First Modern Novel, A.D. 1740

Author: Edmund Gosse

First Modern Novel, A.D. 1740

Edmund Gosse

Let me make the ballads of a nation," said Fletcher of Saltoun, and I care not who makes the laws." The place which the ancient ballads held in forming the characters of the people is in our day more than filled by the novels. Everybody reads them, especially in the younger generation, and every character is more or less moulded by the sentiments and teachings they contain.

The novel has been almost entirely a modern English development. Two centuries ago our ancestors did not read fiction: they had practically none to read.  So that the production of the first English novel in 1740, leading as it has to the present state of affairs, may fairly be counted a most important event in the history of our race.  Nowadays ten thousand novels are published every year, and for some of these is claimed the enormous circulation of half a million copies.

THERE is nothing offensive to the dignity of literary history in acknowledging that the most prominent piece of work effected by literature in England during the eighteenth century is the creation—for it can be styled nothing less—of the modern novel. In the seventeenth century there had been a very considerable movement in the direction of prose fiction. The pastoral romances of the Elizabethans had continued to circulate; France had set an example in the heroic stories of D’Urfe and La Calprenede, which English imitators and translators had been quick to follow, even as early as 1647. The Francion of Sorel and the Roman Bourgeois of Furetiere the latter, published in I666, of especial interest to students of the English novel-had prepared the way for the exact opposite to the heroic romance; namely, the realistic story of every-day life. Bunyan and Richard Head, Mrs. Beln and Defoe-each had marked a stage in the development of English fiction. Two noble forerunners of the modern novel, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, had inflamed the curiosity and awakened the appetite of British readers; but, although there were already great satires and great romances in the language, the first quarter of the eighteenth century passed away without revealing any domestic genius in prose fiction, any master of the workings of the human heart. Mean while the drama had decayed.  The audiences which had attended the poetic plays of the beginning and the comedies of the close of the seventeenth century now found nothing on the boards of the theatre to satisfy their craving after intellectual excitement. The descendants of the men and women who had gone out to welcome the poetry of Shakespeare and the wit of Congreve were now rather readers than play-goers, and were most ready to enjoy an appeal to their feelings when that appeal reached them in book form.  In the playhouse they came to expect bustle and pantomime rather than literature. This de cline in theatrical habits prepared a domestic audience for the novelists, and accounts for that feverish and apparently excessive anxiety with which the earliest great novels were awaited and received.

Meanwhile the part taken by Addison and Steele in preparing for this change of taste must not be overlooked, and the direct link between Addison, as a picturesque narrative essayist, and Richardson, as the first great English novelist, is to be found in Pierre de Marivaux (1688–1763), who imitated the Spectator, and who is often assumed, though somewhat too rashly, to have suggested the tone of Pamela. Into this latter question we shall presently have need to inquire again. It is enough to point out here that when the English novel did suddenly and irresistibly make its appearance, it had little in common with the rococo and coquettish work which had immediately preceded it in France, and which at first, even to judges so penetrating as the poet Gray, was apt to seem more excellent because more subtle and refined. The rapidity with which the novel became domiciled among us, and the short space of time within which the principal masterpieces of the novelists were produced, are not more remarkable than the lassitude which fell upon English fiction as soon as the first great generation had passed away. The flourishing period of the eighteenth-century novel lasted exactly twenty-five years, during which time we have to record the publication of no less than fifteen eminent works of fiction.

These fifteen are naturally divided into three groups. The first contains Pamela, Joseph Andrews, David Simple, and Jonathan Wild. In these books the art is still somewhat crude, and the science of fiction incompletely understood.  After a silence of five years we reach the second and greatest section of this central period, during which there appeared in quick succession Clarissa, Roderick Random, Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, Amelia, and Sir Charles Grandison. As though invention had been exhausted by the publication of this incomparable series of masterpieces, there followed another silence of five years, and then were issued, each on the heels of the other, Tristram Shandy, Rasselas, Chrysal, The Castle of Otranto, and The Vicar of Wakefield.  Five years later still, a book born out of due time appeared, Humphrey Clinker, and then, with one or two such exceptions as Evelina and Caleb Williams, no great novel appeared again in England for forty years, until, in 1811, the new school of fiction was inaugurated by Sense and Sensibility.  The English novel, therefore, in its first great development, should be considered as comprised within the dates 1740 and 1766; and it may not be uninstructive, before entering into any critical examination of the separate authors, to glance at this chronological list of the first fifteen great works of English fiction.

The novels contained in the catalogue just given, however widely they differed from one another in detail, had this in common: that they dealt with mental and moral phenomena. Before 1740 we possessed romances,’tales, prose fiction of various sorts, but in none of these was essayed any careful analysis of character or any profound delineation of emotion.  In Defoe, where the record of imaginary fact was carried on with so much ingenuity and knowledge, the qualities we have just mentioned are notably absent; nor can it be said that we find them in any prose-writer of fiction earlier than Richardson, except in some very slight and imperfect degree in Aphra Behn, especially in her Rousseauish novel of Oroonoko.

