2.3 Why do we want to define the novel?

Previous positing in this thread: On Definitions (2)

In this thread’s last posting I took a look at literary historians and their eagerness to define the “novel” as a “literary genre”. Their agenda was unsuspicious: If one had a stable definition one would be able to name “the first novel” that followed our present definition. Robinson Crusoe (1719) became the candidate here. One little problem remained: no early 18th-century observer would have put this particular novel into the category of “novels” as defined at the time — what was even worse: there were hardly any efforts undertaken to define the “novel” (or the “romance”).

Why is it we are that interested in a definition, even if our definition will no match the definitions of the period we want to explore? Can we avoid the definition? And what happens if we do avoid it?

In the particular case of Robinson Crusoe I have tried to offer an alternative to present generic definitions: the option to localise the text within the debate it raised — a controversy of different and incompatible perspectives. Our 20th-century definitions are in a way designed to decide and to discredit the battle we can observe in 1719, rather than to state and analyse it.

The following posting is about the debates of 1719. I will come back to te question of our interest in a decision and a definition that avoids these debates in another posting in this thread.

I. Novels versus Romances

About 20 titles of prose fiction appeared per year at the beginning of the 18th century in English (see the diagram here at the end). Most of them would avoid all generic classifications. Yet if one had to choose one would rather sell a “novel” than a “romance” (again diagram here at the end).

The “romance” was virtually dead. It had been dead in Chaucer’s days, defeated then by more realistic “tales”; it had been dead once more after Cervantes pronounced the death of the Amadis around 1600; and it had been declared dead again in the 1670s in a discussion of the advantages of modern “historical novels”.

The “novel” had been rising as often as the romance had left the stage. Cervantes pleaded for either satirical romances, such as Don Quixote (1605/1615) or “novels” such as his Novelas Exemplares (1613), Scarron returned to this thread in the 1650s and so on. One could give patterns of the differences:

Romances Novels
Romances were long. Novels were short.
Romances taught through heroes, they employed positive or negative role models. Novels taught through the unexpected developments of their plots, through exemplary stories.
Heroic protagonists inspired emulation, their satirical counterparts of the picaresque attracted laughter. The protagonists of novels were neither necessarily good nor bad; they made precarious decisions in exemplary situations.
Romances rewarded heroism. In novels the plots led to (moral) strategic conclusions, how better (not) to act.
Romances were written as never ending sequences of adventures. Novels were stories mostly of a single intrigue, a plot with an unexpected turn of events that gave a lesson, the “point” for which the sory was told.
Romances used third-person narrators to praise their heroes and first-person narrators for the alternative picaresque simpletons who would best discredit themselves. Novels tended to employ narrative frames within which individual stories were told to give examples of what could happen.
Heroic romances were usually located in ancient or exotic settings; satirical romances placed the picaro in the present world. Novels focused on the present to stage strikingly plausible examples of human interactions.
Romances were idealistic and exaggerated in their displays of virtues and vices. Novels were realistic and natural in style and language.
Romances were scandalous as they showed heroes and heroines mostly devoted to their loves (or follies). Novels were scandalous as the depicted intrigues often of betrayal and insincerity.
The titles of romances presented heroes, their extractions, their origins and sufferings. Novel titles usually showed the “[…] or […]” formula to state a particular case and the example it gave. A typical — late — novel title is Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

The 21st chapter of Scarrons Comical Romance (1651) gave a brief version of these options. The “Sentimens sur l’histoire” sold within the Sentimens sur les lettres et sur l’histoire, avec des scruples sur le stile (Paris: C. Blageart, 1683) were more explicit and were eventually expanded by the Abbé Bellegarde and translated into English and German (see here for a parallel edition). One should read titles that were explicitly sold as “novels” to get the clearer picture. A good collection of novels was published in London in 1720: the Select Collection of Novels in four volumes (London: J. Watts, 1720).


First conclusion: Seen with the eye of the literary historian the early 18th-century “novel” was the offspring of the ancient and medieval novella, a story told within a narrative cycle, so the oral tradition that guaranteed for its brevity and simplicity. The romance was by contrast rooted in the tradition of the ancient verse epic and its respective satirical parody. The heroic romance had first died with the last revival of medieval Arthurian verse romances, it had died later in repeated deaths of long fictions.

II. Instead of realism: reality in fiction

Realism stood on top of the agenda in the fields of the fictional production. This is the market pattern I proposed earlier (in my Marteau’s Europa 2001): The fictional production, so the central message, branched out into the historical (see any term catalogue of the period to get this perspective).

1720 fiction

The most blatant encroachments upon the historical were sold in the first field with books such as Delarivier Manley’s Atalantis (1709). One bought revelations of love affairs located on the fabulous Mediterranean island and could purchase separate “keys” to get the who is who. Ruling Whigs were the real heroes depicted here under “romantic” names. Under interrogation the authoress insisted upon having written nothing but fiction, “romance” (see her Adventures of Rivella (1714). The German Deutsche Acta Eruditorum, a sober journal of the sciences, discussed her work a bit later without any of the formalities 20th-century literary historians would insist on. The reviewer summarised what Britain’s audience had been discussing during “the last revolution” (which brought the Tories into power and ended the War of the Spanish Succession). The “literary”, i.e. scientific, journal, was interested in fact not fiction.

The production of public import merged (the second column of the diagram) into one of private impact with books by “young ladies” who sold their love affairs under fictional guises; Germany supplied a corresponding production of student novels will with their amours. The fictional production in the centre (the third column) was openly fictional. “High” heroic, “low” satirical works marked the poetological extremes. The “novel” stood in between. To the right side one was again on one’s way out into history proper, this time with books that claimed to be non-fictional though one could hardly believe the assertions. Here again one had to draw a line between matter of private and matters of public import. Private content tended to be more romantic, notes of public relevance would turn towards the savoury public newspaper reportage.

