What was the first english novel?

Do you remember the first novel you read?  Novels and stories give us a new perspective on adventure and commitment that has the ability to stay with us for a lifetime. But where this life-altering art was developed? And what is the story of the novel itself? Let us see it.

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The Rise of the Novel

“It is only novels in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.” Such a beautiful and precise definition of Novel by Jane Austen

A novel is long work of written fiction. A novel is a modern form of literature and the invention of printing made this form of literature possible. The novel is a product of development in the print culture and technology.

A novel is the result of print which is a mechanical invention. Without print back then the novel could not reach a large number of audience.

Improvements in communication were the reason for the emergence of common interests among the readers, they saw themselves with the lives and stories of the characters.

The spread of the novel began in the 17th century and flowered in the 18th century.

They established in England and France during 17th century but only during the 18th century growing readership and the earnings of authors increased drastically.

This gave freedom to the authors from financial dependence on the patronage of aristocrats. As their earnings increased, they began to experiment with different literally styles.

What Was the First English Novel?

The Publishing Market

Novels were pricey and not affordable by the poor classes. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) sold at three shillings for each of its six volumes. Circulating libraries started in 1740 and the general public could get access to books.

New innovations in printing and new innovations in marketing helped in increasing the sales and reducing the prices. An example of this is when publishers in France realized they could make high profits by hiring out novels by the hour.

What Was the First English Novel?

source: victorianweb

The novel seemed more realistic and the made the reader travel in the author’s imaginative world. People were deeply involved in the characters. The first novel serialized in a magazine was  Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Paper in 1836. Magazines were cheaper and illustrated. Serialisation became the reason to relish suspense.

The World of Novel

During the 19th century, Industrial age took over Europe which resulted in unemployed poor, people living in workhouses. It also created issues for workers in city life. Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times illustrated the terrible condition of Urban life under capitalism. Also, Emili Zola’s Germinal described the life of French miners.

The novels reflected the contemporary development in the society. The problem of city life was a major theme of novelists. For example, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge brought the vast majority of urban readers to closer to rural community through his stories.

Women Writers

During the eighteenth century, women utilized their free time to read and write novels. They explored the world of women, their emotions, identities, experiences and problems.

 Charlotte Bronte’s (1816-1855) Jane Eyre portrayed an independent and assertive girl who protests against hypocrisy and cruelty.

Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) Pride and Prejudice portrays the lives of women in rural society in early 19th century England.

What Was the First English Novel?

Novels for Young

The First English Novel

What Was the First English Novel?

Robinson crusoe rescues Friday-1868 (Credit: Wikipedia)

“It is the complete victory of private property over all those of its qualities which are still apparently human and the total subjugation of the property owner to the essence of private property – labor. … Enjoyment is, therefore, subsumed under capital, and the pleasure-seeking individual under the capitalizing individual.”
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

The English novel is traditionally the genre of careful and focused observation of the social behavior. Women were particularly good at writing this kind of novel. It is often associated with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.

These authors brought particular insight and attention to the lives and condition of women. I find it rather ironic that the first English novel, written by a man, about a man, lacks any female character important enough to have a name.

In fact, for the greater part of Robinson Crusoe there is no opportunity for social analysis at all as there is no society. It is a novel about a man alone on an island.

Could one over imagine a woman writing Robinson Crusoe? There is almost no mention of family, friends or society. Crusoe’s interactions with the others, while he still is around them, is largely commercial. Once he is stranded on the island his story becomes one long account book of objects, supplies, calendars, cost-benefit analysis and labor.

This accounting take precedence over all. Crusoe, long sense having forgotten his own family leads Friday to do the same.

Not more than a dozen pages after Friday’s heartrending reunion with his father, barely saved from the verge of death, he sails off following Crusoe to an unknown future without a thought for his father who was supposed to return to the island to meet them at a later date.

Once off the island Friday is forgotten and largely disappears from the narrative just as Xury, his previous companion was sold off into slavery with barely a thought.

Crusoe himself, who having spent pages detailing every scrap of cloth and metal removed from the ship, will skip over his marriage, children and death in hardly more than a single sentence; not one of them gets the dignity of being mentioned by name.

I find it peculiar that such an incredibly anti-social tale could be the founding text of that most social of literary genres, the English Novel.

Kids Web Japan

What Was the First English Novel?A picture scroll of the world's oldest novel, the 11th century Tale of Genji.

