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A novel (from French nouvelle Italian "novella", "new") is an extended, generally fictional narrative, typically in prose. Until the eighteenth century, the word referred specifically to short fictions of love and intrigue as opposed to romances, which were epic-length works about love and adventure. Literary theory of genres has not yet managed to isolate a "single definite, stable characteristic of the novel" that holds without reservations.

During the 18th century the novel adopted features of the old romance and became one of the major literary genres. It is today defined mostly by its ability to become the object of literary criticism demanding artistic merit and a specific 'literary' style—or specific literary styles.


One meaning of the English word novel has remained stable: "novel" can still signify what is new owing to its "novelty". When it comes to fiction, however, the meaning of the term has changed over time:

  • The period 1200-1750 saw a rise of the novel (originally a short piece of fiction) rivaling the romance (the epic-length performance). This development, which one could describe as the first rise of the novel, occurred across Europe, though only the Spanish and the English went one step further and allowed the word novel (Spanish: novela) to become their regular term for fictional narratives.
  • The period 1700-1800 saw the rise of a "new romance" in reaction to the production of potentially scandalous novels. The movement encountered a complex situation in the English market, where the term "new romance" could hardly be ventured, after the novel had done so much to transform taste. The new genre also adopted the name novel: this new novel was a work of new epic proportions, with the effect that the English (and Spanish) eventually needed a new word for the original short "novel": The term novella was created to fill the gap in English; "short story" brought a further refinement.

The meaning of the term "romance" changed within the same complex process, becoming the word for a love story whether in life or fiction. Other meanings include the musicologist's genre "Romance" of a short and amiable piece, or Romance languages for the languages derived from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and Portuguese).


The modern novel can no longer be seen as an entirely European product. Works western critics can identify as novels - works like The Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century - works of prose fiction focusing on love stories and the individual, have been composed outside Europe centuries before comparable works came to be written by western authors. Non-European modern Authors such as Amos Tutuola have successfully brought their own traditions of the epic and the shorter story into the field of the European novel.

One can on the other hand say that the modern novel needed the media Europe finally produced between 1400 and 1500: media based on the cheap production of paper which can circulate on the book market. The modern novel is neither the epic handed down from generation to generation in a culture of archaic traditions nor is it the story flourishing as everyday entertainment in a broad variety of tales and jokes right into our own culture. It is - long and written in prose - a product designed for private reading, it is at the very same moment a product designed to be consumed on a mass market, a work creating its tensions and its fashions as its readers understand that their book is at the same moment read by other readers in comparable situations of seclusion and privacy.

Western Traditions

As Pierre Daniel Huet noted in 1670, the tradition of such works went back as far as Virgil and Homer. The regular format was verse, suiting the purpose of tradition in a culture of oral performances. Today, we see this tradition as going back even further, to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and in Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

It is more difficult to speak of the influence of the shorter performances of regular storytelling on the medieval traditions which led to the development of the novel/novella.

There was a third tradition of prose fictions, both in a satirical mode (with Petronius' Satyricon, the incredible stories of Lucian of Samosata, and Lucius Apuleius' proto-picaresque The Golden Ass) and a heroic strain (with the romances of Heliodorus and Longus et al.). The ancient Greek romance was revived by Byzantine novelists of the twelfth century. All these traditions were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ultimately influencing the modern book market.

Romance, 1000-1500

The word romance seems to have become the label of romantic fictions because of the "Romance" language in which early (11th and twelfth century) works of this genre were composed. The most fashionable genres developed in southern France in the late twelfth century and spread east- and northwards with translations and individual national performances. Subject matter such as Arthurian knighthood had already at that time traveled in the opposite direction, reaching southern France from Britain and French Brittany. As a consequence, it is particularly difficult to determine how much the early "romance" owed to ancient Greek models and how much to northern folkloric verse epics such as Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied.

The standard plot of the early romance was a series of adventures. Following a plot framework as old as Heliodorus, and so durable as to be still alive in Hollywood movies, a hero would undergo a first set of adventures before he met his lady. A separation would follow, with a second set of adventures leading to a final reunion. Variations kept the genre alive. Unexpected and peculiar adventures surprised the audience in romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Classics of the romance developed such as the Roman de la Rose, written first in French, and famous today in English thanks to the translation by Geoffrey Chaucer.

