What Was the First English Novel?

Have you ever thought about how old the novel is as a format? It's probably newer than you would imagine.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read

What Was the First Novel?

I want to share an idea that surprised me the first time I heard it and that seems to surprise a lot of other people when I mention it: the novel as a literary form is relatively new.

Sure, humans have been telling stories since since our earliest days, but depending on the criteria you use, the modern English novel emerged sometime between 250 years ago and 550 years ago. On the older side, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, which was published in 1485, is sometimes called the first English novel. Other people say the first English novel was Don Quixote, published in 1605; Oroonoko, published in 1688; Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719; or Moll Flanders, published in 1722. 

But whichever book you decide was the first novel, the point is that although we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years—the Greek epic poem the Iliad is nearly 3,000 years old, for example—the novel is a relatively new literary form: in Western culture, it goes back only a few hundred years.


“What was the first novel?” Quora website. http://www.quora.com/What-was-the-first-novel (accessed October 30, 2014).

“The Iliad,” Sparknotes website. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/iliad/context.html (accessed October 30, 2014).

Wikipedia contributors, "First novel in English," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=First_novel_in_English&oldid=629392215 (accessed October 30, 2014).

Wikipedia contributors, "Novel," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Novel&oldid=631226644 (accessed October 30, 2014).

Ed. Kroll, R.W.F. “Introduction,” The English Novel, Vol I: 1700 to Fielding. 2013. Routledge: London and New York, http://bit.ly/1DCNGGW (accessed October 30, 2014).

Watt, I.P. “Chapter 1: Realism and the Novel Form,” The Rise of the Novel. 1957. Chatto and Windus: London, http://bit.ly/1tWiKS1 (accessed October 30, 2014).

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.