One of the most important questions in literature, and yet one which is rarely asked, is, “where did the novel come from?”. Many assume that it has always been there, supposing, perhaps that it is a term as easily associated with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as it is with Homeric epic. Whilst the majority of us never discuss the issue, the fact of it is that the novel hasn’t always existed. After epic poetry, lyrical poetry emerged, preceding Romances and Shakespearean plays: texts that we would never attribute with the word novel. In fact, the ‘first’ novel is claimed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Whilst this may be an odd assumption to make about what is now such a wide branch of literature, Daniel Defoe did something in literature that had never been done before; he brought a sense of realism to his work that transported his readers, causing them to clearly picture Crusoe’s marooning on that desert island, and to take it as fact. This is because Robinson Crusoe wasn’t published under the name of Defoe at all, but the name of Crusoe; the novel is the character retelling his story, Defoe insisting that the story is fact throughout the narrative. In modern novels, this trait no longer exists; we do not read Wuthering Heights and take it as a true story written by Cathy Linton, or believe that Frodo Baggins wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, what we now consider a genre with the biggest flexibility for fantasy, is one rooted in nonfiction.
Defoe did something else unusual in Robinson Crusoe too, but I want to talk about this in connection to his lesser known novel. Still one of the first ‘novels’ of the genre, and a text published under Defoe’s anonymity, Roxana reveals the true meaning of what such a text once was. It tells the story of a French lady who moves to England, in order to find a new identity for herself. She addresses her audience, telling her own story, as her first husband disappears, leaving her an assumed widow in a state of extreme poverty. Having to give up her children and marry for wealth, Roxana soon realises the satisfaction in being an unmarried woman. She becomes promiscuous, a mistress to many a rich man as she raises her own fortune and lives, for the most of the novel, independently of men.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roxana, however, is this second trait of the traditional novel that I mentioned earlier. Defoe included a precision that hadn’t really been seen in literature before this. Roxana records everything in the text, from the exact profit of her dealings, to the exact times and locations which she refers to as she travels about Defoe’s world. This novel was published in 1724, following on from texts like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and, of course, Shakespeare, himself. Whilst such texts may include the locations of scenes, or give vague descriptions of the time of day, they left no room for the thorough explanation of the facts that Defoe allowed for. In fact, what with the anonymity of Roxana, combined with an inclusion of such precise facts that the first assumption would be that the tale is true, it is clear that the traditional novel barely resembles what we now assume it to be. As Defoe remarked in the preface of Roxana, “the foundation of This is laid in Truth of Fact: and so the Work is not a Story, but a History”.
On a side note, I would thoroughly recommend Roxana to anyone who enjoys a good story; due to the realism of the work, it is easy to relate to the character, readers both condemning her for her crimes, and admiring her for her determination to have her own rights in a protofeminist world. It is also worth appreciating the age of a work that is centred around a female protagonist, and the scandal that is included. Whilst we may now see the novel as an authoritative symbol of knowledge and wealth, the novel was once seen as something sordid and dirty.
The only issue many readers seem to have with the text is its ending; some argue that the novel wasn’t ready to be a novel when Defoe composed it, as the narrative appears to trail into nothingness. However, if you like a sense of mystery after reading a book, unsure of whether a character lives or dies, this is a book that can only satisfy, as well as intrigue, your senses.