The use of multiple perspectives has been a feature of the English novel from its earliest days. Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), often considered the first novel in English, itself uses multiple narrators. The first part of the story is told mostly in a series of letters from Pamela to her parents. However, four of those 32 letters are replies from her parents to Pamela. Additionally, between letters 31 and 32, Richardson inserts a section told from an omniscient narrator's point of view:
It is also to be observed, that the messenger of her letters to her father, who so often pretended business that way, was an implement in his master's hands, and employed by him for that purpose; and always gave her letters first to him, and his master used to open and read them, and then send them on; by which means, as he hints to her, (as she observes in her letter XXX) he was no stranger to what she wrote. Thus every way was the poor virgin beset: And the whole will shew the base arts of designing men to gain their wicked ends; and how much it behoves the fair sex to stand upon their guard against artful contrivances, especially when riches and power conspire against innocence and a low estate.
The rest of the novel past Letter 32 consists of Pamela's journal entries. While the bulk of Pamela, then, is told from the limited perspective of the eponymous heroine, the letters from her parents as well as the intrusion of an omniscient narrator at one point shows that multiple perspectives were part of the English novel from its very inception.
Richardson further developed this technique of multiple perspectives in his next novel, Clarissa (1748), which is written as a series of letters between several correspondents. Jane Austen too adopted this epistolary technique in her first novel, Lady Susan (1794?; published 1871).
Austen is, in fact, credited with moving the English novel away from the multiple points of view prevalent in the 18th century to the characteristic third person limited that became the default over the 19th and 20th centuries. John Mullan claims that Austen's 1815 novel Emma
was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.
Only two chapters in Emma are told from points of view other than Emma's own. For the rest of the novel, the reader shares Emma's perspective and her delusions. As Mullan notes, this is a radical innovation in the history of the novel. That we can take it for granted shows how far its success has obscured the English novel's beginnings, where multiple perspectives were the norm.
- Austen, Jane. Emma. 1814. London: Collins, n.d. Archive.org. Accessed March 17, 2021. Archive.org. Accessed March 17, 2021.
- ———. Lady Susan. 1794? In A Memoir of Jane Austen by her Nephew J. E. Austen-Leigh. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1871. Archive.org. Accessed March 17, 2021.
- Mullan, John. "How Jane Austen’s Emma Changed the Face of Fiction." The Guardian December 5, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2021.
- Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa. 1748. London: Dent, 1922. Archive.org. Accessed March 17, 2021.
- ———. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. 1740. Oxford: Bartlett and Newman, 1815. Archive.org. Accessed March 17, 2021.
- Wills, Matthew. "Why the First Novel Created Such a Stir." JStor Daily January 11, 2018. Accessed March 17, 2021.