When “English” first became the subject of academic enquiry, rather than the preserve of essayists, literary reviewers and belle-lettrists, the first order of business was to introduce some rigour into a field regarded as impressionistic and subjective. Initially, this meant philology and bibliography: Anglo-Saxon verb formations; medieval manuscript transmission; textual analysis of variant editions. Then, simultaneously, in very different conditions and countries, “scientism” became the prevailing ideology. It manifested itself as Russian Formalism (Osip Brik famously wrote that even if Pushkin had never existed Eugene Onegin would have been written, just as America would be discovered even if Columbus had never existed); as the “New Criticism” of Wimsatt and Beardsley, denouncing the affective and intentional fallacies; and as the Structuralism of Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Propp and Foucault. Scientism even influenced Literary History. On one hand, it led critics to think they ought to be able to predict the next trends in literature; on the other, it led to an almost archaeological investigation into origins, ancestors and emergence. Literary History has always been interested in aetiology – Thomas Warton, the 18th century poet laureate wrote a history where he claimed that “romance” began in Arabic literature and spread as far as Scandinavia, pronouncing that “dragons are a sure sign of orientalism”. Under scientism, an evolutionary model of literature developed.
One question bedevilled this Darwinian model of genres: what was the first novel? Was there a difference between “prose romances” such as the Aethiopica of Heliodorus, the Morte d’Athur of Malory and the Decameron of Boccaccio and the novel proper? Marxists found the origins of the novel in popular chapbooks; feminists found it in the works of Aphra Behn and Madame de Lafayette; comparative literature specialists warned that we shouldn’t be Eurocentric and look at Murasaki Shikibu, Luo Guanzhong, ibn Tufail and the Book of Esther. Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, J G Lockhart, gave one of the earliest and most intelligent analyses of the rise of the novel. In the preface to his novel Valerius he posed the question “Why did the Romans not write a novel?” He discussed the life of the poet Horace, pointing out that he had many of the supposed prerequisites for being a novelist (he knew the highest and lowest echelons of Roman society; he had lived through war and peace, poverty and comfort; he wrote poems about love, myth and contemporary society; and crucially, he was magnanimous and sophisticated enough to befriend and be befriended by former political opponents). What Horace, and Rome, lacked was the printing press and mass literacy. Lockhart identified the novel as a visitor from the Gutenberg Galaxy.
The question of the “first novel” is in many ways meaningless. Categories in literature are not fixed and there is not literary DNA test that can definitively determine poetic fish from novelistic fowl. But I do have an answer: having been asked the question often enough, I felt I ought to have some response I’m content with. With a nod to scientism, I call it the Fibonacci Proposition.
The first novel was Don Quixote Part Two by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It is not Don Quixote Part One. Let me explain. The Fibonacci Sequence, where each new term is the sum of the previous two, runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on. The initial stammer in the sequence – the repetition of “one” – represents the prehistory of the novel. That’s where we put Rabelais, Apuleius, Till Eulenspiegel and even writers like Fénelon who post-date Don Quixote Part Two. It’s even where Don Quixote Part One sits. But the crucial point is that in Don Quixote Part Two, the Don and Sancho Panza read the spurious version of Don Quixote Part Two which had appeared. (It’s sometimes attributed to Cervantes’ rival Avellaneda, an odd hoax or forgery or pseudo-work). In Part One, they had read romances, gestes, chivalric poems and even poetic works by Cervantes. But in Part Two, they read a novel. That’s the “two” in the sequence: it depends on what has gone before. Don Quixote Part Two is the first novel because it is the first novel in which the characters read a novel.