The Tale of Genji is considered to be the world's first full-length novel. It was written by a noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century.

Until then the Japanese had imitated Chinese culture, and Chinese poetry and writing had been popular. However, a home-grown syllabic writing system called hiragana emerged around that time as a means of expressing the sentiments and thoughts of the Japanese – particularly of women. Murasaki Shikibu used the hiragana script in writing the Tale of Genji.

The hero of this 54-chapter novel, regarded as a masterpiece of Japan's cultural tradition, is a handsome aristocrat named Hikaru Genji. The novel describes the life of Genji and his many romances against the backdrop of Japan's court society.

The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was gifted with great literary talent. After the death of her husband, she served in the imperial court. It is thought that she based the novel on her true-life experiences at court.

Photo:Goto Art Museum

The rise of the novel

John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.

The publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 was an extraordinary event in the history of literature. There had been prose narratives before this book, but never so sustained a fictional account of one individual’s experiences. This man’s story was singular and new.

What distinguished Robinson Crusoe were elements that now seem essential to the novel as a genre. It told of an ordinary individual, even if his ordeals were extraordinary. It placed great emphasis on his inner life, though understood mostly in spiritual terms.

And, above all, in the very manner of its narration, it asked the reader to believe in its ‘probability’. In the first decades of the English novel, this was the most common word for what made a narrative believable.

In the case of Robinson Crusoe, it involved the narrator’s unwavering commitment to minute, objective description and circumstantial detail, Daniel Defoe’s brilliantly unliterary prose doing justice to the facts of one particular person’s experience.

For Defoe, steeped in the works of devout Protestant autobiographers such as John Bunyan, narration meant religious self-inspection.

Crusoe tells us that ‘my Story is a whole Collection of Wonders’ – that word ‘Wonders’ capturing both the narrator’s own amazement at his fortunes, and his dawning recognition of the influence of God’s care and guidance in his life.

He is placed on the desert island, with only a Bible and the natural world to instruct him and ample time to look into his heart to understand the errors of his sinful past.

Most of Defoe’s subsequent novels – Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and Roxana among them – are memoirs of remorseful rogues who have learnt religion from experience and introspection. All of his novels presented themselves on their title pages as if they were autobiographies. None bore Defoe’s name as their author. Indeed, there is evidence that one of them, The Journal of the Plague Year, was widely received as a true account of the experience of the Great Plague of 1665.

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The word ‘novel’

So the novel begins as if it were a ‘true’ story. Yet Defoe’s fiction was not noticed by contemporary literary critics, and not included in discussions of the best literature of the age.

From the number of editions that were published we know that his fiction was popular, but it was not regarded as properly literary. Many of his novels were lumped together in the public imagination with the published accounts of criminal lives that were popular in the period.

Readers were not yet aware that a new genre was with them. The preface to Robinson Crusoe has many words for the narrative – ‘Story’, ‘Adventures’, ‘Account’, ‘Life’, ‘History’, ‘Fact’ – but none of them is that word ‘novel’. It is significant that readers did not yet use this word to describe this new genre.

The noun existed, but it referred to what we might call a short story or novella: a genre of brief tales, often of forbidden romantic entanglements, usually published in collections. Many of the leading writers of these were women, of whom Delarivière Manley and Eliza Haywood were the most famous.

Defoe’s last novel Roxana, the fictional memoir of a Restoration courtesan, owes something to this briefly dominant sub-genre of prose fiction, featuring as it does the scandalous affairs of courtly men and women.

The first page of the preface explains that ‘[t]he story is told with modesty, with seriousness, and with a religious application of events’.

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We owe the phrase ‘the rise of the novel’ to the critic Ian Watt, who used it as the title of a hugely influential book, first published in 1957. The crucial event was the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in 1740.

This novel, which told of the heroic efforts of a 15-year-old servant girl to resist the attempts of her ‘master’, Mr B, to seduce her, was an immediate best-seller.

A work of great moral intensity, it powerfully made the claim for the novel to be taken seriously, morally speaking. Some of its detractors mocked its literary pretensions, not least because Richardson himself was a relatively uneducated, self-made businessman.

He had begun as a printer’s apprentice and had risen to establish his own successful printing business. He turned to novel writing only in his fifties.

