Novels & Human Rights Part 1: The First Novels

Have I mentioned that novels as a genre helped invent human rights as a legal concept…? Of course I have! I spent last fall researching one of the earliest English novels, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson. My senior thesis was all about how that novel built public empathy, and how that empathy led to human rights. You can find other posts on the topic with the tag Pamela, but until now I haven’t been able to post much real substance from the paper. I’m dividing it into rough sections to post every Friday or Saturday for 6-8 weeks. The content is basically the same as in my big paper, but rearranged and reformulated for blog purposes. I’m super excited to share my project with y’all, and I hope you’ll join me in book-geekery for the next couple months! To read more about Pamela itself and its plot, check out this post.

First up, let’s talk about novelistic origins. Writers invented the novel as a literary form in the first half of the 18th century, during a period of widespread literary experimentation. Previously, stories had been based on traditional forms. They presented moral lessons, retold well-known myths and histories, or followed established The Illustrated Pilgrim's Progress covermodels for genres such as “fables” or medieval “romances.” Critics measured an author’s worth by his mastery of forms and skillful use of language. Narratives generally used allegorical characters and themes, set in generic locations to emphasize a story’s timeless moral instructions. These stories interested people, certainly, but were inherently purposeful, inherently moralistic if only because of their structure. Acting like something is normal, especially permanently normal, is a powerful social force. Eighteenth-century novels continued some of these moralistic elements, but threw traditionalism on it’s head. Novels brought a totally new perspective to the purpose of literature by stressing realistic characters and plots.

Literary historians commonly consider Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) to be the first novel. This is the first point where things get a bit tricky, because in the past (and certainly continuing into the present) the narrative was extremely Eurocentric and quite a bit sexist. There was a lot of circular reasoning in support of a kind of British canon, defining “novel” in such a way that people of color and women wouldn’t be counted, and then patting itself on the back for being the first to write novels. Even then, it’s all about the definition — satires, printed plays, and lowbrow novels of “amorous intrigue” became popular during the same time period, (many written by women), but aren’t counted as novels because they were still “unrealistic” in the way I’ve described. In the modern day, Gulliver’s Travels and Fanny Hill are generally defined as novels, but at the time they fit more into the world of traditional forms.

Eliza Haywood
Eliza Haywood published more than 70 works before 1756.

I just wanted to mention all that here because it doesn’t have much to do with my point, so it’s not really going to come up again. Just be aware that when I’m talking about early novels I’m not saying these were literally the first or, indeed, that they were the best. Much was overlooked at the time, and I think much has probably been lost due to lack of scholarly interest along the way. I can say “18th-century Englishmen should’ve been more inclusive!” until I’m blue in the face, but my whole point is about aspects of this specific novel that everyone loved. Actually Pamela was pretty feminist for its time, but we’ll get to that later.

So anyway. Traditional scholarship focuses on the trend of realism Defoe established, making Crusoe first in 1719 and Pamela second in 1740, because these two authors/books set standards that defined novels as a genre. Robinson Crusoe profiled a specific non-allegorical character, setting events in a concrete landscape and constructing the plot with Crusoe’s actions. Pamela took the concept a step further by delving deeply into one young woman’s inner life and emotions, reacting to reasonably realistic events in painstakingly described surroundings.

We’ll return to the idea of realism, and how it works, in a later post. Robinson Crusoe and Pamela both became bestsellers of their times, and that’s my topic for next week!

12 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 1: The First Novels

  1. Great start, Hannah! I appreciate the nod about how novel was defined in the day – as you know, I would have jumped on that! 😛 But I’m curious what parameters they actually used to define novel. On to the next post!


    1. I think they just didn’t really have parameters. It was a very experimental time in publishing, and it just so happens that what we call a “novel” kind of won out. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Woot!

      When I did my poster presentation at school, in a crowd of academics, two people had heard of Pamela. Both were librarians. So, I take that to mean “Most people haven’t heard of Pamela.” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I thought so too, but I imagine it would be a major challenge for high schoolers to get through, so nobody teaches it in English. I gather from the librarians that they heard about it in specialized history-of-literature sorts of classes, which makes sense. Important in that regard, and important in the human-rights ways I will soon illuminate, but most people know about famous novels from high school. Robinson Crusoe is much shorter and more exciting for that age group, and was first, so ya know.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. As a practicing attorney, I also find this fascinating! Especially in the 19th century when you start to get novels that directly led to changes in American legal principles.


      1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle are the two most obvious examples. The first one turned abolitionism into a broad social movement in the 1850s (during the run-up to the War Between the States) and the second one exposed the lid on horrible, unsanitary working conditions that immigrant employees were subjected to in the meatpacking industry.



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