Before the emergence of the novel in the 17th century, there were two popular forms of fiction; the romance, and the picaresque. Both genres originated on the continent. Romances, such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615) usually took as their heroes members of the nobility acting within fantasy settings. The picaresque was altogether more “low brow,” featuring rogues, cheats, and criminals. Its incorporation into the body of English literature was marked with the publication of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665).
n.b. The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.
Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.
The preface begins in the following manner:
Had I not more respect to my Countries good in general, than any private interest of mine own, I should not have introduc’d my Friend upon the common Theatre of the World, to act the part of a Rogue in the Publick view of all. Rogue! Did I call him? I should recal that word, since his Actions were attended more with Witty Conceits, then Life-Destroying Stratagems. It is confest, the whole bent of his mind tended to little else than Exorbitancy; and Necessity frequently compelled him to perpetrate Villainy; And no wonder, since he lived in the most infectious Air of the worst of most Licentious Times.
This novel is to be a moral warning against the dangers of sin and vice; the title page is emblazoned with the words: READ BUT DON’T PRACTICE! Readers were, like readers of the later 18th-century novel, supposed to be both imporved and entertained.
Head’s “novel” (although we shouldn’t really call it this, since the novel didn’t properly emerge until the 18th century) spawned many imitators. But it could only have emerged in England during the 17th century. Hal Gladfelder argues that the proliferation of English rogue fiction in this period was a response to the collapse of feudalism and old social structures in the face of an emerging, capitalist world order.
This the reason why English rogue fiction, across the board, features the following:
- A protagonist (and first person narrator) whose social position is marginal and who views events from the position of an outsider.
- An episodic structure, usually organised around a succession of journeys and chance encounters;
- A satirical presentation of diverse social levels and milieus.
- A lingering over scenes of brutality, trickery and humiliation, and the exposure of pretence.
- A protagonist struggling to survive.
All of these features are common to English picaresque and rogue fiction. Latroon progresses through the narrative from a professional beggar and a thief into a fraudster, forger, and finally a highwayman.
In the eighteenth century, picaresque fiction would give way to the genre of criminal biography, and, later, the English novel; unlike the romance, the novel, like criminal biography and picaresque fiction before it, told stories of real life, and portrayed characters whom readers might recognise in their daily life.
The most obvious successor to Richard Head is Daniel Defoe, who used stories of criminals in his novels, Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), and Colonel Jack (1722). In time novels became more, to use an 18th-century expression, “polite.” Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s (very dull) Pamela (1740) featured protagonists who were not criminals but merely who were trying to make their way in the world.
Henry Fielding would emulate both the picaresque and polite types of fiction in Joseph Andrews (1742), and The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743)
Thus English picaresque, or rogue fiction, contributed directly to the English novel.
This is not to say, however, that the market for stories of criminals waned as the novel grew to pre-eminence; serials such as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Select Trials, and The Newgate Calendar; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches, remained popular throughout the century, along with the trade in Last Dying Speeches.
Later on in the nineteenth century, a series of novels would take Britain by storm, which were given the epithet The Newgate Novel – a distant descendant of Head’s original English Rogue. Among its titles were several which I’ve already written about:
This is in addition to the proliferation of penny dreadfuls such as:
- The Mysteries of London
- The Mysteries of Paris
- The New Newgate Calendar
- Sweeney Todd
- Jack Rann
- Charley Wag
Thus Spain, from whence picaresque fiction originated, is responsible for the development of the genre of crime fiction.
Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge UP, 1987).
Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in the Eighteenth Century: Beyond the Law (John Hopkins UP, 2001).