In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Rise of the Novel in Britain, 1660–1780

  • Introduction
  • Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, Precursors, and Responses
  • General and Introductory Studies and Essay Collections
  • Check Lists of Fiction
  • Anthologies and Studies of 18th-Century Commentary
  • Formalisms
  • Postcolonial and International Revisions
  • Social, Intellectual, and Political History, 1980–1990
  • Print Culture and the History of Reading
  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Crime and the Law
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Individualism and Society
  • Material Culture
  • Philosophy, Knowledge, and Fictionality
  • Science and Medicine

British and Irish Literature The Rise of the Novel in Britain, 1660–1780
Nicholas Seager
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0163


Every premise of the phrase “the rise of the novel” has been assailed in recent years. “The rise” suggests a single, uniform phenomenon, which scholars contest. If that phenomenon is a “rise,” it sounds inevitable and progressive in teleological terms, which critics find problematic. “The novel” implies we are dealing with a single genre, and if that genre is called “novel” we may be ignoring things that do not fit a preconception or are using a historically problematic term. For these reasons, this bibliography addresses the rise of the novel in Britain, during the period 1660–1780, aiming for greater specificity of place and time. Notwithstanding their problematizing of “the rise of the novel,” literary historians remain interested in the fact that for Shakespeare and Spenser prose fiction was barely an option, whereas for Austen and Scott two centuries later it was an obvious one. Drama and poetry had not disappeared, so what changed? The scholarship included in this bibliography takes different approaches to the problem. Some begin from history, linking the advent of the novel to social, religious, economic, or political changes. Others focus on issues intrinsic to literature, like genre. What genres did the novel develop from or alongside: how and why? How did it develop as a form, such as in terms of narrative style or characterization techniques? Though commentators starting in the 18th century sought to explain the new species of writing, and this continued during the 19th and early 20th centuries, this bibliography focuses on work following Ian Watt’s influential The Rise of the Novel (1957). Therefore, it does not cover pre-20th-century studies. Important novels in the tradition include: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722); Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess (1719–1720) and Betsy Thoughtless (1751); Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740–1741) and Clarissa (1747–1748); Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749); Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) and Humphry Clinker (1771); Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–1767) and A Sentimental Journey (1768); and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Cecilia (1782). For the reader new to this topic, I would recommend beginning with Watt, before advancing to Brean Hammond and Shaun Regan’s Making the Novel (2006) and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Novel Beginnings (2006). Next, J. Paul Hunter’s Before Novels (1990), Jane Spencer’s The Rise of the Woman Novelist (1986), Ira Konigsberg’s Narrative Technique in the English Novel (1985), and Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740 (1987) will give a rigorous grounding in a range of approaches through genre, formalism, feminism, historicism, and print culture, so the reader may then pursue directions such as postcolonialism, individual genres (like romance), or particular contextual factors. Nicholas Seager’s The Rise of the Novel: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism (2012), alongside this bibliography, will make for a useful companion to your reading in criticism. Keep in mind that understanding the 18th-century novel will be best achieved by reading as many 18th-century novels as possible.

Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, Precursors, and Responses

Few works of literary criticism remain so relevant to their subject after more than sixty years as Watt 1957. Watt offers a historical explanation of why the novel arose when it did in England, the dominant narrative forms it took, and the social conditions to which it reacted and which it shaped. He argues that a confluence of historical factors—the emergence of a middle class and a reading public under nascent capitalism, a secularizing tendency inherent to Protestantism, and philosophical empiricism (John Locke’s valorization of knowledge through experience, not innate ideas)—contributed to the ascent of individualism. In turn, individualism found literary expression in “formal realism,” a narrative mode privileging particularized accounts of spatial and temporal experience, as opposed to the universalism typical of romance, allegory, epic, and myth. Earlier studies had tried to account for the emergence of the novel, and Watt’s study does crucial work in synthesizing existing views. Baker 1924–1939 is the most important large-scale history of the English novel before Watt. McKillop 1956, contemporary with Watt, makes a New Critical case for the literary value of the major 18th-century novelists, including Smollett and Sterne, along with Watt’s trio of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Watt has elicited numerous responses: virtually every source in the present bibliography is in dialogue with The Rise of the Novel. Hirsch 1969 and Richetti 1992 are the most important essays that directly appraise Watt’s argument before the essays re-evaluating The Rise of the Novel in Blewett 2000.

  • Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel. 10 vols. London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1924–1939.

    Baker defines the novel as “the interpretation of human life by means of a fictitious narrative in prose” (1:15) and decides this definition is only consistently satisfied beginning with the realism of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Baker’s survey, from the Middle Ages onward, stresses the eventual triumph of realism over romance, which some pre-18th-century writers achieve fitfully but which Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding accomplish completely. Baker laments a “failure to use the new technique” after Smollett and Sterne: the novel drifted into subgenres that regress to romance, notably Gothic, before its recuperation by Austen, Scott, and the Victorian realists (5:11).

  • Blewett, David, ed. Special Issue: Reconsidering the Rise of the Novel. Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12 (2000).

    This collection begins with a 1978 Ian Watt lecture, which positions his work as a balance between the empirical, moral, and formalist traditions embodied by F. R. Leavis and the sociology of Marxism and phenomenology. Subsequent essays reappraise Watt 1957. Michael McKeon relates Watt to a sociological tradition of novel theory including Georg Lukács and Mikhail Bakhtin. John Richetti employs Bakhtinian dialogism to endorse Watt’s sense of the novelty of Defoe’s, Richardson’s, and Fielding’s techniques. J. Paul Hunter and Lennard Davis credit Watt with reinvigorating attention to 18th-century fiction. Janet Todd and J. A. Downie redress Watt’s neglect of female novelists.

  • Hirsch, David H. “The Reality of Ian Watt.” Critical Quarterly 11 (1969): 164–179.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8705.1969.tb02016.x

    Hirsch argues that the conception of realism in Watt 1957 smooths over the problems of consciousness, personal identity, and temporal experience inherent in John Locke’s and David Hume’s writings. The philosophical premises underpinning Watt’s sense of realism are disregarded in his analyses of putatively realistic scenes in Defoe and Richardson.

  • McKillop, Alan Dugald. The Early Masters of English Fiction. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1956.

    Though overshadowed by Watt 1957, McKillop was almost as influential because the close reading of formal effects he practised prevailed over historical arguments about the novel’s rise during the following quarter-century (see Formalisms). McKillop cemented the core canon—Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne—and posited a sense of progression within this tradition from retrospective memoir and epistolarity (Defoe and Richardson) to third-person commentary and formal self-awareness (Fielding and Sterne). His successor in tracing this formal progression is Konigsberg 1985 (cited under Formalisms).

  • Richetti, John. The Legacy of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel. In The Profession of Literature: Reflections on an Institution. Edited by Leo Damrosch, 95–112. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Richetti defends Watt 1957 against criticisms of canonical narrowness and historical naivety. Richetti notes that Watt rescued then-marginal novelists (Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding) from relative neglect. Commendably, he did not treat all fiction as though it were equal in terms of quality or influence. In Richetti’s assessment, Watt’s historical explanations and concomitant attention to formal features enabled, but is not superseded by, the historicist revisions to The Rise of the Novel offered by studies like Armstrong 1987 (cited under Social, Intellectual, and Political History, 1980–1990) and McKeon 1987 (cited under Social, Intellectual, and Political History, 1980–1990).

  • Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

    This section’s heading summarizes Watt’s arguments about historical factors that produced formal realism in 18th-century fiction. After establishing those contexts, Watt argues that, commencing with Defoe’s naive, garrulous stories presenting economic individualism in a way that convinces readers of the story’s actuality, formal realism became the base unit of the novel. Richardson’s “realism of presentation” entailed an artful concentration on the minutiae of experience, particularly domestic life and romantic love. Fielding’s “realism of assessment” enabled the evaluation as well as presentation of experience, so advances realism despite Fielding’s universalism. The novel was consolidated when Austen combined these varieties of realism.

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