Reflections on The Novel

Novel: ‘a fictitious prose story of book length.’ (Oxford English Dictionary)

The Great Tradition

F.R. Leavis says the Great Tradition of the English Novel effectively starts with Jane Austen. Then George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. (And, he later adds, D.H. Lawrence). All the rest during that period (1815-1930) is entertainment (Dickens, Thackeray) or 2nd rate (Trollope, Disraeli, Hardy). But if the Great Tradition has a beginning – doesn’t it also have an end?

From the 1920s ‘the novel’ presumably becomes simply too varied, too large. Joyce is great but doesn’t belong to the Tradition, Woolf probably belongs to the Tradition but isn’t great – Waugh? Greene? Huxley? Isherwood? Orwell? Great? Nope.

The novel gets smaller, more divided into specialist or niche areas (thriller, crime, detective, horror, fantasy, historical etc).

The Tradition is allegedly defined by a grown-up interest in grown-up, ‘felt’ experience. I.e. not the vivid but shallow entertainments of Fielding or Dickens or Thackeray. Not Walter Scott where the effort has gone into historical recreation and character and plot is secondary. Not the ‘nastiness’ of Laurence Sterne. Of 18th century writers Richardson comes closest to the moral seriousness of the Tradition, but his scenarios are ultimately too narrow to express ‘Life’.

The early novels not novels

The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is emphatically not a novel; it is a religious tract in the form of an allegory, with flashes of novel-ish effects.

Defoe, similarly, is writing didactic tracts, not novels. All Defoe’s long prose works claimed to be honest autobiographical accounts. [‘The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it…’] Like Bunyan, he knows his audience is suspicious of ‘made-up’ stories.

Thus The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720) claims to be the true and morally improving story of a young man’s rebelliousness punished by long suffering. There are no chapter breaks and precious few other fully ‘developed’ characters, no time-shifts or sophisticated manipulation of plot & story. Things happen one after the other exactly as in a diary, which it at one stage becomes – a straightforward journal (Just as in Moll Flanders, no chapter breaks, just headlong narrative) continually larded with the chastened older & wiser narrator’s heavy moralising about his young foolish self.

In fact religion underpins the story, justifies it, is its main motive:

The story is told… with a religious application of events to the uses to which wise men always apply them, viz. to the instruction of others by this example, and to justify and honour the wisdom of Providence in all the variety of our circumstances, let them happen how they will.

[Note the echo of Paradise Lost]

From his earliest conversation with his father, Crusoe presents himself as obstinate to Providence & God. Once he’s settled on the island the book develops a steadily more religious bent as Crusoe begins to peruse the Bible & experiences a classic Puritan conversion experience as deep despair gives way to a slow realisation of the blessings of Providence. Witness the entirely religious framework in which he responds to the sight of the footprint in the sand. His first thought is: Is it the Devil? The strength of the contemporary religious framework into which the book was received is evidenced by the fact that Defoe published a book of Crusoe’s religious musings in the light of the book’s success.  And it sold out.

Similarly, Moll Flanders is

a) just one damn thing after another, a chronicle
b) takes great pains in the preface to assure readers of the moral applicability of its story

I don’t think it’s a very good piece of ventriloquism; throughout Moll, you hear only Defoe’s voice. For example, around p.80 there’s a long section of practical advice to women about how to maximise their value on the marriage market; Moll spends more time detailing the precise financial transactions pertaining to each of her marriages – you don’t learn the names of most of her husbands, but you get a full account of their financial circumstances.

There’s a crudeness in Defoe’s account of Moll being deflowered & her generally mercenary view of relationships; it’s difficult to tell whether this is Defoe’s deficiency of politeness – he’s in a hurry to

a) tell a ripping yarn
b) make various practical ‘projecting’ asides
c) deliberate satire

Basically Moll approaches relations between the sexes like a man. Or is she simply an honest example of an unromantic scheming trollop?

It’s striking that Defoe wrote historical novels, all set in the past. Crusoe, published in 1719, is supposedly born in 1632, returns to England after all his adventures in 1687. The last words of Moll Flanders are ‘Written in 1683’. The Journal of a Plague Year is set in 1665. Why? One reason might be to avoid the complicated political realities of his times in which Defoe was all-too-implicated. The past may be a foreign country, but it is also a much simpler one.

