Home > cultural commentary, fiction, Process and technique > The birth of the British novel

The birth of the British novel

Just thought I’d do a quick post to recommend something that was on TV last night – Birth of the British Novel, a discussion of some of the earliest novels from the 1700s, when some genres and indeed the idea of the novel itself came to be established. It looks at Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin – also at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the birth of Gothic fiction, and Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela and Clarissa – two epistolatory novels that took up an inordinate amount of time in my early studies of the sociology of literature and that I frankly never warmed to, though many years on I can appreciate their importance even though I still find them ridiculously annoying to read.

Key point (taken from the programme blurb): ‘the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better.’ It may be difficult to think of Pamela and Clarissa as ‘subversive hand grenades’ but even they articulated an awareness of the place of women in what was then a highly patriarchal society, and perhaps suggested to their mainly female readers views and values other than those Richardson himself might have wanted to propose.

Even if you have a reasonable knowledge of the history of English literature you may find something in this programme you didn’t previously know, or see a connection you hadn’t previously made. I did.

Fronted by Henry Hitchings, author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (2008) and the just-published The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. It’s entertaining to see a programme about novels done by someone who looks like an ex-boxer, as though the analysis of the history of English involves pugilism. And maybe it does…

If you’ve missed it, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until next Monday. And it even comes with a warning: ‘Contains Adult Themes’. If you can’t get the iPlayer, I guess it’s possible that  in time that it might turn up on the BBC’s Youtube channel.

  1. February 9, 2011 at 1:27 am

    It was an interesting programme, although he failed to mention that the first truly modern novel was Don Quijote by Miguel De Cervantes (1605). It did, however, fill some of the vast lacunae n my knowledge of 18th century lit. I’ll certainly look out for Fanny Burney’s work (but I don’t think I’ll bother reading Clarissa).

  2. February 9, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    This is true. While the prog was about the ‘British’ novel he could legitimately have pointed out that the Brits didn’t ‘invent’ it as a form. Apparently (I’ve just been reading stuff about this) even the early Spanish picaresque writers may have inherited the form from even earlier Arabic writing. You learn something every day… well I seem to, anyway!

  3. February 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Interesting point. Arab writers obviously have a strong case too. This brings me to another claim made by Hitchings that genre was ‘invented’ by Horace Walpole and Gothic fiction. The picaresque is a recognizable genre and predates the Gothic novel by absolute yonks. The court-intrigue/romance novel (The Tale of Genji by Lady Murakami, written in Japan in the 11th century)predates even the picaresque. Having said all that, It was an interesting programme and I look forward to the next installment.

  4. February 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I think his point was that the gothic genre was ‘invented’ by Walpole and since it was published in 1764, so predating most other well-remembered gothic novels by quite a few years (even in languages other than English) he may be right.

    If I remember rightly he was arguing that several different genres that we recognise today have their origins in the 1700s. The general argument’s probably a reasonable one though I suspect it’s stretching things a little far to say Fanny Burney was a key originator of ‘chick-lit’ as we now know it!

    Yes, the picaresque goes back to, what, the mid-1500s? And I think it’s arguable that the picaresque is still alive and well in modern literature – I can think of a few recently published titles that would sit well under that banner.

    Prior to that, Europe had romances, novellas and collections of stories though there are non-European histories as well that I confess I’m ignorant about.

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