These original "romances" were verse works, adopting a "high language" thought suitable for heroic deeds and to inspire the emulation of virtues; prose was considered "low", more suitable for satire). Verse allowed the culture of oral traditions to live on, yet it became the language of authors who carefully composed their texts — texts to be spread in writing, thus to preserve the careful artistic composition. The subjects were aristocratic. The textual tradition of ornamented and illustrated handwritten books afforded patronage by the aristocracy or by the monied urban class developing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for whom knight errantry most clearly was a world of fiction and fantasy.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the emergence of the first prose romances along with a new book market. This market had developed even before the first printing facilities were introduced: prose authors could speak a new language, a language avoiding the repetition inherent in rhymes. Prose could risk a new rhythm and longer thoughts. Yet it needed the written book to preserve the coincidental formulations the author had chosen. While the printing press was yet to arrive, the commercial book production trade had already begun. Legends, lives of saints and mystical visions in prose were the main object of the new market of prose productions. The urban elite and female readers in upper class households and monasteries read religious prose. Prose romances appeared as a new and expensive fashion in this market. They could only truly flourish with the invention of the printing press and with paper becoming a cheaper medium. Both of these achievements arrived in the late fifteenth century, when the old romance was already facing fierce competition from a number of shorter genres; most salient among these genres was the novel, a form that arose in the course of the fourteenth century.

Early novel, 1000-1600

It is difficult to give a full catalog of the genres that finally culminated - with the works of Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Niccolò Machiavelli and Miguel de Cervantes - in the original "novel", the production today generally categorized under the term "novella".

The early "novel" contrasting the early "romance" was basically any story told for its spectacular or revealing incidents. The original environment - living on with the typical frame settings - was the entertaining conversation. Stories of grave incidents could just as well augment sermons. Collections of examples facilitated the work of preachers in need of such illustrations. A fable could illustrate a moral conclusion; a short historical reflection could do the same. A competition of genres developed. Tastes and social status were decisive, if one believes the medieval collections. The working classes loved their own brand of drastic stories: stories of clever cheating, wit and ridicule levelled against hated social groups (or competitors among the storytellers). Much of the original genre is still alive with the short joke told in everyday life to make a certain humorous point in a conversation.

Artistic performances included the story within a story: situations in which a series of stories was allegedly told. They rejoiced in a broad pattern of tastes and genres. The Canterbury Tales constitute a classic example, with their noble storytellers fond of "romantic" stories and their lower narrators preferring stories of everyday life. The genre did not have its own generic term. "Novel" would simply denote the novelty of the accident narrated. The inclusion of frame stories, however, brought an awareness of the fact that genres were developing in this field.

The main advantage of the background story was the justification it put into the hands of the actual authors such as Chaucer and Boccaccio. Romances afforded lofty language and relied on an accepted notion of what deserved to be read as high style. Yet what if the taste in moral teachings and poetry changed? Romances quickly became outdated. Stories of cheats and pranks, illicit love affairs, and clever intrigues in which certain respectable professions or the citizens of another town were made fun of were, on the other hand, neither morally nor poetically justifiable. They carried their justification outside. The storyteller would offer a few words explaining why he thought this story was worth telling. Again, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales afford the best examples: the real author could tell stories without any other justification than that this story gave a good portrait of the person who told it and of his or her taste, and that justification would remain stable throughout history.

If lofty performances grew tedious - as they did in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the old plots never leading to newer ones - the collections of tales or novels made it easy to criticise the lofty performances and to reduce their status: one of the group of narrators (created by the actual author) could start with the romantic story only to be interrupted by the other narrators listening within the story. They might silence him or order him to speak a language they liked, or they might ask him to speed up and to make his point. The result was a rise of the short genre. The steps of this development can be traced with the short story gaining in appreciation and value to rival romances in new versified collections at the end of the fourteenth century.

Nonetheless, by the early to mid sixteenth century, the novel was a popular enough form of literature for at least one newly discovered area - the land of California - to be named after a place in a novel, Las sergas de Esplandián.

Conflict between novels and romances, 1600-1700

The invention of printing subjected both novels and romances to a first wave of trivialization and commercialization. Printed books were expensive, yet something people would buy, just as people still buy expensive things they can barely afford. Alphabetization, or the rise of literacy, was a slow process when it came to writing skills, but was faster as far as reading skills were concerned. The Protestant Reformation created new readers of religious pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets.

