In the anthology Shorter Novels: Elizabethan, first published in 1929, George Saintsbury writes in the introduction that the English novel had something like a false start in the Elizabethan era and that eras of great theatre did not coincide with eras of great novel writing.

He goes on to write (links and emphasis added by me),

Even later than the Restoration, things in themselves first-rate, the performances of Bunyan, Defoe, and Swift, were in the first and last cases especially, ‘side-shows’—as it were in fiction—allegories—a great word, which one might almost translate ‘side-show’ in one of its senses. (...) The ‘strong contagion’ of world-exploring which showed itself mainly in Defoe, had minor symptoms such as that curious Isle of Pines of Nevile's which the Continent, if not England, also took for history. Head's and other people's disreputable English Rogue, putting its disreputableness aside, is an attempt at a novel, and though a long one is made of short things put together: and when we come to the great quartet of the mid-eighteenth century we seem to have stumbled into competence never quite to stumble out of it again, (...).

My question is who Saintsbury has in mind when he refers to "the great quartet of the mid-eighteenth century". Daniel Defoe had died in 1731 and Jonathan Swift in 1745. Other names worth mentioning are Samuel Richardson (1689 – 1761), Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754), Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768), Tobias Smollet (1721 – 1771) and Oliver Goldsmith (1728 – 1774). I doubt that Saintsbury was thinking of Samuel Johnson; Johnson's Rasselas is usually described as a novella. I also doubt he was thinking of Frances Brooke or John Cleland.

The problem with making a choice is that literary tastes and critical appreciation have changed since the interwar period, so any attempt to answer this question needs to look at sources from the interwar period instead of simply looking at present-day appraisals.

3 Answers 3


The idea of a quartet of pre-eminent mid-18th century English novelists was popularized by George Moir, whose essay on ‘Modern Romance and Novel’ appeared in the seventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica:

Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, are the four great novelists of this period (the reign of George II.) which was pre-eminently the age of novel-writing in England. For though we should indeed be sorry to undervalue the merits of Goldsmith, or the charm of his Vicar of Wakefield, we cannot quite rank the powers displayed in that delightful little tale, which appeared in 1763, so highly as the varied invention displayed by the writers we have named, upon the broader canvas which they selected.

George Moir (1839). ‘Modern Romance and Novel’. In Treatises on Poetry, Modern Romance, and Rhetoric: being the articles under those heads, contributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica, seventh edition, p. 186. Spelling modernized.

Similar wording appeared in subsequent editions of the Encyclopædia, for example, the eleventh edition has:

These four great writers then, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne—all of them great pessimists in comparison with the benignant philosophers of a later fiction—first thoroughly fertilized this important field.

Thomas Seccombe (1911). ‘English Literature’. Encyclopædia Britannica (eleventh edition), volume 9, p. 633.

Critics soon took up the quartet:

Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, worked on at the mine which Defoe had opened.

Thomas Arnold (1862). A Manual of English Literature, p. 190. London: Longman.

Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, not only laid the vast foundations, but raised thereon the noble structures, of an art new to the literature of our country.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1863). Caxtoniana, volume II, p. 268. Edinburgh: Blackwood

By the 20th century, the quartet was sufficiently orthodox, that Saintsbury could title a chapter of The English Novel (1913) ‘The Four Wheels of the Novel Wain’ and feel no need to explain his metaphor.


Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, according to his The English Novel of 1913. His chapter 2 ends with the line

That this was due to the work of the four great novelists who fill its central third and will fill our next chapter cannot perhaps be said: that their work was the first great desertion of it may be said safely.

and chapter 3 begins

It does not enter into the plan, because it would be entirely inconsistent with the scale, of the present book to give details of the lives of the novelists, except when they have something special to do with the subject, or when (as in the case of a few minorities who happen to be of some importance) even well-informed readers are likely to be quite ignorant about them. Accounts, in all degrees of scale and competence, of the lives of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne abound.

and goes on for the rest of the chapter about these authors. Towards the end of chapter 2 he writes "One cannot conveniently rank Swift with the great quartette of the next chapter" and uses the phrase "great quartette" similarly elsewhere: six times in all.

  • Unfortunately, I can't access Project Gutenberg; it is blocked in Germany (or rather, Project Gutenberg blocks German IP addresses).
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 13, 2019 at 15:31
  • @ChristopheStrobbe I'm sorry to learn this. I can access a Hathi Trust scan at babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/… . Jun 13, 2019 at 15:38
  • Thanks, I have found it by now.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 13, 2019 at 15:55

As it happens, George Saintsbury wrote A Short History of English Literature, published in 1910. In the table of contents, the chapter on the eighteenth-century novel is described as follows:

Richardson—Fielding—Smollett—Sterne—Minor novelists—Walpole—Beckford—Mrs. Radcliffe—Lewis

Horace Walpole (1717 – 1797) is best known for the Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto; William Beckford (1760 – 1844), best known for the Gothic novel Vathek, was born too late to be included in "great quartet of the mid-eighteenth century". Anne Radcliffe (1764 – 1823) and Matthew Lewis (1775 – 1818), two other authors of Gothic novels, were also born too late to be included. The minor novelists include authors such as Francis Coventry, Charles Johnstone, William Dodd (Dr. Dodd, also nicknamed the "Macaroni Parson"), Thomas Amory, Henry Brooke and a few authors that I have never heard of.

Unless George Saintsbury changed his opinion between 1910 and 1929, the "great quartet" consists of Samuel Richardson (1689 – 1761), Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754), Tobias Smollet (1721 – 1771) and Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768).

Oliver Goldsmith's work is treated in the next chapter on "Johnson, Goldsmith, and the later essayists". Saintsbury was more impressed by Goldsmith's essays than by his novels; he does not say so explicitly, but it seems to be implied by the very brief discussion of the author's prose style compared to the longer discussion of the essays.

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