The Origins of the Novel in England

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The Origins of the Novel in England

New Genre, New Times.

The relatively rapid rise of the novel as a popular reading form in eighteenth-century England has long elicited interest from historians and literary critics. Of course, these were not by any measures the first "fictions" to enjoy a wide readership, but the eighteenth-century novel came to be distinguished from its forbearers—works like Aphra Behn's Oroonoko—both by its length and its efforts to create an entirely imagined universe. Its development as a modern literary form occurred in the relatively brief space of two generations, the years, that is, between 1720 and 1780. Its development points to many changes in eighteenth-century society, including increasing disposable income among the middle classes to spend on books and greater leisure time in which to enjoy them. Its appearance, too, points to the increasingly secular spirit of eighteenth-century society, as readers exchanged the devotional literature of the past for fictions, fictions that the Christian moralists of the age often condemned as morally suspect and light-headed. Since many of those that consumed the new novels were women, too, the rise of this literary form also reveals rising educational standards during the period. The novel was an undeniably secular form of entertainment when compared against the devotional works and spiritual biographies and autobiographies that had been popular in the seventeenth century. But while secular in its outlook, the ways in which eighteenth-century authors crafted their stories were not devoid of moral or religious purposes. Eighteenth-century England was still a country very much shaped by its Puritan past, and in the novel's plots authors often told stories about downtrodden women and libertine men, tales that had just enough of a whiff of danger about them to titillate, and yet reinforce traditional values.


Historians and literary critics have often identified a series of three works that Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) published in the years around 1720 as decisive in fashioning the English novel: The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), The History and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), and The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana (1724). Defoe came to this fictional form late in life, and he did not create these works out of entirely new cloth. Before completing his Robinson Crusoe, for instance, he had already written more than 400 other works of political commentary, fiction, and satire. These three works were consequently only a miniscule output of their author's entire body of work. His tremendous production is the result of his creation of the literary equivalent of a cottage industry. Like Peter Paul Rubens, the seventeenth-century painter who presided over an enormous studio that churned out many paintings under his name, Defoe seems to have employed "ghost" writers, including his two sons, in order to complete the massive amounts of prose he was called upon to write for newspapers, journals, and the press in the 1710s and 1720s. In the years between 1709 and 1714, he developed his skills as a propagandist for the Tory Party, then the ruling faction in Parliament. As Queen Anne's death approached, many Tories supported a return to Stuart rather than Hanoverian rule, but with the accession of the German George I (r. 1714–1727) to serve as England's monarch, these plans were quickly discredited. Defoe and some of his associates now were persecuted for their role in popularizing the Tory program in print. Defoe was convicted of Seditious Libel, and in the months that followed he seems to have become a kind of literary spy for the Whigs, who paid him to continue to work for Tory publications so that he might "tone down" the rhetoric they used against the new Hanoverian government. By 1715, Defoe was editing one Tory newspaper while simultaneously producing another that was Whig in its orientation. For these efforts he was widely attacked, but he was enormously successful all the same. He made annually around 1,200 pounds from his journalism alone, a sum that was about 25 times the average wage of a shopkeeper or artisan in


introduction: Daniel Defoe's early novels made use of the first-person narrative derived, in large part, from his familiarity with Puritan spiritual autobiographies. In this passage from his The History and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, the dark heroine describes the way in which she came to be a pickpocket on London's streets.

Some time after this, as I was at work, and very melancholy, she begins to ask me what the matter was, as she was used to do. I told her my heart was heavy; I had little work, and nothing to live on, and knew not what course to take. She laughed, and told me I must go out again and try my fortune; it might be that I might meet with another piece of plate. 'O mother!' says I, 'that is a trade I have no skill in, and if I should be taken I am undone at once.' Says she, 'I could help you to a School-Mistress that shall make you as dexterous as herself.' I trembled at that proposal, for hitherto I had had no confederates, nor any acquaintance among that tribe. But she conquered all my modesty, and all my fears; and in a little time, by the help of this confederate, I grew as impudent a thief, and as dexterous as ever Moll Cutpurse was, though, if fame does not belie her, not half so handsome.

The comrade she helped me to dealt in three sorts of craft, viz. shoplifting, stealing of shop-books and pocket-books, and taking off gold watches from the ladies' sides; and this last she did so dexterously that no woman ever arrived to the performance of that art so as to do it like her. I liked the first and the last of these things very well, and I attended her some time in the practice, just as a deputy attends a midwife, without any pay.

At length she put me to practice. She had shown me her art, and I had several times unhooked a watch from her own side with great dexterity. At last she showed me a prize, and this was a young lady big with child, who had a charming watch. The thing was to be done as she came out of church. She goes on one side of the lady, and pretends, just as she came to the steps, to fall, and fell against the lady with so much violence as put her into a great fright, and both cried out terribly. In the very moment that she jostled the lady, I had hold of the watch, and holding it the right way, the start she gave drew the hook out, and she never felt it. I made off immediately, and left my schoolmistress to come out of her pretended fright gradually, and the lady too; and presently the watch was missed. 'Ay,' says my comrade, 'then it was those rogues that thrust me down, I warrant ye; I wonder the gentlewoman did not miss her watch before, then we might have taken them.'