The urban population learned to read, but did not aspire to participation in the world of letters. The market of chapbooks developing with the printing press comprised both romances and short histories, tales and fables. Woodcuts were the regular ornament and they were offered without much care. A romance in which the heroic knight had to fight more than ten duels within a few pages could get the same illustration of such a fight again and again if the printer's stock of standard illustrations was small. As their stocks grew, printers repeated the same illustrations in other books with similar plots, mixing these illustrations without respect to style. One can open eighteenth century chapbooks and find illustrations from the early years of printing next to much more modern ones.

Romances were reduced to cheap and abrupt plots resembling modern comic books; neither were the first collections of novels necessarily prestigious projects. They appeared with an enormous variety from folk tales over jests to stories told by Boccaccio and Chaucer, now venerable authors.

A more prestigious market of romances developed in the sixteenth century, with multi-volume works aiming at an audience which would subscribe to this production. The criticism levelled against romances by Chaucer's pilgrims grew in response to both trivialization and the extended multi-volume "romances". Romances like the Amadis de Gaula led their readers into dream worlds of knighthood and fed them with ideals of a past no one could revitalize, or so the critics complained.

Italian authors like Machiavelli were among those who brought the novel into a new format: while it remained a story of intrigue, ending in a surprising point, the observations were now much finer: how did the protagonists manage their intrigue? How did they keep their secrets, what did they do when others threatened to discover them?

The whole question of novels and romances became critical when Cervantes added his Novelas Exemplares (1613) to the two volumes of his Don Quixote (1605/15). The famous satirical romance was levelled against the Amadis which had made Don Quixote lose his mind. Advocates of the lofty romance, however, would claim that the satirical counterpart of the old heroic romance could hardly teach anything: Don Quixote neither offered a hero to be emulated nor did it satisfy with beautiful speeches; all it could do was to make fun of lofty ideals. The Novelas Exemplares offered an alternative to the heroic and the satiric modes, yet critics were even less sure what to make of this production. Cervantes told stories of adultery, jealousy and crime. If these stories were to give examples, they gave examples of immoral actions. The advocates of the "novel" responded that their stories taught with both good and bad examples. The reader could still feel compassion and sympathy with the victims of crimes and intrigues, if evil examples were to be told.

The alternative to dubious novels and satirical romances were better, lofty romances: a production of romances modeled after Heliodorus arrived as a possible answer with excursions into the bucolic world. Honoré d'Urfé's L'Astrée (1607-27) became the most famous work of this type. The criticism that these romances had nothing to do with real life was answered through the device of the roman à clef (literally "novel with a key") — one that, properly understood, alludes to characters in the real world. John Barclay's Argenis (1625-26) appeared as a political Roman à clef. The romances of Madeleine de Scudéry gained greater influence with plots set in the ancient world and content taken from life. The famous author told stories of her friends in the literary circles of Paris and developed their fates from volume to volume of her serialized production. Readers of taste bought her books, as they offered the finest observation of human motives, characters taken from life, and excellent morals regarding how one should and should not behave if one wanted to succeed in public life and in the intimate circles she portrayed.

The novel went its own way: Paul Scarron (himself a hero in the romances of Madeleine de Scudéry) published the first volume of his Roman Comique in 1651 (successive volumes appeared in 1657 and, by another hand, in 1663) with a plea for the development Cervantes had introduced in Spain. France should (as he wrote in the famous twenty first chapter of the Roman Comique [1]) imitate the Spanish with little stories like those they called "novels". Scarron himself added numerous of such stories to his own work.

Twenty years later Madame de La Fayette took the next decisive steps with her two novels. The first, her Zayde (published in 1670 together with Pierre Daniel Huet's famous Treatise on the Origin of Romances), was a "Spanish history". Her second and more important novel appeared in 1678: La Princesse de Clèves proved that France could actually produce novels of a particularly French taste. The Spanish enjoyed stories of proud Spaniards who fought duels to avenge their reputations. The French had a more refined taste with minute observation of human motives and behavior. The story was firmly a "novel" and not a "romance": a story of unparalleled female virtue, with a heroine who had had the chance to risk an illicit amour and not only withstood the temptation but made herself more unhappy by confessing her feelings to her husband. The gloom her story created was entirely new and sensational.

