The Rise of Novel in 18th Century



 💬 So, let’s first understand what is a Novel.

The term “novel” refers to an extended narrative of varying lengths, but usually long enough to be published as a separate book.
On account of its greater length and scope, the novel has much more complexity than the “Short Story” or “Novella”. It has typically a more involved and multifaceted plot. It provides a more complete description of its background and presents a more complex depiction of its characters’ motives, feelings and experiences than the short story or the novella.


💬 Now that we have a fairly good idea about the definition and nature of novel. Let’s discuss about the factors that facilitated the writing of first English novels in the 18th century.



Eighteenth century is remarkable for the bewildering growth and development of prose. The Socio-political conditions of the early decades favoured growth and evolutions of a prose style capable and versatile enough to express the contemporary human needs and emotions through magazines, articles, essays, pamphlets and periodicals etc. Soon the spread of education and the appearance of newspapers and magazines multiplied the number of readers. Middle class people who hitherto had no experience with reading, had no interest like the upper class, in exaggerated romances and in intriguing picaresque stories. This new mass of people demanded a new type of literature that expressed the ideals of the transforming British Society i.e., the value and the importance of the individual life. This resulted in the birth of novel emphasizing the ideals of personality and the dignity of common life—the ideals that inspired American and French Revolution and that were welcomed by the poets of the romantic revival. These novels were not about knights, kings or heroes, but about plain men and women with their “real-life” thoughts and motives, and struggles. They traced the results of action on realistic characters. This was the motive of early English novelists, like Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne.

These four novelists have been widely recognized as the pioneers of modern English novel. However, prior to these novelists, Daniel Defoe had been writing long narratives in prose, which bear closest resemblance to modern novel that emphasizes more on the display of character and motive than on the unfolding of incidents and adventure. Although, Defoe intended his narratives like Robinson Crusoe (1719) to be a study of human character (a defining trait of modern novel) than a tale of adventures, his novels are read and appreciated mostly for their adventure passages (something found mostly in romances and picaresque stories). Even his so-called “novels” like Captain Singleton, Mall Flanders and Roxana are more like picaresque stories with unnatural moralizing than like modern novels tracing the development of characters. In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe brought the realistic adventure story to a very high stage of its development, but his novels can hardly be classified as a proper modern novel which exploits (makes use of) incidents for the faithful portrayal of human life and character.


💬 Let us now head to the person who actually wrote the very first novel that may be regarded as a proper modern novel.



The credit to write the first modern novel goes to Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Richardson was born in Derbyshire to a joiner. (A joiner is a person whose job is to make the wooden parts of a building, especially window frames, doors, etc.) As a child he received scanty (little) education, but he had a natural talent for writing letters. When he was still a young boy, he was employed by working girls for writing love-letters for them. The company (companionship) of these uneducated women developed in him the understanding of sentiments and emotions. His keen (sensitive) observation of manners is apparent in his oeuvre (body of works). As a young man, Richardson was an industrious printer. He soon became a master-printer and continued to be in the trade throughout his life. By his fifties, he had a reputation of writer of elegant epistles (letters). A publisher approached him with a proposal of writing a series of “Familiar letters”, which could serve as specimens (examples) for learners. Richardson decided to use this letters to tell a story about a girl’s life.

The result of Richardson’s experiment was an epistolary novel called Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The book is in the form of a series of letters that surrounds the life of a poor, but virtuous maid who resists the attempt of his wicked master to have an illicit (here, premarital) relationship. The girl, Pamela’s morality finally transforms his master who marries her in the end. The detailed characterization of his true-to-life characters, especially the central female character and her gradual evolution during the course of the story, was new to the contemporary readers and an important landmark in the history of the English novel.

Clarissa Harlowe (1747-48), also written in the form of a series of letters, was Richardson’s second novel. The novel shows the treachery of men. It is a sentimental novel that narrates the tragedy of the heroine, Clarissa who is harassed by the vicious (cruel) Lovelace. Of all Richardson’s heroines Clarissa is the most human in terms of her confusions, grief and humiliation. The novel bears strong dramatic elements and shows Richardson art of characterization at its best. Many consider the novel to be his masterpiece.

His third and last novel, also in epistolary form, was Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54). Richardson intended his hero to be model of aristocratic manners and virtues for the middle-class class people, among whom were his most of the readers. But Sir Charles is too good and turns out to be boring and unreal. So, it was not a success as Richardson intended.

The most striking feature of Richardson’s novels is his moral purpose. The books are very lengthy with sparsely (not dense) complex plots that developed too slowly. Characters and incidents are also very minutely described, adding to its length. Richardson’s greatest ability lies in his characterization. His novels exhibit his keen psychological insights into human motives and feelings and particularly his understanding of the feminine (female) heart. The voices in his novels lack distinction (here, variation) of style. His novels are fundamentally of sentimental type.



William J. Long praises the expertise of Henry Fielding, another among the pioneers of novel, in these words:

Fielding was the greatest of this new group of novel writers, and one of the most artistic that our literature has produced.”