The first great English novelist, Samuel Richardson (1689 1761), was born and bred in Derbyshire. He records of himself that when still a little boy he had two peculiarities: he loved the society of women best, and he delighted in letter-writing.  Indeed, before he was eleven, he wrote a long epistle to a widow of fifty, rebuking her for unbecoming conduct. The girls of the neighborhood soon discovered his insight into the human heart, and his skill in correspondence, and they employed the boy to write their love-letters for them.  In 1706 Richardson was apprenticed to a London printer, served a diligent apprenticeship, and worked as a compositor until he rose, late in life, to be master of the Stationers’ Company. He was fifty years of age before he showed symptoms of any higher ambition than that of printing correctly acts of Parliament and new editions of law-books. In 1739 the publishers, Rivington and Osborne, urged him to compose for them a volume of Familiar Letters, afterward actually produced as an aid to illiterate persons in their correspondence. Richardson set about this work, gave it a moral flavor, and at last began to write what would serve as a caution to young serving-women who were exposed to temptation. At this point he recollected a story he had heard long before, of a beautiful and virtuous maid-servant who succeeded in marrying her master; and then, laying the original design aside, Richardson, working rapidly, wrote in three months his famous story of Pamela.

All Richardson’s novels are written in what Mrs. Barbauld has ingeniously described as "the most natural and the least probable way of telling a story," namely, in consecutive letters. The famous heroine of his first book is a young girl, Pamela Andrews, who describes in letters to her father and mother what goes on in the house of a lady with whom she had lived as maid, and who is just dead when the story opens. The son of Pamela’s late mistress, a Mr. B.—it was Fielding who wickedly enlarged the name to Booby—becomes enamoured of her charms, and takes every mean advantage of her defenceless position; but, fortunately, Pamela is not more virtuous than astute, and after various agonies, which culminate in her thinking of drowning herself in a pond, she brings her admirer to terms, and is discovered to us at last as the rapturous though still humble Mrs. B. There are all sorts of faults to be found with this crude book. The hero is a rascal, who comes to a good end, not because he has deserved to do so, but because his clever wife has angled for him with her beauty, and has landed him at last, like an exhausted salmon.

So long as Pamela is merely innocent and frightened, she is charming, but her character ceases to be sympathetic as she grows conscious of the value of her charms, and even the lax morality of the day was shocked at the craft of her latest manoeuvres. But all the world went mad with pleasure over the book. What we now regard as tedious and prolix was looked upon as so much linked sweetness long drawn out. The fat printer had invented a new thing, and inaugurated a fresh order of genius.  For the first time the public was invited, by a master of the movements of the heart, to be present at the dissection of that fascinating organ, and the operator could not be leisurely enough, could not be minute enough, for his breathless and enraptured audience.

In France, for some ten years past there had been writers—Crebillon, Marivaux, Provost—who had essayed this delicate analysis of emotion, but these men were the first to admit the superiority of their rough English rival. In Marianne, where the heroine tells her own story, which somewhat resembles that of Pamela, the French novelist produced a very refined study of emotion, which will probably be one day more largely read than it now is, and which should be looked through by every student of the English novel. This book is prolix and languid in form, and undoubtedly bears a curious resemblance to Richardson’s novel. The English printer, however, could not read French[i]1, and there is sufficient evidence to show that he was independent of any influences save those which he took from real life. None the less, of course, Marivaux, who has a name for affectation which his writings scarcely deserve, has an interest for us as a harbinger of the modern novel.  Pamela was published in two volumes in 1740. The author was sufficiently ill-advised to add two more in 1741. In this latter instalment Mrs. B. was represented as a dignified matron, stately and sweet under a burden of marital infidelity.  But this continuation is hardly worthy to be counted among the works of Richardson.

The novelist showed great wisdom in not attempting to repeat too quickly the success of his first work. He allowed the romances of Henry and Sarah Fielding, the latter as grateful to him as the former were repugnant, to produce their effect upon the public, and it was to an audience more able to criticise fiction that Richardson addressed his next budget from the mail-bag. Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady, appeared, in instalments, but in seven volumes in all, in 1748, with critical prefaces prefixed to the first and fourth volumes.  In this book the novelist put his original crude essay completely into the shade, and added one to the masterpieces of the world. Released from the accident which induced him in the pages of Pamela to make his heroine a servant-girl, in Clarissa, Richardson depicted a lady, yet not of so lofty a rank as to be beyond the range of his own observation. The story is again told entirely in letters; it is the history of the abduction and violation of a young lady by a finished scoundrel, and ends in the death of both characters. To enable the novelist to proceed, each personage has a confidant. The beautiful and unhappy Clarissa Harlowe corresponds with the vivacious Miss Howe; Robert Lovelace addresses his friend and quondam fellow-reveller, John Belford.  The character of Clarissa is summed up in these terms by her creator: "A young Lady of great Delicacy, Mistress of all the Accomplishments, natural and acquired, that adorn the Sex, having the strictest Notions of filial Duty."  Her piety and purity, in fact, are the two loadstars of her moral nature, and the pursuit of each leads her life to shipwreck.

