The 17th-century was a time of upheaval and change in Europe, and this was reflected in the literature of the time.
The best 17th-century writers captured the spirit of the Renaissance, which was still roaring through Europe.
In England the so-called Jacobean era was still in full flame with the plays of some of the greatest writers the world had ever known – still regarded as the greatest of all time – playwrights William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Webster and Thomas Kydd, and the poems of John Donne and the metaphysical poets, with great literature expanding into the second half of the century, now labelled as the Caroline, the Interregnum and the Restoration periods, with poets like John Milton and John Dryden.
The plays and poems were accompanied by a proliferation of prose works with experiments that led to the literary form that is most popular and prevalent in the twenty-first century, the novel.
As a genre, the novel was still in its infancy, but it was beginning to flourish. Ironically, it is one of the earliest European novels, Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes, that has stood the test of time and is widely regarded as the best novel that’s ever been written.
So, who were the best seventeenth-century writers? Here’s our list, perhaps surprisingly made up of some household names:
Madame de La Fayette, 1534 -1693
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, Comtesse de La Fayette published her novels as Madame de La Fayette. She was a French writer, author of one of the earliest novels and France’s first historical novel, La Princesse de Clèves. Literary historians regard La Princesse de Clèves as the first modern novel because of its psychological and historical realism.
It is one of the foundation stones of the French literary canon. She wrote several novels about the aristocratic society of which she was a member She had access to the top of French society, and was the sister-in-law of Louise de La Fayette, one of Louis XIII’s mistresses.
Miguel de Cervantes 1547 – 1616
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language and author of arguably the world’s most iconic novel. The contemporary of the English playwright, William Shakespeare, he is the other major literary genius of the time.
His great 17th century novel Don Quixote, is regarded as both the first modern novel and one of the best novels ever written. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote that Cervantes and Shakespeare lead in a narrative tradition that includes Dante, Homer, Joyce, Dickens, and Tolstoy.
John Lyly, 1553 – 1606
John Lyly was England’s first great fiction writer, the most successful of his time, the equivalent of the “best selling” novelist of today. He was also a theatre impresario, pamphleteer and politician.
His prose has a clarity that makes it easier to understand now than any of his contemporaries. And its humour is unaffected by the passage of time. Virtually unknown, now, he was one of the most famous men in England during his lifetime. His most successful books are two that are still read: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and a sequel to it, Euphues and His England.
Thomas Nashe, 1567–1601
Thomas Nashe was a friend of William Shakespeare, collaborating with him on some of the King’s Men plays but he was more interested in writing social commentary in prose. He was a prolific pamphleteer on religious and political matters but best known for his novel, The Unfortunate Traveller and a near-novel, the fictionalised pamphlet, Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell, a satire, 1592, a best-selling pamphlet, translated into French two years later, and also became a best-seller in France.
Nashe’s satires are particularly sharp and biting. His pamphlets defending the Church of England still have resonance in modern discourse
Cyrano de Bergerac, 1619–1655
Cyrano de Bergerac is often thought of as a fictional character which, in a sense he was, because of the celebrated play, Cyrano de Bergerac, by seventeenth-century dramatist, Edmond Rostand, which he based on Bergerac’s life.
Bergerac is also famous in popular culture as one of the three musketeers, D’Artagnan, due to his appearance in Alexandre Dumas’ best-selling novel. He also has the reputation of being an unparalleled swordsman and having a huge nose, which the writer himself described as preceding him by a quarter of an hour.
In real life, he was an innovative writer at the centre of the libertine literature that was a major literary phenomenon in France during the first half of the seventeenth century. His novels are infected with the seeds of science fiction which only began to blossom in the late nineteenth century.
The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662 is one of the earliest depictions of space flight, an expedition to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers. The moon people have four legs and guns that not only shoot game but cook it as they shoot, and use earrings that transmit knowledge into children’s ears without the need for teachers (essentially a twenty-first century idea!)
John Bunyan 1628–1688
John Bunyan produced scores of texts, most of which were expanded sermons and autobiographies, but he also wrote novels, such as The Holy War, but it is The Pilgrim’s Progress that made his name indelible in the charts of literary history. The novel has had a patchy history: highly successful when it first appeared, only to fall from favour soon after, but surging with the advent of Romanticism in the nineteenth century.
After another pause it rose again during the Victorian evangelical revival, becoming the Victorians’ favourite novel, only to fall again with the growing secularism of the twentieth century. Now, in the twenty-first century, there is strong academic interest in the novel. There is a long list of writers who were influenced by The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Enid Blyton even wrote a children’s version of it.
Aphra Behn, 1640–1689
Aphra Behn was one of the first English professional writers, producing a large portfolio of plays, poems and prose works during her career. She stands as a major role model for the women writers who came after her, not only as a writer but as a woman who shattered cultural barriers – making the first steps in the later gender revolution.
Although Aphra Behn’s novels are generally ignored these days there is one, Oroonoko, that is considered worthy of permanent inclusion in the literary canon. It’s thought of as the earliest abolitionist novel in the English language and anticipates Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s Discources on Inequality.
Daniel Defoe, 1660–1731
Daniel Defoe was an English journalist, pamphleteer, novelist and trader. He was also a spy. His name will live forever as the author of the novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719) which has been translated into more languages than any book other than the Bible.
He is credited with more than 540 titles, which include poems, novels and political and religious pamphlets. His most important legacy is his popularizing of the novel as a form, the example of his novels encouraging the writers of the eighteenth century and beyond.
Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745
Jonathan Swift was a satirist, essayist, poet, and cleric who rose in the Irish Anglican church, to the position of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. He is the author of the famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the title shortened from the title he gave it: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships.
Equally famous is his satirical pamphlet, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick in which he advocated the eating of poor children by the rich as a solution to the problem of child poverty. Needless to say, he came in for a heap of criticism for that.
Alain-René Lesage, 1668 – 1737
Alain-René Lesage was a French novelist, best known as a novelist for his picaresque novel Gil Blas de Santillane, his comic novel The Devil upon Two Sticks, and his play, a comedy,Turcaret.
He was a forerunner of the professional writers who, like Shakespeare, appeared from almost nowhere socially, started writing and developed into someone who made his living by writing, rather than dropping into it by using high level contacts, working hard at it and becoming a best selling novelist and playwright.