Novels In English Are A New Thing

The English-language novel is commonly held to have originated around 1700, with Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688; at 31,000 words it’s a novella by current standards) or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It occurred to me that since it’s such a recent thing, I’ve lived through much of its history by now. I’ve been reading English-language novels for about 35 years, that is, 11% of the period.

Let’s say you and your grandma read a new novel that you both like in 2020 when you’re 15 and she is 75. And she shared a new novel with her grandma when she was 15, etc., etc. Then the book you two are sharing now is only the sixth in the chain back to Robinson Crusoe. And we know that the book they shared in 1720 was Robinson Crusoe, because there was no other original novel-length prose fiction in English to choose from then.

The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

8 thoughts on “Novels In English Are A New Thing”

  1. I guess you already know that what is claimed by some to be the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by a Japanese woman in the early 11th Century. Others claim it is the first modern novel, the first psychological novel[whatever that is] or the first novel still to be considered a classic.

    An earlier claimant is the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, which Augustine of Hippo referred to as The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus), the only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety.


  2. “Novels In English Are A New Thing”

    How many, including Martin, get the pun.

    “Puns are the highest form of literature.”

    —Alfred Hitchcock

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.”

    The post you link to is still accessible, but the link there to the original post is not.


  4. English playhouses were closed during the English civil war and not reopened until the 1680s. Even then, theater was heavily censored. Novels were not. With literacy rising, particularly among the upper classes – alphabet blocks were a 17th century thing – novels gave authors more freedom of expression.

    As for novelty, it’s as old as the hills. (I first heard this in the French Film ‘Children of Paradise’.)

    Liked by 1 person

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