It was the autumn of 1977 and the purpose of the exercise was unclear to a student in the first term of his A-level studies. A timeline of the history of the novel, it was to show where Jane Austen fitted in our study of English Literature. (It would have been preferable if she had not fitted at all, Emma is the single most boring novel in the history of the English Language, if not in the history of civilisation).
Oddly, some of the titles from the timeline remain in the memory. There were Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and a novel by Dickens at the end of the line. It might have been Hard Times, but that might have been a title retrojected to express the mood of the lessons. The line began in an odd place with Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. A rustic seventeen year old might not have known very much, but he did know that Cervantes was definitely not an English writer (had Jane Austen written in Spanish, she might have been more interesting).
A web search tells that Don Quixote was the first modern novel. The Castilian Cervantes could not have imagined that he would one day centuries later be remembered by students against whose country he had once help organize andarmada.
The timeline was an introduction to the notion of there being a “canon” of English Literature, the idea that certain works were seminal and that certain works were representative of styles and developments and watersheds.
In retrospect, it seems strange that the line that was taught ended with Dickens. If the second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615 and Our Mutual Friend was published in 1865, then the canon only covered two-hundred and fifty years. Surely, by 1977, there would have been some agreement about which works stood in the canonical tradition?
Perhaps there would have been disagreement about the more recent period, but no-one would have disputed the right of writers such as John Steinbeck and F.Scott Fitzgerald to be recognized as significant (and even the seventeen year old boy who grew up a few miles from the college knew that the Irishman James Joyce must be acknowledged).
But what if the timeline were to be written now? What if it were to be expected to cover four centuries of the novel? Who would be included? Is reading now so diverse that there could be no consensus?
Perhaps a timeline would have many familiar names – and perhaps some that were not so familiar.