First published in 1740, the epistolary novel Pamela is viewed as the first work to move the previously sensational or romantic genre of the novel into the respectable mainstream.

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Pamela was as proudly humble in its origins as its author. The novel is written in letters, almost all of them penned by its heroine. In Richardson’s earliest version she is colloquial and unrefined, catching her experience with a stylistic immediacy that his first readers found irresistible.

(In later editions, Richardson polished her language, thereby rendering her less vivid and believable.) The reader lives through her perplexities and apprehensions, knowing no more than she does. The letters are essential to the novel’s plot. Pamela has to hide and smuggle them. Mr B intercepts them. As we are reading her account of her ordeals, so is he.

And her letters begin to work on him. The novel demonstrates its moral power by converting its own would-be villain.

This letter-writing manual by Samuel Richardson was an inspiration for Pamela. It also demonstrates Richardson’s ability to use the appropriate verbal register for characters from a variety of different backgrounds.

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Richardson’s success provoked the earliest fictional experiments of his most accomplished contemporary, Henry Fielding. Fielding’s career as a writer of politically satirical drama had been thwarted by a new law requiring the state licensing of all new plays. So he turned to fiction.

His response to Pamela was Shamela, published anonymously in 1741. This transformed Richardson’s heroine into a worldly and entirely cynical narrator, who knows well the value of her fake ‘vartue’ and contrives to push her wealthy, foolish master into marrying her in order to obtain it.

It also parodies Richardson’s narrative technique of ‘writing to the moment’, capturing experience even as it happens.

Fielding would go on to compose his first full-length novel Joseph Andrews as a more subtle riposte to Richardson. Fielding is conscious that he is engaged in a new ‘Species of Writing’, even if he does not have a name for it.

Joseph, the book’s hero, is also a servant (the supposed brother of Pamela, in fact) who must learn a little worldly wisdom in the course of his misadventures. Fielding makes much of the clash between his highly literary style and his supposedly ‘low’ subject matter.

His second full-length novel, Tom Jones, is a kind of mock-epic, whose vulgar events provoke him to much allusion and quotation. The novel is also elaborately and elegantly plotted, another reason why it would be much admired by Victorian novelists.

Both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones feature protagonists who travel the roads of England, encountering characters from every class. This idea of a novel as a journey through contemporary society was highly influential, imitated by, amongst others, Tobias Smollett in works such as Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker.

First published in 1749, Tom Jones was an instant success and went on to inspire writers such as Dickens with its realistic approach to characterisation.

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Richardson’s second novel, Clarissa, was also written in letters, but this time he featured several different fictional correspondents. Again it is a tale of attempted seduction. The virtuous Clarissa is wooed, beguiled, deceived and assailed by the rakish Lovelace, a highly sophisticated libertine.

We are given both the correspondence between Clarissa and her friend Anna Howe, and that between Lovelace and his fellow rake Belford. We can see the difference between what Clarissa supposes and what Lovelace plans, and we can also be drawn into the villain’s schemes and obsessions. To Richardson’s horror, some of his most devoted readers seemed themselves to be seduced by Lovelace.

In later editions he rewrote the novel to make Lovelace more obviously villainous.

Clarissa is a massively long novel, and it is also challenging to modern readers because of the artificiality of its use of letters. How could its protagonists have had time to write so much? Yet it is a work of great psychological complexity and tragic ambitions.

It inspired authors across Europe (Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses and Rousseau’s Julie; ou a nouvelle Hélïose were both written in emulation of it), and convinced many readers that the novel was not a minor genre but could indeed be great literature. Even Fielding admired it.

Novelists who came after Richardson were able to feel that their chosen genre had achieved respectability, perhaps even literary dignity.

Tristram Shandy

In some ways the most ‘literary’ novel of the 18th century was the next big commercial success: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the first two volumes of which were published in York in 1759, then in London in 1760.

Sterne, an obscure Yorkshire vicar until his book became a popular sensation, was the only novelist of the century to have had a university education, and Tristram Shandy was duly packed with learned jokes and parodies of other books.

These were combined with bawdy jokes, sentimental set pieces and elements of extraordinary narrative experiment. The novel veers unpredictably backwards and forwards in time, and uses an array of witty visual devices, all to tell the story of the utterly eccentric Shandy family.

Some critics were disapproving, but readers loved it. Sterne came to London and relished his role as a celebrity author. Tristram Shandy used a great deal of autobiographical material, and encouraged readers to identify the author with his fictional narrator.