The regular novel took another turn. The late seventeenth century saw the emergence of a European market for scandal, with French books now appearing mostly in the Netherlands (where censorship was liberal) to be clandestinely imported back into France. The same production reached the neighboring markets of Germany and Britain, where it was welcomed both for its French style and its predominantly anti-French politics. The novel flourished in this market as the best genre to purport scandalous news. The authors claimed the stories they had to tell were true, told not for the sake of scandal but only for the moral lessons they gave. To prove this, they fictionalized the names of their characters and told these stories as if they were novels. (The audience played its own game in identifying who was who). Journals of little stories appeared — the Mercure Gallant became the most important. Collections of letters added to the market; these included more of these little stories and led to the development of the epistolary novel in the late seventeenth century.

The novel had interested the English audience ever since Chaucer's days, it had been read in translations of Spanish and French novels throughout the 17th century. In the late 1680s English authors decided to create a modern English equivalent. Aphra Behn and William Congreve adopted the old term and wrote new "novels".

Market around 1700

Early eighteenth century novels and romances were still not considered part of the world of learning, hence not part of "literature"; instead they were market goods. If one opened the term catalogues it was mostly situated in the predominantly political field of "History and Politicks" with some romances like Cervantes' Don Quixote translated into verse becoming poetical. The integration of prose fiction into the market of histories appeared under the following scheme:

image positioning
Heroical Romances:
Fénelon's Telemach (1699)
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of public affairs:

Manley's New Atalantis (1709)
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of private affairs:

Menantes' Satyrischer Roman (1706)
Classics of the novel from the Arabian Nights to M. de La Fayette's Princesse de Clèves (1678)
Sold as true private history, risking to be read as romantic invention:

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Sold as true public history, risking to be read as romantic invention:

La Guerre d'Espagne (1707)
Satirical Romances:
Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605)
from Olaf Simons, Marteaus Europa
(Amsterdam, 2001), p.194

The centre of the market was held by fictions which claimed to be fictions and which were read as such. They comprised a high production of romances and, at the bottom end, an opposing production of satirical romances. In the centre, the novel had grown, with stories that were neither heroic nor predominantly satirical, yet mostly realistic, short and stimulating with their examples of human actions to be discussed.

Outside the centre, the market had two wings: On the left hand, one had books which claimed to be romances, but which threatened to be anything but fictitious. Delarivier Manley wrote the most famous of them, her New Atalantis, full of stories the author claimed to have invented. The censors were helpless: Manley had hawked stories discrediting the ruling Whigs, yet should they ask the Whigs to prove that all these stories actually happened on British soil rather than on the fairytale island Atalantis? This was what they had to do if they wanted to sue the author. Delarivier Manley escaped the interrogations unscathed and continued her libellous work with three more volumes of the same ilk. Private stories appeared on the same market, creating a different genre of personal love and public battles over lost reputations.

On the other hand, one had a market of titles which claimed to be strictly non-fictional — Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe became the most important of them. The genre-identification: "Sold as true private history, risking to be read as romantic invention" opened the preface:

IF ever the Story of any private Man's Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish'd, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so.
     The Wonders of this Man's Life exceed all that (he thinks) is to be found extant; the Life of one Man being scarce capable of a greater Variety.
The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always ap[p]ly them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honor the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.
     The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch'd [later editions: disputed], that the Improvement of it, as well as the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such he thinks, without farther Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication.[2]

A production of histories of similar verisimilitude dove into the overtly political. Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras (1644-1712) became the most important author in this field with his first version of d'Artagnan's story, told again more than a century later by Alexandre Dumas the elder. Witty, and a distant precursor of Ian Fleming's fictional James Bond, is another book allegedly by his hand: La Guerre d'Espagne (1707), the story of a disillusioned French spy, who gave insight into French politics, and into his own love affairs, with little intrigues he managed wherever he had to do his jobs. Fact and fiction were mixed in all these titles, to the point that one could no longer tell where the author had invented and where he had simply betrayed secrets.

"New romance", 1700-1800

The early eighteenth century — with the novel diving into private and public scandal — had reached a state of affairs where a new reform seemed desirable. The old Amadis could be said to have driven its readers into dream worlds, and the new novels, devoid of lofty speeches and incredible acts of heroism, had done much to refine taste. Yet they had created entirely new risks, with stories of love in which children cheated their parents, and with which private and public gossip were published on the open market.

