300th Anniversary of English Novel to be Marked

This year is the 300th anniversary of the English novel–at least if one will accept Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to be the first example, as seems to generally be the case. It was published on 25 April 1719. Other contenders are the same author’s Moll Flanders (1722) or looking the other direction John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688). Earlier this year, plans to celebrate this milestone were announced by the BBC as well as the British Library and other literary institutions. Details are now available in a nationwide literary festival denominated  “Novels That Shaped Our World.”

The first event will be at the British Library next Friday at 1300-1415p. This will convene a panel of 7 in the BL’s Knowledge Centre on Euston Road, WC2. Participating will be:

…Stig Abell, Syima Aslam, Juno Dawson, Mariella Frostrup, Alexander McCall Smith, Kit de Waal and Jo Whiley. […] This panel of writers, journalists and thinkers have selected 100 novels that have shaped their world. Chaired by BBC Radio 2’s Jo Whiley, writers Alexander McCall Smith, Kit de Waal and Juno Dawson along with broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, editor of the TLS Stig Abell and Bradford Literature Festival Director Syima Aslam reveal their choices. This event will be live streamed via BBC iPlayer and local libraries via the Living Knowledge Network.

For more details on booking and broadcast as well as other participating libraries see this link.

The next day (Saturday, 9 November, at 2145p) BBC Two will begin the broadcast of a TV series that will consist of three weekly one-hour episodes:

The series looks at how the novel changed the world. Using three unique and surprising perspectives – empire, women’s voices and class experience – these films reveal how, across 300 years, the novel has been at the heart of debate about society, and has often spearheaded social change. Novels That Shaped Our World will reflect on how the power of the novel in English effected change here and abroad through the 19th and 20th centuries. With key moments from novels brought to life with dramatic performances and readings, British and International novelists will talk about the novels that have meant most to them, as the series follows the story of how the novel has reflected our historic social struggles and been instrumental in effecting change.

The first episode (“Women’s Voices”) is also described in the same notice:

Episode one discusses the story of women and the novel – both as characters and authors. With Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale capturing global audiences, the programme will show how the plight of women is a theme that reaches right back to the earliest novels. From Richardson’s Pamela to Austen, the Brontës through to Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, and to the post-war publishing boom where a new generation of global writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker have continued to speak out for women to a new generation of readers.

For more details see this link.

Meanwhile, BBC History Magazine has somewhat stolen a march on these proceedings by announcing its own choices of “6 novels that captured life in Britain.” Here is their explanation: “As a BBC Two series marks the 300th birthday of the English language novel, we ask six leading authors and academics to pick the works of fiction they feel have best captured life in Britain and its empire since 1719.”

One of the six novels selected by the History Magazine panel is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This was the choice by panel member and author James Holland who explained his selection in this month’s issue of the magazine:

Although only part of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is set during the Second World War, it was written between December 1943 and June 1944, while the author was recovering from a parachute accident. Waugh served in the army during the conflict, including a stint with the Commandos, with whom he saw action at the battle of Crete in 1941.

Despite his reputation as a brilliant comic novelist, Brideshead is a wistful and rather mournful piece, narrated by Charles Ryder, an artist. One night during the war, Ryder arrives at a new army camp, only to discover that he has come to the grounds of a country house he knows very well: Brideshead, the home of the aristocratic Flyte family. This prompts him to reflect on his relationship with the family – first with Sebastian, the eccentric and tragic son; then Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom Charles had an intense affair in the years leading up to the war.

Waugh’s recovery from the parachute accident required only two weeks at the beginning of the period indicated. The the period from February to June was covered by leave granted by the Army for the specific purpose of writing the book. Other novels on the magazine’s list (spread roughly over the 300 years of the English novel’s existence) are Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding, Mary Barton (1848) by Elizabeth Gaskell, Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling, Mr Britling Sees it Through (1916) by H G Wells and The Lowlife (1963) by Alexander Baron.

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