Austen and the Rise of the Novel

Austen and the Rise of the Novel

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.

19 Responses to Austen and the Rise of the Novel

  1. As many posts have noted…the confluence between printing and a rising level of education amongst gentlewomen led to the growth of the novel. If we look back to the Reformation…particularly the Calvinist side (France, specifically), the Protestants encouraged learning to read because the second pillar of Luther’s salvation model was “Sola Scriptura,” “Only through the Word.” But in order to understand the word, the literate intermediary (the Priest) needed to be removed. Hence throughout the later half of the 16th Century and well into the 17th, Protestant women (Middle and Upper Class) were educated in order that they (Like Mary Bennet) could seek their own salvation through the reading and understanding of the Bible. As with all good things…eventually the Scriptures wore a bit thin. Shakespeare, too. Now the second half of the equation comes in…increased disposable income…especially once the dour Puritans lost out when the Commonwealth was overthrown and the monarchy restored. Then the sugar barons from Barbados and Jamaica (as well as the nabobs from India) had money to spend. What to do on those snowy days in Derbyshire? Read! And fiction certainly filled the gap for men and women alike.

  2. Thanks for such an informative post, Victoria. I’m another one who hadn’t realised what a relatively new art form the novel was in Jane Austen’s time. Now I think about it, most of the novels that we studied in English Literature at school were Victorian in origin: Wuthering Heights, Silas Marner, David Copperfield. Sadly no Austen or Gaskell for my year, though perhaps that’s a good thing as school may have been responsible for putting me off the Brontës, George Elliott and Dickens, whereas I discoved Austen and Gaskell for myself.

    What I was aware of is that novel reading didn’t exactly attract universal approval in times gone by. Jane Austen herself makes more than one comment anout it in her own works. Mr. Collins definitely does NOT approve and reads Fordyce’s Sermons to the Bennet girls, whereas Catherine Morland is surprised that Henry Tilney DOES approve of novels.

    Not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have novels to read or listen to. Thank goodness for the likes of our beloved Jane.

    • Hi Anji, I’m glad you found the post interesting! I remember my own shock when I realized the novel hadn’t been around forever. And, I agree, my life would be poorer without novels.

  3. Thank you for this fascinating post! I had never thought about when novels came into existence. The world is a much better place with them! 😉

  4. Great post, Victoria! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…how much influence Austen actually had over shaping the form of the novel. When you look at some of the clunkity forms that were around then, like the epistolary novel, even among her influences like Richardson, it’s a wonder to me that she wrote what she did.

    Also makes me think of this New Yorker article: People didn’t really “love” to read before the mid-eighteenth century…quite probably because there weren’t really books out there that one would love to read. But then came the novel!

    • Hi Sophie, I can’t agree more. When you look at novels like Pamela you can be amazed at our luck that she came along. Thanks for pointing out the New Yorker article. I hadn’t seen it.

  5. In Patrick Parrinder’s “Nation & Novel,” he says, “Some sixteenth-century narratives such as Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ have a strongly aristocratic bias, but between Sidney’s death in 1586 and Fanny Burney’s appointment as a lady-in-waiting 200 years later there was no significant writer of prose fiction who would have been found personally acceptable at the English court. Novels, lacking in the ceremonial value of poetry and drama, appealed to booksellers who stood to make money out of them rather than to aristocratic patrons. With a few exceptions, such as Scott’s dedication of the Waverley novels to George IV, novelists have not addressed their works to a muse, patron, ruler or other exalted personage. Jane Austen was deeply embarrassed when after the success of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Mansfield Park’ she was commanded to dedicate her next novel to the Prince Regent.” He goes on to call the novel “a product of the commercial middle classes, describing the pomp and privilege of office for satirical effect, but glorying in its protagonists’ ability on their own feet and rise on their merits.”

  6. Hi Victoria – I never stopped to think when novels came into being. I’m so happy they did! Can you imagine life without them? I really would be locked up, anything else aside. It’s not normal to spend all of your time making up stories if you aren’t a novelist.

    Those are great Virginia Woolf quotes.

    As an aside, I almost missed your post because I didn’t find my Austen Author email this morning. I wonder if it didn’t go out or if morning-me accidentally deleted it.

    • Although everything appeared to be set properly, the blog read that the post “missed schedule.” I posted Victoria’s piece when I signed on this morning, Summer.

      • And it went out in today’s email, I saw. That’s websites for you. They like to keep us on our toes . . . or maybe they like the sound of hair being pulled out? It doesn’t make much of a sound, but websites are weird, so they may enjoy weird things.

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