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Novels, Society and History

Novel is a modern form of literature born from print, a mechanical invention. The novel first took a firm root in England and France. The readership of novels grew and the market for books expanded and earnings of authors increased.

The writers had the freedom to experiment with different literary styles. Henry Fielding, a novelist claimed that he was ‘the founder of a new province of writing’ where he could make his own laws. Walter Scott collected popular Scottish ballads. The ‘epistolary novel’ used the private and personal form of letters to tell its story. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela written in the eighteenth century told much of its story through an exchange of letters between two lovers.

The Publishing Market

Initially, the novels were sold at high prices. Technological improvements in printing brought down the prices of books and innovations in marketing led to expanded sales. The novels were popular because of the absorbing and believable world created by them for the readers.

In 1836, a notable event took place when Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers was serialised in a magazine. Serialisation allowed readers to relish the suspense, discuss the characters of a novel and live for weeks with their stories like viewers of television soaps today.

The World of the Novel

In the nineteenth century, novels were based on the conditions of the workers in Europe due to the Industrial Revolution. Hard Times written by Charles Dickens in 1854 describes Coketown, a fictitious industrial town, as a grim place full of machinery, smoking chimneys, rivers polluted purple and buildings that all looked the same. The workers were known as ‘hands’ as if they had no identity other than as operators of machines. His other novel Oliver Twist described the tale of a poor orphan who lived in a world of petty criminals and beggars. Emile Zola’s Germinal is based on a young miner in France and the condition of miners’ lives.

Community and Society

Most of the people in cities were attracted to the stories of rural communities. For instance, Thomas Hardy wrote about traditional, fast-vanishing rural communities of England in his book Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886.

The novels used vernacular language that was spoken by common people. The novel produced sense of a shared world between diverse people in a nation and it brought many cultures together.

The New Woman

Women got more leisure to read as well as to write novels. Many novels were about domestic life, where women were allowed to speak with authority. They wrote out of experience about family life and earned public recognition. Few women writers were Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) wrote Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.

Novels for the Young

The novels for the young were based on adventure set in places remote from Europe. Books such as R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book became great hits. G.A. Henty’s historical adventure novels for boys brought out grand historical events, some military action and show known as ‘English’ courage.
Love stories such as Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson and What Katy Did by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (under pen name Susan Coolidge) were written for adolescent girls and they became popular especially in the US.

Colonialism Novels

The early novels contributed to colonialism by making the readers feel that they were part of a superior community of fellow colonists. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Joseph Conrad’s writings depicted a clear picture of colonisation. Robinson Crusoe is depicted as an adventurer and a slave trader whereas Joseph Conrad talks about the darker side of the colonial rule.

The Novels in India

Writing prose is not something new to India. There has been a long tradition of writing prose such as Banabhatta’s Kadambari in Sanskrit, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra, etc. However, these works were not considered as novels. The modern novel form was developed in India during the nineteenth century. Novels were written in vernacular languages such as Bengali and Marathi.
The earliest novel in Marathi was Baba Padmanji’s Yamuna Paryatan (1857), Lakshman Moreshwar Halbe’s Muktamala (1861), etc. Indian novelists wrote to develop a modern literature of the country that produced a sense of nationalistic aspirations.

In South India, early novels developed with a view to translating the English novels to Indian languages. For instance, O. Chandu Menon from Malabar tried to translate an English novel Henrietta Temple written by Benjamin Disraeli into Malayalam. But he realised that Indians were not accustomed to the English characters and the way they lived. Later, he wrote novels like Indulekha (1889). This was the first modern novel in Malayalam.

In Andhra Pradesh, Kandukuri Viresalingam began translating Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield into Telugu. He abandoned this plan just like O. Chandumenon. He wrote an original Telugu novel called Rajashekhara Caritamu in 1878.

In Hindi, Bharatendu Harishchandra translated novels from other languages, even English novels were translated. The first proper modern novel titled Pariksha Guru was written by Srinivas Das of Delhi. Devaki Nandan Khatri created a novel-reading public in Hindi. His best seller was Chandrakanta. Under Premchand, the Hindi novel achieved excellence. He first wrote in Urdu and later shifted to Hindi. His important work was Sewasadan.

In Bengal, the old merchant elite of Calcutta patronised public forms of entertainment such as Kabirlarai (poetry contests), musical soirees and dance performances. The popular Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote his first novel Durgeshnandini (1865).

During colonial period, the colonial administrators found ‘vernacular’ novels a valuable source of information on the native life and customs. Some of the books were translated into English, often by British administrators or Christian missionaries.

Novels became a powerful medium to criticise the defects in the society and also suggest remedies. Novels also helped in establishing a relationship with the past. Through glorified accounts of the past, these novels helped in creating a sense of national pride among the readers.

Women and the Novel

Indian women also began writing. In the early decades of the twentieth century, women in south India began writing novels and short stories. Rokeya Hossein (1880–1932) was a reformer who, as a widow, started a girl’s school in Calcutta. She wrote a satiric fantasy in English called Sultana’s Dream (1905) and Padmarag.

The first novel in Bengal was Hannah Mullens’, a Christian missionary, Karuna O Phulmonir Bibaran (1852), which was written by her in secret.

Caste Practices—Lower Castes and Minorities

The lower castes with western education opted to write about their problems and also oppression by the upper caste people. Potheri Kunjambu, a lower caste writer from Kerala, wrote a novel called Saraswativijayam in 1892. In Bengal, Advaita MallaBurman’s Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1956) is an epic about the Mallas, a community of fisher folk lives.
In the Muslim communities, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer is a renowned novelist in Malayalam. He wrote short novels and stories in ordinary language with humour. He dealt with poverty, insanity and life in prisons in his novels.

The Nation and Its History

Novels provided a solution for writing about historical characters to uphold the culture of India and also counter-attack the biased history written by the British about India. In Bengal, many historical novels were written about the Marathas and the Rajputs. These novels produced a sense of a pan-Indian belonging. They imagined the nation to be full of adventure, heroism, romance and sacrifice––qualities that could not be found in the offices and streets of the nineteenth century world.

Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay’s Anguriya Binimoy (1857) was the first historical novel written in Bengal. Another novel was Bankim’s Anandamath (1882).

Premchand was a famous writer who picks characters from various strata of the society. His characters created a community based on democratic values. His novels were Rangbhoomi and Godan, published in 1936 and they are Premchand’s best known work. Godan is an epic of the Indian peasantry.

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