Jane Barker was among the eighteenth century voices who demanded a return to the old antiquated romance. Her "new romance" Exilius (1715) opened with the sketch of a new tradition: the romance had, so Jane Barker claimed, developed from Geoffrey Chaucer to François Fénelon; the latter was the author who had just become famous with his epochal romance Telemachus (1699/1700).

Fénelon's English publishers had carefully avoided the term "romance" and rather published a "new epic in prose" — so the prefaces. Jane Barker insisted, however, on publishing Exilius as "New Romance [...] after the manner of Telemachus", and failed on the market. In 1719 her publisher, Edmund Curll, finally removed the old title pages and offered her works as a collection of novels.

The big market success of the next decade, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, appeared that very year and William Taylor, the publisher, avoided these traps with a title page claiming neither the realm of novels nor that of romances, but that of histories, yet with a page design tasting all too much of the "new romance" with which Fénelon had just become famous.

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was everything but a novel, as the term was understood at the time. It wasn't short, it didn't focus on an intrigue, and it wasn't told for the sake of a clear cut-point. Nor was Crusoe an anti-hero of a satirical romance, though he spoke in the first person singular and had stumbled into all kinds of miseries. He did not really invite laughter (though readers of taste would read, of course, all his proclamations about being a real man as made in good humour). The feigned author was serious: against his will his life had brought him into this series of most romantic adventures. He had fallen into the hands of pirates and survived years on an uninhabited island. He had survived all this — a mere sailor from York — with exemplary heroism. If readers read his work as a romance, full of sheer invention, he could not blame them. He and his publisher knew that all he had to tell was strictly unbelievable, and yet they would claim it was true (and if not, still readable as good allegory) — this is the complex game which puts this work into the fourth column of the pattern above.

Reformation, 1700-1800

The publication of Robinson Crusoe did not directly lead to the mid-18th century market reform. Crusoe's books were published as dubious histories; they played the game of the scandalous early eighteenth century market, with the novel fully integrated into the realm of histories. They even appeared reprinted by one of the London newspapers as a possibly true relation of facts. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned Robinson Crusoe into a classic decades later, and it took another century before one could see Defoe's book as the first English "novel" — published, as Ian Watt saw it in 1957 — as an answer to the market of French romances.

The reform of the early eighteenth century market of novels came with the production of classics: 1720 saw the decisive edition of classics of the European novel published in London with titles from Machiavelli to Marie de Lafayette. Aphra Behn's "novels" had over the last decades appeared in collections of her works. The author of the 1680s had become a classic by now. Fénelon had become a classic years ago, as had Heliodorus. The works of Petronius and Longos appeared, equipped with prefaces which put them into the tradition of prose fiction Huet had defined. Prose fiction itself, according to the critics, had a history of ups and downs: having run into a crisis with the Amadis, it found its remedy with the novel. It now needed continuous care. Yet, all in all, it could claim to be the most elegant part of the belles lettres, the new market segment within the bigger market of literature, embracing the new classics.

Huet's Traitté de l'origine des romans, first published in 1670 and now circulating in a number of translations and editions, won a central position among those writings which dealt with prose fiction. The Treatise had created the first corpus of texts to be discussed and it had been the first title that demonstrated how one could "interpret" worldly fictions, just as a theologian would interpret parts of the gospel in a theological debate. The interpretation needed its aims, of course, and Huet had offered a number of questions one could ask: What did the fictional work of a foreign culture or distant period tell us about those who constructed the fiction? What were the cultural needs such stories answered? Are there fundamental anthropological premises which make us create fictional worlds? Did these fictions entertain, divert and instruct? Did they — as one could assume when reading ancient and medieval myths — just provide a substitute for better, more scientific knowledge, or did they add to the luxuries of life a particular culture enjoyed? The ancient Mediterranean erotic stories could afford such an interpretation.

The interpretation and analysis of classics placed readers of fictions in an entirely new and improved position: it made a vast difference whether you read a romance and got lost in a dream world or whether you read the same romance with a preface telling you more about the Greeks, Romans, or Arabs who produced titles like the Aethopica or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (first published in Europe from 1704 to 1715 in French, and translated immediately from this edition into English and German).

