All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
Outlines of English and American Literature|
The Early English Novel
by Long, William J.
|An important literary event of the eighteenth century was the appearance of
the modern novel. This invention, generally credited to the English,
differs radically from the old romance, which was known to all civilized
peoples. Walter Scott made the following distinction between the two types
of fiction: the romance is a story in which our interest centers in
marvelous incidents, brought to pass by extraordinary or superhuman
characters; the novel is a story which is more natural, more in harmony
with our experience of life. Such a definition, though faulty, is valuable
in that it points to the element of imagination as the distinguishing mark
between the romance and the true novel.
Take, for example, the romances of Arthur or Sindbad or the Green Knight.
Here are heroes of more than human endurance, ladies of surpassing
loveliness, giants, dragons, enchanters, marvelous adventures in the land
of imagination. Such fanciful stories, valuable as a reflection of the
ideals of different races, reached their highest point in the Middle Ages,
when they were used to convey the ideals of chivalry and knightly duty.
They grew more fantastic as they ran to seed, till in the Elizabethan age
they had degenerated into picaresque stories (from picaro, "a
rogue") which recounted the adventures not of a noble knight but of some
scoundrel or outcast. They were finally laughed out of literature in
numerous burlesques, of which the most famous is Don Quixote (1605).
In the humor of this story, in the hero's fighting windmills and meeting so
many adventures that he had no time to breathe, we have an excellent
criticism not of chivalry, as is sometimes alleged, but of extravagant
popular romances on the subject. [Footnote: Don Quixote is commonly
named as a type of extravagant humor, but from another viewpoint it is a
sad book, intensely sad. For it recounts the experience of a man who had a
knightly heart and who believed the world to be governed by knightly
ideals, but who went forth to find a world filled with vulgarity and
Compare now these old romances with Ivanhoe or Robinson
Crusoe or Lorna Doone or A Tale of Two Cities. In each of
the last-named novels one may find three elements: a story, a study, and an
exercise of the creative imagination. A modern work of fiction must still
have a good story, if anybody is to read it; must contain also a study or
observation of humanity, not of superhuman heroes but of men and women who
work or play or worship in close relationship to their fellows. Finally,
the story and the study must be fused by the imagination, which selects or
creates various scenes, characters, incidents, and which orders or arranges
its materials so as to make a harmonious work that appeals to our sense of
truth and beauty; in other words, a work of art.
Such is the real novel, a well-told story in tune with human experience,
holding true to life, exercising fancy but keeping it under control,
arousing thought as well as feeling, and appealing to our intellect as well
as to our imagination. [Footnote: This convenient division of prose fiction
into romances and novels is open to challenge. Some critics use the name
"novel" for any work of prose fiction. They divide novels into two classes,
stories (or short stories) and romances. The story relates simple or
detached incidents; the romance deals with life in complex relations,
dominated by strong emotions, especially by the emotion of love.
Other critics arrange prose fiction in the following classes: novels of
adventure (Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans), historical novels
(Ivanhoe, The Spy), romantic novels (Lorna Doone, The Heart of Midlothian),
novels of manners (Cranford, Pride and Prejudice), novels of personality
(Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter), novels of purpose (Oliver Twist, Uncle
Still another classification arranges fiction under two heads, romance and
realism. In the romance, which portrays unusual incidents or characters, we
see the ideal, the poetic side of humanity; in the realistic novel, dealing
with ordinary men and women, the prosaic element of life is emphasized.]