18th C Summary
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18th Century Intro and Summary

The period between 1660 and 1785 was a time of amazing expansion for England — or for "Great Britain," as the nation came to be called after an Act of Union in 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales. Britain became a world power, an empire on which the sun never set. But it also changed internally. The world seemed different in 1785. A sense of new, expanding possibilities — as well as modern problems — transformed the daily life of the British people, and offered them fresh ways of thinking about their relations to nature and to each other. Hence literature had to adapt to circumstances for which there was no precedent. The topics in this Restoration and Eighteenth Century section of Norton Topics Online review crucial departures from the past — alterations that have helped to shape our own world.

One lasting change was a shift in population from the country to the town. "A Day in Eighteenth-Century London" shows the variety of diversions available to city-dwellers. At the same time, it reveals how far the life of the city, where every daily newspaper brought new sources of interest, had moved from traditional values. Formerly the tastes of the court had dominated the arts. In the film Shakespeare in Love, when Queen Elizabeth's nod decides by itself the issue of what can be allowed on the stage, the exaggeration reflects an underlying truth: the monarch stands for the nation. But the eighteenth century witnessed a turn from palaces to pleasure gardens that were open to anyone with the price of admission. New standards of taste were set by what the people of London wanted, and art joined with commerce to satisfy those desires. Artist William Hogarth made his living not, as earlier painters had done, through portraits of royal and noble patrons, but by selling his prints to a large and appreciative public. London itself — its beauty and horror, its ever-changing moods — became a favorite subject of writers.

The sense that everything was changing was also sparked by a revolution in science. In earlier periods, the universe had often seemed a small place, less than six thousand years old, where a single sun moved about the earth, the center of the cosmos. Now time and space exploded, the microscope and telescope opened new fields of vision, and the "plurality of worlds," as this topic is called, became a doctrine endlessly repeated. The authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy was broken; their systems could not explain what Galileo and Kepler saw in the heavens or what Hooke and Leeuwenhoek saw in the eye of a fly. As discoveries multiplied, it became clear that the moderns knew things of which the ancients had been ignorant. This challenge to received opinion was thrilling as well as disturbing. In Paradise Lost, Book 8, the angel Raphael warns Adam to think about what concerns him, not to dream about other worlds. Yet, despite the warning voiced by Milton through Raphael, many later writers found the new science inspiring. It gave them new images to conjure with and new possibilities of fact and fiction to explore.

Meanwhile, other explorers roamed the earth, where they discovered hitherto unknown countries and ways of life. These encounters with other peoples often proved vicious. The trade and conquests that made European powers like Spain and Portugal immensely rich also brought the scourge of racism and colonial exploitation. In the eighteenth century, Britain's expansion into an empire was fueled by slavery and the slave trade, a source of profit that belied the national self-image as a haven of liberty and turned British people against one another. Rising prosperity at home had been built on inhumanity across the seas. This topic, "Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain," looks at the experiences of African slaves as well as at British reactions to their suffering and cries for freedom. At the end of the eighteenth century, as many writers joined the abolitionist campaign, a new humanitarian ideal was forged. The modern world invented by the eighteenth century brought suffering along with progress. We still live with its legacies today.

Notes:

                The Restoration and the eighteenth century brought vast changes to the island of Great Britain, which became a single nation after 1707.

                The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought hope to a divided nation, but no political settlement could be stable until religious issues had been resolved.

                The long reign of George III (1760-1820) saw both the emergence of Britain as a colonial power and the cry for a new social order based on liberty and radical reform. 

                The widespread devotion to direct observation of experience established empiricism, as employed by John Locke, as the dominant intellectual attitude of the age.

                Publishing boomed in eighteenth-century Britain, in part because of a loosening of legal restraints on printing. 

                The literature appearing between 1660 and 1785 divides conveniently into three lesser periods of about forty years each.