Novels as literature, 1740-1800

The early eighteenth century market for classics of prose fiction inspired living authors. Aphra Behn, writing in relative anonymity, became a celebrated author posthumously. Fénelon achieved the same fame during his lifetime. Delarivier Manley, Jane Barker and Eliza Haywood followed their famous French models who had dared to claim fame with their real names: the Madame d'Aulnoy and Anne Marguerite Petit du Noyer. Most novels had previously been pseudonymous; now they became the productions of famous authors.

The discourse necessary to appreciate such a move towards responsibility was yet underdeveloped. Journals discussing literature focussed on "learning", literature in the strict sense of the word. So far, most discussion of novels and romances had taken place within the field itself. Literary criticism, a critical, external discourse about poetry and fiction, arose only in the second half of the eighteenth century. It opened an interaction between separate participants in which novelists would write in order to be criticised and in which the public would observe the interaction between critics and authors. The new criticism of the late eighteenth century offered a reform by establishing a market of works worthy to be discussed (whilst the rest of the market would thus continue but lose most of its public appeal). The result was a market division into a low field of popular fictions and a critical literary production. The latter, privileged works — those which rivalled ancient verse epics to be discussed as art, which played with the traditions of prose fiction (they opened an internal discourse about the history of literature), and which were of a clearly defined fictional status — these alone could be discussed as works created by an artist who wanted this and no other story to be discussed by the audience.

Design of title pages changed: new novels no longer pretended to sell fictions whilst threatening to betray real secrets. Nor did they appear as false "true histories". The new title pages pronounced their works to be fictions, and indicated how the public might discuss them. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) was one of the titles which brought the novel-title, with its [...], or [...] formula offering an example, into the new format: "Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded – Now first published in order to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes, A Narrative which has the Foundation in Truth and Nature; and at the same time that it agreeably entertains…" So the title page read, and made it clear that the work was crafted by an artist aiming at a certain effect, yet to be discussed by the critical audience. A decade later novels needed no status other than that of being novels: fiction. Present-day editions of novels simply state "Fiction" on the cover. It had become prestigious to be sold under the label, asking for discussion and thought.

Scandal as published by DuNoyer or Delarivier Manley vanished from the market of prose fiction — whether high or low culture. It could not attract serious critics and was lost if it remained undiscussed. It ultimately needed its own brand of scandalous journalism, which developed into the yellow press. The low market of prose fiction went on to focus on immediate satisfaction of an audience enjoying its stay in the fictional world. The high market grew complex, with works playing new games.

In the high market, one could eventually see two traditions developing: one of works playing with the art of fiction — Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy among them — the other closer to the prevailing discussions and moods of its audience. The great conflict of the nineteenth century, as to whether artists should write to satisfy the public or whether to produce art for art's sake, was yet to come.

Sentimentalism, psychology, and the new individual, 1750-1850

The second half of the 18th century was one of those eras in which the novel has been the dominant genre.[1]

The mid- and late eighteenth century "novel of sentimentalism" produced an entirely new individual, one with a different attitude towards privacy and the public. Whereas the early eighteenth century heroine had been bold and ready to protect her reputation if necessary in a press war, her mid-18th century descendant was far too modest and shy to do the same. Early eighteenth century heroines had their secrets, they loved effective intrigues, they tried whatever they felt necessary to get what they wanted. Mid-18th century heroines developed a feeling of modesty. They suffered if they had to keep secrets and felt an urge to confess. They searched for friends and intimacy, for situations in which they could freely open their hearts and speak of their deepest wishes.

The eighteenth century audience saw these new heroes and heroines with amazement. When it came to their most secret wishes they dared to confide in their parents and friends — a trust which would have made them easy victims in the early eighteenth century world of fiction, libel, intrigue and scandal. Now, however, these weak heroines met an environment of compassion. Instead of making their affairs a public entertainment, the new heroes and heroines developed an intimacy into which the novel alone could take a careful look.

Special genres flourished with these protagonists who would not wash their dirty linen in public. Their letters or diaries were found and published only after their deaths. A wave of sentimentalism was the first result, leading to heroes like Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling (1771). A second wave followed with more radical heroes who could no longer dream of an environment understanding them. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was at the forefront of the new movement, and yielded a wave of compassion and understanding with readers ready to follow Werther into his suicide.

