A novel sequence is a set or series of novels which share common themes, characters, or settings, but where each novel has its own title and free-standing storyline, and can thus be read independently or out of sequence.
There is no useful, formal demarcation between novel sequences and multi-part novels. Novels that are related may or may not fall into a clear sequence. It is also debatable whether a trilogy is long enough and whether its parts are discrete enough to qualify as a novel sequence.
For example, the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope are only loosely related, although they contain a recurring cast of characters; his political novels about the Pallisers have a tighter connection and dynamic. A strict definition might exclude both.
The novel sequence was a product of the nineteenth century, with James Fenimore Cooper's works appearing in the 1820s, and Anthony Trollope's Barchester books in the 1850s. In French literature, Honoré de Balzac's ambitious La Comédie humaine, a set of nearly 100 novels, novellas and short stories with some recurring characters, started to come together during the 1830s. Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle is a family saga, a format that later became a popular fictional form, going beyond the conventional three-volume novel.
The roman-fleuve (French, literally "river-novel") refers to an extended sequence of novels of which the whole acts as a commentary for a society or an epoch, and which continually deals with a central character, community or a saga within a family. The river metaphor implies a steady, broad dynamic lending itself to a perspective. Each volume makes up a complete novel by itself, but the entire cycle exhibits unifying characteristics.
The metaphor of the roman-fleuve was coined by Romain Rolland to describe his 10 volume cycle Jean-Christophe, in the preface to the seventh volume, Dans la maison, ([In] The House), published in 1908/1909, where he writes:
- When you see a man, do you ask yourself whether he is a novel or a poem? [...] Jean-Christophe has always seemed to me to flow like a river; I have said as much from the first pages.
The term has subsequently been applied to other French novel sequences, particularly of the interwar period and the 1930s, notably:
- Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (1908–22)
- Georges Duhamel, Vie et aventures de Salavin (1920–32) and Chronique des Pasquier (1933–45)
- Roger Martin du Gard, The Thibaults (1922–40)
- Jules Romains, Les Hommes de bonne volonté (1932–47)
- Louis Aragon, Cycle du monde réel (1933–51)
- Jacques Chardonne, Les Destinées sentimentales (1934–36)
The 19th-century predecessors, as noted above, may be distinguished as being rather "family sagas", as their stories are from the perspective of a single family, rather than society as a whole.
In the twentieth century Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu came to be regarded by many as a definitive roman fleuve. Today, however, its seven volumes are generally considered to be a single novel. In some serious sense, it escapes classification.
Proust's work was immensely influential, particularly on British novelists of the middle of the twentieth century who did not favour modernism. Some of those follow the example of Anthony Powell, a Proust disciple, but consciously adapting the technique to depict social change, rather than change in high society. This was a step beyond the realist novels of Arnold Bennett (the Clayhanger books) or John Galsworthy.
Contemporary pressures and novel sequences
A novel sequence usually contains story arcs or themes that cross over several books, rather than simply sharing one or more characters. Sequences of genre fiction are not generally considered romans-fleuve; the Aubrey–Maturin series of Patrick O'Brian might qualify, and possibly the Vorkosigan Series of Lois McMaster Bujold.
Novel sequences, though, are now most common in genre fiction, particularly in science fiction and epic fantasy. The introduction of the preconstructed novel sequence is often attributed to E. E. Doc Smith, with his Lensman books. Such sequences, from contemporary authors, tend to be more clearly defined than earlier examples. Authors are now more likely to announce an overall series title, or write in round numbers such as 12 volumes. These characteristics are not those of the classical model forms, and become more like the 'franchises' of the film industry.
The types instead begin to fill out a concentric model like
- trilogy < sequence < 'saga' grouping (single author) < shared universe < genre.
Examples from literary fiction
- Louis Aragon's Cycle du Monde Réel
- A. S. Byatt's "Frederica Potter" quartet
- Jacques Chardonne's Les Destinées sentimentales
- James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales
- Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and other sequences
- C. S. Forester's "Horatio Hornblower" series
- John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga
- Doris Lessing's Children of Vuiolence
- Roger Martin du Gard's Les Thibault
- Yukio Mishima's The Sea of Fertility tetralogy.
- Benito Pérez Galdós's Episodios nacionales
- Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time
- Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage
- Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe
- Philip Roth's "Zuckerman" novels
- Paul Scott's Raj Quartet
- C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers
- Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire and Palliser novels
- John Updike's "Rabbit Angstrom" books
- Henry Williamson's Chronicles of Ancient Sunlight
- A. N. Wilson's Lampitt Papers
- Richard Zimler's Sephardic Cycle, a series of four historical novels that includes The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
- Naguib Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy
- Felber, Lynette (1995). Gender and Genre in Novels Without End: The British Roman-fleuve. University Press of Florida. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-8130-1402-9.
- Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. "In Search of Marcel Proust". The Observer, 17 November 2002.
- Powell was an anti-modernist modernist, according to Christopher Hitchens; see Unacknowledged Legislation (2000) p. 197, Powell's Way, first published in the New York Review of Books 28 May 1998.
- Prawer, Siegbert Salomon (2009). A Cultural Citizen of the World: Sigmund Freud's Knowledge and Use of British and American Writings. MHRA. p. 105. ISBN 978-1-906540-42-5.
- Scanlan, Margaret (14 July 2014). Traces of Another Time: History and Politics in Postwar British Fiction. Princeton University Press. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-4008-6093-7.