The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia is one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous works and his only novel. Styled as a parable or essay as much as a novel (it has been referred to, at times, as a “moral fable,” a “philosophical romance,” and a “satirical apologue”), it was published in 1759 and was immensely popular from the first.
Johnson wrote the novel in order to make money, especially to cover his mother’s funeral expenses. It is said that he wrote it during the evening hours, although the exact process of the composition of the novel is unknown. Scholars dispute just how long it took to compose, and whether or not the idea germinated long before the writing of the text. It came at the end of a very prolific decade for Johnson, as he wrote notable essays on English prose in the publication The Rambler, as well as comprised a series of essays entitled The Idler (1758-1760), in which he addressed contemporary issues such as imprisonment for debt.
A letter to his publisher reveals that the working title for a time was The Choice of Life. It was released in two volumes, as was common at the time. He earned one hundred pounds from the publisher for the manuscript.
Johnson scholar Thomas Keymer notes the novel’s singularity of style: “with its emphatic periodic sentence structures and its sonorous literary cadences, Johnson’s prose style was more or less inimitable, and the range and rigor of his lexical choices… were unlike anything else in prose fiction at the time.”
The novel’s foreign setting, quick pace, and remarkable plot points attracted contemporary readers. The vogue for “Oriental” stories led Johnson to translate Jeremiah Lobo’s A Voyage to Abissinia in 1735, giving him a familiarity with the lands he would explore in his novel.
Within the first year Rasselas saw three London editions and a Dublin reprint. In the next five years translations were released in Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Russian. Robert Bell published the American edition in 1768. As Johnson was known to be a staunch opponent of slavery, many American slaves took the name of “Rasselas” for themselves.
Rasselas and the Rambler essays, taken together, cemented Johnson’s reputation. Even without his other numerous works, these writings established his preeminence as a critic and writer. Notable English writers, including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and C.S. Lewis referred to the novel in their own works.