We were all told the same myth: “when Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe in 1719, he invented the English novel.” But that easy story obscures many women writers who helped invent the novel.
Think of Aphra Behn. She wrote and published Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave in 1688. It tells how Oroonoko, an African King, is tricked into slavery and sold in Surinam. Her text carries the length, realism, and psychological depth we recognize as a novel. It was published 31 years before Robinson Crusoe.
Multiple 17th century aristocratic women wrote wonderful poetry and romances. They did not need to publish for income, so their works hardly left their parlor rooms.
On the other hand, Behn came from a middle class background and depended on publishing for a living. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf spotlights her career as a turning point in women’s liberation history. Behn was ‘a woman forced [...] to make a living by her wits. She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on.’ And her economic liberty reinvented women’s role in society: ‘Here begins the freedom of the mind, or rather the possibility that in the course of time the mind will be free to write what it likes. For now that Aphra Behn had done it, girls could go to their parents and say, You need not give me an allowance; I can make money by my pen.’ The birth of the novel is often also seen as the birth of the publishing professional writer, and Behn was ahead of the game.
Several other 1700s professional women writers took part in the long rise of the novel. Eliza Haywood’s mysterious Fantomina (1725) and her amatory Love in Excess (1719) were ferociously read across the English realm. Charlotte Lennox’s parodical The Female Quixote (1752) was admired by famous novelists like Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.
Looking forward, one finally arrives at Jane Austen. She showed that the inner lives of characters were enough to write imaginative books. A novel does not need a fantastical shipwreck or a kidnapped maiden. Austen bends and eddies her narrative flow around the Dashwood’s interior world. Characters’ thoughts were opportunities for imagination: ‘Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.’
Was Robinson Crusoe the first English novel? The question is up for debate. And many women writers prove convincing opponents: Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Austen, and more.