Compared to Defoe, Samuel Richardson does appear to break completely new ground with his novel Pamela in 1740, focusing in detail on human psychology rather than religious experience, divided into sections (letters) unlike Defoe, and set in the contemporary world, unlike Defoe.

Myths in the novel

Critics talk about the way myths can be incorporated into novels, most famously in James Joyce’s sprawling epic Modernist novel, Ulysses. But surely there’s another aspect of myth, which is that many modern myths come out of novels. Stories that say something so profound, speak so directly to some aspect of human experience, that they have endured for centuries and been adaptable to all the new media we can invent. Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, 1984.

Leavis et al talk about books in terms of exploring issues, morality, depicting life, realism, naturalism etc. [Leavis is himself a product of that earnest Puritan tradition which lies at the root of the novel]. But a simpler function of novels has been to provide us with some of the enduring mythical figures under which we live.

(These myths can perhaps be ranked in order of power and endurance; in a crude way by the number of adaptations, copies, parodies they’ve generated. There might be a Second Division of nearly-myths: Heathcliff & Wuthering Heights is powerful but not as universal as Frankenstein. In terms of number of copies and rip-offs, maybe 50 Shades of Grey is the talismanic book of our time…)

And in fact most novels have been written to provide transient pleasure to its reading public, and to make the author some money. Most texts exist to provide pleasure.


Can you create a hierarchy of the pleasures which reading provides? Could you codify them?

1. There is the physical pleasure of sitting & focusing – people often talk about snuggling up with a good book – the pleasure of holding a book.

2. The pleasure of solitude – complex psychological pleasures of being utterly alone – and yet your mind being filled to overflowing with information, emotion, colour, drama, intrigue etc. All without getting out of bed or moving from the window seat.

3. Then a hierarchy of mental pleasures:

  • Stories – mimesis – completion – escape – fantasy – but also indulgence of various drives & fantasies.
  • Fantasy of omniscience – whatever happens you the Reader are invulnerable, above it all.
  • Part of this is that any story has a ‘completion’. Ends are satisfactory.
  • Solving a puzzle – same part of the mind as enjoys Sudoko, crossword: detective novels as puzzles, Holmes, Agatha Christie
  • We (fondly) identify with the superman genius who solves the crimes
  • The pleasures of suspense –
  • Stories are pleasurable in themselves because they:
    • gratify our mimesis-faculty
    • are complete, unlike life
  • Specific psychological pleasures, for example:
    • identifying with the tired, drunk, lonely detective – Philip Marlowe, isolated odd Sherlock
    • some kind of Greek catharsis at the sheer extremity and exorbitance of the murders (cf Hannibal or Game of Thrones)
    • fulfillment of our sadism – we want others to suffer
    • fulfillment of our masochism – we want to suffer & endure
    • fulfillment of various sex drives (mixed up with the above)
  • The pleasure of solitude –
  • Incidental details:
    • Vicarious tourism – interesting settings: Edinburgh, Manchester, small-town Sweden.
    • Secondary characters, Penhaligon, Rystadt – as novel readers know, there is a special pleasure in the depiction of supporting characters; as if the pressure is off, they don’t bear the weight of the narrative or the responsibility for selling the book, so author and ready can play.
    • Their hobbies.

These incidental details create a warmth and comfort of familiarity: which explains the paradox that, although crime novels are often about brutal murders, they give such great pleasure – because the majority of the text is full of reassuring, calming, familiar, ordered lives and lifestyles and details and the comedy routines of sidekicks and secondary characters who evoke fondness and affection.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited 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 Pirates. Written by Himself

Providence & Fate The main theme of the book is Crusoe’s destiny; how he conspires against his own interest.
Style Enormous long rambling paragraphs.
Theme Crusoe’s rebellion against God & insistence on a cursed fate.

  • The captain of the Guinea ship deals fairly with him
  • Crusoe deals honestly with the negroes on the Africa shore on his escape from slavery
  • The Portuguese captain who rescues him serves him handsomely
  • Crusoe is considerate of Xuri, only selling the boy when he says he wants to go to the kind Portuguese captain
  • Crusoe is heartbroken by the young kid after shooting its mother
  • He is fond of his 2 cats & dog

Crusoe is born in 1632 (ie it’s set several generations in the past, like all Defoe’s novels).
Age 18 Crusoe argues with his Dad who argues for the sweetness of the middle station in life.

