English literature has a long and colorful history. From the masterfully written old English tales of Chaucer to the countless Shakespearian dramas to the poetic verses of Tennyson, England has produced some of the richest treasures of the literary world. Not until the eighteenth century, however, did a type of literature develop that completely broke the traditions of the past and opened the door to a whole new generation of writers. This new genre was appropriately called the English novel, and it helped to change the literary landscape forever. The English novel was not only a genre within itself, but it also formed several sub genres including historical, gothic, sentimental, epistolary and bildungsroman novels. The works within the genre were so diverse that many different types of authors were able to write according to their own styles and preferences. The development of the novel changed literature not only in England, but throughout the world.
The English novel is a type of literature “such as was never heard of in the world before (Longman 3069),” as Daniel Defoe says in his masterpiece novel Robinson Crusoe. While it was not the only new form of literature that was emerging during the eighteenth century, it was the form that best broke from tradition. The novel rejected the norms of the literary past and began to exhibit the originality that was coming to be valued in English culture. The new characteristics of the novel separated it from anything that had ever been done before. During the Renaissance, there had been a growing tendency to place more emphasis on individual experience rather than collective tradition. Writers like Milton, Chaucer, Spenser, and even the legendary Greek and Roman poets had derived most of their plots from mythology, history, legend or previous literature. Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson were the first to take the emerging trends of individuality and originality and apply them to literature. Their stories were completely unique and used realism to show how people actually live (Watt 14). As the English novel developed the idea of characterization changed dramatically. A wide variety of characters and settings began to be used like “a man on an island, a servant-girl under siege, or a solitary eccentric oddly recapturing his prenatal past” (Longman 3067)
Another characteristic of the novel is the use of ordinary names for people instead of symbolic names. For years writers gave characters names that made references to mythology or contained some type of description of the person. Keeping with the idea of representing real life, novelists broke from this tradition and gave their characters more common names (Watt 19). Early novelists had a strong affiliation with the philosophers of their time. Writers like Locke and Hume wanted to create a more realistic world and claimed that our personal identity is based on memory. Novelists began to explore this concept in their works and used everyday language to convey their ideas (23). The novelist Clara Reeve makes a clear distinction between the novel and previous forms of literature in her literary history The Progress of Romance:
The novel gives a familiar relation of such things as everyday pass before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it is to represent every scene in so natural a manner… (Longman 3066)
In this passage Reeve states that literature no longer had to fit an ideal form and was no longer limited to telling stories based on fantasy and imagination. The novel allowed writers to show real people in real situations and allowed the readers to connect to the plot and the characters like never before.
The rise of the English novel had a huge impact on literature in Britain, but what spurred the formation of such an untraditional form of literature in the eighteenth century? In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt says that...