Second conclusion: Most modern literary historians claim that realism arrived with the first “novel” Robinson Crusoe. Th term “novel” could, however, not be empoyed by Crusoe (he did not write the story of an exemplary intrigue; nor will it tell us more about his special realism employed here. Any word that Reality itself was unknown in fiction will eventualy be misleading. “Realism” is far too weak a term to understand what fiction was doing before the 1730s — it was spreading into history and propagating true histories.

III. Placing Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe did not even try to appear as “realistic” account of a sailor’s journeys. The title page adopted the features of the two most successful romances of the day: Fénelon’s Telemachus is number one:


…and Crusoe exaggerates all its features: The “Adventures of Telemachus, the Son of Ulysses” bloom into “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York Mariner”. The second and even closer role model had been republished by Norris, Bettesworth, Harding, Woodward, Curll and Gosting in 1712 under the new title: “The Life and Notable Adventures, of that Renown’d Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha. Merrily translated into Hudibrastick verse. By Edward Ward” — Crusoe competed with the young Greek and went into the direction of the man of the Mancha (with whom he would eventually openly compare himself in the preface to his third volume). Unlike the Greek prince he was a man with a beard. He needed no goddess to guide him. He had survived with the help of his two muskets and his sword. Nor did he need another author to write about his life, he could do this all “by himself”.

This is the preface — and it is straight forward in its approach to claim the pattern as unfolded above. We will, so the first approach, get a history of private import (“if ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures); we will get a “history of fact” (“The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact”) and we do get all reasons to doubt these very claims of truth (up to the advice to enjoy the entire performance as if it was poetry under the precepts of Horace):

IF ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so.

The Wonders of this Man’s Life exceed all that (he thinks) is to be found extant; the Life of one Man being scarce capable of a greater Variety.

The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men|<[iv]> always apyly [sic!] them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honor the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.

The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch’d, [later corrected to “disputed”], that the Improvement of it, as well as the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such he thinks, without farther Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication.

Charles Gildon’s first critique would not hesitate to attack the “romance”; Crusoe would in his later prefaces refer to the “romance” he had supposedly written. The term “novel” would have promised a story of intrigues. Robinson Crusoe wanted to be a true private history of fact though it threatened to be the most incredible of all new “romances”. The hero himself had been fighting against events that would rather fit into a romance than a realistic life.

Third conclusion: Robinson Crusoe was under all the options stated if not true (private) history of fact then “sheer romance” and Don Quixotism (another word apearing in the first debates).  Was Robinson Crusoe a performance of realism? Not as much as Constantin de Renneville’s report of his imprisonment in the Bastille published in French, German and English in 1715. In Renneville’s case we have remained unable to tell where he transgressed into the fictitious. Robinson Crusoe was immediately discussed as fiction, as the most blatant of modern “romances”. The uncanny thing was that the hero continued to proest he was real. That however was rather normal among the heroes a satirical romances.

Some further thoughts

(1) Scholars wrote extensively about the “rise of the (English) novel” after 1719, after the publication of the first real novel, Robinson Crusoe. Fact is: Robinson Crusoe was sold as a true history of private import under the design of a blatant return into the romantic tradition. Novels would have purported urban gossip of latest intrigues — Robinson Crusoe did not. The very term “novel” only began to fit at the end of the 18th century when it had been newly defined for that purpose.

Can we continue to define Robinson Crusoe as a “novel”? Of course. We have to define the term so that it will fit. In doing so we will, however, learn very little about the immediate reception and the original use of the words in question. Ian Watt made it clear that he was not interested in what he could learn from early 18th-century authors. The authors who wrote these “novels” did not understand what they were doing:

but neither [did] they [the authors of novels] nor their contemporaries provide us with the kind of characterisation of the new genre that we need; indeed they did not even canonise the changed nature of their fiction by a change in nomenclature — our usage of the term ‘novel’ was not fully established until the end of the eighteenth century

Watt was interested to establish perspectives “we need”, he wanted to solidify and expand “our usage of the term”. One might read this move as a kind of cultural imperialism exerted by the present on the past. Something is turned into a “novel” tu suit us at the expense of “novels” that are deconceptualised in the same manoeuvre.

(2) The pattern I offered might be seen as a pattern of debates rather than definitions. Yet, why should one not call this pattern a positivists’ approach to what we actually perceive? Our genre debate was not as virulent as the debates to be noted here, before the 1740s.

(3) One might assume that definitions create greater security. We identify things and label them with proper terms. But: This does not end the insecurity. Nothing is more controversial than Ian Watt’s definition of the novel. The controversy it spread into the classrooms has cost more paper than the controversy of 1719 and 1720 on the alleged truth of the story.

We have, fact one, not stopped the original debate but established a different debate on the same ground. Our debate requires, fact two, more expertise and an entirely different form of expertise: You have to read all fictions in order to understand why Robinson Crusoe should be appreciated as first within a new fictional genre. Experts of fiction supervise our present debate. It is not quite that clear why a societies should employ experts of fiction to offer such research and such assertions.

to be continued.


This is, to round things off, the first page of the newspaper edition of Robinson Crusoe that began to appear in 1719 after critics and rivalling publishers had already claimed that the story was far too romantic to be believed as a history of fact. The serial publication proved these critics wrong and was probably the severest strike Taylor and Defoe could level against the piracies that had just begun to appear: This was true history of fact, worthwhile to be read in one of the newspapers and now cheaper than all the illegal rivals.


the pattern, German version


One comment

  1. Pingback: Book Review – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe | Asha's Literary Corner

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