Reasons for the Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century

The most important gifts of the eighteenth century to English literature are the periodical essay and the novel, neither of which had any classical precedent. Both of them were prose forms and eminently suited to the genius of eighteenth-century English men and women. The periodical essayist and the novelist were both exponents of the same sensibility and culture, and worked on the same intellectual, sentimental, and realistic plane, with the oft-avowed aim of instructing the readers and making them lead a more purposeful and virtuous life.

Of these two new literary genres the periodical essay was a peculiar product of the environment prevailing at that time. It was born with the eighteenth century and died with it after enjoying a career of phenomenal popularity. The novel, on the other hand, survived valiantly the turn of the century and has since then been not only managing to live, but has been growing from strength to strength and adding to its popularity. Even today, when the current of poetry has unhappily run into the arid vistas of cold intellectualism and clever phrase-mongering and the real drama has become as defunct as the dodo, the novel, which originated in the eighteenth century, is holding up its head as a dominant literary genre.

It was immediately after 1740 that the English novel suddenly arose from the lower forms and came to embody, as no other literary form did, the spirit of the age. The glorious work of Richardson and Fielding was followed by that of the two other major novelists of the eighteenth century, namely, Smollett and Sterne. Soon the whole English literary air was thick with a staggeringly vast number of novels produced by a host of writers. Let us consider the important reasons for the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century, as also, by implication, for its spectacular popularity.
The Social Environment: The Rise of the Middle Classes:
According to David Daiches, the novel “was in a large measure the product of the middle class, appealing to middle-class ideals and sensibilities, a patterning of imagined events set against a clearly realized social background and taking its view of what was significant in human behaviour from agreed public attitudes.” In the words of Oliver Elton, “it came to express, far better than the poetry could do, the temper of the age and race.” The eighteenth century is known in the social history of England for the rise of the middle classes. With the unprecedented rise in trade and commerce the English masses were becoming increasingly wealthy and many hitherto poor people were finding themselves in the rank of respectable burgesses. These nouveaux riches were, naturally enough, desirous of giving themselves an aristocratic touch by appearing to be learned and sophisticated like their traditional social superiors-the landed gentry and nobility. This class of readers had hitherto been neglected by highbrow writers. The literary works previous to the eighteenth century were almost invariably meant to be the reading of the higher strata of society. Only “popular literature,” such as the ballad, catered for the lower rungs. The up-and-coming middle classes ,of the eighteenth century demanded some new kind of literature which should be in conformity with their temper and be designed as well to voice their aspirations as to cater for their tastes. England was then becoming a country of small and big traders and shop-keepers. And who has more common sense than a trader or a shop-keeper? These people, according to a critic “took little interest in the exaggerated romances of impossible heroes and the picaresque stories of intrigue and villainy which had interested the upper classes. Some new type of literature was demanded, and this new type must express the new ideal of the eighteenth century, the value and the importance of the individual life…To tell men, not about knights or kings but about themselves, about their own thoughts and motives and struggles and the results of action upon their own characters,-this was the purpose of our first novelists. The eagerness with which their chapters were read-in England, and the rapidity with which their work was copied abroad, show how powerfully the new discovery appealed to the readers everywhere.” Not only was the novel a product of the emphasis on the common man, it also was in rapport with the psyche of the middle classes. According to Cazamian “there is a deep affinity between the dominant instincts of the middle classes and this branch of literature, the possibilities of which have remained intact. It lends itself better than any other to morality and sentiment.”
Right from Richardson and Fielding to the very modern times the novel has kept up its explicit or implicit purpose of “teaching’ something to the reader. The moral and didactic aim of literature was taken for granted in the eighteenth century. The novel was yet another literary form-like the periodical essay, for example—to teach morality and good conduct to the common people. As regards Sentiment/again most novelists indulged’ in it. Richardson set the sentimental note so loved of the middle classes, and this note culminated in full orchestration in the highly sentimental novels of Henry Mackenzie (1743-1831).
The Democratic Movement:
The eighteenth century sounded the death-knell of old English feudalism and, conversely, broke down numerous barriers standing between various social classes. With the Glorious Revolution of 1689 started the era of the ascendency of Parliament and the forging of the democratic spirit. This process of democratisation reached a high water-mark in the eighteenth century-the century of the coffee-houses which were helping the process by nurturing and encouraging the spirit of free and frank discussion. Moreover, in the early years of the century, as has been pointed out by Bonamy Dobree in The Literature of the Early Eighteenth Century (Oxford History of English Literature), there occurred an increasing amalgamation of the two well-defined classes of readers-the rich and sophisticated class and the common masses. The democratic movement emphasized the importance of the life and activities of the common people. The need was being felt for a new literary form which unlike the romance and tragedy, for instance should hold a mirror to the life of the common people, concern itself with their problems, and tell them how to live or live better. The new form was of course, the novel-a kind of “democratic epic.” Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, and their teeming followers dealt chiefly with the life of commoners. The heroine of Richardson’s first novel Pamela is the maidservant of that name. If it was not the first novel in the history of English literature it was at least first to represent sympathetically the ethos and traditions of low and middle classes. As Lord Morley says, it was landmark of a great social no less than a great literary transition, when all England went mad with enthusiasm over the trials, the virtues, and the triumphs of a rustic lady’s maid. Incidentally it may be pointed out that in eighteenth-century drama too the democratic spirit was predominant. In George Lillo’s tragedies-77ze London Merchant or the History of George Barn-well (1731) and Fatal Curiosity: A True Tragedy (1736)-for example, the protagonists are not princes or nobles but very ordinary people.
