“‘Oh! it is only a novel! . . . only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda:’ or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Depending on how you define them, the first novels were written as long ago as the 15th century. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in the early 1600s, and Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Pamela–early books in English–were published in the first half of the 18th century. It was for Jane Austen, however, in 1818, to explain what sets the novel apart.
Fiction itself, of course, allows the author to tell his story outside the bounds of factual truth which is essential to a “thorough knowledge of human nature.” Similarly, a character’s thoughts, not just his actions, can be known in a novel, leading to a greater understanding of who he really is. A novelist creates characters of all varieties and outlooks, witty, humorous and otherwise.
“The best chosen language” binds them all together because, first of all, a novel is a story. Before the novel, most stories were passed on by word of mouth, or newspapers or other mediums unconcerned about the words that were used. The story was all that mattered. Some poetry told its tale in beautiful language that was outside the ken of ordinary readers. The novel uses prose that can be understood, on some level, by everyone who reads, but it’s no less beautiful for that.
In Miss Austen’s time, the novel was not yet fully accepted as a legitimate expression of the literary art. Novels, especially by female novelists, were the “guilty pleasures” of those who read them, most often women. That’s why, in the quote above, her character uses several sarcastic “onlys.” Jane Austen’s work was popular when she lived, but her reputation today far exceeds what it was 200 years ago. That’s a paean to great literature and a great novelist.