The 18th century was a prolific time in European literature as it saw the development of the modern novel as a literary genre. Although it is hard to say with certainty which work is considered the very first novel written in English, there is a long list of candidates, out of which Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is perhaps the best known. The evolution of the novel during the 18th century sparked many subgenres, including the epistolary novel, the sentimental novel, and the gothic novel.
The 18th century in Europe was the Age of Enlightenment and literature of the time was concerned with themes of social climbing, political satire, geographical explorations, and the concept of a noble savage—the return of a civilized man to nature. The following 11 novels explored these issues and enabled readers to reach interesting conclusions.
1. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe’s tale of a castaway who spends 28 years on a remote tropical island is one of the first novels written in English. The compelling adventures of a young man who gets shipwrecked and encounters mutineers, captives, and cannibals led this book to become one of the most widely published in history, entertaining readers for centuries, and even creating its own genre—the Robinsonades. However, the form of a travelogue packed with thrilling adventures serves as the façade that uncovers deeper issues, such as cultural imperialism, the importance of self-awareness, repentance, and the ability to go through hardships, but still find prosperity.
2. Pamela, by Samuel Richardson
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson was a bestseller of its time and it caused quite a stir in the literary world. It consists of a series of letters written by the main character (epistolary novel) and it tells the story of a 15-year-old maidservant named Pamela Andrews who works for a wealthy landowner. Pamela’s employer makes unwanted and inappropriate advances towards her, which escalate into a series of sexual assaults and even kidnapping. In her letters addressed to her parents, Pamela tries to reconcile her religious upbringing with her wish to get approval from her employer, but she refuses to give in to his attempts of seduction unless he makes a sincere marriage proposal.
Richardson wanted to state his moral views on proper marriage conduct, but despite the novel’s popularity, not all feedback was positive. The book was criticized for its descriptions of perceived promiscuous behavior and disregard for barriers between social classes. The novel spawned numerous parodies, the most famous being An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews by fellow novelist Henry Fielding, which recounts the story of an amoral servant who tries to manipulate her master into marrying her to achieve a higher social status.
3. Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
After mocking the alleged virtue of Pamela, Henry Fielding went on to write another influential novel of the 18th century, titled The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. This book is an example of a picaresque novel, which describes the adventures of a charming but mischievous protagonist who often comes from an underprivileged background. Tom Jones certainly fits the description—he is an orphan who ends up under care of a distinguished country gentleman, and although he is kindhearted, his wild nature often gets him in trouble and causes him to act foolishly, especially when it comes to love.
The book is full of comedic elements and intriguing plot points, but it was also criticized for having descriptions of promiscuity and prostitution. Despite having a lengthy narrative, Tom Jones earned praise for its plot structure from famous literary figures such as Coleridge, who noted that this novel has one of the “three most perfect plots ever planned.”
4. Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
When it comes to experimenting in writing, Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman earned its place among some of the more unusual works of the 18th century. Published as a series of shorter volumes between 1759 and 1767, this novel is intended to be a biography of a titular character/author Tristram. He narrates his own life story and intertwines events from his life with anecdotes and ideas, exploring themes of identity, human nature, mortality, and the passage of time.
The most unusual characteristics of this novel are the storyline that moves back and forth and Sterne’s open-ended way of writing that requires the involvement of the reader to make the story complete. He interrupts the sequence of the stories to comment on how the events in question should be interpreted and to reflect on ideas and memories related to those situations. He also invites the reader not to take everything the author says for granted and encourages a critical approach to reading. These narrative techniques were considered odd and progressive in the 18th century, but they became common characteristics of modernist literature.
5. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift’s best known work functions on many levels and it can be hard to categorize, but what many consider an enthralling children’s story is actually a bitter satire on human nature and the state of European government in the 18th century. The main character, Lemuel Gulliver, whose last name is intended to make you think of the word gullible, sets off on four extraordinary journeys to remote nations, witnessing anything from 6-inch-tall people to flying islands. The societies he encounters are severely flawed, and while this comes as a surprise to him at the beginning, by the end of the journey he realizes that his own society bears many similarities to the ones he visited.
6. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole
Horace Walpole’s 1764 book is considered the first gothic novel, which helped shape contemporary gothic books, films, and art and influenced authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. Walpole successfully combined common life with supernatural elements, creating a template that even modern gothic novels use. This novel was the first to introduce now well-known plot devices designed to induce horror, such as secret passages, moving portraits, skeletal apparitions, and doors closing by themselves.
7. The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith
Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith published The Vicar of Wakefield in 1766, and his book became one of the most popular 18th century novels. It is an example of a sentimental novel, a hugely popular form of literature of that time, which dealt with emotional issues and human relationships. The story follows the trials and tribulations of an intelligent, prudent, and virtuous vicar and his family as they make their way through life. The novel touches on many themes, including religion, familial relationships, gender norms, social class, human flaws, and deception.
8. Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe
After the success of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe became a recognized novelist. His following book was The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, which was published in 1722, but wasn’t attributed to Defoe until 1770, almost 40 years after his death. The original printing didn’t state the name of the author and it was presented as an autobiography, a true account of the events in life of Moll Flanders, a thief and a prostitute. Moll lives a life of crime, stealing, lying, and deceiving everyone she meets. She engages in incestuous relationships, she marries five times, and she gives birth to twelve children, all of whom she abandons.
Defoe made his protagonist a negative character, which was an unusual practice for writers in the 18th century, but the message he was sending was that people like Moll Flanders are actually by-products of a corrupt society. Moll Flanders is aware of the fact that her moral compass is wrong and every time she behaves dishonestly, she feels guilt. She constantly reminds the reader of her poverty, implying that she wouldn’t steal or behave immorally if she had more opportunities and money. Defoe criticizes the 18th century English society for denying women access to education and work, especially if they are of lower social status.
9. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne
In 1765, Sterne traveled through France and Italy and upon his return decided to detail his travels from a subjective point of view, discussing his own personal taste and sentiments rather than offering flat, objective descriptions of places that were common for travel writing of that time. The novel takes the form of a series of episodes in which the narrator describes his adventures, most of which are romantic. Some consider this novel to be an epilogue of Sterne’s seminal work Tristram Shandy, although the writing style is far less eccentric. The purpose of the journey the narrator undertakes is not so much about discovering new places, but more about discovering your true self.
10. The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe
Horace Walpole’s invention of the gothic novel caused a frenzy that inspired numerous authors to experiment with this genre. Ann Radcliffe was one of the most successful gothic authors of the 18th century and her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho elevated this genre to another level. It tells the story of a young woman’s misfortunes that begin with the death of her parents and continue after she starts living with her aunt and her husband in a remote, gloomy castle.
The novel has a somber atmosphere and it features many elements of terror, as it involves a virtuous protagonist threatened by a plotting villain, ominous setting of a run-down castle, and deaths caused by severe illnesses. It’s interesting to note that The Mysteries of Udolpho is featured prominently in Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Northanger Abbey, which mocks the obsession with all things gothic, as her characters are unable to separate life from fiction and live their lives as if they were in a gothic novel.
11. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox
Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was modeled on a satirical novel The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella, written by Charlotte Lennox. The novel mocks the ideas introduced by Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and it follows the story of Arabella, a young woman who reads many French romance novels and believes that her life should be just as adventurous and romantic as the ones led by heroines of those books. Her delusions lead to a series of comical events and misunderstandings among her family and suitors. Lennox makes interesting observations on gender relations at the time and criticizes gender inequality by placing her heroine at the centre of her own reality, which was uncommon practice for women in the 18th century.