Critics embraced the new heroes as the best sign of a new literature which aimed at discussions. The understanding these heroes craved for afforded a secondary discussion — a discussion of the nature of the human psyche so much better observed by these new novels.

The novel, with these developments, had turned advocacy of individual and societal moral reform into a genre. With the romantic movement beginning in the 1770s, the development went one step further: the novel became the medium of an avant garde, the genre where emotions found their test cases. German authors developed the Bildungsroman, a novel focussing on the development of the individual, their education and their way into individuality and society. New sciences like sociology to psychology developed along with the new individual and influenced the discussions surrounding the novel in the nineteenth century.

19th century

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the novel had been a genre of realism fighting the romance with its wild fantasies. The novel had turned first to scandal before undergoing reform over the last decades of the eighteenth century. Fiction eventually became the most honourable field of literature. This development culminated in a wave of novels of fantasy at the turn of the nineteenth century. Sensibility was heightened in these novels. Women, overwrought and prone to imagining worlds beyond their appointed one, became the heroines of the new world of "romances" and "gothic novels" creating stories in distant times and places. Renaissance Italy was a favorite setting of the gothic novel.

The classic gothic novel is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). As in other gothic novels, the notion of the sublime is central. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theory held that the sublime and the beautiful were juxtaposed. The sublime was awful (literally, "awe-inspiring") and terrifying while the beautiful was calm and reassuring. Gothic characters and landscapes rest almost entirely within the sublime, with the heroine the great exception. The "beautiful" heroine's susceptibility to supernatural elements, integral to these novels, both celebrates and problematizes what came to be seen as hypersensibility.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the overwrought emotions of sensibility, as expressed through the gothic sublime, had run their course. Jane Austen with Northanger Abbey (1803) parodied the gothic novel, reflecting its death. Moreover, while sensibility did not disappear, it was less valued. Austen introduced a different style of writing, the "comedy of manners". Her novels often are not only funny, but also scathingly critical of the restrictive, rural culture of the early nineteenth century. Her best known novel, Pride and Prejudice (1811), is her happiest, and has been a blueprint for much subsequent romantic fiction. Austen's novels still retain a wide following, despite the distance between their heroines' dilemmas and those of the reader today.

Separation of high and low production

The market for novels in the nineteenth century was clearly separated into "high" and "low" production. The new high production can best be viewed in terms of national traditions. The low production was organized rather by genres in a pattern deriving from the spectrum of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century genres.

1. The novel as a literary production, promoted by critical discourse

Spanish Literature French Literature German Literature English Literature …by language and nation

2. Popular Fiction, not promoted by criticism

The modern roman à clef (a recent example is Primary Colors)
Sex, including soft "romantic" pornography for the female audience
Historical settings (the tradition of heroic romances), crime (the tradition of the seventeenth century novel)
Adventure, science fiction
Espionage, conspiracy

The position of authors attained its modern form with the establishment of this pattern. The modern author can either aim at a broad market or write with an eye to serious critical discussion. The borders between the realms have developed differently in different nations. While this modern market divide came relatively late to the English-speaking world, Germany and France had an earlier and much stronger interest in creating national literatures — France in the wake of the French Revolution, Germany during its mid-19th century unification. Both of these nations experienced a division between high literature — that is, the literature of ruling social group,[2] discussed in schools and newspapers, and celebrated in public life — and a low production — not worthy to be mentioned in such circles — while the vast commercial market of the English-speaking world still resisted this artificial divide.

The novel proved to be a medium for a communication both intimate (novels can be read privately whereas plays are always a public event) and public (novels are published and thus become a matter touching the public, if not the nation, and its vital interests), a medium of a personal point of view which can get the world into its view. New modes of interaction between authors and the public reflected these developments: authors giving public readings, receiving prestigious prizes, giving interviews in the media and acting as their nations' consciences. This concept of the novelist as public figure arose in the course of the nineteenth century.

20th century

See Modernist literature and Postmodern literature

Genre novels

From the late Victorian period to the present, several types of "genre" novels and romances have been popular. While often slighted by critics and academics, these have been as popular as the more critically and academically acclaimed novels; in recent times, the best of them have been recognized as serious literature. Some categories of genre fiction are:

See also

Further reading

Contemporary views

  • 1957: Ian Watt, "The Rise of the Novel, University of California Press (see a review here)

Published in 1957, "The Rise of the Novel" was immediately recognized as a landmark of literary criticism. It has, justifiably, retained this status up to the present.

