Where do novels come from?

No, not the book itself, the story inside. TLS investigates.


How, when and why did novels start? Conventionally, people used to say two things, in the main: that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a game-changer; and the novel started in the “long” eighteenth century. Only Don Quixote was published in 1605, and in critical circles Cervantes’s giant may have eclipsed Defoe’s marooned mariner as the most influential book-that-might-be-called-a-novel there has ever been. Don Quixote holds in his bony hands the “romance” stories of love and chivalry he believes in, the ones he inherits from earlier centuries; but these outré influences are vulnerable to certain corrosive satirical scepticisms based in the stony reality of the Castilian landscape. Romance, satire and realism make the novel; they are already seething nicely in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688).

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