Why the English novel is no longer English

Today’s English literature reflects ethnic diversity and it’s not just the current fashion.

Zadie Smith's book was a heartening promise that Britain really was a melting pot for different races, writes Williams [EPA]

In early April, the Baileys Prize shortlist for fiction by women was announced. Although it is a UK-based prize, there are no authors who are sole citizens of the UK on the shortlist: Donna Tartt is American, Hannah Kent is Australian, Audrey Magee and Eimear McBride are Irish, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from Nigeria and Jhumpa Lahiri holds both US and British citizenships.

Recently, the UK’s major fiction prize, the Man Booker, changed its remit to include authors from all over the world. And readers of UK books are from across the world, thanks to online ordering and ebooks. The barriers which complicate ordering ebooks from different countries will probably come down in future years – resulting in a truly international readership.

All this is a very good thing: The readers of books from the UK might have been born and live in India, Saudi Arabia, Russia or anywhere else in the world. And their authors are drawn from all the cultures who have come to Britain. In the Victorian era, when Britain ruled a quarter of the world’s population, the English novel was accepted as the pre-eminent form – Charles Dickens and George Eliot held up as examples to the world. The British novel was sent all over the globe and baffled readers in hotter climes as they ploughed through lengthy descriptions of English tea parties.

Now, Britain’s Empire is crumbled – and the country has been changed for the better by the immigration of peoples from across the world. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth burst onto the scene in 2000, a multi-cultural epic about North London, full of humour and friendship between different ethnic groups. Featuring two main characters, Archie Jones and Samed Iqbal – a Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh – who met in 1945 after World War II, Smith’s brilliant book was a heartening promise that Britain really was a melting pot for different races.

Some of our best novels of the late 20th and early 21st century have charted the experience of our immigrants – such as Andrea Levy’s prize-winning Small Island, about the experience of young Jamaicans in London around World War II.

Despite what the Victorian authors said, the novel as a form has never been just English.

This isn’t literary fashion of the moment; it’s the reflection of a changing Britain, one in which more than 10 percent of the population are from ethnic minorities. In a recent speech to mark the state visit of the president of the Irish Republic to Britain, the queen spoke of how Britain had been “hugely enriched” by the immigration of the Irish to Britain. The same could be said of all those who came from Uganda, Kenya, India, Pakistan, the European Union – and from other parts of the world.

Novelists reflect that – JK Rowling’s recent picture of a typical English country town in her 2012 adult debut, The Casual Vacancy, featured mother and daughter Parvinder and Sukhvinder Jawanda. Parvinder, a doctor, is fully a part of local English life – she is on the Parish Council and her daughter is on the school rowing team.

The first novel

Despite what the Victorian authors said, the novel as a form has never been just English. A lot of writing on the novel form sticks to the European versions – but the first novel was not English nor even European, but probably Japanese: Murasaki Shikibu or Lady Murasaki‘s early 11th century epic, Tale of Genji. Murasaki, a high-ranking lady-in-waiting, probably wrote chapters to amuse her fellow aristocratic women at court.

Her tale of a handsome court prince romancing his way through the Heian court is a masterpiece – and a precursor of the “rake’s progress” novels of the 18th century (except Genji is a nice guy, really). Almost astonishing to the modern day reader is how Murasaki keeps track of hundreds of characters, who remain consistent and age correctly. It is useful that she was so careful – for the book is near impossible to read without a glossary of names since, at the time, calling someone by a name was uncouth and tied up in complex class structures, so Genji’s lovers receive all kind of appellations, based on anything from their position at court to the colour of their dress.

By modern standards, Genji would certainly be a daring novel – since the main character is killed off about two thirds of the way through. There is no plot as such – events roll along and characters grow older rather than “develop” or change in what we’d see as a modern character arc. It also lacks a proper end because Murasaki died, although some scholars argue she would have just kept writing forever. But still for many – and for me – it is the first novel.

Scholars often say the first novels were written in the mid 18th century by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa (the longest novel in English at a million words) is a masterpiece of psychological investigation as it tracks through letters between the characters, the abduction, sexual assault and finally death of its heroine, Clarissa. And yet all the celebrated 18th century novels – Pamela, Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe – might have been beaten to it as investigations of the human psyche by the lengthy Chinese novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone.

Cao Xuequin probably wrote his sprawling family saga in the 1740s – he died in 1768, leaving it nearly complete. Scholars talk of the Four Great Novels in Chinese – although it is really five if one lets in the super-risque seventeenth-century Plum in the Golden Vase. (Plum gives E L James’s best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey a run for its money with over 70 explicit sex scenes (phew!)). The best known of the Four is probably the 800,000-word 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a great romance of feudal lords beloved across China.

But Xuequin wins hands down for me – because it’s a novel about character and it lays bare the thought processes of its many characters. The youthful boy it follows is a proto-Tom Jones as written by Fielding, cheeky, fond of women – desperately in love with the delicate aristocratic girl but, unlike Tom, he doesn’t get the girl he wants. And the novel shows the decline of a great family – rather than, as Tom Jones, the old aristocracy being renewed by an outsider down on his luck.

From Pride and Prejudice to Great Expectations, some of the best novels have been English, but exploring lives over time or investigating the human psyche, is a world possession – not just that of England. Without books like Genji or Story of the Stone, world literature would be much the poorer. In his historical writing course for graduates at Columbia University, Simon Schama asks his students as a first exercise to write another chapter from Tolstoys War and Peace. The writers of novels come from all over the world – and so do their readers.

Kate Williams is an author, historian and broadcaster on history, culture and the arts. She has written four history books and one novel. Her second novel, Storms of War, the first of a trilogy about a family from 1914 to 1939, will be out in July.