Recognizing that life does not present itself in neat separate packages of literature, history, and sociology, "The Rise of the Novel" integrates Watt's considerable knowledge in each of these areas to assess the impact of three authors, Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, upon the development of the English novel in the eighteenth century. In the final chapter, he shows how their contributions were integrated and further developed in the works of Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen and others.

Along the way, he makes numerous fascinating observations that I personally had not run across before. For example:

  • With the rise of the city (in this case, London) in the eighteenth century, and the resulting development of a more transient population, the model for the Family shifted from the patriarchal family (with a paterfamilias) to a conjugal model (i.e., a new family is born upon each new marriage).
  • During the century, there was considerable disapproval of the heroic epic (as exemplified by Homer) as a result of the manners and morals it exhibited, i.e., violence and cruelty. "Tom Jones," a comic epic, was critized at the time for glorifying these and other negative values.
  • The large number of "spinsters" during the century led to formal proposals for the passage of laws allowing bigamy.

The book is remarkably fair and balanced in its assessment of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, with Richardson coming off better than I had expected. It's not enough to make me want to read "Pamela" and "Clarissa," but I did come away with a heightened appreciation of Richardson's abilities as an observer of life and society.

Watt's own life (1917 -1999) is interesting. He joined the British Army at the age of 22 and served with distinction in World War II as an army lieutenant in the infantry from 1939 to 1946. He was wounded in the battle for Singapore in January 1942 and listed as "missing, presumed killed in action." In fact, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and remained a prisoner of war until 1945, working on the construction of a railway that crossed Thailand a feat that inspired the Pierre Boulle novel "Bridge Over the River Kwai" and the film version by David Lean. More than 12,000 prisoners died during the building of the railroad, most of them from disease, and Watt was critically ill from malnutrition for several years.

He joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1964., and was chair of the English department from 1968 to 1971. In addition to "The Rise of the Novel," he is best known for his body of criticism of the works of Joseph Conrad.

  • 1651: Paul Scarron, The Comical Romance, Chapter XXI. "Which perhaps will not be found very Entertaining" (London, 1700). Scarron's plea for a French production rivalling the Spanish "Novels". Marteau
  • 1670: Pierre Daniel Huet, "Traitté de l'origine des Romans", Preface to Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne comtesse de La Fayette, Zayde, histoire espagnole (Paris, 1670). A world history of fiction. pdf-edition Gallica France
  • 1683: [Du Sieur], "Sentimens sur l’histoire" from: Sentimens sur les lettres et sur l’histoire, avec des scruples sur le stile (Paris: C. Blageart, 1680). The new novels as published masterly by Marie de LaFayette . Marteau
  • 1702: Abbe Bellegarde, "Lettre à une Dame de la Cour, qui lui avoit demandé quelques Reflexions sur l’Histoire" aus: Lettres curieuses de littérature et de morale (La Haye: Adrian Moetjens, 1702). Paraphrase of Du Sieur's text. Marteau
  • 1705/1708/1712: [Anon.] In English, French and German the Preface of The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians (Albigion, 1705). Bellegarde's article plagiarised. Marteau
  • 1713: Deutsche Acta Eruditorum, German review of the French translation of Delarivier Manley's New Atalantis 1709 (Leipzig: J. L. Gleditsch, 1713). A rare example of a political novel discussed by a literary journal. Marteau
  • 1715: Jane Barker, preface to her Exilius or the Banish’d Roman. A New Romance (London: E. Curll, 1715). Plea for a "New Romance" following Fénlon's Telmachus. Marteau
  • 1718: [Johann Friedrich Riederer], "Satyra von den Liebes-Romanen", from: Die abentheuerliche Welt in einer Pickelheerings-Kappe, 2 ([Nürnberg,] 1718). German satire about the wide spread reading of novels and romances. Marteau
  • 1742: Henry Fielding, preface to Joseph Andrews (London, 1742). The "comic epic in prose" and its poetics. Munseys
  1. Bakhtin 1981, p.5
  2. Bakhtin 1981, p.4