She humour'd the thing so well that nobody suspected her, and I was got home a full hour before her. This was my first adventure in company. The watch was indeed a very fine one, and had a great many trinkets about it, and my governess allowed us £20 for it, of which I had half. And thus I was entered a complete thief, hardened to the pitch above all the reflections of conscience or modesty, and to a degree which I must acknowledge I never thought possible in me.

source: Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (London: 1722; New York: Quality Paperback, 1996): 222–223.

the country. Because of his acerbic wit, his texts were assured of a wide audience, and he was paid handsomely for them, but as a result, he also dabbled in other business deals, and in these he failed to show the same skill as in his journalism so that by the end of his life his finances were in shambles.

Castaways and Criminals.

Defoe's skill in developing a market for his fiction can be seen in his Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, as well as in Moll Flanders and Roxana. In truth, it must be admitted that Defoe was not really trying to develop these texts as "novels"; they were extensions of his long-term use of satire and of the "pretend narratives" he had long written to make points in his journalism. A central concern of Defoe's political writings had been his criticism of public corruption and of the private morality evidenced by men of affairs in the political world of his time. In The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe the author continued to speak to these issues, while nevertheless constructing an entirely fictionalized world. The sources for such an imaginative approach were many. Defoe appears to have modeled his story on the "real-life" adventures of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who had been rescued from shipwreck and who had returned to Britain in 1709. But Defoe also relied on a number of travel narratives, history, diaries, works of political philosophy, and theology as well. The most important genre that inspired his narrative, however, was the Puritan confession or spiritual autobiography. Chief among the many works that left its residue in Robinson Crusoe was John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a text that he was well familiar with as a result of his Presbyterian upbringing. The tale that he spins subsequently transposes the theme that Bunyan and other Puritan devotional writers had often treated: the attempt of the individual to achieve salvation in a hostile environment. Defoe imagined this hostile environment, not as "worldly" Restoration England or corrupt Hanoverian Britain, but rather as a desert island. The central character, Crusoe, is abandoned there as a direct result of his defiance of his parents' wishes and his embarking on a life of adventure, a plot derived from the story of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The tale is thus filled with a high moral purpose, but also has the appeal of an adventure story. A similar combination of moral commentary and adventure are to be found in Defoe's two other masterpieces, The History and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana, although both these stories are highly tinged with eroticism as well. In Moll Flanders, Defoe relied on the by-then conventional narrative of personal religious conversion. The central character, Moll Flanders—a name that was then redolent of prostitution—is born to a thief in prison and is eventually forced to survive on her wits as a fallen woman. Through a series of alternate fortunes and misfortunes, she eventually is able to put her shady past behind her, and she announces at the end of the work her intentions to live a new, morally upright life. To this point, though, the highly ironic cast in which Defoe has cast Moll's adventures leads the reader to conclude that perhaps she will not be so penitent as she claims.

Life Among the Great and Good.

In Roxana, Defoe continued in a similar vein, although instead of setting his tale in the lower reaches of London society, he recounted the adventures of a great Restoration-era courtesan who circulates in high society. For its middle-class readers, part of the appeal of Roxana lay in its attack on aristocratic decadence and lasciviousness, qualities that they saw as standing in marked contrast to the thrift and hard work of English commercial society. The central character is forced to survive on the largesse of her lovers following her husband's abandonment and her subsequent bankruptcy. The narrative recounts Roxana's attempts to store up enough treasure through her subsequent line of distinguished paramours so that she may never be subjected to such embarrassments again. But in a way that was new, Defoe also describes Roxana's growing psychological turmoil and her eventual mental breakdown as a consequence of her constant realization that the path on which she has embarked leads only to personal damnation. Where Moll Flanders is eventually redeemed, or at least seems to be redeemed, from her life of crime, Roxana's criminal use of sex ultimately destroys her. Both works are extraordinary texts that can be profitably subjected to a number of different readings. On the one hand, they appear to uphold a traditional Christian morality, but they do so in a way that plays on the sexually voyeuristic appetites of readers. In both books, outright sexual perversions play a central role in the plot. In one of her misfortunes, for instance, Moll Flanders falls unwittingly into a marriage and incest with her brother. Roxana presents her maid Amy to sleep with her own lover so that she might give him a son, an incident that recalls the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16. Like her husband who has abandoned her, Roxana, in turn, abandons her own numerous children, and at one point even overexerts herself in hopes that she might miscarry. In these and other ways, both stories present a great deal of social commentary about the role that English law and society play in fostering such feminine crimes. Free women, Defoe decries at points in both narratives, are enslaved by laws that dissolve their status into their husbands when they marry. English society, rather than educating its daughters in useful occupations that might provide them income to survive, instead schools them to make use of their sexuality. Prostitution is, Defoe argues, the logical consequence of the economic and social realities of the day, a daring statement at a time when moralists continued to insist that it arose strictly from personal sinfulness. Yet Defoe also keenly realized that his audience was fascinated by the ideas of Locke and other early Enlightenment thinkers that saw crime, not as the consequence of a primordial mark of Cain, but as the outcome of societies that were badly organized. In this way he developed his novels as exercises in social commentary. Although it must be admitted at the same time that these books' "high" moral aims were frequently at odds with their hints of the pornographic and the merely prurient.


Daniel Defoe, The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana (London: T. Warner, 1724).

——, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (New York: Norton, [1973]).

——, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (London: Constable, [1925]).

C. H. Flynn, The Body in Swift and Defoe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

C. McIntosh, The Evolution of English Prose, 1700–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

I. Watt, Myths of Modern Individualism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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The Origins of the Novel in England

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