The Greatest Debuts of All Time – According to US!
Every once in a blue moon a debut novel will come along and change the literary landscape. These rare beasts represent turning points; the result of what has preceded them and indefinitely affecting what comes after. They engage, interact, reflect and often challenge their literary inheritance and leave a lasting legacy. So, in our debuts issue we take a look at four such mighty novels, from one of the earliest examples of the novel, to the first of its genre, those tackling taboo subjects and ones experimenting with form.
The Birth of the Novel…
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Although no stranger to the pen, Robinson Crusoe was the first novel written by Daniel Defoe and one of the first novels written in English, with many claiming that this tale of survival is the first. Although, interestingly, it would not have been defined as a novel, instead being known as a ‘history’, as the term novel, which first began to be used in the mid-seventeenth century, was associated with romances and tales of illicit love. Despite the prominence of the novel currently, until the eighteenth-century, prose, or text without structured syllable count, was perceived as inferior, with poetry the highest form, be that epic poems the likes of John Milton’s Paradise Lost or the often rhymed and metred lines of the great bard Shakespeare. Prose was often used as shorthand to portray those of a lower class within literature, with all the connotations of class prejudice that went along with it – an inability to master the skill and refinement of poetry. However, change was coming. Despite the misconception that Robinson Crusoe is the first novel, there were a number of narratives in prose that preceded Defoe’s, with earlier possibilities including Aphra Behn’s Oronooko (1688) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
Whilst there are various contributing factors as to why Robinson Crusoe has endured as the supposed debut novel, including the troubling loss of recognition of the work of female writers throughout history, it is also undoubtedly caused in part by the incredible popularity of it. First published on the 25th of April 1719, this hugely successful story ran through four editions by the end of the year and has continued to prove popular ever since. The tale of the eponymous Crusoe’s survival on an island after being shipwrecked, in part inspired by the real events of Alexander Selkirk’s shipwreck, captured readers’ attention instantly and has inspired writers throughout the centuries, with the likes of Jonathon Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wilkie Collins all responding to it. Part of the power of this novel rests in the language Defoe chose to write it in, being from a lower class than those who wrote ‘polite’ literature and without a classical education, Defoe used everyday language and drew on his experiences as a tradesman. The resulting text spoke to readers to whom much of the preceding literature was previously inaccessible or difficult – the emerging middle classes. With developments in print and a growing audience with the funds to purchase books, the novel with its accessible language soared in popularity. This, coupled with the book’s exploration of nationhood and identity where Crusoe is representative of Britain, presented as the cultivated civilisation and the island the colony, spoke to his readership and their ideology of what an Englishman was. However, over the centuries the way in which this influential novel is read has changed, with it increasingly been examined through the lens of postcolonialism,
where Crusoe, once the hero of the tale, is instead perceived as, in the words of James Joyce, the “prototype of the British colonist”.
The Awakening of a Monster & a Genre…
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Our next mighty debut comes from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley with the iconic Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, nee Godwin, had an illustrious lineage as the daughter of, in her own words, “two persons of distinguished literary celebrity” – the political philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft the radical thinker and pioneering feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She had an unconventional upbringing with a detailed education, with her father eager that she be brought up, in his own words, “as a philosopher”. Despite her love of writing stories as a child, it, took the influence of her infamous husband, the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to encourage and push her to write her debut novel. In 1816 the Shelleys travelled to Lake Geneva to spend the summer with Lord Byron and John Polidori. The summer proved to be ill-tempered, with the group often confined to the house due to poor weather. On one such rain-streaked day, Byron proposed they all write a ghost story but Mary Shelley was unable to think of one. Over the coming days each morning she was asked if she had constructed one and each time she drew a blank. During this period she was also privy to the philosophical discussions between Byron and Percy Shelley on the nature of life and recent scientific experiments to better understand it and whether a corpse might be able to be reanimated. That night the tale of Frankenstein played out violently in Mary Shelley’s mind and she knew she had her tale to terrify. With the help of Percy Shelley, she expanded the vision into the novel we have today and printed
it in 1818, when she was just nineteen years old. It has never been out of print since, with her iconic monstrous creature capturing the minds of readers since it was first published.
