Rise & Development of The English Novel

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Novel's Origin in Medieval Stories

     Medieval romances and collections of ballads, especially those concerned with the legends of King Arthur, were the germinal sources of the modern novel. They were fiction of a picturesque and lively kind, though rambling in a story. They were peopled by stock characters such as the wicked wizard and the damsel in distress. But they catered to the human longing for fiction and imaginative stimulation.

Development in the Elizabethan Age

      The Elizabethan Age saw the rise of the prose romance, of which Lyly's "Euphues" and Sidney's "Arcadia" are examples. Their prose styles, however, are too fantastic. Characters are rudimentary and there is little attempt at an integrated plot. There is too much of moralizing. But they represent a further step taken towards the beginning of the novel proper.

Picaresque Novel in the Seventeenth Century

      A new type of embryo novel of Spanish origin, namely the picaresque novel, made its appearance at the end of the sixteenth century. It remained popular till the days of Fielding and Smollett. The name derives from the Spanish word Picaro, which means a wandering rogue. Its hero is a rascal, who leads a wandering life full of rather scandalous adventures. The hero is the only link between the various incidents. There were many digressions and interpolated stories. Cervantes's "Don Quixote" is the beppst-known of picaresque tales in Spanish. Le Sage's "Gil Blas" is a French example of this mode of writing.

      The picaresque novel in England began early, with "The Unfortunate Traveller or The Life of Jack Wilton" (1594) by Thomas Nashe. Though crude, it is vigorous and witty. "The English Rogue" (1665) by Richard Head is another of the type —gross and scandalous but energetic. The reader takes a glimpse at different lands in the course of the hero's adventures.

End of the Seventeenth Century and Beginning of the Eighteenth Century: Novel is Assuming Shape

      The novel dimly took shape by the end of the seventeenth century. Aphra Belm's "Orinooko, The Royal Slave" shows power of description, and some claim to plot, characterization and dialogue. Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" (1668), though intended to be an allegory shows a smoothly working plot, a variety of characters, impressive descriptive passages, and simple, dramatic dialogue.

      Daniel Defoe represents the culmination of the seventeenth-century tendencies in English fiction. He emerged as a novelist with the publication of "Robinson Crusoe". Some of his other novels are—"The Memories of a Cavalier," "Captain Singleton," "Moll Flanders", "Colonel Jacob" and "Roxana".

Novelists of the Eighteenth Century "Four Wheels of the Wain"

      In the early eighteenth century, the two prominent essayists Steele and Addison reflected some traits of the novel in their essays, which were published in "The Spectator" and "The Coverly Papers". There is little plot in their essays but the character sketches are very entertaining and reveal the spice of delicate humor.

      Professor Saintsbury designates Tobias George Smollett (1721-1771), Laurence Sterne (171 5-1768), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754), as the "four wheels of the wain" of the English novel in the eighteenth century.

      Richardson, as the creator of the Novel of Sentiment, drew his strength and inspiration from national and middle-class material. His first novel, "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded" (1740) came into existence out of a purely commercial undertaking. It was a popular success because its matter, manner and morality were new. His other novels were "Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady" and "History of Sir Charles Grandison."

      Henry Fielding goes with Samuel Richardson. Though both were reformers of 'a depraved age', their literary methods were different. Fielding was a satirist, whereas Richardson was a preacher. Fielding's first novel was "The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams" (1742). "Jonathan Wild the Great" (1743) is a mock-heroic biography of a famous thief. "The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling" (1749) is the best and most well-known of his novels. His last novel "Amelia" was published in 1751. As a novelist, Fielding marked the rise of a new school of fiction. He created the Novel of Realism, and perfected the satiric Novel of Manners.

      Smollett's novels-"Roderick Random" (1748) "Peregrine Pickle" (1751), "Ferdinand Count Fathom" (1753), "Sir Lancelot Greaves" (1762), "Humphrey Clinker" (1771)—contain his observations and experiences as surgeon, sailor and hack-writer.

      In Sterne's novels-"Tristram Shandy" (1760-1767), "Sentimental Journey" (1798) —the sentimental novel reaches the extreme limits of its principle.


      It was Fielding who gave to the English novel a new conception of unity and breadth and depth which was not to be discerned in any of his predecessors. It is the work of the fiction writers prior to him, against the background of which he shines.

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