The chief literary contribution of the eighteenth century was the discovery of the modern novel, which at present is the most widely read and influential type of literature. The novel in its elementary form as a work of fiction written in prose was at first established in England by two authors—Bunyan and Defoe, who took advantage of the public interest in autobiography. The books of Bunyan, whether they are told in the first person or not, were meant to be autobiographical and their interest is subjective. Bunyan endeavours to interest his readers not in the character of some other person he had imagined or observed, but in himself, and his treatment of it is characteristic of the awakening talent for fiction in his time. The Pilgrim’s Progress is begun as an allegory, but in course of time the author is so much taken up with the telling of the story, that he forgets about the allegory, and it is this fact which makes Bunyan the pioneer of the modern novel.
But it was Defoe who was the real creator of autobiographical fiction as a work of art. He was the first to create psychological interest in the character of the narrator. Moreover, he was the first to introduce realism or verisimilitude by observing in his writing a scrupulous and realistic fidelity and appropriateness to the conditions in which the story was told. For example, the reader is told about Cruso’s island as gradually as Cruso himself comes to know of it. Besides introducing the elements of autobiography and realism, Defoe also fixed the peculiar form of the historical novel—the narrative of an imaginary person in a historical setting as in his Memories of a Cavalier. On account of all these reasons Defoe is rightly termed the originator of the modern novel.
In spite of this, it can be safely said that until the publication of Richardson’s Pamela in 1740, no true novel had appeared in English literature. By a true novel we mean simply a work of fictions which relates the story of a plain human life, under stress of emotions, and the interest of which does not depend on incident or adventure, but on its truth to nature. During the eighteenth century a number of English novelists—Goldsmith, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne—all developed simultaneously the form of the novel as presenting life, as it really is, in the form of a story. The new middle class which was rising and getting into power demanded a new type of literature, which must express the new ideal of the eighteenth century, that is, the value and the importance of individual life. Moreover, on account of the spread of education and the appearance of newspapers and magazines there was an immense increase in the reading public to whom the novelist could directly appeal without caring for the patronage of the aristocratic class which was losing power. It was under these circumstances that the novel was born in the eighteenth century expressing the same ideals of personality and of the dignity of command life which became the chief themes of the poets of the Romantic Revival, and which were proclaimed later by the American and French Revolutions. The novelists of the eighteenth century told the common people not about the grand lives of knights, princes and heroes, but about their own plain and simple lives, their ordinary thoughts and feelings, and their day-to-day actions and their effects on them and others. The result was that such works were eagerly read by the common people, and the novel became a popular form of literature appealing to the masses, because it belonged to them and reflected their lives.
Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) was, as has already been pointed out, the originator of the novel, though none of his works can be placed under the category of novel in the modern sense of the term. In Robinson Cruso, Defoe, has described the experiences of Alexander Selkirk who spent five years in solitude in the island of Juan Fernandez. Though the whole story is fictitious, it has been described most realistically with the minute accuracy of an eyewitness. From that point of view we can say that in Robinson Cruso Defoe brought the realistic adventure story to a very high stage of its development, better than in his other works of fiction Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders and Roxana which are just like picaresque stories (current at that time, about the adventures of rogues) to which were added unnatural moralising and repentance. But we cannot call Robinson Cruso, strictly speaking, a novel, because here the author has not produced the effect of subordinating incident to the faithful portrayal of human life and character, which is the criterion of the real novel.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) is credited with the writing of the first modern novel—Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. It tells the trials, tribulations and the final happy marriage of a young girl. Written in the form of ‘Familiar Letters, on how to think and act justly and prudently, in the common concerns of Human Life’, it is sentimental and boring on account of its wearisome details. But the merit of it lies in the fact that it was the first book which told in a realistic manner the inner life of a young girl. Its psychological approach made it the first modern novel in England. Richardson here gave too much importance to physical chastity, and ‘prudence’ which was the key to the middle class way of life during the eighteenth century. It enjoyed tremendous popularity on account of being in tune with the contemporary standards of morality.
Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady, is also written in the form of letters and is as sentimental as Pamela. In the heroine of this novel, Clarissa, Richardson has painted a real woman, portraying truthfully her doubts, scruples, griefs and humiliations. In his next novel, Sir Charles Grandison, which is also written in the form of letters, Richardson told the story of an aristocrat of ideal manners and virtues.
In all his novels Richardson’s purpose was didactic, but he achieved something more. He probed into the inner working of the human mind. It was this achievement that made Dr. Johnson say of Richardson that he “enlarged the knowledge of human nature, and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue”. Of Clarissa he said that “it was the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” Richardson’s main contribution to the English novel was that for the first time he told stories of human life from within, depending for their interest not on incidents or adventures but on their truth to human nature.
Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was the greatest of the eighteenth century novelists. He wrote his first great novel Joseph Andrews in order to satirise and parody the false sentimentality and conventional virtues of Richardson’s heroine, Pamela. The hero of this novel is a supposed brother of Pamela, a domestic servant, who has vowed to follow the example of his sister. He is also exposed to the same kinds of temptations, but instead of being rewarded for his virtues, he is dismissed from service by his mistress. The satiric purpose of Fielding ends here, because then he describes the adventures of Joseph with his companion Parson Adams, and tells the story of a vagabond life, with a view “to laugh men out of their follies”. Instead of the sentimentality and feminine niceties of Richardson, in Fielding’s novel we find a coarse, vigorous, hilarious and even vulgar approach to life. The result is broad realism not in the portrayal of inner life but of outer behaviour and manners. The characters in the novels are drawn from all classes of society, and they throb with life.
Fielding’s next novel, Jonathan Wild, is a typical picaresque novel, narrating the story of a rogue. His greatest novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Founding (1746-1749), has epic as well as dramatic qualities. It consists of a large number of involved adventures, which are very skillfully brought towards their climax by the hand of a dramatist. Behind all chance happenings, improbabilities and incogruities there exists a definite pattern which gives the complicated plot of Tom Jones a unity which we find nowhere in English novel or drama except in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemists. Without making a deliberate effort at moralising like Richardson Fielding suggests a deeper moral lesson that one should do good not for reward but for the satisfaction of doing so. It is the generous impulses, rooted in unselfishness and respect for others, which are the best guarantee of virtue.
Fieldings’ last novel, Amelia (1751), which is the story of a good wife in contrast with an unworthy husband, is written in a milder tone. Here instead of showing a detached and coarse attitude to life, Fielding becomes soft-hearted and champions the cause of the innocent and the helpless. It is also written in a homely and simple narrative.
Fielding’s great contribution to the English novel is that he put it on a stable footing. It became free from its slavery to fact, conscious of its power and possibilities, and firmly established as an independent literary form. He is called the Father of the English novel, because he was the first to give genuine pictures of men and women of his age, without moralising over their vices and virtues. It was through his efforts that the novel became immensely popular with the reading public, and a large number of novels poured from the press.
Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) followed the example of Fielding in writing picaresque novels, which are full of intrigue and adventure. But he lacks the genius of Fielding, for his novels are just a jumble of adventures and incidents without any artistic unity. Instead of Fielding’s broad humour and his inherent kindness, we find horrors and brutalities in the novels of Smollett, which are mistaken for realism.
Smollett’s best-known novels are Roderick Random (1748) in which the hero relates a series of adventures: Peregrine Pickle (1751) in which are related the worst experiences at sea; and Humphrey Clinker (1771) in which is related the journey of a Welsh family through England and Scotland. In all these novels Smollet excites continuous laughter by farcical situations and exaggeration in portraying human eccentricities. Unlike the realistic and pure comedy which Fielding presents in his novels, Smollet is the originator of the funny novel, which was brought to a climax by Dickens in his satirical and hearty caricatures.
Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768) was the opposite of Smollet in the sense that whereas we find horrors and brutalities in the novels of Smollett, in Sterne’s we find whims, vagaries and sentimental tears. His best-known novels are Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. The former was started in 1760; its nineth volume appeared in 1767, but the book was never finished. In it are recorded in a most digressive and aimless manner the experiences of the eccentric Shandy family. The main achievements of this book lie in the brilliancy of its style and the creation of eccentric characters like Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. The Sentimental Journey, which is a strange mixture of fiction, descriptions of travel, and a number of essays on all sorts of subjects, is also written in a brilliant style, and is stamped with Sterne’s false and sentimental attitude to life.
These novels are written in the first person, and while Sterne speaks of one thing, it reminds him of another, with which it has no apparent, logical connection. So he is forced into digression, and in this manner he follows the wayward movements of his mind. This method is very much like that of the Stream of Consciousness novelists, though there is a difference, because the hero in Sterne’s novels is Sterne himself. Another peculiarity of Sterne is his power of sentimentality, which along with his humour and indecency, is part and parcel of his way of interpreting life. Whenever he makes us smile, he hopes that there will be a suspicion of a tear as well. In fact the main contribution of Sterne to the English novel was his discovery of the delights of sensibility, the pleasures of the feeling heart, which opened up a vast field of experience, and which was followed by many eighteenth century writers.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) wrote only one novel—The Vicar of Wakefield. This is the best novel in the English language, in which domestic life has been given an enduring romantic interest. It is free from that vulgarity and coarseness which we find in the novels of Smollett and Sterne. In it domestic virtues and purity of character are elevated. It is the story of Dr. Primrose, a simple English clergyman, who passes through various misfortunes, but ultimately comes out triumphant, with his faith in God and man reaffirmed. Without introducing romantic passion, intrigue and adventure which were freely used by other novelists, Goldsmith by relating a simple story in a simple manner has presented in The Vicar of Wakefield the best example of the novel, the new literary form which was becoming immensely popular.
Summing up the development of the English novel during the eighteenth century, we can say that the novel from a humble beginning evolved into a fully developed form. Defoe gave it the realistic touch; Richardson introduced analysis of the human heart; Fielding made it full of vitality and animal vigour; Smollett introduced exaggerated and eccentric characters; Sterne contributed sentimentality and brilliancy of style; and Goldsmith emphasised high principles and purity of domestic life. In the hands of these early masters the novel took a definite shape and came to be recognised as an important literary form with vast possibilities of further development.