Rise of English novel | Development of English novel in 18th century

The Rise of English novel was a marked feature of the 18th century literature. In this article I have tried to cover every aspect of the development of English novel in 18th century with reference to some famous literary figures of that period. 

Rise of English Novel

The history of English novel dates from the 16th century with Sir Philip Sidney's  "Arcadia", and is perceived in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" , Bunyan's "The Pilgrims Progress" and Swift's "Gulliver's Travels".

But all of them lacked the essence of a novel for which they appeared more as an anecdote than as a novel. It was in the 18th century that it's development began.

Starting with Samuel Richardson's "Pamela" in 1740, this species of literature reached the height of popularity in the hands of Henry Fielding, Smollett, Lawrence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, Mrs. Anna Radcliffe and so on.

Novel in 18th century

Samuel Richardson

The immaturity of novels were removed with the introduction of new ideas and scopes by the 18th century novelists. Thus, with the coming of Samuel Richardson a closer study of the inner life began.

Through his epistolary novels, he sought to present the middle class society in its minute details and thereby providing the readers with a sentimental stuff. He thus, brushed aside the paraphernalia of romance and brought it to the level of realism.

Richardson's novels depicts women's virtue and men's lust, with the objective of revealing the feminine heart in an appreciative manner.

Morality is also a marked feature of him. He, thus, emphasized its importance in life and suggested its inculcation for the good of the human race. Thus, in "Pamela" his subject matter is to show the virtue of a maid servant who resist the attempt of the seduction and the violation of her chastity by her master. Richardson crowns her virtue by finally enabling her to win her master as her husband.
 In "Clarissa " the tragic death of a virtuous woman is shown, who has became a victim of seduction and family oppression.

 His third novel, " Charles Grandison" is the story of a man's love with two women. It shows the triumph of womanly virtues over man's loose morals.
 All these novels have a moral note which enshrine the 18th century novels.

When studied from the structural standpoint, we have in his novels a set plot, an apt development and a definite conclusion. Richardson thus, stand out almost unrivalled in his age in the sphere of literature.

Henry Fielding

Richardson was followed by another successful master of novel - Henry Fielding. In the rise of English novel the contribution of Fielding were many and varied.

With him came in English novel the touch of realism- he introduced solid and plausible realism in his novels. 

His method is epical, direct and the story is developed through narration as well as conversation. He, thus appears an innovator in the use of short, dramatic dialogue in his novels.

Fielding introduced the comic epics in English novels and is evident in all of his four well known novels, namely, " Joseph Andrews" , " Tom Jones" , " The History of the life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great" and " Amelia".

Thus, in "Joseph Andrews" we have the reverse situation of  "Pamela" . Here is shown the attempt of a mistress to seduce her chaste and honest servant Joseph, avoiding of which he is thrown out of work. 

The initial burlesque had thereafter a turn into an engaging tale of adventure of Joseph in the company of Adam, a parson. 

There is little of plot, but the situations are well handled and exhibits Fielding's endless fertility of comic Inventions.

This skill is well perceived in his next novel, "Jonathan Wild, The Great" , where he presents a romantic account of a vainglorious scoundrel who feels complacent over his grossly immoral acts. 

Fielding's most illustrious work "Tom Jones" is about Jones, an openly passionate and licentious youth who had attempted seduction of a woman named Sophia, but ultimately loved and married her. This novel is characterized as a comic epic in prose, with mock heroic estimate and descriptions, scattered throughout the narrative.

His last novel, " Amelia" , is a touching account of a virtuous woman's attempt to save her misdirected husband.

Fielding's " Amelia" is a new experiment in its 'flash back' technique, so popular in the modern novels. He is also found to set the picaresque tradition in fiction, so much cultivated by his fellow novelist Smollett.

From technical standpoint also, like Richardson, his novels has a set plot, a logical development of action, with suspense and a definite conclusion. Fielding, thus, remained an inexhaustible source of inspiration for his successors and had opened wide the gate of fictional writing.

Tobias Smollett

From Richardson's sentimental morality and Fielding's vigorous comedy, the English novel is found to lead to a new experience in the novels of Tobias Smollett. 