Voyage 1 Takes ship on a whim in Hull. Shipwrecked off Yarmouth. Captain of ship says he’s cursed. Refuses to acknowledge it. Hangs around in London.
Voyage 2 Goes aboard a ship to Guinea; makes £400 by exchanging trinkets for gold. Leaves it with the widow of the Guinea captain who had died.
Voyage 3 Sets sail again. Off the Canary Islands captured by pirates from Morocco. Made a slave for 2 years to the captain of the ship in Rabat. Allowed to row a pinnace out to get fish, one day he provisions it, sails out, throws the adult Moor overboard, keeps the boy Xuri with him. Sails south round Africa towards the Cape Verde islands for about 4 weeks. Various stops for water; shoot animals; encounter negroes who leave food & water for them.
Rescue Picked up by a Portuguese boat, dealt with very fairly by the captain; sells him Xury.
Brasil With the money made from selling the Portuguese captain his pinnace & animal skins Crusoe sets up as a plantation owner for 4 years. Sends via the Portuguese captain to the widow who sends on his money plus metal tools.
Slavery a) buys a slave as soon as he has the money b) tells his friends all about the items including slaves to be bought cheap on the Guinea coast. So Crusoe is on a slave-trading voyage when he is wrecked. He sets off September 1st, 8 years after leaving his parents in York.
The Storm The storm & wreck & Crusoe’s swim to shore is fantastically vividly described.
The Island of Despair He calculates he set foot on the island on 30th September 1659.
Salvage Crusoe has 14 days or so to salvage goods from the ship which he does very thoroughly. Vivid description of manoeuvring the raft into the small river; on one trip it is upended; on another he has to brace it with his back till the tide lifts it off sand: vivid.
Base then he builds his base: he finds a lawn 100 yards wide in front of a sheer rock face with a slight concavity in it; erects a tent before the concavity, a palisade of stakes, ramped up with turves, and a roof; digging back into the cave to create his kitchen.
Journal He keeps a journal until his ink runs out, from 30 September 1659 till …
The barley which he throws away sprouts! Providence!! – though it fades when he realises it has a purely secular explanation.
Earthquake collapses the roof of his cave; and he sees half the cliff face fall away in the distance.
Fever He gets a fever; malaria etc.
Other side of the island Crusoe follows the river upstream till he reaches its source, then climbs over a peak into the other side of the island: much nicer, like a garden: tobacco, grapes, lemons grow there wild.
Bible He finds a bible among the chests and has a profound religious conversion – he is born again, realising he is saved by the blood of the lamb etc.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited 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 Pirates. Written by Himself.

THE FARTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE; Being the Second and Last Part OF HIS LIFE, And of the Strange Surprizing Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe. Written by Himself. To which is added a Map of the World, in which is Delineated the Voyages of ROBINSON CRUSOE.

The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell (the deaf and dumb conjurer)

Memoirs of a Cavalier, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England. From the Year 1632 to the Year 1648.

The Life, Adventures and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders.
A Journal of the Plague Year
The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Colonel Jacque.

The Fortunate Mistress or Roxana
A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Memoirs of Captain George Carleton

1731 Defoe dies

He wrote over 500 recorded works after a succession of business failures, and a long career as a hack journalist & spy, during which he frequently wrote in the character of his enemies or proposing projects he didn’t agree with, for satirical or political purposes.

All of which prepared him for the acts of ventriloquism which are his famous fictions. Nonetheless, none of them are acknowledged as fictions – the reverse: they all claim to be honest autobiographies, of Crusoe, Moll, Roxanne, Captain Jack etc etc. This genre, the true-life story, sold better at the time than fictions.

