Evolving Stories: A brief chronological overview of the novel

Evolution is not simply a scientific phenomenon. In the humanities, it is as important to examine the process by which something becomes the object we know today as to examine the object itself.

The novel, or the idea of a piece of fictional prose being strung out into a long connected story to be read, is a fairly recent occurrence. In England, one of the earliest claimants to the title of ‘oldest novel’ is Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Sidney’s ‘novel’ was written during the English Renaissance, a period characterised by poetry and the lyric style, famous for long series of verse such as Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Symbolism, analogy and concealed homage were the favoured devices of art, with fiction borrowing inspiration and narratives from the Classical stories of Greece and Rome. Arcadia is special in that it is prose fiction, highly uncommon for the time, as prose was typically reserved for philosophical pamphlets. Arcadia’s Romantic narrative features knights, mistaken identities and magic, actively blending the fantastical themes of Renaissance poetry with the more substantial style and freedoms that prose allows. Sidney, who is more commonly known today as a poet for his sonnet series Astrophil and Stella, died before he could finish the second draft. His sister, the Countess of Pembroke, took it on herself to put together the ending from the notes he left, hence the title, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.

When the Restoration era arrived, however, much had changed in England. One civil war had deposed the monarchy, and another had brought it back, the Bible was translated into English and, to top it all off, political tensions between the Crown and the Commonwealth (the remains of Oliver Cromwell’s English Republic) were at their peak. This period produced an age of writing that felt estranged from fantasy: chivalry was out; sarcastic prose and epistolary novels were in. Epistolary novels, a form of storytelling where the narrative is told entirely via letters exchanged between characters, marked this age’s turn toward private and personal subject matter. Whilst Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Noble-Man and his Sister is the first novel of this time to successfully play with the epistolary form, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a tale of ‘virtue rewarded’, was the first substantial narrative to be published in this format. In contrast to the very serious manner in which it is read today, Pamela was originally much ridiculed as its premise was alien to readers of the time. It puzzled a generation of predominantly wealthy male readers that a servant girl would take time between doing the maid’s work, defending her virtue and sleeping to write detailed accounts of her life in letters to her parents. Whilst the manner of Pamela’s journey from maid to Mrs. has been studied extensively, the fact that the fictional Pamela is able to physically write her own story is an important step in the development of the novel. Pamela is literate, which suggests a shifting view of the servant class in England: the elite were becoming interested in telling stories from new viewpoints, other than their own.

Whilst novels like Pamela did point towards examining the human experience at all levels of society, it was not until the Victorian era that this trend began in earnest. Unlike the novels of the Restoration, Victorian novels actively encouraged a socially conscious empathy in their readers. This pivot came at the peak of Britain’s industrial advancement, with new trade opening up around the globe and the popularisation of serialised stories in newspapers and magazines. Even though the industries of steel, iron and cotton allowed for better working class education and rights, the gap between the wealthiest and poorest was vast. Despite the wealth gap, the overpopulation of dense cities like London meant that the both ends of the English social hierarchy (and everyone in-between) had never lived closer together. As a result, the suffering of the working class could no longer be ignored by their employers. Nowhere is this better reflected than in the fiction of the time. Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, two tales that discuss the impact of privilege and social responsibility,are famous examples of this type of literature. Charles Dickens’ signature blend of morality and satire has given these novels landmark status. The Victorian age not only saw the publication of stories with more complex female characters, such as those seen in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, but also female voices writing those stories. The three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, took the idealised picture of the Victorian woman to task in their novels, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and built on their own experiences as governesses (women employed to privately educate children) to examine what it meant to be a thinking and feeling woman at this time. Ultimately, the Victorian era changed the standards of the novel for the reader. A fictional story now required a reader to do more than observe: it demanded a moral reaction or self-improvement from the reader.

After a few hundred years of the standard novel, Modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in the twentieth-century reimagined the language and style associated with novelistic writing. Both writers kept the basic outline of a novel, a narrative with plot, but played with its conventions. In Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the events take place over the course of a single day, but the character’s stream of consciousness plays with the narrative structure, merging memories of the past with the present. This is further complicated by Woolf’s striking mix of direct and indirect speech, blurring the lines between narrator, character and situation. Joyce’s Ulysses takes this one step further, creating a stream of consciousness narrative set over the course of a day in Dublin that has little to no syntax or grammar, but is rich in allusions, puns and parody. This fragmentary style of novel was written during the First World War, a period that shattered not only the conventions of society, but the conventions of the art which society produced.

Clearly, there is no clear one-size-fits-all definition or criteria for a novel’s content, structure or style. Authors shape what it means to write a piece of published fiction as much as the storyline contained within the fiction they create. To some extent, novels take the structural shape of the era and author that produce them, a standard that applies equally to the novels produced in our lifetimes.

Further reading:

Jane Austen vs Emily Bronte
Dickens vs Tolstoy

Ella Khan, former Assistant Access & Admissions Officer at St John’s College

Previous to working at St John’s, I read English Language and Literature (BA) at St Edmund Hall (2016-2019) where I first took up access work as a student volunteer. My academic interest in literature focuses on writing for the stage, taking a particular interest in laughter theory and its relationship to  modern tragedy. When not at work, you can find me at one of the University’s writers’ forums or playing board games in the cafe down the road.