Who Wrote the First Novel in English? And Other Surprising Literary Firsts

Surprising firsts from the world of books

We recently wrote a book, The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, which aims to uncover the best hidden facts and stories about classic and not-so-classic works of literature. One of the most fascinating things we discovered was how wrong we’d been on the topic of ‘firsts’. It seems there are a fair few origin myths out there, which are often taken as fact. Who wrote the first English novel? We thought we knew. Who compiled the first English Dictionary? Dr Johnson, surely! Turns out we were wrong on that one too. To celebrate the publication of our book in the US this month, here are a few of our favourite surprising firsts from the world of literature which we uncovered during our research for the book, which goes back several years.

Who compiled the first English dictionary? Samuel Johnson often gets the credit for compiling the first dictionary of the English language, but in fact his Dictionary of 1755 wasn’t even the first one to be published in 1755! (The Scott-Bailey Dictionary also appeared in the same year.) Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century (albeit without definitions), and in 1604 Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall had appeared. But in the early eighteenth century, dictionary-making was all the rage. Johnson’s Dictionary drew heavily on Nathan Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), but Johnson’s definitions were a considerable improvement on the work of his precursor. Bailey’s Dictionary, for instance, had defined ‘cat’ as ‘a creature well known’; ‘goat’, meanwhile, was ‘a beast’ and ‘strawberry’ was described simply as ‘a well known fruit’. ‘Black’ was ‘a colour’. You couldn’t argue with the factual correctness of such definitions (on the whole), but they did leave a fair bit to be desired.

Dr Johnson once listed his three favourite books as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe (1719), the tale of the title character’s survival on a desert island following a shipwreck, is often called the first English novel. But is it? Who actually wrote the first novel in English? Two earlier claimants to the title of the first novel are both by a woman named Aphra Behn (Oroonoko or Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister). Oroonoko might be disqualified because it’s too short, or because it’s based secret-library-book-cover-2too heavily – at least supposedly – on real events. But of course, The Pilgrim’s Progress itself, one of Johnson’s other favourite novels, is also a work of prose fiction which predates Robinson Crusoe, having been published in 1678. So perhaps we should award Bunyan’s book the title of ‘first English novel’.

However, talking of Robinson Crusoe, the book that isn’t the first English novel, that turns up numerous times in a book called The Moonstone, which is often called the first detective novel – but isn’t. The Moonstone, by Dickens’s friend Wilkie Collins, was first published in 1868 and it’s an early example of detective fiction, but it’s not the very first detective novel – we have to go back to a bit earlier in the decade for that mantle. Some people claim it’s a book called The Notting Hill Mystery (1862), but in fact there’s an even earlier one: The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who was the publishing phenomenon of the 1860s – a hugely popular author of what became known as ‘sensation fiction’. A lurid tale involving murder and false identity, The Trail of the Serpent qualifies most definitely as a ‘detective’ novel not only because a crime is placed at the centre of the narrative but because it has a detective, named Peters, investigating that crime. Scholars Chris Willis and Kate Watson have both argued that the novel therefore qualifies most certainly for the title of the earliest detective novel.

The most famous fictional detective of them all is Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in a book published by the husband of Mrs Beeton, author of the influential Book of Household Management (1861), best known for its cookery recipes. (The first novel to feature Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1886.) But was Mrs Beeton’s book the first English cookbook? Not by a long way. In fact, the first book written in English which we might confidently label a ‘cookbook’ was produced in the late fourteenth century, during the reign of Richard II. While Chaucer was busy writing The Canterbury Tales, the (anonymous) Forme of Cury was being compiled. It contains nearly 200 recipes, including an early quiche (known then as a ‘custard’) and a ‘blank mang’, a sweet dish made with milk, rice, almonds, sugar, and – er, slices of meat. It may not sound much but it was a popular dish at the time and would later evolve, for good or ill, into blancmange.

These are just a handful of the surprising firsts discussed in The Secret Library. The book explores many more, including the female author of the first English autobiography, the first Gothic novel (not Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto), and the first joke book – a surprisingly modern collection of gags dating from nearly 2,000 years ago. If this has whetted your appetite, The Secret Library is available in the US now.

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