Who Was the First Novelist in English? What Was the First Novel?

Great question.

My usual answer to the first question is Daniel Defoe, and my typical answer to the second question is Moll Flanders (1722).

Defoe seems to be correct, though a better answer to #2 would be Robinson Crusoe, which predated by Moll Flanders by a whole three years (1719).

Interesting that about a century goes by between the end of Shakespearean drama, which one would have thought would have spurred something as great as the novel, until the first real novel. What happened in between. More plays, I think. Poetry, Milton, etc. Tons of religious nuttiness, lots of kings and queens, the usual early civilizationist grapplings.. The colonization of the Americas. Lots of stuff. But no novels. Funny, that.

Anyone who has an earlier English novelist or novel please speak up.

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10 thoughts on “Who Was the First Novelist in English? What Was the First Novel?”

  1. Daniel Defoe’s house (long since demolished), was situated not a quarter mile from where I am now sitting (Mitcham, south London).

  2. I always heard that Moll Flanders was first. Was Crusoe written first but Flanders published first? What a good idea though! And what a good start for the novel. I can’t see Robinson Crusoe going out of fashion for a long time.

  3. I don’t have an earlier English novelist, but there are many European examples–and they begin right around the time of Shakespeare. The first novel, considering the rubric of what a novel is, antedates Shakespeare with “La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes” and then there’s Rabelais’ “Gargantua et Pantagruel” and finally Cervantes’ “Don Quijote” when the form is already well underway. Not earlier than Defoe, but right afterward came two of my favorite English novels, two brilliant, vastly different, and extraordinarily inventive novels, “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy”.

  4. It all comes down to the linguae francae Robert. If you mean the first conventional novel then any of the above candidates are fine — although, really, even the conventional novel could be traced back further — but many of what were labelled romances or sagas in ye really olden times are for all intents and purposes novels, and these stretch back thousands of years. Have a gander at Steve Moore’s stupendous and compulsively readable The Novel: An Alternative History for an in-depth consideration of just this very thing. And I couldn’t agree more with anacreone — Swift and Sterne are to this day delightful. Cheers!

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