English Novel: The Story of its Development up to 18th Century
The discovery of the modern novel is a typical gift of the 18th Century. It is the original contribution of England to the world of literature. The novel as a popular genre began with Richardson's Pamela in 1740. But the root of the English novel plunges deep through the centuries. In the 14th and 15th centuries the novel was in the process of formation. In those early days the novel was in the form of romantic tales based upon adventures and romantic episodes. A certain amount of prose fiction did exist in the 16th and 17th centuries also.
The Beginning: Malory's Le Morte Darthur is a noticeable romance. It was the first English romance. With this book the English novel took a distinctive forward step. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales have all the qualities of the latter day fiction. In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer produced the first English novel. Another great work of value before the Elizabethan fiction was Thomas More's Utopia. Thus in early days Chaucer and More gave a new turn to fiction. They changed the course of romances to religious and social portraiture of life.
Sixteenth Century: In 16th century a real process of evolution commenced. Though the Elizabethans did not succeed in evolving the novel, their efforts made the making of novel possible. In Elizabethan age the idea of the novel grew more definite. Most of the fiction of this age was either romantic or didactic. Sidney's Arcadia is a romance of chivalry. Lodge's Rosalynde and Greene's Pandosto are purely romantic fiction. A didactic stain ran through the writings of Lyly, More and Bacon. A realistic note was struck by Deloney, Dekker and Nash. Nash's work is the early source of the realistic novel of today.
Seventeenth Century: During the 17th century, English novel took a new form under the influence of the French novelists. The French romances deeply influenced the English novels. In England they are known by the name of the heroic romances of the 17th century. These romances were entirely removed from ordinary life. Later on Mrs. Aphra Behn and several other women writers cultivated a new form of fiction. It preserved the truth of life. The most important writer of the 17th century is John Bunyan. His The Pilgrim's Progress and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman come nearer to modern novel. His works paved the way for the rise of novel in the 18th century.
Eighteenth Century: The real beginning of the English novel took place in the 18th century. The rise of the novel was a result of the democratic movement. The spread of education increased the number of readers. The appearance of newspapers and magazines developed the habit of reading. New prose style and the decline of drama made a clear way for the 18th century novel.
Defoe: The English novel began with the publication of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He was the first great novelist who introduced a new technique in realism. Robinson Crusoe is supposed to be the first great English novel. Baker considers Robinson Crusoe as the first modern novel. In short, Defoe came very near to the genuine novel. But some critics are of the view that the element of adventures and crime are so prominent in Defoe's work that they should be classed as romances and not as novels. Addison and Steele contributed much to the evolution of realistic novel. Novel finds its beginning in The Tattler, The Spectator and The Guardian.
Richardson: Samuel Richardson was the first great novelists of the 18th century. He gave the novel many things which were appreciated. Novel as a popular genre began with Richardson's Pamela in 1740. It was the first true novel that appeared in any literature. This is the story of a virtuous maid-servant who resisted her master and is finally rewarded by a proposal of marriage by him. His Clarissa also caught the attention of readers. Thus Richardson introduced sentimentality into English fiction and popularized it for ever.
The four wheels of the novel: The 18th century is the golden age of novel. In this age there were four men of genius. They were Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne. With them novel reached the highest point of glory. They are known as The Four Wheels of Novel. Among these four wheels Fielding is called the father of English novel. His Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild, Tom Jones and Amelia are very popular novels. He is known for his theory of novel, realism, characterization and craftsmanship. Smollett widened the scope of novel. He introduced some new elements. His contribution is also noteworthy. His Humphry Clinker is a very popular novel. Sterne's Tristram Shandy is also a very popular novel. He is the pioneer of modern impressionism.
In short, in the 18th century the novel reached at its climax. Summing up the contribution of the four wheels of the novel Rickett says, ‘Richardson has given sentimentality, Fielding humour, Smollett liveliness".