And the voice in all of them is, I believe, the same – brisk & businesslike, totally oblivious to finer feelings or perceptions (sure he writes about them, but is ready to ride roughshod through them in a second – cf Austen or G. Eliot), fascinated by the details of money & its ability to enable – or not – ‘polite’ life, always ready with some practical advice or rather trite religious-cum-moral commentary.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders

is hard to read because of the lack of chapters. It is one continuous 300-page text with much repetition of the basic situation i.e. the increasingly cunning and scheming Moll’s relationship with the husband of the moment. Since none of these husbands is ever named, it’s quite hard to keep track. Several things emerge:

  • Defoe is fascinated by money & business e.g. the details of Moll’s financial arrangements with the London banker
  • The marriage market is just that: a place of brutally realistic scheming, a way for people too genteel to actually work to try & increase their capital worth
  • Are we meant to be amused or appalled by her marriage (and having 3 children) with her own brother? Part of the bigger question, which is: Is this meant to be a comedy? Because it’s very unfunny if it is.

The Rise of the Novel

Ian Watt in his classic study, The Rise of the Novel, points out that Defoe is obsessed with money: his books announce the arrival of individualist capitalism. This entails:

  • leaving friends & family at an early age to make one’s fortune: breaking of all previous social traditions
  • economic specialization/division of labour: meant that readers (often women servants or housewives) were newly freed from many daily chores (e.g. making bread which you now bought at a shop) such that Crusoe’s detailed description of making bread is newly fascinating: (an early example of the ‘Alienation Effect’)
  • Puritan concept of the Dignity of Labour i.e. inverting the elite social structure to make physical labour noble

The Puritan frame of mind

The whole trend grows out of Puritan individualism – the keeping of personal journals by post-Civil War Puritans who kept intensely detailed journals of their every thought and action. Puritanism believes in the ineffectiveness of individual action. Following Jean Calvin it believes everything is pre-determined by a God who has already selected his Chosen Ones, his elite. In fact, we are all damned to hell because of Original Sin. Only by God’s fathomless grace are we able to lift ourselves out of the mire. Hence non-conformist hymns such as Amazing Grace, only God’s grace, his forgiveness, his Love, enables us, the Chosen, to crawl from the swamp. therefore the devout believer must rigorously and continuously check his mind and behaviour for SIGNS, since the slightest sign may indicate whether you are In or Out, one of the Chosen or the Damned. Anything, no matter how trivial, could be a pointer to salvation or damnation.

Therefore, EVERYTHING you say or do must be recorded and scrutinised and pored over. The theory goes that it was this unending self-scrutiny and the thousands of journals it gave rise to, which formed the milieu in which Defoe could create and sell a minutely detailed account of religious belief in extremis like Crusoe.

300 years of adventure stories and movies later, we see it as one of the great founding adventure yarns. But an actual reading of it shows that it is also a culmination of the tradition of Puritan self-scrutiny, leading to the all-important moment when Grace enters Crusoe’s life and he is born again.

The dignity of labour – an interest in work for its own sake, as its own reward – a fascination with mercantilism – the new economic vehicle of funding plantations overseas – a Puritan fascination with the minutest workings of Providence – all these come together to make Crusoe such a rich and rewarding text.

Watt’s paradox

Watt speaks about ‘formal realism’ as distinct from the movement called Realism (19th century) or Socialist realism (1930s) etc. Formal Realism is the broad claim of the novel to be judged not against Reality (whatever that is) but against the reader’s own experience of life which can, of course, be seen in different lights (for a start, humorous or tragic, depending on a person’s humours). Thus the overtly comic Joseph Andrews is asking to be judged against our experience of life (i.e. invoking & playing with our knowledge of the thousand little hypocrisies and affectations which people are liable to).

Ian Watt on Defoe

Watt takes Moll Flanders as Defoe’s best attempt at a novel and then makes a strong case against it being a novel at all, because:

