Cliffhangers have been a staple of serialised fiction for centuries, but the first literal cliffhanger appears in an 1873 novel by Thomas Hardy.
One Thousand and One Nights is built on cliffhangers. Scheherazade keeps the bloodthirsty Shahryār in suspense by stopping each story partway through. She delays her execution for another night so that the ruler can find out what happens next. The cliffhanger, as a literary mechanism, was especially popular in 19th century serialised fiction. But it really found its feet in early 20th century film and radio serials.
The original Lone Ranger serial from 1938, for example, has a cliffhanger at the end of every episode. The very first episode, for example, ends with the Lone Ranger in a gunfight against a swarm of Confederate deserters on horseback:
These are all metaphorical cliffhangers, moments of suspense to keep the viewer / reader / listener coming back. The term “cliffhanger” wasn’t in popular use until 1931. But one serialised novel back in 1873 has a literal cliffhanger, perhaps the first in literary history.
It appears in Thomas Hardy’s 1873 serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. A young woman and her gentleman suitor are taking the air together near a perilous cliff. (The cliff, by the way, is probably a fictionalised version of the Beeny Cliffs in Cornwall, pictured above.) The gentleman loses his hat over the side and descends the cliff in pursuit of it. The grass near the edge is wet and he slips – as does she when she tries to rescue him. The gentleman manages to push her back up, but is himself left hanging on the side of the cliff:
As he slowly slid inch by inch upon these, Knight made a last desperate dash at the lowest tuft of vegetation—the last outlying knot of starved herbage ere the rock appeared in all its bareness. It arrested his further descent. Knight was now literally suspended by his arms; but the incline of the brow being what engineers would call about a quarter in one, it was sufficient to relieve his arms of a portion of his weight, but was very far from offering an adequately flat face to support him.A Pair of Blue Eyes
The woman eventually rescues him in the most Victorian way possible. She removes her copious linen undergarments and ties them into a knotted rope. She pulls her suitor to safety and they embrace (but not kiss! for that would be far too scandalous):
Elfride recovered herself, and gently struggled to be free.
He reluctantly relinquished her, and then surveyed her from crown to toe. She seemed as small as an infant. He perceived whence she had obtained the rope.
‘Elfride, my Elfride!’ he exclaimed in gratified amazement.
‘I must leave you now,’ she said, her face doubling its red, with an expression between gladness and shame.A Pair of Blue Eyes
The two do not end up together at the end of the novel… but to find out why you’ll have to read it yourself.