THE HISTORY OF NOVELS

     

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

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

According to lớn 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 khổng lồ this idea of ‘realism’ in the novel, & 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 và cultural context behind its emergence, & its central place as a cornerstone of western culture.


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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 và 1600s to lớn see what people were reading then.

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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 & early modern chronicles. For entertainment, people usually turned khổng lồ 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.


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William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1553)

One of the first fictional works, & one which has some claim khổng lồ 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 & 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!

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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, & Edmund Spenser.

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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, và 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, & finally growing rich và triumphing against all the odds.

Furthermore, the Spanish—and Europe as a whole—loved the romance. This genre had very little to bởi with love, although there are love affairs in some of their plots, but rather was a term used khổng lồ describe a work of fiction which, like the others we have discussed thus far, was not realistic in the slightest. & the biggest, international ‘hit’ novel in the 1600s was Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha, published in two parts in 1605 & 1615. And it has some claim lớn 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 & decides that he must go on a knight’s quest. It’s a bit like Monty Python & the Holy Grail—he co-opts a simple-minded half-wit peasant man to lớn be his squire and they go và bravely vày 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 lớn be so this day (and if anyone would lượt thích to read the graphic novel version, I’ll give it lớn you).

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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 và vice among the lower orders but they’re not quite ‘realistic’ as many of them pretend khổng lồ be supernatural or have actual supernatural works. Và 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, và when a messenger of Satan rises from the underworld và enters into the London criminal underworld, he is mix upon và beaten up by a number of rogue apprentices & robbed of his money—the message is that even hell is a more moral place than London’s streets & alleyways.

" data-medium-file="https://i0.wp.com/xechieuve.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/rogue2.jpg?fit=181%2C300&ssl=1" data-large-file="https://i0.wp.com/xechieuve.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/rogue2.jpg?fit=618%2C1024&ssl=1" loading="lazy" width="829" height="1375" src="https://i0.wp.com/xechieuve.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/rogue2.jpg?resize=829%2C1375&ssl=1" alt="rogue2" class="wp-image-894 jetpack-lazy-image" data-recalc-dims="1" data-lazy-src="https://i0.wp.com/xechieuve.com.vn/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/rogue2.jpg?resize=829%2C1375&is-pending-load=1#038;ssl=1" srcset="data:image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAIAAAAAAAP///yH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7">The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, Vol. 2 (1671).

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But all these gothic tales were unrealistic and the main characters were usually nobles or kings. The increasingly important middle classes wanted lớn 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 lớn human happiness, not exposed khổng lồ the miseries and hardships, the labour & 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 lớn great things, và wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean & the great; that the wise man gave his testimony lớn this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed khổng lồ have neither poverty nor riches … the calamities of life were shared among the upper và lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed lớn so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to lớn so many distempers và uneasinesses, either of body toàn thân 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 & all kind of enjoyments; that peace & plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, và all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life.