Evolution of English novel through ages: a comprehensive analysis (of Dinesh Kumar)

Dinesh Kumar
Assistant Professor of English
Dyal Singh College

In English literature, we come across different genres: poetry, fiction, drama, short story and memoirs. As we know that literature is the mirror of society as well as our life, so is novel that projects human life in different hues and colours. Since the beginning of English literature, novel developed in one form or another. But the reality is that English literature took a new turn and direction with the growth of fictional works. Its presence on the literary scene can be witnessed in the eighteenth century when Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift showed their interest in novel writing. With the rise of the “four wheels” in English literature, novel as a genre was liked and constantly read by reading public in England. Richardson started writing novel with his famous work, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in which he dealt with the idea of morality. Henry Fielding, who is known as the father of English novel, wrote parody of Pamela through his small pamphlet Shamela which, later on, it came to forefront with his masterpiece, Joseph Andrews.

Novel as a literary genre gained currency in the eighteenth century, but its genesis and origin can be traced back to 612 BC.  During this time, Epic of Gilgamesh came into existence. Homer, a notable Epic writer, produced Iliad and Odyssey during his time period from 700 BC to 800 BC. He started writing epic, a long narrative dealing with serious subject-matter. Treading the footprints of Homer, Virgil wrote Aeneid which was followed by John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost in ten books, followed by the eleventh book, Paradise Regained.

After epics were practiced by a number of literary men, in the 12th century, the writing of romances gained popularity. It was also called chivalric romance that flourished between 1000 A.D. to 1450 A.D. The writers during this period shifted their interest from Epic writing to deal with the subjects like bravery, honour, adventure and courtly love. They also assimilated some features like magic, spell, necromancy and enchantment to change the interests and eagerness of the readers. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470) is an illustration of chivalric life centred on King Arthur’s legend.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is written both in poetry and prose. It embodies 24 stories. Besides, he also wrote Troilus and Criseyde. It is remarkable for its socio-religious aspects of life instead of farfetched reality of romances as done by his predecessors. Boccaccio’s Decameron started the tradition of prose tales of amorous adventure before Malory and Chaucer.

With advent of new literary style, Burlesque, the popularity of romances was still in fashion till 1600. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes has been written to mock at the seriousness of chivalric romances. It also illustrates a new type of fiction-picaresque novel which started with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes. Picaresque tradition was a source of inspiration for the writers to come in subsequent centuries which is evident through the writing of Mark Twain (Huckleburry Finn), and Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March)

In the sixteenth century, Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko, or The History of the Royal Slave. The main thematic concerns and ideas of the novel are encouraged by the quest of adventures life by knights who search love of a beautiful lady. John Bunyan also wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, a religious allegory based on the pilgrimage of Christians. With its compact plot, art of characterization and narrative strategy followed by the writer, Pilgrim Progress is a model for the future generation of writers

 The eighteenth century is generally known as the age of prose and reason. This century sawemergence of two important genres-novel and periodical essay. In fact, periodical essay came into existence as a mini rehearsal of novel writing. Many reasons contributed in making the periodical essay popular-rise of the middle-class, faithful mirror of the society, reflection of the temper of the age, appeal to women, avoidance of religious and political controversies, interest in trade and commerce, decline of drama, readymade material, rise of common people and, last but not the least, no cramping limitation of classicism. Addison and Steele, pioneer of periodical essay gave a new direction to periodical essay by introducing an element of realism of the contemporary age.

The real beginning of novel in England took place in eighteenth century with the emergence of Daniel Defoe as a novelist who dealt with the stories of adventures in his works Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxana and Plague. His main focus was on the story rather on characterization. His narrative strategy was the main strength of his works.

In this way, the eighteenth-century novel before the four wheels, rejected characterization. It paved the way for a new type of novel-domestic novel practiced by Oliver Goldsmith as is evident through his work, The Vicar of Wakefield. The rise of novel in the eighteenth century was the direct result of industrial revolution, decline of romance and drama, rise of the middle class. Moreover, the efforts of four wheels Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett were very instrumental in lifting novel to the glorious heights. Through his novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, Richardson introduced a new form of fiction, epistolary novel written in letter form. The present book focuses readers’ attention on the concept of morality through its female protagonist, Pamela. Richardson’s chief contribution lies in the field of plot-construction, the sentimental note, morality, allegorical method and characterization.