By being composed and published in five separate instalments over the course of some seven years, it was able to respond to its own reception. Uncharitable reviewers of the first two volumes were duly mocked in the next two.

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History of the Novel

reading image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com

The novel originated in the early 18th century after the Italian word “novella,” which was used for stories in the medieval period. Its identity has evolved and it is now considered to mean a work of prose fiction over 50,000 words. Novels focus on character development more than plot. In any genre, it is the study of the human psyche.

The Beginning

The ancestors of the novel were Elizabethan prose fiction and French heroic romances, which were long narratives about contemporary characters who behaved nobly.

The novel came into popular awareness towards the end of the 1700s, due to a growing middle class with more leisure time to read and money to buy books.

Public interest in the human character led to the popularity of autobiographies, biographies, journals, diaries and memoirs.

English Novels

The early English novels concerned themselves with complex, middle-class characters struggling with their morality and circumstances. “Pamela,” a series of fictional letters written in 1741 by Samuel Richardson, is considered the first real English novel.

Other early novelists include Daniel Defoe, who wrote “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) and “Moll Flanders” (1722), although his characters were not fully realized enough to be considered full-fledged novels.

Jane Austen is the author of “Pride and Prejudice” (1812), and “Emma” (1816), considered the best early English novels of manners.

Novels in the 19th Century

The first half of the 19th century was influenced by the romanticism of the previous era. The focus was now on nature and imagination rather than intellect and emotion. Gothic is a strain of the romantic novel with its emphasis on the supernatural.

Famous romantic novels include “Jane Eyre” (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, the prototype of many succeeding novels about governesses and mystery men; “Wuthering Heights” (1847) a Gothic romance by Emily Bronte; “The Scarlet Letter” (1850), and “The House of Seven Gables” (1851), gothic, romantic tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne about puritanism and guilt; and “Moby Dick,” (1851) Herman Melville's work on the nature of good and evil.

Victorian Novels

The novel became established as the dominant literary form during the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901). Victorian novelists portrayed middle-class, virtuous heroes responding to society and learning wrong from right through a series of human errors.

Sir Walter Scott published three-volume novels and ingeniously made them affordable to the general public by making them available for purchase in monthly installments.

This marketing tactic lead to the writing innovation of sub-climaxes as a way to leave readers wanting more each month.

Notable Victorian authors include Charles Dickens, considered the best English Victorian novelist, who wrote “A Christmas Carol” (1843) and Lewis Carroll, (Charles Ludwidge Dodgson), who wrote “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” (1864) and “Through the Looking-Glass” (1871).

Realism and Naturalism

The rise of industrialization in the 19th century precipitated a trend toward writing that depicted realism. Novels began to depict characters who were not entirely good or bad, rejecting the idealism and romanticism of the previous genre.

Realism evolved quickly into naturalism which portrayed harsher circumstances and pessimistic characters rendered powerless by the forces of their environment.

Naturalist novels include “Uncle Tom's Cabin” (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was a major catalyst for the American Civil War; “Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885), the latter of which is considered the great American novel written by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens).

Modern Novels

The 20th century is divided into two phases of literature–modern literature (1900-1945) and contemporary literature (1945 to the present), also referred to as postmodern.

The characters in modern and contemporary novels questioned the existence of God, the supremacy of the human reason, and the nature of reality. Novels from this era reflected great events such as The Great Depression, World War II, Hiroshima, the cold war and communism.

Famous modern novels include “To The Lighthouse” (1927) by English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf; “Ulysses” (1921), by Irish novelist and short story writer James Joyce; “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929), the most famous World War I anti-war novel by German novelist and journalist Erich Maria Remarque and “The Sound and the Fury” (1929) by American novelist and short story writer William Faulkner, which depicts the decline of the South after the Civil War.

Postmodern Novels

Realism and naturalism paved the way into postmodern surrealistic novels with characters that were more reflective. The postmodern novel includes magical realism, metafiction, and the graphic novel. It asserts that man is ruled by a higher power and that the universe cannot be explained by reason alone.

Modern novels exhibit a playfulness of language, less reliance on traditional values, and experimentation with how time is conveyed in the story.

