Many of the novels of Rhoda Broughton are narrated in the present tense, and the earliest of these is Red as a Rose is She (1870):
Half-an-hour passes, and Mr. Brandon is still in the “parlour.” It is seven o’clock, and dinner-time. Would you like to know what it is that Mr. Brandon takes so long in saying, and whether it is anything likely to reconcile Miss Craven to the loss of her dinner? A little room that looks towards the sun-setting; a little room full of evening sunshine and the smell of tea-roses; a light paper, with small, bright flower-bunches on the walls; white muslin curtains; a general air of crisp freshness, as of a room that there are no climbing, crawling, sticky-fingered children to crumple and rumple. A young woman, rather red in the face, standing in one corner. She has been driven thither apparently by a young man, who is standing before her, and who is still redder. At a rough calculation, you would say that the young man was seven feet high; but put him with his back against the wall, with his heels together, and his chin in, and you will find that he is exactly six feet four; that is, four inches taller than any man who wishes to do work in the world, and find horses to carry him, ought to be.
I’ll give some precursors to show that this didn’t come out of nowhere. In Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens, the narration switches back and forth between first-person past tense (the Esther Summerson chapters), and third-person present tense, so that about half of the book is in the present tense:
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
In Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, the last few pages switch to the present tense:
I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully is he is mine.
It is not a novel, but The French Revolution: a History (1837) by Thomas Carlyle uses novelistic technique, and is narrated mainly in the present tense:
The drums are beating: “Silence!” he cries ‘in a terrible voice.’ He mounts the scaffold, not without delay; he is in puce coat, breeches of grey, white stockings. He strips off the coat; stands disclosed in a sleeve-waistcoat of white flannel. The Executioners approach to bind him: he spurns, resists; Abbé Edgeworth has to remind him how the Saviour, in whom men trust, submitted to be bound. His hands are tied, his head bare; the fatal moment is come. He advances to the edge of the Scaffold, ‘his face very red,’ and says: “Frenchmen, I die innocent: it is from the Scaffold and near appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies; I desire that France—”
Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833) also has substantial parts in the present tense, namely the musings of the fictional editor. In this respect it is similar to Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704) and to John Lyly’s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578). But these works are in the form of philosophical discursions, or parodies thereof, and do not much resemble the modern novel.