Fielding was born in Somersetshire, educated at Eton and studied law at Leyden. Contrary to Richardson, he was well-educated and had a deeper knowledge of life owing to his varied and sometimes fierce experiences. Lack of money motivated him to write farces and buffooneries for theatre, which generally lacked merit. After marriage, having spent all his money, he resumed his studies, practiced law, and wrote for theatre and newspaper. In 1748, in his early forties, he was appointed magistrate. His duty fetched him less money, but more of experiences, by exposing him to many types of human criminality, which Fielding used in his novels. Hoping for improvement in his health, he took a voyage to Portugal where he died in some months and was buried in Lisbon. He wrote about his pathetic experiences during his last journey before death in his last work, The Journal of A Voyage To Lisbon. 

Fielding’s first novel came in 1742 and was called “Joseph Andrews”. It was inspired by the success of Richardson’s sentimental “Pamela”. It starts as a burlesque of the “false sentimentality” and the conventional virtues of Richardson’s heroine, but ends up as a lively tale of Joseph and his companion, Adam’s adventures together. The novel is hilarious and coarse to the point of vulgarity. Like Richardson, he doesn’t moralize nor does he force his characters to repent like Defoe. He intends only “to laugh men out of their follies.” The novel is closer to life in depicting reality and human nature.

Fielding’s later novels are Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), the biography of a rogue who was hanged at Newgate; The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), his best work; and Amelia (1751), the story of a good wife in contrast with an unworthy husband. All these works feature vigorous, but course characters. However, they expose Fielding’s lack of taste and ingenuity. His plots are repetitive with minor variations.
Tom Jones is his greatest novel that completes and perfects his literary achievement. With all its strength and weaknesses, the book has a comparatively balanced plot which underscores, with sincerity, truly human “characters” with their fragilities (weaknesses). It also features numerous characters of distinct dispositions (temperaments). His last novel, Amelia is partly autobiographical and possesses power and interest, but lacks the spontaneity of Tom Jones.

Like Richardson, Fielding also understood human heart but his attitude towards human frailties (weaknesses) differed from him. While Richardson started judging and moralizing, Fielding looked at the characters, laughed and passed on. Fielding’s characters were varied, possessed real human qualities and were, therefore, more attractive and relatable. He was sincere in his representation of human nature. William J. Long comments on his works saying:

….though much of his work is perhaps in bad taste and is too coarse for pleasant or profitable reading, Fielding must be regarded as an artist, a very great artist, in realistic fiction…”

Realism‘ is the keynote (central element) of all his works. His narrative is energetic with various settings like highway, cottage and streets of London. His humour is noisy, energetic and even coarse. His characters, like Patridge, Tom Jones’ humble companion, are diversified and exceedingly likeable and lively. His style differed from the artificiality of the earlier novelists in that it was fresh and clear, which provided a glimpse of his own period.



Tobias Smollett (1721-71) was from Scotland and was born in Dunbartonshire. He had to work from an early age and was apprenticed to a surgeon. He developed unnatural peculiarities by going as a surgeon on a battleship, where he saw some fighting and much of the world, including the evils of the navy and of the medical profession. He was to use these experiences in his works later.
Smollett’s three well liked novels are Roderick Random (1748), a series of adventurous tales narrated by the hero; Peregrine Pickle (1751) that narrates Smollett’s worst experiences at sea too directly; and Humphrey Clinker (1771), his last work, which retells the adventures of a Welsh family in a journey through England and Scotland. Smollett was a genius in his ability to catch peculiarities in characters and exaggerate them to portray human eccentricities.

His plots are formless narratives of travel and adventure filled with coarse and brutal humour. He brings variety in his novels by adding endless shifting scenes from different parts of the world and by depicting local manners and customs. His style is plain yet vigorous. His female characters are not well-drawn but his male characters are memorable.


Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768) was born at Clonmel and was educated at Cambridge. He remained a clergyman in Yorkshire for many years. However, his habits were decidedly unclerical. He temporarily left his living for London where he published the first two parts of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), an experimental novel issued in nine parts. He travelled abroad for a while and returned England to write his second novel, the unfinished Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), a comic novel that defies the expectations of a conventional travel book.
Sterne’s works are accurate reflection of their author’s personality. They are a blend of pathos and humour in a manner peculiar to Sterne. His novels often turn out to be offensively sentimental. The humour, however, is quite subtle and intellectual. The strongest element of his narratives is his characterization. His characters, which are based on the author’s subtle analysis of feeling, are humorous and lifelike humane. They are minutely delineated emphasizing their gestures and expression to characterize their personality. The novels lack story and are written in delicate, digressive style subtle to the subject matter.
The publication of The Vicar Of Wakefield in 1766 brings a suitable close to the first series of English novels. Goldsmith’s novel is probably the only work among the early English novels that could be recommended to all readers—a novel that informs its readers about the potential of this new genre. However, each successive novelist among these early author’s brought some new element to Novel. Fielding added animal vigour and humour to Samuel Richardson’s analysis of human heart. Sterne brought brilliance while Goldsmith added purity and honest domestic sentiments. They prepared the “Novel” for the later generations of novelists who were to make it even more varied, versatile and functional as per the needs of their age. Today novel is capable of delineating the idiosyncrasies of a modern man’s heart, thus becoming the favourite of today’s authors and readers alike.

Copyright © Md. Rustam Ansari 2021-2022


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