Postmodern novels include: “The Color Purple” (1982) by Alice Walker; “In Cold Blood” (1966) by Truman Capote; the non-fiction novel “Roots” (1976) by Alex Haley; “Fear of Flying” (1973) by Erica Jong; and the leading magical realist novel, “A Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Who Wrote the First Novel in English? And Other Surprising Literary Firsts

Surprising firsts from the world of books

We recently wrote a book, The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, which aims to uncover the best hidden facts and stories about classic and not-so-classic works of literature.

One of the most fascinating things we discovered was how wrong we’d been on the topic of ‘firsts’. It seems there are a fair few origin myths out there, which are often taken as fact. Who wrote the first English novel? We thought we knew.

Who compiled the first English Dictionary? Dr Johnson, surely! Turns out we were wrong on that one too.

To celebrate the publication of our book in the US this month, here are a few of our favourite surprising firsts from the world of literature which we uncovered during our research for the book, which goes back several years.

Who compiled the first English dictionary? Samuel Johnson often gets the credit for compiling the first dictionary of the English language, but in fact his Dictionary of 1755 wasn’t even the first one to be published in 1755! (The Scott-Bailey Dictionary also appeared in the same year.

) Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century (albeit without definitions), and in 1604 Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall had appeared. But in the early eighteenth century, dictionary-making was all the rage.

Johnson’s Dictionary drew heavily on Nathan Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), but Johnson’s definitions were a considerable improvement on the work of his precursor.

Bailey’s Dictionary, for instance, had defined ‘cat’ as ‘a creature well known’; ‘goat’, meanwhile, was ‘a beast’ and ‘strawberry’ was described simply as ‘a well known fruit’. ‘Black’ was ‘a colour’. You couldn’t argue with the factual correctness of such definitions (on the whole), but they did leave a fair bit to be desired.

Dr Johnson once listed his three favourite books as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe (1719), the tale of the title character’s survival on a desert island following a shipwreck, is often called the first English novel.

But is it? Who actually wrote the first novel in English? Two earlier claimants to the title of the first novel are both by a woman named Aphra Behn (Oroonoko or Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister).

Oroonoko might be disqualified because it’s too short, or because it’s based too heavily – at least supposedly – on real events. But of course, The Pilgrim’s Progress itself, one of Johnson’s other favourite novels, is also a work of prose fiction which predates Robinson Crusoe, having been published in 1678. So perhaps we should award Bunyan’s book the title of ‘first English novel’.

However, talking of Robinson Crusoe, the book that isn’t the first English novel, that turns up numerous times in a book called The Moonstone, which is often called the first detective novel – but isn’t.

The Moonstone, by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins, was first published in 1868 and it’s an early example of detective fiction, but it’s not the very first detective novel – we have to go back to a bit earlier in the decade for that mantle.

Some people claim it’s a book called The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), but in fact there’s an even earlier one: The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was the publishing phenomenon of the 1860s – a hugely popular author of what became known as ‘sensation fiction’.

A lurid tale involving murder and false identity, The Trail of the Serpent qualifies most definitely as a ‘detective’ novel not only because a crime is placed at the centre of the narrative but because it has a detective, named Peters, investigating that crime. Scholars Chris Willis and Kate Watson have both argued that the novel therefore qualifies most certainly for the title of the earliest detective novel.

The most famous fictional detective of them all is Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in a book published by the husband of Mrs Beeton, author of the influential Book of Household Management (1861), best known for its cookery recipes.

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(The first novel to feature Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1886.) But was Mrs Beeton’s book the first English cookbook? Not by a long way.

In fact, the first book written in English which we might confidently label a ‘cookbook’ was produced in the late fourteenth century, during the reign of Richard II. While Chaucer was busy writing The Canterbury Tales, the (anonymous) Forme of Cury was being compiled.

It contains nearly 200 recipes, including an early quiche (known then as a ‘custard’) and a ‘blank mang’, a sweet dish made with milk, rice, almonds, sugar, and – er, slices of meat. It may not sound much but it was a popular dish at the time and would later evolve, for good or ill, into blancmange.

These are just a handful of the surprising firsts discussed in The Secret Library.

The book explores many more, including the female author of the first English autobiography, the first Gothic novel (not Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), and the first joke book – a surprisingly modern collection of gags dating from nearly 2,000 years ago. If this has whetted your appetite, The Secret Library is available in the US now.

What Was the First English Novel?