This profound novel is also potentially the first of its genre: science-fiction. With elements of gothic and an epistolary form, this novel responds to the fast-paced explosion of scientific development and questions the ethics of such quests for knowledge. Although a cautionary tale of the unknown consequences of scientific exploration, this novel is so much more than the Hammer Horror monster it is often known for. Mary Shelley questions what it is to be human and what it is to be monstrous, with the creature (who is not called Frankenstein, as he is often inaccurately known as) given the central section of the novel, the heart of the piece, where we learn of his pain, his loneliness and his desire for communion. It is the tale of a monster who is monstrous because of his isolation. Mary Shelley gives him a voice, which in turn humanises him and engenders a degree of sympathy. Yet the legacy of this pioneering and thoughtful exploration of what it means to be human has sadly been reduced to a largely mute horrendous monster. Perhaps this revolutionary nineteenth-century novel remains too forward thinking for us, even now.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Despite having had a number of poems and collections published throughout her lifetime, with her first poem published at just eight years old, The Bell Jar was Sylvia Plath’s first, and tragically only, novel. Written rapidly in 1961,
The Bell Jar was first published in the UK in 1963, only a month before Plath ended her own life in her London flat aged only 30. The novel is a fictionalised autobiography focused on 1953 and her time in New York during the prestigious internship at a prominent magazine and subsequent mental illness and treatment. The blurring of autobiography and fiction and Plath’s tragic death has often led to the text being read biographically but to do so can limit the power of it. Plath uses her own traumatic experiences, illness and personal story to discuss and explore wider questions on how we perceive and treat mental illness, how you live with it, as well as the effects of gender, especially being a woman within a stifling, patriarchal environment.
Despite the scope of this novel, she writes with a brutal honesty and succinctness. The first lines of the novel read: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of electrocution makes me sick…” With so few words she foreshadows the themes of this now-classic novel. The hints to electrocution foreshadow her own electroshock treatment and loss of self to illness questioning identity, while the reference to the Rosenbergs and the claustrophobic heat of the summer reveal the oppressive McCarthyism and need for conformity. This is the novel come full circle where a poet writes prose with the attention and care of words as if it were a poem. Each word is steeped in meaning and written with a beautiful bluntness. She writes about the little-understood and often taboo experience of mental illness and the horrendous practices used to ‘treat’, it including electroshock and insulin therapy, beginning a desperately needed conversation and encouraging understanding. Esther Greenwood, the protagonist, explains, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” The bell jar has been read as both Plath’s mental illness as well as her gendered identity, where to be a woman is to be an object, to be looked at, to be trapped and unable to progress. It is a novel of questions and no answers, all delivered with a searing and terrifying honesty. Since published it has become a modern classic, a keystone text in the feminist canon and in discussions on mental health.
Shocking and Experimental…
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Our final, and perhaps most controversial, pick is the divisive debut novel Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. First released in 1993, this shocking postmodern tale of the chaotic lives of drug users and addicts in Leith, Edinburgh, in the 1980’s was met with polarised reviews and has continued to divide opinion since. Just as Defoe, Shelley and Plath all drew from their own lives and experiences so too does Welsh synthesise his own background and cultural landscape. Welsh was born in Leith and grew up in a housing scheme, leaving school at 16 to apprentice as an electrical engineer before relocating to London, gravitating to the punk scene. A string of arrests for petty thefts and a suspended sentence seem to have triggered a re-evaluation of his life and the route it seemed to be taking. Returning to Edinburgh in the 1980’s, Welsh worked for the city council in the housing department and studied at Heriot-Watt University. Whilst Defoe’s novel spoke to the emerging middle classes, Trainspotting is a narrative driven by the working classes and the most desperate and vulnerable within it trapped in destructive cycles of addiction. It is shocking and sensationalist with explicit descriptions of drug use, sex and violence, yet this is also what makes the novel so poignant.
The non-linear narrative, use of multiple narrators and stream of consciousness portrays the chaotic lives being led by addicts. However, just as Plath not only details the reality of mental illness but explores the stifling culture that can exacerbate it, so too does Welsh not only portray drug use but examines the cultural malaise contributing to the apathy and alienation felt by young people with few opportunities in the 1980’s. Renton, the protagonist of the novel, eloquently sums up the this dissatisfaction in the now infamous monologue ‘Choose Life’. Riffing off the anti-drug campaigns of the 80’s he asserts “ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars…Choose life. Well, ah choose no tae choose life.” These signifiers of wealth and success are both a distant, largely unreachable dream to Renton living in poverty in the housing schemes and an unsatisfactory goal. Welsh critiques and interrogates the materialism of the 1980’s and portrays the ever-widening gaps between those with and without. The use of Scots dialect spelt phonetically also challenges the hierarchies within literature and the power dynamic between England and Scotland. It is not an easy novel to read, it forces the reader to adopt a Scottish accent internally in order to understand the text and the content is shocking and disturbing, but, underneath the sensationalism and headline-grabbing shock value, lurks a masterful questioning of hierarchies, class, consumerism, language and power. Despite being rejected from the 1993 Man Booker shortlist for offending two of the judges, this novel has become a cult classic, aided by the exceptional film by Danny Boyle in 1996. It remains forward thinking to this day with its experimental form and content and hard-hitting exploration of class.
All four of these exceptional debut novels have engaged with and interrogated the cultural landscape they are a product of; from Defoe’s championing of the everyday language of the middle classes and portrait of English identity to Shelley’s questioning of the coming age of science and our humanity, Plath’s portrayal of mental illness and the effects of gender and Welsh’s exploration of drug use and class in the age of consumerism, each author’s debut novel has had an indelible effect. Who knows what is to come next…
Syd Bird – NB99