The Ascendency of Realism:
The eighteenth century was imbued with the spirit of realism, and the literature of the age is, to a great extent, devoid of the enthusiasm, elemental passion, mysterious suggestiveness, and heady imaeination which characterised romantic literature. The man of letters in the eighteenth century, whether he was a poet, a periodical essayist, or even a dramatist, believed that for the success of his art a rational appraisal of reality was an essential prerequisite. The novel was another instrument for the exploration and representation of social reality. All the novelists of the eighteenth century-and most of their “followers” in the subsequent centuries-were stark realists and social critics. David Daiches observes in this connexion: “Like the medieval fabliau, also a product of the urban imagination, the novel tended to realism and contemporaneity in the sense that it dealt with people living in the social world known to the writer.” Cazamian avers about the novel: “After having formerly represented allegorical or ideal visions it tends more and more tcTbecome a picture of life. The middle-class mind would have this picture real, because it has a firm hold upon reality, and cannot break itself away from it. Thus realism will come to find its most favourable fields in the novel:”
The Decline of Drama:                                            
The decline of drama also contributed to the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century. Drama in the eighteenth century was no longer a social force as it had been in the age of Elizabeth or even that of Charles II. The Licensing Act of 1737, which was meant to curb such scurrilous political satire as Fielding had levelled in his comedies against Sir Robert Wolpole, in the words of Ifor Evans, “cut the very heart of drama”. It did not remain an influential literary form. The reading public desired a new form to satisfy its craving for story and social pictures. This craving had its fulfilment with the rise of the novel in the years following 1740.
Much Had Already Been Done:
We certainly agree with Oliver Elton that after 1740 the English novel “quickened.” However, we have to bear in mind that the growth of the novel was not “sudden” or unrelated to what had already been done by numerous writers. In fact, before Richardson and Fielding started, the soil had already been laid and manured, and even sown. These pioneers of the novel had only to take the last step in the process of its growth. Moreover the climate of their times was the most suitable for this purpose. Among their immediate predecessors must be mentioned the names of Addison, Steele, Defoe, and Swift. Addison and Steele in the Spectator papers concerning Sir Roger de Coverley had provided almost a skeleton novel of the social and domestic kind. Some of the Coverley papers read like so many pages from a novel. But it is questionable whether Addison and Steele had the real temperament of the novelist. They seem to have been incapable of any sustained effort and introspective analysis which are the basic requirements for any novelist. However, it can be said to their credit, that they did provide some material to work upon for Richardson-atid Fielding—particularly the latter. Their good-humoured social satire, their lucid style, their basic human sympathy, their intense observation of their environment, and their sense of episode-all were to be the assets of the future novelists. Defoe’s deftness at the art of the narrative, his gift of circumstantial detail, and his unflinching examination of low life had also their,admirers among the novelists to come. Defoe himself is not a “true” novelist as his characters are psychologically too simple and seldom get involved in complex .psychological problems. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had an interesting narrative and some well-attempted verisimilitude—features which were to be the basic requirements of every novel. Thus, in a word, both the material and the method of the novelist were waiting for adoption by a talented writer when Richardson and Fielding appeared on the scene.
The Novel Gave More Freedom to the Writer Than the Drama:
The rise of the novel was also due to the fact that this new literary form gave more freedom (than, say, the drama) to the writer for the performance of the task which the temper of the age imposed upon him. Without question, the drama imposes many stringent curbs upon the writer. He himself has to remain in the background and limit the whole thing within the performing time of about three hours. The novelist, on the other hand, can pretend to omniscience, and can also intrude upon the scene at any time when he finds the need for it. Further, there is no curb on length. Again, in the eighteenth century, with a remarkable spurt in the mass of the reading public which no longer remained confined to London, it became impossible for the theatre to cater for the entire public. Hence the novel came as a welcome substitute of the drama.
The Freedom of the Novel from Classical Restraints:
As we have said in the beginning, the novel had no classical precedents. In this respect it was quite “different from most poetic and dramatic forms popular in the eighteenth century. For instance, if a writer had to write an epic, a pastoral, an ode, or an elegy, he had to look to the classical models of antiquity and, belong as he did to a neo­classical age, to respect and follow them. The novel could ignore authority, for no authority existed. Fielding did, in the intercalary chapters of his novels, talk rather pedantically about the ancients and their works, but that was just to placate the hostile opinion which an altogether new literaryibrm was likely to provoke in that ase. The novelist had not to follow but set a tradition. Thus whereas poetry, in the words of Cazamian, “is the slave of an ancient forth, which classicism has carried to a high degree of perfection,” the novel is untrammelled and hence a more eligible medium for such free geniuses as Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne.

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