The strange and surprising adventures of fiction

Rethinking the rise of the novel in early 18th-century England

In her recent doctoral dissertation, Leah Orr places the rise of the English novel in the broader context of 18th-century fiction. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

With the incredibly popular works of fiction pervading our culture today -- Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, The Hunger Games, the list goes on -- it's difficult to imagine a time when the novel didn't exist. Unlike other genres of writing, however, the novel has its origins in fairly recent history.

"Nobody asks what was the first play, or what was the first poem," says Leah Orr, a specialist in 18th-century literature who received her Ph.D. from Penn State in May, "because those forms have existed before there was English. Fiction is a uniquely modern form -- not uniquely English, specifically -- but it became the great English genre after the 18th century."

Orr's dissertation, "Did the Novel Rise? Fiction and Print Culture in England, 1690-1730," rebuts the longstanding notion that the novel as we now know it became a recognized form and rose to prominence during that time period. That conception of early fiction, she argues, is based on close readings of a few famous texts by major authors, such as Daniel Defoe and Aphra Behn, and neglects the broader literary context in which those texts were written and first read.

Working closely with Robert D. Hume, Evan Pugh Professor of English Literature, Orr researched early 18th-century conceptions of fiction from the distinct perspectives of writers, publishers and readers.

She confesses that she initially pursued a degree in English not because she intended to study a few great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, but because she liked reading. "I appreciate great literature, but I'm not in it because I just want to read a few works very closely. I'm more interested in just reading everything" -- renowned and obscure works alike and lots of popular fiction, including an entire shelf of Michael Crichton books Orr read as a child. "It was interesting for me to see parallels to what the popular fiction of the 18th century was like," she says.

In the course of her dissertation, she has read some 475 works of fiction printed during 1690-1730. "Some were bad," she admits, but "some were surprisingly good too, and they were mostly all entertaining."

The focus of her dissertation emerged at the intersection of two smaller projects: a bibliography of 18th-century fiction and an independent study of fiction from that period. While completing her independent study, Orr encountered a number of prominent literary critics who described the rise of the novel in terms of a few select authors -- as a simple progression from Daniel Defoe, to Samuel Richardson, to Henry Fielding. "I was reading this alongside this bibliography of hundreds of other items," she says, "and it just didn't seem to add up."

The early 18th century was an era, according to researcher Leah Orr, when booksellers controlled how texts were presented to the public, as depicted in Thomas Rowland's 1784 watercolor, "Bookseller and Author." Credit: Google Art ProjectAll Rights Reserved.

Orr, who completed her undergraduate education at the University of Washington, was initially fascinated with the 18th century because of its history, not its literature. After learning about the immense changes resulting from the English Civil War (1642-1651), she became interested in the ways literature during that period grappled with those changes on a social rather than political level. "I also kind of liked the fact that nobody else liked it," she says.

Orr's approach to the literature of that era was unique in that she went beyond the texts themselves to take into account the historical factors contributing to the way those texts were written, published and subsequently read. To recreate the historical context for what we know as the novel, she examined early 18th-century reading experiences, that is, how books were physically manufactured, advertised, and presented to readers, as well as how the works themselves appealed to readers. In researching the history of the book and book reading, she actually counted how many books were published in what year, how they were advertised and how many books even called themselves fiction as opposed to calling themselves a true history or a romance.

By recreating the print culture context, Orr unveils fiction as a commercial form from the start, where booksellers controlled how texts were presented to the public.

"Robinson Crusoe, for example, doesn't actually say it's fiction anywhere," she points out. "It states that it's written by himself, meaning Crusoe. So if you didn't know any better, you might think it was totally true. Knowing that gives you a whole different perspective on how you might read it." Additionally, the printer William Taylor, who issued Robinson Crusoe in 1719, sold it alongside works of religion, rather than literature. "That helps us to see that the original readers would perhaps have read it as a genuine work of spiritual autobiography, not a fictional travelogue," Orr explains.

Her research not only brings into focus the wide range of fiction produced during this 40-year period; it also demonstrates the extent to which the commercial considerations of early 18th-century print culture dictated the type of fiction published.

Granted, people at that time were reading Robinson Crusoe, but that's not all. "Novels as we mean them now did not really exist in the early 18th century," Orr emphasizes. "Fiction was diverse and experimental."

Because the conventions of the novel had yet to be established, a work of fiction might suddenly switch to dialogue, continuing on for 20 pages of what sounds like a play before spontaneously reverting to prose. Such fluidity between novel and play would not have registered for 18th century readers because they would not yet have any expectations for what a novel should look like. 

Ultimately, Orr's research de-emphasizes the literary divide that currently exists in English studies and views the rise of the novel within the broader context of 18th century fiction.

"Modern scholars talk about Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels as though they're in a vacuum," she says, "when in fact there are many other works that are very similar to them and each one of those is part of a large genre that has mostly been ignored because we've only focused on those few texts." For Orr, the context became the text.


Leah Orr, a specialist in 18th-century literature, received her Ph.D. from Penn State in May 2013. She can be reached at

Read the story of how C. Alfred Smith in 1863 earned Penn State's first graduate degree -- the first of more than 100,000 master's, doctoral and other advanced degrees the University has awarded in the past 150 years. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 29, 2017