The weaknesses left behind Richardson in his works were improved by Henry Fielding. Although popular as a dramatist in his early career, he provided new height and gravity to English fiction through his masterpieces Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Jonathan Wild and Amelia. His fictional works are marked by realism, morality, characterization and artistic craftsmanship. As a parody of Richardson’s Pamela, he wrote a small pamphlet, Shamela which was, later on, produced as a novel, Joseph Andrews. Fielding’s contribution in the field of realism, humour and irony, common sense morality and plot-construction cannot be underestimated.

Laurence Sterne, discarding the conventional style of novel writing, practiced a different type of novel, known as the novel of impressionism. He is primarily known for his two masterpieces: The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen and Sentimental Journey. His main focus in his works is on subtlety of humour, sentimentalism, impressionism and style.

Besides, the contribution of female authors was also equally important and noteworthy. For the first time, the readers came across a galaxy of female novelists: Sarah Fielding, Hanna More, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Susan Ferrier, Miss Mary Russell Mitford and Mrs. Radcliffe wrote with same enthusiasm, vigour and zeal as the male novelists did.

In addition to it, the Gothic novelists Horace Walpole, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Robert Bage, Clara Reeve and Mary Shelley tried to create an atmosphere of horror and terror which was one of the main tendencies of Gothic fiction. Gothic novel is also known as the novel of terror. Contrary to the realistic novel cultivated by Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, the gothic novelists introduced romantic spirit focusing on farfetched imagination.

A new type of the novel, the novel of manners, got popular with the advent of Jane Austen on the literary scene. The cult of feeling and emotion during the romantic age resulted into the novel of sensibility as can be seen through her novels Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. Historical novel, a term used by Walter Scott for his novels, was popular as can be witnessed through his works Ivanhoe, Old Mortality, Talisman and The Heart of Midlothian.

The novel during the Victorian period was a social force that honestly reflected the social condition of the age. Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, W.M. Thackeray and Charles Dickens depicted the realistic picture of the age acting as the social reformers. Besides, the contribution of female authors George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë is also prominent and significant. These female novelists brought glory and laurel to Victorian fiction. Hardy practiced a new type of genre-regional novel as he depicts a faithful and authentic environment of Wessex region in his woks The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Among the modern novelists, we come across a galaxy of fiction writers: James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, H.G. Wells, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley are worthy of detailed consideration. The stream of consciousness novel and psychological novel is the product of modern age. The impact of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche can be seen on the modern fiction.

Among the diverse tendencies of modern novel can be included the art form of fiction. It was a significant form of fiction writing during the modern period. The twentieth century fiction writers discarded the moralising sentiments and irrelevances of great Victorian writers. The compactness and well-knit plot of modern novelists are an advantage on the rambling and lose plot of Victorian writers. In fact, modern novel has few frills, few redundancy, it is more like a well-cut garden then an opulent tropical Jungle which the novel undoubtedly was in the hands of Charles Dickens and W.M. Thackeray.

 During the early years of the twentieth century, the modern novelists were preoccupied with the problems related to social life. During the Edwardian period, the novelists dealt with the novel of ideas in every walk of life-social, political, industrial, and scientific and so on. Being the true Edwardian, H.G. Wells, Galsworthy, Arnold Bennet threw light on the social issues of the contemporary period. In this way, the novel appeared to be a mean of social propaganda.

 In other words, they had a specific purpose and mission in their minds while writing novel. They focused primary on social and domestic problems coupled with problems arising out of ups and downs of life. In the words of H.G. Wells, one finds a perfervid articulation of Edwardian novel when he says: “a novel is in essence a discursive thing, a waxen tapestry multifarious interest sufficiently elastic in form to take the whole of life within its compass-business, finance and politics, till it becomes a proper medium for canvassing all social and political problems as they are.” In their works, the Edwardians manifested problems of middle and upper middle class as they were also the product of the same environment.

H.G.  Wells’ work John and Peter and The History of Mr. Polly are powerful illustration of the evils associated with education system. In the field of education, he tried to bring social reforms. Besides, his work Tono-Bungay is a scathing indictment of modern commercial practices as well as fraudulent advertisement. In addition to it, his work, Kipps is a powerful exploration of the issues related to servant employed in business houses. The struggle between materialism, philistinism and cultural values is the key-concern in Galsworthy’s novel, The Forsyte Saga.

Realism is the keynote of modern fiction. The two world wars change the ideology of the contemporary novelists. H.G. Wells treading the footprints of Dickens and Thackeray realistically delineated the misery and predicaments in his novel Kipps, and Mr. Polly. In George Moore’s fiction, one finds the realistic portrayal of lower sections of the society as is evident through his works, A modern Lover, and A Mummer’s Wife, Esther Waters that depict the ugly and unpleasant side of the poor masses in a compassionate manner. In George Gissing’s works, we come across pathetic life lived by lower strata of people.

