The Study of English Novel

Rise of the English Novel

King Alfred who ruled West-Saxon (Wessex) from 871 up to 901 was the founder of the English prose or the person who laid the cornerstone of the English prose. At the end of 8th century, King Alfred tried to save the English culture in Northumbria due to the attack of Scandinavians. He asked his scholars to translate the important works. Some of the important works translated in his age are:

1. Pastoral Care by Pope Gregorius

2. Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede (The original was in Latin)

3. Universal History and Geography by Orosius

4. Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

He also instructed his scholars to write and collect the important events and notes in his kingdom, and later known as Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The next important person to note is that John Wyclif (± 1324-1384). He was a scholar as well as a priest. He was well-known as the translator of Bible. His famous translation was Voyage and Travail of Sir John Maundeville or known as Mandelville’s Travell (the original language was French).

Novel’s Origin in Medieval Stories

Medieval romances and collections of ballads, especially those concerned with The Legends of King Arthur (Morte d’Arthur: 1470) by Sir Thomas Malory, were the germinal sources of the modern novel. They were fiction of a picturesque and lively kind, though rambling stories. 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 (1550-1600)

The Elizabethan Age saw the rise of the prose romance. Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit by John Lily (1554-1606) and Arcadia by Philip Sidney are the good 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.

Picaresque Novel in the Seventeenth Century

A new type of embryo novel of Spanish origin, namely Picaresque Novel, made its appearance at the end of the sixteenth century. It remained popular till the days of Fielding and Smollet. The name derives from Spanish word, ‘Picaro’, which means a wandering rouge. Its hero is a rascal, who leads a wandering life full of rather scandalous adventures. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the best-known of picaresque tales in Spanish. Le Sage’s Gill 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 Nash (1567-1601). The English Rogue (1665) by Richard Head is another of the type.

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 Behn’s Orinooko or The Royal Slave shows power of description, and some claim to plot, characterization and dialogue. It is an experiment in the infancy of the novel. Bunyam’s The Pilgrim 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 (± 1661-1731) 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 Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton, Moll Flandors, Colonel Jacob, and Roxana.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is also well-known with his work Gulliver’s Travels. He is a well-known English satirist.

Novelist 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 Coverley Papers. There is little plot in their essays but the character sketches are very entertaining and reveal the spice of delicate humour.

Professor Saintsbury designates Tobias George Smollet (1721-1771), Laurence Sterne (1715-1768), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754), as the “Four Wheels of the Wain” of the English Novel in the eighteenth century.

(i) 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 poplar 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 Charless Grandison.

(ii) Henry Fielding goes with Samuel Richardson. Though both were reformers of ‘a depraved age’, their literary methods were different. Fielding was a satirist, whereas RichardsonThe History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). His other novels were Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), Amelia (1751). As a novelist, Fielding marked the rise of a new school was a preacher. Fielding’s first novel was of fiction. He created the Novel of Realism.

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

(iv) In Sterne’s novels—Tristram Shandy (1760-1767), Sentimental Journey (1762)—were the sentimental novel which reached the extreme limits of its principle.

Sir Walter Scott called Fielding “the father of English Novel”. He said that Fielding had “high notions of the dignity of art which he may be considered as having founded.

Some have attributed this title to Richardson. Some critics go to the extent of saying that if Fielding was the father of English Novel, Richardson was its grand father. W.J. Dawson offers this honour to Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. There are some writers who even confer this greatness on John Lyly, the author of Uephues or Sidney, the author of Arcadia, or Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress and Life and Death of Mr. Badman.


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