Hard as it may be to believe now, once upon a time the novel was literature’s bastard child, kept hidden away whenever the classy friends came over but having a spark about it that kept making people want to see it. Trying to lay a claim to the book that was the very first novel is a dangerous game; a loser’s game, actually. The first novels bear little resemblance to what we think of now. Some will fight to the death to claim that Don Quixote was the very first novel, but as far as the first English novel goes it probably was written by Daniel Defoe.
Robinson Crusoe was, if not the first novel ever written in the English language, without question the first blockbuster. A larger percentage of the British population read Robinson Crusoe than will read the final Harry Potter book. If you could read back then you probably read the famous story of the castaway. The really odd thing about the first novels and especially those by Daniel Defoe is that they were presented as true stories, written in a technique designed to enhance their verisimilitude. The fact is that neither the story of Crusoe nor Moll Flanders was based on biographical fact. That strain of trying to increase believability by making claims of truth still persists to this day. Defoe’s efforts were light years away from the standard literary efforts that were required reading of the time: The Bible, Milton’s poetry and John Dryden’s criticism.
Daniel Defoe wasn’t the only writer working to birth a new genre, however. Alongside Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, readers of the time were also enjoying Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Like many early “novels” Pamela was made up of letters written by one of its characters. Richardson’s work was characterized by an element of sentimentality that would be almost a self-parody today, but certainly not at the time. It took Henry Fielding and Joseph Andrews to introduce satire and parody to the novel genre. Fielding’s target for satire didn’t end at Richardson, however, he also satirized the essence of the epic.
It was Tobias Smollett who introduced to English literature the type of novel that follows the picaresque adventures of a roguish hero who runs into misfortune at every turn and must use his wits to escape-along with his cheeky humor to bed wenches along the way. Smollet’s novel The Adventures of Roderick Random set the stage for its much better known ancestor Tom Jones. This kind of novel reached both its apotheosis and its satirical melting point with Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, still the most subversive and original novel ever written. The story of Tristram Shandy is so self-consciously convoluted that its hero doesn’t even get born until a third of the way through. Some pages are left intentionally blank. Tristram Shandy is a novel that isn’t so much about what happens as it about how to write about what happens.
In its early days, the English novel was something akin to punk rock. It was an underground literary movement, filled with rebellion and the essence of thumbing one’s noses at the literature of the past. At the same time there was a humble acceptance that without those literary conventions of the past, the novel would not have been possible. And so, the next time you are forced to read a novel for a school class you would do well to remember that what you are reading is the ancestor of an actual revolution. It is a work borne of rebellion. By contrast, what you are rebelling against and how? By piercing your nose like a million other people will do this year?