The novel

 The major novelists


 Such ambitious debates on society and human nature ran parallel with the
 explorations of a literary form finding new popularity with a large audience, the novel.
 Defoe, for example, fascinated by any intellectual wrangling, was always willing (amid
 a career of unwearying activity) to publish his own views on the matter currently in
 question, be it economic, metaphysical, educational, or legal. His lasting distinction,
 though earned in other fields of writing than the disputative, is constantly underpinned
 by the generous range of his curiosity. Only someone of his catholic interests could
 have sustained, for instance, the superb Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain
 (1724-27), a vivid, county-by-county review and celebration of the state of the nation.
 He brought the same diversity of enthusiasms into play in writing his novels. The first
 of these, Robinson Crusoe (1719), an immediate success at home and on the
 Continent, is a unique fictional blending of the traditions of Puritan spiritual
 autobiography with an insistent scrutiny of the nature of man as social creature and an
 extraordinary ability to invent a sustaining modern myth. A Journal of the Plague Year
 (1722) displays enticing powers of self-projection into a situation of which Defoe can
 only have had experience through the narrations of others, and both Moll Flanders
 (1722) and Roxana (1724) lure the reader into puzzling relationships with narrators the
 degree of whose own self-awareness is repeatedly and provocatively placed in doubt.


 The enthusiasm prompted by Defoe's best novels demonstrated the growing
 readership for innovative prose narrative. Samuel Richardson, a prosperous London
 printer, was the next major author to respond to the challenge. His Pamela: or, Virtue
 Rewarded (1740, with a less happy sequel in 1741), using (like all Richardson's novels)
 the epistolary form, tells a story of an employer's attempted seduction of a young
 servant woman, her subsequent victimization, and her eventual reward in virtuous
 marriage with the penitent exploiter. Its moral tone is self-consciously rigorous and
 proved highly controversial. Its main strength lies in the resourceful, sometimes
 comically vivid imagining of the moment-by-moment fluctuations of the heroine's
 consciousness as she faces her ordeal. Pamela herself is the sole letter writer, and the
 technical limitations are strongly felt, though Richardson's ingenuity works hard to
 mitigate them. But Pamela's frank speaking about the abuses of masculine and gentry
 power sounds the skeptical note more radically developed in Richardson's masterpiece,
 Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady (1747-48), which has a just claim to being
 considered the most reverberant and moving tragic fiction in the English novel
 tradition. Clarissa uses multiple narrators and develops a profoundly suggestive
 interplay of opposed voices. At its centre is the taxing soul debate and eventually
 mortal combat between the aggressive, brilliantly improvisatorial libertine Lovelace and
 the beleaguered Clarissa, maltreated and abandoned by her family but abiding sternly
 loyal to her own inner sense of probity. The tragic consummation that grows from this
 involves an astonishingly ruthless testing of the psychological natures of the two
 leading characters. After such intensities, Richardson's final novel, The History of Sir
 Charles Grandison (1753-54), is perhaps inevitably a less ambitious, cooler work, but its
 blending of serious moral discussion and a comic ending ensured it an influence on his
 successors, especially Jane Austen.


 Henry Fielding turned to novel writing after a successful period as a dramatist, during
 which his most popular work had been in burlesque forms. His entry into prose fiction
 was also in that mode. An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), a
 travesty of Richardson's Pamela, transforms the latter's heroine into a predatory
 fortune hunter who cold-bloodedly lures her booby master into matrimony. Fielding
 continued his quarrel with Richardson in The History of the Adventures of Joseph
 Andrews (1742), which also uses Pamela as a starting point but which, developing a
 momentum of its own, soon outgrows any narrow parodic intent. His hostility to
 Richardson's sexual ethic notwithstanding, Fielding was happy to build, with a calm
 and smiling sophistication, on the growing respect for the novel to which his
 antagonist had so substantially contributed. In Joseph Andrews and The History of Tom
 Jones, a Foundling (1749) Fielding openly brought to bear upon his chosen form a
 battery of devices from more traditionally reputable modes (including epic poetry,
 painting, and the drama). This is accompanied by a flamboyant development of
 authorial presence. Fielding the narrator buttonholes the reader repeatedly, airs
 critical and ethical questions for the reader's delectation, and urbanely discusses the
 artifice upon which his fiction depends. In the deeply original Tom Jones especially, this
 assists in developing a distinctive atmosphere of self-confident magnanimity and
 candid optimism. His fiction, however, can also cope with a darker range of experience.
 The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), for instance, uses a mock-heroic idiom to
 explore a derisive parallel between the criminal underworld and England's political
 elite, and Amelia (1751) probes with sombre precision images of captivity and
 situations of taxing moral paradox.


 Tobias Smollett had no desire to rival Fielding as a formal innovator, and his novels
 consequently tend to be rather ragged assemblings of disparate incidents. But,
 although uneven in performance, all of them include extended passages of real force
 and idiosyncracy. His freest writing is expended on grotesque portraiture in which the
 human is reduced to fiercely energetic automatism. Smollett can also be a stunning
 reporter of the contemporary scene, whether the subject be a naval battle or the
 gathering of the decrepit at a spa. His touch is least happy when, complying too facilely
 with the gathering cult of sensibility, he indulges in rote-learned displays of
 emotionalism and good-heartedness. His most sustainedly invigorating work can
 perhaps be found in The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of
 Peregrine Pickle (1751), and (an altogether more interesting encounter with the dialects
 of sensibility) The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).


 An experiment of a radical and seminal kind is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy
 (1759-67), which, drawing on a tradition of learned wit from Erasmus and Rabelais to
 Burton and Swift, provides a brilliant comic critique of the progress of the English novel
 to date. The focus of attention is shifted from the fortunes of the hero himself to the
 nature of his family, environment, and heredity, and dealings within that family offer
 repeated images of human unrelatedness and disconnection. Tristram, the narrator, is
 isolated in his own privacy and doubts how much, if anything, he can know certainly
 even about himself. Sterne is explicit about the influence of Lockean psychology on his
 writing, and the book, fascinated with the fictive energies of the imagination, is filled
 with characters reinventing or mythologizing the conditions of their own lives. It also
 draws zestful stimulus from a concern with the limitations of language, both verbal and
 visual, and teases an intricate drama out of Tristram's imagining of, and playing to, the
 reader's likely responses. Sterne's Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)
 similarly defies conventional expectations of what a travel book might be. An
 apparently random collection of scattered experiences, it mingles affecting vignettes
 with episodes in a heartier, comic mode, but coherence of imagination is secured by
 the delicate insistence with which Sterne ponders how the impulses of sentimental and
 erotic feeling are psychologically interdependent.