I want to share an idea that surprised me the first time I heard it and that seems to surprise a lot of other people when I mention it: the novel as a literary form is relatively new.

Sure, humans have been telling stories since since our earliest days, but depending on the criteria you use, the modern English novel emerged sometime between 250 years ago and 550 years ago.

On the older side, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, which was published in 1485, is sometimes called the first English novel.

Other people say the first English novel was Don Quixote, published in 1605; Oroonoko, published in 1688; Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719; or Moll Flanders, published in 1722. 

But whichever book you decide was the first novel, the point is that although we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years—the Greek epic poem the Iliad is nearly 3,000 years old, for example—the novel is a relatively new literary form: in Western culture, it goes back only a few hundred years.


“What was the first novel?” Quora website. http://www.quora.com/What-was-the-first-novel (accessed October 30, 2014).

“The Iliad,” Sparknotes website. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/iliad/context.html (accessed October 30, 2014).

Wikipedia contributors, “First novel in English,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=First_novel_in_English&oldid=629392215 (accessed October 30, 2014).

Wikipedia contributors, “Novel,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Novel&oldid=631226644 (accessed October 30, 2014).

Ed. Kroll, R.W.F. “Introduction,” The English Novel, Vol I: 1700 to Fielding. 2013. Routledge: London and New York, http://bit.ly/1DCNGGW (accessed October 30, 2014).

Watt, I.P. “Chapter 1: Realism and the Novel Form,” The Rise of the Novel. 1957. Chatto and Windus: London, http://bit.ly/1tWiKS1 (accessed October 30, 2014).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

List of claimed first novels in English

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A number of works of literature have each been claimed as the first novel in English.

List of candidates

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (a.k.a. Le Morte Darthur), (written c. 1470, published 1485)
  • William Baldwin, Beware the Cat, (written 1553, published 1570, 1584)[1]
  • John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580) [2]
  • Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (a.k.a. Arcadia) (1581)
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, (a.k.a. The Blazing World) (1666)
  • John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come (1678)[3]
  • Aphra Behn, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave (1688)[4]
  • Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates (a.k.a. Robinson Crusoe) (1719) [5] and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (also 1719)
  • Daniel Defoe, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest and died a Penitent (a.k.a. Moll Flanders) (1722)
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)[6]

Other relevant works

The following are other early long works of prose fiction in English not generally considered novels:

  • William Caxton's 1483 translation of Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of the Tower (originally in French)
  • Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594)
  • Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704)
  • Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator (1705)
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (a.k.a. Gulliver's Travels) (1726)

Differing definition of novel

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. (The article for novel contains a detailed information of the history of the terms “novel” and “romance” and the bodies of texts they defined in a historical perspective.)


  • Critics typically require a novel to have a certain length. This would exclude Oroonoko, arguably a novella.

Content and intent

  • Critics typically require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings such as Le Morte d'Arthur.
  • Critics typically make a distinction between collections of short stories, even those sharing common themes and settings, and novels per se, which typically has a single protagonist and narrative throughout. This might also lead to the exclusion of Le Morte d'Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the romance, which has a heroic protagonist and fantastic elements, and the novel, which attempts to present a realistic story. This would, yet again, exclude Le Morte d'Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel, in which characters and events stand only for themselves, and so exclude The Pilgrim's Progress and A Tale of a Tub'.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the picaresque, made up of a connected sequence of episodes, and the novel, which has unity of structure, and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Owing to the influence of Ian Watt's seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt's candidate, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.

See also

  • Category:Novels by date for earlier claimants in English and other languages.


  1. ^ Ringler, William A. and Michael Flachmann eds. “Preface.” Beware the Cat. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1988.
  2. ^ Sampson, George (1941). The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, p. 161. Cambridge University Press.

    Retrieved 26 April 2014.

  3. ^ Chapman, J. (1892). The Westminster Review, Volume 138. p. 610.
  4. ^ Doyle, Laura (2008). Freedom's Empire: Race and the Rise of the Novel in Atlantic Modernity, 1640–1940, p. 97. Duke University Press.

    Retrieved 26 April 2014.

  5. ^ Chapman, J. (1892). The Westminster Review, Volume 138. p. 610.
  6. ^ The New York Times (2007). The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, Second Edition: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind, p. 67. Macmillan.

    Retrieved 26 April 2014.

External links

  • Historical texts relating to Beware the Cat by William Baldwin

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