By the universal acknowledgment of novel-readers, Clarissa is one of the most sympathetic, as she is one of the most lifelike, of all the women in literature, and Richardson has conducted her story with so much art and tact that her very faults canonize her, and her weakness crowns the triumph of her chastity. In depicting the character of Lovelace, the novelist had a difficult task, for to have made him a mere ruffian would have been to ruin the whole purpose of the piece. He is represented as witty, versatile, and adroit, the very type of the unscrupulous gentleman of fashion of the period.  He expiates his crimes, at the close of a capital duel, by the hands of Colonel Morden, a relative of the Harlowe family, who has seen Clarissa die. The success of Clarissa, both here and in France, was extraordinary. As the successive volumes appeared, and readers were held in suspense as to the fate of the exquisite heroine, Richardson was deluged with letters entreating him to have mercy. The women of England knelt sobbing round his knees, and addressed him as though he possessed the power of life and death.

The slow and cumbrous form of Clarissa has tended to lessen the number of its students, but there is probably no one who reads at all widely who has not at one time or another come under the spell of this extraordinary book.  In France its reputation has always stood very high. Diderot said that it placed Richardson with Homer and Euripides, Rousseau openly imitated it, and Alfred de Musset has styled it the best novel in the world. To those who love to see the passions taught to move at the command of sentiment, and who are not wearied by the excessively minute scale, as of a moral miniature-painter, on which the author designs his work, there can scarcely be recommended a more thrilling and affecting book. The author is entirely inexorable, and the reader must not hope to escape until he is thoroughly purged with terror and pity.

After the further development of Fielding’s genius, and after the advent of a new luminary in Smollett, Richardson once more presented to the public an elaborate and ceremonious novel of extreme prolixity.  The History of Sir Charles Grandison, in seven (and six) volumes, appeared in the spring of 1754, after having been pirated in Dublin during the preceding winter. Richardson’s object in this new adventure was, having already painted the portraits of two virtuous young women—the one fortunate, the other a martyr—to produce this time a virtuous hero, and to depict "the character and actions of a man of true honor," as before, in a series of familiar letters. There is more movement, more plot, in this novel than in the previous ones; the hero is now in Italy, now in England, and there is much more attempt than either in Pamela or Clarissa to give the impression of a sphere in which a man of the world may move. Grandison is, however, a slightly ludicrous hero. His perfections are those of a prig and an egoist, and he passes like the sun itself over his parterre of adoring worshippers.  The ladies who are devoted to Sir Charles Grandison are, indeed, very numerous, but the reader’s interest centres in three of them—the mild and estimable Harriet Byron, the impassioned Italian Clementina della Porretta, and the ingenuous ward Emily Jervois. The excuse for all this is that this paragon of manly virtue has "the most delicate of human minds," and that women are irresistibly attracted to him by his splendid perfections of character.  But posterity has admitted that the portrait is insufferably overdrawn, and that Grandison is absurd. The finest scenes in this interesting but defective novel are those in which the madness of Clementina is dwelt upon in that long-drawn patient manner of which Richardson was a master. The book is much too long.

Happy in the fame which "the three daughters" of his pen had brought him, and enjoying prosperous circumstances, Richardson’s life closed in a sort of perpetual tea-party, in which he, the only male, sat surrounded by bevies of adoring ladies. He died in London, of apoplexy, on July 4, 1761.  His manners were marked by the same ceremonious stiffness which gives his writing an air of belonging to a far earlier period than that of Fielding or Smollett; but his gravity and sentimental earnestness only helped to endear him to the women. Of the style of Richardson there is little to be said; the reader never thinks of it. If he forces himself to regard it, he sees that it is apt to be slipshod, although so trim and systematic. Richardson was a man of unquestionable genius, dowered with extraordinary insight into female character, and possesssing the power to express it; but he had little humor, no rapidity of mind, and his speech was so ductile and so elaborate that he can scarcely compete with later and sharper talent.

[i]It is, however, now certain that there existed an English version of Marianne.

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Chicago: Edmund Gosse, First Modern Novel, A.D. 1740 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alumni, 1926), 100–107. Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: Gosse, Edmund. First Modern Novel, A.D. 1740, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Vol. 13, Harrogate, TN, The National Alumni, 1926, pp. 100–107. Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: Gosse, E, First Modern Novel, A.D. 1740. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alumni, Harrogate, TN, pp.100–107. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from