Evolution Of Novel As A Leading Literary Genre From Romantic To The Victorian Period

Novel is defined in dictionary as an extended fictional work in prose; usually in the form of a story. The exact origin of novel is ambiguous and often the explanations are contradictory. In English literature, the novel existed through various periods, however, the poetry remained dominant literature genre in Romantic period. Although earlier prose followed similar idealism of the dominant verse, many critics did not respect novel as a standard literature form because it lacked classic pedigree claimed by poetry and drama. It is considered that evolution of the prose began with Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. English writers like Richardson and Fielding also played significant role in the evolution of novel and they were often considered as the innovators of the genre. Whoever, it is only after the reviews of Walter Scott Wanverley series of historical novels and Jane Austen’s Emma declared renaissance “a new style of novel”. Novel established against the more reputable literary forms and began to endanger poetry’s long-held monopoly in literary prestige. By the middle of the eighteenth century, 'the novel' was accepted as a canonic term and finally accepted as separate literary genre in the later part of the Romantic period. by the end of the Romanic period, reading public rapidly expanded and gradually novel became the dominant literary form and continued in the reign of Victorian Period. Critics like Georg Lukacs, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ian Watt, and many more offered different explanations using different approaches to explain the factors that gave rise to the novel. Considering the level of acceptance and validity of arguments; factors such as realism, rise of middle class, and the role of women will be discussed in this essay with special reference to three significant novelists Jane Austen, Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

Firstly, the shift in idealism has changed the overall philosophies of literature and contributed in innovative ways to depict real life experiences leading to new prospective of literature. Earlier the chief indicator of Romanticism is a deep belief in the power of nature. Poets such as Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge are famous for looking to the natural world for inspiration in an unpleasant world. The writers of Romantic era, according to Watt, seek realities in universal abstractions and writers were judged on the basis of their adherence to strict literary decorum. The writers write timeless stories reflecting unchanging moral values. As the time changed, Romantic idealism of supernatural power was rejected. The writers now emphasized on particularity of description and real life events and characters in real-life situations. The characteristic of modern novel is first seen in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Similarly, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding contributed significantly to the birth of English novel and considered as the pioneer of the genre. Jane Austen gave novel its distinctively modern character through her treatment of ordinary people in everyday life. In her six major novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion the characters and situations were related more closely to the modern world than to the traditions of the 18th century. It is the relationship closely drawn to the time and reality together with the wit that attracted readers of all kinds. Her novels were usually about the common man struggling to gain upward mobility. Similarly, Charles Dickens wrote many novels as a means to gain social justices for the struggling lower class. His novels became so popular on social realism that he dominated the early Victorian Period. At the end of the Victorian Era, writers such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy, continued to explore the problems in English social life along with other theme. Unlike Austen, Dicken and others, Walter Scott assigned the novel a new task. He wrote historical events providing insightful visions of historical events and people. The publication of Waverley: Or, Tis Sixty Years Since, commonly called Waverley novels marked the beginning of a rise in the enthusiasm among readers. Therefore, the shift in the idealism of supernatural power to realism or individualism has led to the increase in the audience of novel.

The second factor, that led to the evolution of novel is the transition of England from feudalism to capitalism which resulted in the rise of the middle class. Capitalism marked the progress and social reform in England. The rural and urban poor also started getting access to education and the ability to read became a necessary for the rapidly rising middle classes. The common characteristics of rising novel being representation of characters in real-life events and situations specially that of lower class and social problem, the novel became the most read literature among the middle class which constituted the majority of the population. Authors like Charles Dickens not only produced entertaining writing that the public wanted, but used his writing to comment on social problems and the plight of the poor. His novels became one of the most read literature. The popularity of the realistic novel depended on the people who read them. In addition, movement of middle class to the urban led the emergence of the marketplace and facilitated better distribution network for reading materials among merchants, shopkeepers, and tradesmen. Moreover, the decline of feudal patronage of literature and art by the court and the nobility led to involvement of middle class in the establishment of literature. The other factors associated with the rise of middle class includes; the progress in industries and technology which made printing easier and cheaper, and invention of circulating libraries which made access to reading materials affordable to middle class. Popular periodical essays, newspapers and journals also contributed in shaping up the novel. Novels were published in volumes in newspapers which made it affordable by middle class. The works of Charles Dickens were frequently serialized in newspapers or journals. For example, Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was originally released weekly in newspaper publications and people enjoyed it so much that it became in high demand quickly, and eventually it was turned into a one novel. Critics like Watt believed that writing profession became lucrative with increasing readers. Richardson, Fielding, Johnson, and many other writers were able to earn a lot of money through writing. Agustin supported her family by writing after her father’s death. More demands were on prose than verse since novel tells stories of those who are not too different from themselves. This encouraged more writing and writers. Since the novel does not follow and fixed literature rules, it was easy to write even without any formal training in literature writing which encouraged many writers. The economic factor also favoured prose over verse because it is easier and can fetch more money since the payment is based on the number of pages written. Thus, evolution of novel is closely associated with the majority middle class people, social reform and progress in England.

Lastly, women both as a writer and as a reader, played significant role in the evolution of novel. Towards the end of the romantic period, women began actively seeking equal social and legal rights as men. They chose writing as one of the main ways to draw attention to their plight. Although, it was not common for a women writer to write and publish, they wrote and published in pseudonyms. Women wrote in order to make a living, contribute to the literary world, and most importantly change society and fight for women’s rights. Feminism started to gain momentum and as a result women writers such as Jane Austen, Frances Burney, and Charlotte Smith came to dominate the novel genre in literary world. Female writers like Austen, created strong heroine such as Marianne, Elizabeth Bennet and Woodhouse in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma respectively to peruse the society. Nineteenth century novels replaced romances easily because they still had the general structure of the romances. Like in a romance, Austen connected the main plot with love which made her books popular and unique. She tried to present the English society, especially the issues connected with women`s life and love affairs. Human dilemmas were the priority for her. Another important issue was a depiction of the character`s lives in novels. Austen mostly used comical and funny dialogs, tricky plots, and happy endings. Women readers were also considered as a crucial factor in providing readership. Women at the time were strictly confined to domestic works. Unlike in the past, they were educated and they have less work to do since most of the things can be purchased from the market. That gives them plenty of leisure time. Therefore, the women became major audience of novel.

Although there may be other factors contributing to the evolution of novel as a leading literacy genre from Romantic to Victorian Period, this essay is restricted to three factors; idealism, rise of middle class and role of women. With the change in time, progress and social reform in England, novel took distinct form. The shift idealism, with realistic and relevancy helped increase their popularity. The rise of the middle class as a result of social reform and capitalism, proliferated the reading population, accelerated the production, and enhanced marketing of reading materials. The realistic novel focused on characters and themes such as the plight of the poor and social mobility that was being afforded to a new middle class and the rising middle class were eager to consume these novels. Women participation both as a writer and reader immensely contributed to the growth of novel.


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09 March 2021
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