Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Although it was the nineteenth century when the novel arguably came into its own, with novelists like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters writing novels that are still widely read and studied today, the eighteenth century was the age in which the novel emerged as a real force in writing and publishing. Below, we introduce ten of the greatest novels from the eighteenth century, and offer some interesting facts about them.
1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.
Although it wasn’t the first novel in English – that honour could go to any range of candidates from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, depending on your definition of ‘novel’ – this 1719 tale of one man’s survival on a tropical island is often taken as the real starting-point for the ‘serious’ long novel in English. It was an instant hit, and Defoe quickly put out a sequel, plus a third volume, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, to capitalise on its success.
We offer some further curious facts about the novel here.
Recommended edition: Robinson Crusoe n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
2. Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess.
Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), born Elizabeth Fowler, was an English writer, actress and publisher at a time when female publishers were virtually unheard of. She was also probably the first great novelist in English, and Love in Excess (1719-20) is her best-known novel. Although it didn’t sell in the numbers that Robinson Crusoe did, it was a modest hit.
The novel is a work of amatory fiction, with part of the plot focusing on an age-old story: the competition between two female friends for the heart of a dashing young man.
Recommended edition: Love in Excess (Broadview Literary Texts) (Broadview Editions)
3. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.
Swift’s most famous book, Gulliver’s Travels is at once one of the greatest satirical novels in the English language and also one of the first fantasy novels (of sorts). Its full, somewhat longer, title was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. It was published anonymously in October 1726 and proved something of an instant bestseller: 10,000 copies were sold in the first three weeks.
Gulliver visits four imaginary worlds, mostly famously the land of little people, Lilliput, although his encounter with the Yahoos (brutish humans) and Houyhnhnms (intelligent horses) shows that Swift’s intent was to satirise all of humanity itself.
We have analysed this classic novel in a separate post.
Recommended edition: Gulliver’s Travels n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Samuel Richardson, Pamela.
The publication of this novel, in 1740, caused perhaps the greatest frenzy among the public of all of the eighteenth-century novels selected in this list. Perhaps surprisingly, it began life as a conduct-book designed to teach young women how to write better letters. However, what began as a series of loosely related letters quickly began to coalesce into a clear epistolary narrative (an epistolary novel, a popular form during the eighteenth century, is a novel comprising letters written by the novel’s characters), and Pamela (subtitled Virtue Rewarded) was born. Pamela tells the story of the titular character, a teenage servant-girl whose rakish master tries to seduce her.
However, Pamela refuses to give herself to her boss unless he marries her first, which he does indeed end up doing – her ‘virtue’ is ‘rewarded’. Pamela was a bestseller, and inspired a host of spin-offs, including paintings, waxworks, and even a set of playing cards.
But the follow-up Richardson wrote fared less well. Pamela in her Exalted Condition (1741) was met with little enthusiasm, and it would instead be the parodies of Richardson’s novel that would prove to be its most popular successors…
Recommended edition: Pamela Or Virtue Rewarded (Oxford World’s Classics)
5. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones.
One of the most popular parodies of Richardson’s novel, Shamela, was written by Henry Fielding, whose day job as a magistrate is immortalised in his role as the inventor of the London police: Fielding’s ‘Bow Street Runners’ were forerunners to the police force in the mid-eighteenth century.
He was also, though, a successful novelist, and after he’d finished mocking the po-faced virtue of Pamela, he offered this vast rip-roaring picaresque novel.
Picaresque was another popular eighteenth-century genre for the novel, and is from the Spanish for ‘rogue’: picaresque novels usually follow the adventures of a charming but roguish protagonist, who is often an orphan or of low-born status.
Tom Jones, the title-character of Fielding’s 1749 novel, certainly fits the bill: he is an orphan or ‘foundling’ who makes his way in the world, falling in love and with both suitable and unsuitable women (Fielding was criticised for introducing both prostitution and sexual promiscuity into his novel), over the course of nearly 1,000 pages of comic inventiveness and tightly-plotted picaresque fun (Coleridge thought that, along with Oedipus Rex and The Alchemist, this novel had one of the three perfect plots in all of literature).
Recommended edition: Tom Jones (Oxford World’s Classics)
6. Voltaire, Candide.
Published in 1759, this short novel by one of France’s leading Enlightenment writers and philosophers has given us a word, ‘Panglossian’, referring to someone of an overly optimistic bent. This is another picaresque novel, covering the development of the optimistic young Candide, the novel is also a satire or parody of many romance plot devices. Voltaire crams a lot into barely 100 pages, and although this novel might be better described as a novella, it deserves its place on this list for its influence and broad range.
Recommended edition: Candide and Other Stories n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
7. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy.
This novel, published as a series of shorter volumes between 1759 and 1767, is one of the boldest and oddest eighteenth-century novels: we might describe it as a bildungsroman (a novel about a young character’s journey through youth into adulthood), except the narrator technically doesn’t get beyond his own conception.
There are, needless to say, plenty of digressions: in one sense, with Tristram Shandy Sterne can be said to prefigure modernism in the way his narrator moves from one subject to another. And yet with his larger-than-life characters blessed with such names as Dr Slop, Parson Yorick, and Widow Wadman, his work bears the firm stamp of the eighteenth century. But it’s revealing that the novel found admirers among some of the leading philosophers of the nineteenth century, including Schopenhauer and Marx.
Recommended edition: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
8. Frances Burney, Evelina.
Frances Burney (1752-1840), sometimes known as Fanny Burney, wrote four novels between 1778 and 1814. Of these novels, her first, Evelina, is the best-known and most widely read. Like Pamela it’s an epistolary novel, and its subtitle tells us that it’s the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. Evelina is a young woman who has been raised in rural seclusion as the ward of the Reverend Villars; her mother had a dark past. As she makes her way in the world, Evelina’s beauty soon attracts the attention of a handsome lord and a rather caddish baronet…
9. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
It was Horace Walpole, in his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, who really invented the Gothic novel (although earlier novels or novellas with Gothic touches, such as William Baldwin’s gloriously fun Tudor novel Beware the Cat, predate it). The Gothic craze led to many other novelists, among them William Beckford with his novel Vathek, trying their hand at the genre, but Ann Radcliffe was probably the most successful and inventive Gothic novelist of the eighteenth century, and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is her most ambitious work.
Recommended edition: The Mysteries of Udolpho n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
10. Jane Austen, Lady Susan.
Although she’s far better-known as a novelist of the early nineteenth century, with her best-known novels being published during the Regency era of the 1810s, Austen had been writing since she was a teenager, and is thought to have written this epistolary novel in around 1794, although it wasn’t published until after her death. Lady Susan is a coquettish widow who turns up unexpectedly at her brother’s home. Her flirtatious manner soon begins to cause trouble for her brother and sister-in-law…
Recommended edition: Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.