In search of the first true novel

Friday, August 18, 2006 at 4:36 PM

We recently shared an email from a hard-working graduate student who told us about how she's using Google Book Search for research. The story brought me back to my own grad school days, when I first became acquainted with the work of 18th-century author Samuel Richardson. I was obsessed with finding out who wrote the first English novel -- an interest no doubt strengthened by the fact that the question was as far as humanly possible from the topic of my dissertation. :-)

In hot pursuit of the birth of the novel, I read John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress* and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Neither of them felt like a true novel. In my opinion, a novel should have real characters engaged in complex human interactions. Then I discovered Richardson's Pamela, in this paperback edition. Here, at last, was what I was looking for: a story about people and their relationships.

Next came Richardson's Clarissa (vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). I read it as an e-text through Literature Online, to which my university had a subscription. I chose to read the last and longest unabridged edition, because I didn't want the text filtered by an editor. Like Austin Dobson, I felt instinctively that "Any retrenchment must be mutilation." In retrospect, the novel is repetitious until Clarissa's departure from home, but after that -- what a story of two real, flawed people! Lovelace, rather than being a caricature of a villain, vacillates believably between glee, remorse and obduracy. Clarissa has very little power over her destiny in her society and situation, yet regardless of that, she never gives in.

Finally, I read the e-text of Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison (vols. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). It was a pleasant read, but with one problem: Sir Charles is too perfect.

Interestingly, I finished reading Clarissa as ASCII text (for convenience) before I learned that Richardson's italics and footnotes -- missing in the ASCII version -- are a significant element of the text. So I'm happy to see that with Google Book Search, today's grad students -- and anyone else who feels like it -- can not only find and search the full text of Clarissa, they can also explore the lively critical discourse it has inspired.

*Copyright rules differ between countries, so the books we link to in this post may not be in the public domain everywhere in the world. Where copyright status is in question, the book will not appear in Full View. We hope you bear with us as we confirm the status and, whenever appropriate, change the display.


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