The earliest manifestations of the novel form appeared in seventeenth-century Europe – more in France and Spain, rather than in England – and they were quite significant in the history of the novel, providing, as they did, models for later writers.
In Europe generally, there was a fascination with what we would today call science fiction. Seventeenth-century writers read accounts of explorations of the New World in their newspapers and, inspired by them, put their imaginations to work creating fictional worlds beyond that of the real world they lived in. That was combined with the concerns writers had about their society and they demonstrated their longing for something different by inventing utopian societies. Those utopia were frequently situated on other planets.
by Miguel Cervantes, written in two parts – 1605 & 1615
Don Quixote, or to give it its full title, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by the Spanish writer, Miguel Cervantes, is the most celebrated novel ever written. Cervantes was Shakespeare’s close contemporary, actually dying a day before Shakespeare. The novel was at that time an embryonic form, with brilliant writers taking some small steps that were to lead to a major flowering of the novel in subsequent centuries, and a form that now dominates literature globally, and is still developing.
But Don Quixote, written right at the birth of the form, is a fully formed novel that some say is the best novel ever written. It is like a garden, containing all the seeds of what were to grow into the great nineteenth-century novels and all the innovatory and experimental novels that followed. Not only that but in itself it offers a most delightful, funny, thought-provoking reading experience. The labels critics impose on the various stages of the novel form’s development, such as ‘modernism,’ ‘postmodernism’ and so on, can all be seen in different areas of Cervantes’ text.
The story is very simple, Alonso Quijano is a minor nobleman who is either suffering from dementia or has gone crazy or is pretending to have done, decides to become a knight errant and bring back the age of chivalry, so he sets out on that quest with his neighbour, a farmer, Sancho Panzer, as his squire. What gives the novel its impact is that Alonso Quijano moves around in the real world but interprets every single little thing through the prism of his chivalric fantasies, for example, encountering windmills, seeing them as giants, and tilting at them.
by Sir Francis Bacon, 1626
New Atlantis is a utopian novel in which the philosopher and statesman, Sir Francis Bacon presents his vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge and his hopes for the future of mankind. It’s set in the fictional country, Bensalem, where the qualities of its citizens are “generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendor, piety and public spirit.” The novel was prophetic in that Bensalem’s college, Salomon’s House, predicted modern research universities where both theoretical and applied sciences are researched. The college is at the centre of the book and its teachers, students, and life there, and the work of the institution is depicted in great detail.
El Buscon (History of the life of the Swindler, called Don Pablos, model for hobos and mirror misers, also translated as Paul the Sharper or The Scavenger and The Swindler)
by Francisco Quevedo, 1626
El Bruscon by Spanish writer, Francisco Quevedo, is a sophisticated prose work for its time. The author develops the character and describes the adventures of his protagonist, Don Pablos, writing in the first person singular, which is a fictional technique of modern novels. Pablos’ aims are to achieve virtue and to become a caballero (a gentleman) but fails to do either. Quevedo is an expert in wordplay and interesting verbal flourishes and has unique skills in producing caricatures. The moral of this story is that the children of those lacking in honour or rank will never be able to achieve honour or rank for themselves.
The Man in the Moone
by Francis Godwin, 1638 (published posthumously)
The Man in the Moone is arguably the first novel about space travel. It’s an event-packed adventure story with a space background inspired by the pioneering work of Nicolaus Copernicus and the “new astronomy” that resulted from that. English intellectuals, including the author, Church of England scholar and bishop, Francis Godwin, enthusiastically took up the new way of looking at their universe, and Godwin spun this fiction about the journey of the protagonist and narrator, Domingo Gonzales, to the moon. There is a great deal of scientific speculation in the novel: for example, Godwin’s disagreement with Galileo and his proposal that the dark patches on the moon are seas, more in accordance with the speculation of Kepler about those areas of the moon.
The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon
by Cyrano de Bergerac, 1657
The Other World is one of the three famous satirical novels of French author, Cyrano de Bergerac. The famous “prophet” of science fiction, Arthur C Clarke, considered it to be one of the earliest science fiction stories and credited it with the invention of the ramjet (an airbreathing jet engine) and also with a description of rocket-powered spaceflight. The narrator, also named Cyrano, tries to reach the moon, launching himself by strapping bottles of dew to his body but lands back on earth. All kinds of comedy arise from that. The book influenced several writers, including Swift (Gulliver’s Travels).
The London Jilt; or, the Politick Whore
by Anonymous, about 1660
The London Jilt; Or, the Politick Whore is in the form of a memoir by a London prostitute. In its introduction the author presents the book as a cautionary tale – “set before thee as a Beacon to warn thee of the Shoales and Quick-sands, on which thou wilt of necessity Shipwrack thy All, if thou blindly and wilfully continuest and perseverest in steering that Course of Female Debauchery, which will inevitably prove at length thy utter Destruction.” However, it was extremely popular, not as a cautionary tale but because of its salaciousness. It was a kind of pornography and particularly popular in the American colonies where that kind of literature was enjoyed by Puritan settlers.
The Blazing World
by Margaret Cavendish, 1666
The Blazing World, full title, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, is a 1666 work of prose fiction by the English writer Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. It presents as a novel and indeed, some critics have hailed it as the beginning of the science fiction genre, but it can also be seen as a utopian fiction, which is a more familiar form to the seventeenth-century reader.
The story is set in a fictional utopian kingdom in another world, where the view of the stars is different from what we see from Earth. A young woman is kidnapped and made empress of the blazing world. She gathers wisdom through discussion with the academics and philosophers of the blazing world and becomes a virtual goddess. When the blazing world is invaded she assumes the role of military leader and defeats the invaders.
La Princesse de Cleves
by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne (Madame de La Fayette), 1678
La Princesse de Cleves is a French novel widely regarded as the first of the kind of psychological novels that proliferated during the nineteenth century, with such writers as Jane Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray, Dickens, and so on. It is also an almost fully developed example of the historical novel genre, in which the author recreates an earlier era with remarkable accuracy. The setting is mainly the court of Henry II of France between October 158 and November 1559, and also some other places in France. The characters are fictionalised real historical figures. The novel is very readable in the twenty-first century.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
by John Bunyon, 1687
The Pilgrim’s Progress, the full title being The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, by John Bunyon, is usually called a novel. It is a great work of theological fiction and led the way to the development of the form – theological fiction. Moreover, it is regarded as one of the most significant works of fiction, generally, in the English language, and widely read in its more than 200 translations. It is also regarded by many scholars as the first novel ever written in English, although there may be one or two other candidates.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been enormously influential on writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Louisa May Alcott, Thackeray, the Brontes, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, and Enid Blyton, who wrote a children’s version of it. The story, an allegory, is that of an everyman character’s journey from his home city, the ‘City of Destruction,’ through all kinds of obstacles, to the ‘Celestial City,’ which is heaven.
Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave
by Aphra Behn, 1688
Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn is regarded as one of the first novels in English, written by an author generally described as the mother of British female writers. The protagonist is an African prince who is tricked into slavery and sold to European colonists. The narrator presents the story as a biographical account of the protagonist’s life, outlining his love life, his rebellion and, finally, his execution. One of the things that secured the novel’s long-lived popularity was that it was adapted for the stage in 1695 by Thomas Southerne and ran in the theatre for about fifty years, and then, towards the end of the century, in America.
And that’s our pick of the key seventeenth-century novels. What’s your take – are there any missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.