  • Moll’s character (and voice) is largely Defoe’s own. She shares Defoe’s
    • obsession with material goods
    • pious but completely ineffective Christian preachifying
    • voice, Moll uses the same language, diction, vocabulary as Crusoe and every other Defoe character
  • Lack of character development: despite bigamy, rape, incest, gaol and transportation Moll remains utterly unchanged by her experiences. Defoe has no interest in the arc of a character’s development, no sense that situations can be contrived in order to show a change or development in their psyche.
  • Lack of interest in human relations: we don’t even get the names of her husbands or three or four dead children.
  • Defoe has no grasp of plot: one damn thing happens after another. Taken with evidence that s/he forgot or garbled incidents from earlier in the narrative the impression is that Defoe wrote at top speed with no plan, no forethought, and no revision. Thus Defoe is a writer of brilliant moments – Crusoe and the seeds growing, the footprint in the sand – which are vividly painted, but no context or linking to a larger plan. His books are more anthologies than novels.
  • Irony: if you believe Defoe is a great artist it’s because his characters’ protestations are often undercut with ironic affect. Bracingly Watt thinks every single example of irony is simply an example of Defoe writing epic long sentences, linking 20 or 30 clauses, with so much material lumped together that he can’t escape producing what we today, after 200 years of increasingly sophisticated novelists, perceive to be irony, but which Defoe neither planned nor saw as particularly incongruous.


The novel as we know it requires:

  •  realistic narrative
  • to be organized into a meaningful coherence
  • involving realistic characters
  • and realistic relationships between those characters
  • moving smoothly between close-up moments and wide-shot narrative
  • for an overall moral (or artistic) purpose

Defoe fails all these criteria, ‘which is why Richardson rather than Defoe is usually regarded as the founder of the English novel.’

The Rise of The Novel by Ian Watt (1957)

The novel appears as leisure time spreads among the middle classes (and their servants), particularly women.

Ease of consumption

It is easy; the novel is the easiest literary form to digest: what it shares with the other new textual forms of the 18th century – the newspaper and the magazine – is ease of consumption. Encouraging a swift, transient, impressionistic form of reading, solely for the pleasure of the moment; forgotten within hours if not minutes.

The opposite of every other literary genre in history which required

a) expert literary knowledge
b) time spent assessing its merit


Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the 18th century novelists – what distinguishes their book-length prose works is their attempt at realism. But Watt cleverly defines realism not in treatment or style – which vary hugely. What they all have in common is, they don’t appeal to any literary forebears, they don’t ask us to judge the works by any literary tradition or formulae – they ask us to judge them according to our own experience of reality, of the world.

[Defoe’s books were all published as ‘true historical accounts’, not dissimilar to the autobiographies of highwaymen and other felons being hanged which were knocked out overnight to sell to the watching crowds. Richardson’s books were published anonymously, again as a collection of real correspondence of which he is the modest editor. Fielding appeals to us because he ironises this convention, and makes himself a comically self-conscious author of his ‘history’, which he knows we know isn’t ‘true’ – except that the sentiments it raises in our breasts are true to our experience of reality.]

When Defoe wrote his biographical fictions he – as a non-aristocratic, non-conformist outside the world of the Augustan elite – ignored the complex critical theories of an Alexander Pope or a Jonathan Swift – and instead created stories according to what was plausible. This rejection of literary tradition in favour of individual validation is as momentous as Descartes rejecting the whole world and beginning again from his Cogito. As Descartes founded modern philosophy, Defoe founded modern fiction.

The General versus The Particular

Many Augustans wrote that Literature had to deal with the generality – with all those tedious Abstract Nouns which make 18th century literature so boring (and which the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds does in his painting: trying to manoeuvre the particular portrait sitter towards more heroic Ideals.)

Defoe’s highly detailed descriptions (of the 1720s) break with this entirely. Their reward is their immediacy. Yet by the 1740s, Joseph Andrews is still awash with Abstract Nouns, and very very light on details (do we get a description of any of the inns? Descriptions of the countryside? Is a single species of plant, flower or tree mentioned in a book whose plot takes place entirely in the countryside? No) and all the more boring for it.

Characteristics of the novel

  • appeal of plot & character to verisimilitude
  • appeal to Individualism – individual experience over general ‘types’
  • new plot (2 senses of ‘novel’ intertwined) ie not a classical story retold or allegorised – a completely new story
  • realistic i.e. plausible Names
  • realistic i.e. plausible Timeframe
  • realistic i.e. plausible depiction of Space

On all these fronts Fielding comes off worse of the big three, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the most still-rooted in Augustan silly names, absurd coincidences, ancient plotlines (concealed identitie and all). Defoe has no plots; Fielding has fairy tale romances. Richardson chooses one of the oldest plots in the world – the wooing – but goes into it in mind-boggling detail.

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