His works Thyrza, The Nether World, Grub Street and Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft are the powerful exploration of life lived by downtrodden people. Arnold Bennet’s The Old Wives, and Clayhanger are beautiful illustration of life lived in five towns. Deflecting from the romanticism, the central concern of his works is the sordid and unpleasant life of individuals. In order to reflect a faithful and authentic picture of the five towns, he has minutely focused on objective analysis of these towns.

 As the twentieth century was an age of realism coupled with the social problems of the age, one finds in this age the announcement of materialism and inclination and adventure the note of disappointment against the religion in the works of authors. The despair and disillusionment against modern realism in novel and excessive focus on materialistic values was beautifully expressed by the writers of the age: Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, Samuel Butler and E.M Forster. Their works are replete with the realistic portrayal of absurdity of life. Butler’s Erewhon is a satirical exposure of the modern tendencies in modern period.

The despair and immortality of the age find its powerful expression in Aldous Huxley’s Yellow Chrome. Those Barren Leaves is a condemnation of sordid and ugliness of the age. E.M. Forster’s Howard End is scathing attack on the materialistic tendencies of the age in the mechanised world of England. Condemning the Edwardian realism, Virginia Woolf has rightly and aptly remarked: “it is because they are spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us and left us with the feelings the sooner English fiction turns. It back upon them, as politely as maybe, as marches, is only into the desert, the better for its soul.”

 Joseph Conrad has dealt with a new type of novel in his works as he delineates the scenes of jungle as is evident through his works The Nigger of Narcissus, Lord Jim, rescue, and Jim and River. He has beautifully portrayed the adventurous life of sea full of election and infused with struggle, adventure and odor of romantic adventure.

The glorification of sex, human emotions and passions as a new tendency was the product of modern novel. During the Victorian period, there were excessive checks and hindrances on sex and love. They favoured exalted married love over illegal flirtation. All this find a blow in the Georgian novel as many of the Georgian novelists delineated sex-relationship in their works. Among these, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham and James Joyce are worthy of detailed consideration. D.H. Lawrence’s novels Sons and Lovers, The White Peacock and The Rainbow are powerful illustration of the idea of love and sex.

The influence of psychological theories propounded by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche can be witnessed on modern writers. As a new technique, stream of consciousness technique was popularised by William James, Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, James Joyce’s A Portrait of Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses are imbued with stream of consciousness technique.

Science fiction is also a new trend in novel writing during the modern age. Closely connected with the psychological novel in modern age is the new tendency called scientific novel. As a new type of genre, science fiction has opened the new ways of ideas and imagination to be reflected in fiction. The novels by H.G. Wells The Invisible Man and The Time Machine are full of scientific love. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is also an epitome of scientific outlook.

Detective fiction is also one of the popular forms of novel that emerged during the modern period. This tendency of fiction was popularised by Arthur Conan Doyle in his works The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This type of fiction was further popularised by G.K. Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

Regional novel, one of the popular forms of fiction, can be seen flourishing during the modern age. Among the regional novelists of the age Thomas Hardy and Arnold Bennet are the chief exponents in this type of fiction. Arnold Bennet’s Old Wives’ Tales and Clayhanger series are the prominent and significant works that can be labeled as regional novel.

Biographical novel, one of the important type of novels, emerged during the modern period. This type of fiction concentrated on family life that won recognition during the modern period. Among the biographical fiction, we can quote the example of The World of William Clissold, The Forsyte Saga and Clayhanger which are representative and significant works in this direction.

 In this way, a close and incisive study of the growth of novel reflects that it had been a powerful genre to depict the reality in every age.  


1.Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Madras: Macmillan India Limited, 1978.

2. Albert, E. History of English Literature.  New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979.

3. Compton-Rickett,  A.  A  History of English Literature. New Delhi: UPS, 1995.

4. Kettle, A.  An Introduction to the English Novel. New Delhi: Universal Book Stall, 1967.

5. Rajimwale, S.  A  History of English Literature. New Delhi: Rama Brothers, 2004.

6. Rees, R.J. English Literature: An Introduction for Foreign Readers. Delhi: Macmillan India Limited, 1973.

7. Sanders, A. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Dinesh Kumar

Featured picture: Le Printemps, Claude Monet (1872)



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