I already covered the first ever YA Novel a while ago, and was recently wondering which book is classed as the First Novel of any kind in the English language*? How easy is it to pinpoint such a milestone from so long ago? Turns out it depends on what you class as a novel, and there is a lot of argument about it…
So to fit the description, a novel has to be written with the intention to print. It has to be wholly original, not a retelling (which knocks out ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ – pub.1485) and must be of a certain length (so you can scrap novellas). Apparently the old Romance novels and anything allegorical are out (bye-bye, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ – pub.1678).
So what does that leave?
Well, there are two main contenders…
ROBINSON CRUSOE | Daniel Defoe
From this moment I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition that it was possible I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world.From Robinson Crusoe
Everyone has heard of this tale of the adventures (and misadventures) of a sailor, featuring pirates, shipwrecks and cannibals. And that’s amazing in itself because it was first printed as long ago as 1719! It’s become one of the most widely published books in history and is probably the first book of realistic fiction. The author was originally listed as Robinson Crusoe, so people believed it was a personal account.
One of my favourite authors, JG Ballard, wrote a modern version (‘Concrete Island’), where the desert island is cleverly replaced by a concrete one in the middle of a high-speed highway.
BEWARE THE CAT | William Baldwin
He tolde of his adventure in the wood, and when he had tolde them all the Cats message: his Cat which had harkned unto the tale, looked upon him sadly and at the last said. ‘And is Grimmalkin dead then farewel Dame’, & therwith went her way and was never seen after.From ‘Beware of the Cat’
Nowhere near as well known, but much older, this witty, scathing satire on Catholicism has talking cats as the main characters and is thought to even be a shortening of ‘Beware the Catholic’! The plot alludes to witchcraft and religious superstitions, with a female cat called Mouse-Slayer on trial. There was a long delay in printing because famous catholic, Mary Tudor, came to the throne – It was not a great book to publish if you wanted to keep your head!
If you know your British history, Mary Tudor was a heck of long time ago, and ‘Beware of the Cat’ was finally published in 1570, when Elizabeth I was on the throne.
Little known fact: One of the cat characters had the cool name of ‘Grimalkin’ – an archaic term for ‘grey cat’, and Shakespeare named the witches’ cat in Macbeth after Baldwin’s feline.
Here’s a modern retelling of the book from messybeast.com
What do you think?
I am favouring Beware the Cat as the first ever novel in English as it was published a whole 150 years before Robinson Crusoe. At the same time, absolute credit to Daniel Defoe for creating a work that has retained its appeal for centuries… Hats off to you, sir!
*Incidentally, the First Novel ever written in the whole world is thought to be The Tale of Genji, written by a noblewoman named Murasaki Shikibu in Japan in the early eleventh century. More here
Cover Image Credit: Kerttu (Pixabay)
Footer Image: Me
I vote Beware the Cat. I have to admit, though, that I had never heard of it before now.