be impartial when discussing novels!)

Joyce and Woolf died in 1941, and after this, we apparently enter the period of the post-modern novel. Now, all other previous forms of fiction had certain “rules”: it should be moralist (eighteenth century), it should deal with social issues (nineteenth century), it has to pretend to be “real” (all novels from nineteenth to twentieth century), it should deal with individualism (as in the modernist novel). But the post-modern novel is hard to define because (so its often pompous practitioners claim), postmodernism rejects all rules. It encompasses parody and pastiche, “magic realism” (where supernatural occurrences are depicted as mundane—not sure how this really differs from supernatural gothic novels but there we go); there’s also black humour, spontaneous prose—sometimes it feels like a catch all term for writers to claim to be a novelist when writing what is most definitely not a novel in any coherent way. Because of that, it’s actually quite hard to define because if I then say something is postmodern I am immediately applying criteria to it then I’m imposing rules and it ceases to be post-modern.

All of which nicely brings us up to modern times. Of course, not every novelist today is a postmodernist—it’s telling that some of the bestsellers of today such as Stephen King, J. K. Rowling—still write novels in what I’d call the adventurous more “Victorian” style. The settings are updated, but these still essentially draw on motifs like the boy hero (Victorian) or the supernatural (the eighteenth-century gothic).

Now, you may think I’ve been somewhat Anglo-centric here. I have indeed focused upon the English novel. There were of course French novels, German novels, Italian novels, and so on—all of these were different from English novels (French and Italian make no linguistic distinction between romance and novel, as they all come under the umbrella of roman and romanzo respectively). The novel was a peculiarly English invention. This of course raises questions about recent debates to “decolonise” the English university curriculum because most of the authors are white, male, middle-class and, because the novel and the literary canon is an Anglo-American construct, is held by some to be implicitly racist and colonialist. But asking a canon of novels not to be “white” would be like asking a dreamcatcher not to be Native American. Some Victorian novelists were without a doubt racist, and many novels do feature colonialism in some way, but should we still study their works and read them for enjoyment? Can we detach the novel from its historical and intellectual context? Can a novel “stand on its own”? I don’t have any concrete answers to these and they’re more debating points.


But let us conclude: the novel began in the eighteenth century because predominantly middle-class readers wanted to read stories about people like themselves rather than the old medieval-style prose romances which flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Novelists had to pretend their works were “real” for this purpose. Almost as soon as the novel was born we had divergence into different genres: science fiction, gothic, contemporary, historical. Novels also had to be didactic and they usually reflected societal and cultural ideologies, fears, and anxieties; novelists often had to make a moral point, and this, of course, is what all writers want to do: they write novels because they feel they have “something to say” about people and society.


Select Bibliography

Basdeo, Stephen, Heroes of the British Empire (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020) [FORTHCOMING]

————, ‘The Changing Representations of Polite Society in Eighteenth-Century Literature’ (Unpublished BA thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2013)

McKeon, Michael, ed. The Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2000)

Michals, Teresa, Books for Adults, Books for Children: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Patrick, Josh, ‘The Main Characteristics of Modernist Literature’, Pen and the Pad, 13 June 2017, accessed 22 September 2019 https://penandthepad.com

Richetti, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Watt, Ian, The Rise of the Novel, rev. ed. (London: Vintage, 2003)

Williams, Abigail, The Social Life of Books (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017)

5 replies »

    • Well, today it’s classed as a novel (and it’s certainly not a hill I’ll die on 😊), but in the 18th century it wouldn’t have been classed as a novel

  1. Interesting. Do you not regard Don Quixote as a novel?
    On Fri, 21 May 2021, 20:23 Here Begynneth A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood…, wrote:
    > SB posted: ” By Stephen Basdeo A lecture delivered to first year > undergraduates at RIASA Leeds on 22 September 2019 as part of the GEP4180 > Research and Writing (II) module. 1st edition of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe > (1819) — a 19th-century bestseller! Accord” >