Smollett's originality in English literature is found in his introduction of the picaresque novel.

In "Roderick Random" , the hero, Roderick, is a victim of brutality and becomes himself brutal in his turn. 

His "Peregrine Pickle" is about a retired naval officer, who thinks, feels, talks and behaves wholly in terms of his own profession . He is also a rogue, leading a boisterous life. He, however, ultimately settles to a quite, orderly life after his marriage with a virtuous lady.

Smollett had to his credit four more novels of the picaresque type, namely,  " The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker"  , "The Adventure of Ferdinand Count Fathom" , "The life and adventure of Sir Launcelot Greaves" and "The History and Adventure of an Atom". 

Although Smollett stands inferior to the two giants of his age- Richardson and Fielding, yet, in the march of the English novel and the extension of the English fictional range, Smollett is a memorable name.

Lawrence Sterne

Another novelist of the age is Lawrence Sterne. Sterne was at once a wholesome corrective of Richardson and his complement. The older man treated sensibility with tragic seriousness, Sterne made it yield not only pathos but humour also. 

His " Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy" occupies a prominent position among the eighteenth century fictional writings and is found to introduce a wholly new concept of form in the fictional world. Told in the first person by the hero and narrator, Tristram, the novel is a sentimental comedy. 

" A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy" , is also of the same type, having a fine combination of comic sense and sensibility. 

From the structural standpoint also he stands differently from his predecessors. His plot is rather loose and compound. The structure is also not even and the chapters vary in length from several pages to a single short sentence.

Thus, with Sterne a new dimension in English novel was opened. The novel seems to move from the rigid form to formless; from conventionalism to fantasia. The English novel has a liberation from formalism and a passage towards expressionism.

Other Great Novelist of 18th Century

In the rise and development of English fiction, Dr. Samuel Johnson with his "The History of Rasselas" and Oliver Goldsmith with his " The Vicar of Wakefield" stands among their predecessors and contemporaries.

Goldsmith was found to popularise the domestic novels with his "The Vicar of Wakefield" , which also marks the great beginning of autobiographical novels.

 This great work of Goldsmith breaks a new ground in the 18th century fiction. It's idyllic quality places it apart from the main stream of realistic novels and brings in the line of pastoral and domestic novels.

Next came the followers and imitators of Richardson and Fielding, who contributed towards the popularity of novels. Among them Henry Mackenzie is a notable name.

Mackenzie had to his credit three novels- " The Man of Feeling" , " Man of the World" and " Julia de Roubinge" .

 The first two novels are moral and sentimental; the third one is in the epistolary form of Richardson and deals with the tragedy of a virtuous maid, who loves but marries another. All of them bears the influence of Richardson's technique.

Women novelist also graced English literature in this age. Infact, novel writing by woman was first marked in this age- first in Fanny Burney's "Evelina" .

Among other woman novelist, the contributions of Mrs. Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth and Susan Ferreira is of particular importance.

Towards the end of the 18th century there grew the Gothic romances- developed and cultivated with great care by Mrs. Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Clara Reeve and Charlotte Smith.

In the novel attempted by the above writers horror and supernaturalism came to prominence. The was taken away from the realistic trends left behind by Fielding.

"Vathek" by William Beckford in French, translated into English, was the first significant work among the Gothic Romances. Though not written exactly in the Gothic tradition, it has close resemblance with the Gothic Romances which are pervaded with the supernatural horrors.

It was with Horace Walpole's  "The Castle of Otranto" in 1765 , Gothic romances had its actual beginning.

Mrs. Radcliffe continued the tradition of this popular form of novel with her "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and "The Italian" .

Started with "Vathek" and the works of Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe, a new front in the development of English novels is noted. They may be well honoured as the Innovators of the romantic novels, which attained the height of glory in the next century at the hands of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries.

Thus, in the 18th century, came the swift and abundant blossoming of English novel, raising the type to the rank of one of the major species of literature.

Upon this strong foundation laid down by Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, stands the mighty construction of English novel, going up with the contributions of novelists in every age.

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