I remember the moment in college when I realized that the novel was a relatively recent writing form. Novels are so dominant today—pushing all other writing formats to the side—that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But in fact, the ancient Romans and Greeks had plays and poems (some very long epic poems that seem like novels)—as well as various nonfiction forms—but nothing resembling a novel. It wasn’t until the 1700s that we start seeing something that we would consider a novel today; in fact, the very name “novel” suggests that it is a new form of writing.
The ancestors of today’s novel were Elizabethan prose fiction and French heroic romances, which were long narratives about noble characters (the word for novel in many European language is “roman”—suggesting the form’s connection to medieval romances). What distinguishes these genres from novels is that they tend to focus on larger-than-life characters, epic quests, extraordinary heroes, and unbelievable adventures—which often symbolize primal human hopes and fears. Obviously, some novels share some of these characteristics. But what distinguishes the novel from the romance is its realistic treatment of life and manners. Its heroes are men and women like ourselves, and it primarily examines human character in society (certainly a good description of Austen’s work!).
The question of what was the first English novel is the subject of some debate. Some scholars would give that title to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) (followed by his Moll Flanders in 1722). Both are rather episodic narratives stitched together mainly because they happen to one person. However, these central characters are regular people living in a solid and specific a world. Thus Defoe is often credited with being the first writer of “realistic” fiction.
Other scholars would give the title of first English novel to Pamela, an epistolary novel (told through a series of fictional letters) written in 1741 by Samuel Richardson. Pamela often gets the nod because of its psychological depth and careful examination of emotional states.
There are, however, other contenders for the title of first novel. One is Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (1010) which demonstrates an interest in character development and psychological observation. Another claimant is Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1687), a collection of fictional letters by Aphra Behn, who was the first woman in England to earn her living as a writer (she was primarily a playwright). Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-15) is considered an important progenitor of the modern novel.
All of this is to say that the novel was still a relatively new form of writing when Jane Austen came along. It had not been popular or widespread for even a hundred years when Pride and Prejudice was written. By then a lot of novels were being written, many of them with romantic elements and many of them written by women. Although the history of the novel often credits men with earliest examples of the genre, it is important to understand that many female authors (often forgotten today) were also part of the rise of the novel. Jane Austen did not simply spring spontaneously into being; rather, she was writing in the same tradition as Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and other writers like them.
In fact, many scholars would suggest that there is a particular connection between female writers and the novel form. The history of the rise of the novel also parallels in some ways the rise of the female author. The advent of the novel made possible the publication and popularity of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and many other female authors who are not as well known today.
Virginia Woolf notes this confluence in A Room of One’s Own. She writes about how novels allowed women to adapt a new kind of sentence—rather than the kind of writing necessary for poetry or plays—to their own needs. “All the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she [womenkind] became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands.” Woolf describes how women were able to use and shape a genre that did not have rigid traditions: “since freedom and fullness of expression are the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women.”
Throughout the book, Woolf pays tribute to Austen as a progenitor female author, and particularly calls out her the way she shaped the novel’s prose for her purposes: “Jane Austen looked at it [the traditional sentence] and laughed at it, and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence for her own use…” I love this image of Austen taking language, laughing at the clumsy tool she has been given, and reshaping it to her own purposes. It makes me think not only of Austen’s genius, but also the fun she must have had while she was writing—as she helped to create not only new stories, but also a new genre.