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3 Tips for Reading Early English Novels

While we do begin to get a semblance of English novels in the late seventeenth century, the early English novel tradition really hits it stride the eighteenth century, and it is likely you’ve heard of some of the titles: Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe, Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.

If you’re new to this era of literature, know that you can’t expect the neatly packaged stories we get in modern paperbacks. Action is slow and the narration style can be rambling (although not stream-of-consciousness bad!). Themes often revolve around adventure or, oddly swinging the other way, how women should behave in society (known as conduct literature). Often an epistolary style is used—using letters or diaries to tell the story—which can seem stilted and repetitive, although it does give you easy points to put down the book. And punctuation, capitalization, and quotation marks all seem random.

But don’t let this discourage you from picking up one of these novels! Clarissa is probably one of the longest novels I have ever read at over 1,500 pages, but it is a story that has stayed with me. If you’re looking to dip your toe into this era, I would recommend one of Defoe’s novels, Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders (1722), as they are shorter.

And here are three tips to help you overcome some of the common obstacles when reading these novels:

1. Random capitalization is common and is chosen by the author to create an emphasis on ‘important’ words. That’s right: capitalization won’t be consistent one book to the next, it will depend on what the author believes the reader should pay attention to. Know that you’re reading eye will get used to this!

2. The lack of quotation marks might be frustrating at first, but these writers are generally good with using speech tags (for example: he said, she said). Keep in mind the tag may be before someone says something or after. Writers of this era will usually also use commas to introduce the speech tag.

3. Spelling is generally pretty good, but you’ll get words here and there that aren’t clear. It is usually writers stumbling over common spelling. You may even see somethings spelt differently in the same novel. For example, Samuel Richardson uses “sauce-box” and “sawce-box” (an amazing term no matter how it is presented!) just sentences apart. These strange words will be spelt phonetically, so when in doubt try saying it out loud! For example, “cloathes” for clothes or “curcheed” for curtsied.

If you are interested in reading more classic novels, and want more guidance like this post, check out the schedule for our upcoming bookish discussions—we do a classic novel every month!

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