The Novel in the 18th Century
The major novelists
Such ambitious debates on society and human nature ran parallel with the explorations of a literary form finding new popularity with a large audience, the novel. Defoe, for example, fascinated by any intellectual wrangling, was always willing (amid a career of unwearying activity) to publish his own views on the matter currently in question, be it economic, metaphysical, educational, or legal. His lasting distinction, though earned in other fields of writing than the disputative, is constantly underpinned by the generous range of his curiosity. Only someone of his catholic interests could have sustained, for instance, the superb Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27), a vivid, county-by-county review and celebration of the state of the nation. He brought the same diversity of enthusiasms into play in writing his novels. The first of these, Robinson Crusoe (1719), an immediate success at home and on the Continent, is a unique fictional blending of the traditions of Puritan spiritual autobiography with an insistent scrutiny of the nature of man as social creature and an extraordinary ability to invent a sustaining modern myth. A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) displays enticing powers of self-projection into a situation of which Defoe can only have had experience through the narrations of others, and both Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724) lure the reader into puzzling relationships with narrators the degree of whose own self-awareness is repeatedly and provocatively placed in doubt.
The enthusiasm prompted by Defoe's best novels demonstrated the growing readership for innovative prose narrative. Samuel Richardson, a prosperous London printer, was the next major author to respond to the challenge. His Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740, with a less happy sequel in 1741), using (like all Richardson's novels) the epistolary form, tells a story of an...