I am still reading Jane Smiley's 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL. I'm making slow progress because it's been a busy week, and the book, at almost 600 pages, is not very portable. It is extremely interesting however, particularly for someone like me, who has never studied English Literature.
The chapter I just finished, 'The Origins of the Novel', gave a sweeping historical summary of the form going from Giovanni Boccaccio's fourteenth century DECAMERON (in which ten people who have decamped outside Florence to avoid the plague tell each other 100 stories) through Marguerite de Navrre's sixteenth century
HEPTAMERON (inspired by the DECAMERON and ten more characters tell each other seventy stories while escaping flooding in the Pyrenees), then Cervantes's version of seventeenth century Spain, DON QUIXOTE, which also included an exploration of the inner as well as the outer life of the protagonist, and Madame LaFayette's THE PRINCESS OF CLEVES, just slightly later.
Then came the career of Daniel Defoe from the late seventeenth to early eighteenth century who made the revolutionary step of using a first person narrative, for example in ROBINSON CRUSOE, and had 'morally problematic' protagonists, which in turn encouraged Samuel Richardson to write the epistolary novel PAMELA and Henry Fielding, in reaction to the politics in Richardson's work, to write several works including TOM JONES. This included a commentary which linked the story to classical models and hence made the form respectable as well as fun.
The chapter concludes with another eighteenth century novel: TRISTAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne which extends the idea of exploring the inner life of a character with his characters as eccentric and unique.
I suppose after that the scene was set for people like Jane Austin and the Brontës - which is where readers like me come in. I've never read any of these early works, and one day, I hope, I shall - just as soon as I've got through the rest of my pile of modern novels.