Summaries

The Restoration and the eighteenth century brought vast changes to the island of Great Britain, which became a single nation after 1707. The national population nearly doubled in the period, reaching ten million.  Change came most dramatically to cities: in London, new theaters, coffeehouses, concert halls, pleasure gardens, picture exhibitions and shopping districts gave life a feeling of bustle and friction.  Civil society also linked people to an increasingly global economy, as they shopped for diverse goods from around the world. 

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought hope to a divided nation, but no political settlement could be stable until religious issues had been resolved.  In the 1660s, parliament reimposed the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and barred Nonconformists from holding religious meetings outside of the established church.  The jails were filled with preachers like John Bunyan who refused to be silenced.  A series of religion-fuelled crises forced Charles to dissolve Parliament, and led to the division of the country between two new political parties: Tories, who supported the king, and the Whigs, the king’s opponents.  Neither party proved able to live with the Catholic James II, who came to the throne in 1685 and was soon accused of filling the government and army with his coreligionists.  Secret negotiations paved the way for the Dutchman William of Orange, a champion of Protestantism and the husband of James’s Protestant daughter Mary. For more than half a century some loyal Jacobites (from Latin Jacobus, James), especially in Scotland, continued to support the deposed James II and his heirs.  Nonetheless, the coming of William and Mary in 1688—the so-called Glorious Revolution—came to be seen as the beginning of a stabilized, unified Great Britain.  The 1689 Bill of Rights limited the powers of the Crown and reaffirmed the supremacy of Parliament, while the Toleration Act of the same year granted a limited freedom of worship to Dissenters (though not to Catholics or Jews). 

In the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), England and its allies defeated France and Spain.  As these commercial rivals were weakened and war gains including new colonies flowed in, the Whig lords and London merchants supporting the war grew rich.  In the eighteenth century, the Whigs generally stood for the new “moneyed interest,” while the Tories stood for tradition, affirming landownership as the proper basis of wealth, power and privilege.  The long reign of George III (1760-1820) saw both the emergence of Britain as a colonial power and the cry for a new social order based on liberty and radical reform.  The wealth brought to England by industrialism and foreign trade had not spread to the great mass of the poor.  New forms of religious devotion sprang up amid Britain’s material success.  The campaign to abolish slavery and the slave trade was driven largely by a passion to save souls.

Following the Restoration, French and Italian musicians, as well as painters from the Low Countries, migrated to England, contributing to a revolution in aesthetic tastes.  The same period witnessed the triumph of the scientific revolution; Charles II chartered the Royal Society for the Improving of Human Knowledge in 1662.   Encounters with little known societies in the Far East, Africa, and the Americas enlarged Europeans’ understanding of human norms.  The widespread devotion to direct observation of experience established empiricism, as employed by John Locke, as the dominant intellectual attitude of the age.  Yet perhaps the most momentous new intellectual movement was a powerful strain of feminism, championed by Mary Astell.  The old hierarchical system had tended to subordinate individuals to their social rank or station.  By the end of the eighteenth century many issues of politics and the law had come to revolve around rights, rather than traditions. 

Publishing boomed in eighteenth-century Britain, in part because of a loosening of legal restraints on printing.  The rise in literacy was also a factor; by the end of the eighteenth century 60-70 percent of men could read, with a smaller but still significant percentage of women.  The literary market began to sustain the first true professional class of authors in British history.  Aphra Behn was the first woman to make her living from writing, though she and successors like Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood were denounced for their scandalous works and lives.

The literature appearing between 1660 and 1785 divides conveniently into three lesser periods of about forty years each.  The first, extending to the death of Dryden in 1700 is characterized by an effort to bring a new refinement to English literature according to sound critical principles of what is fine and right.  Poetry and prose come to be characterized by an easy, sociable style, while in the theater comedy is triumphant.  The second period, ending with the deaths of Pope in 1744 and Swift in 1745, reaches out to a wider circle of readers, with special satirical attention to what is unfitting and wrong.  Deeply conservative but also playful, the finest works of this brilliant generation of writers cast a strange light on modern times by viewing them through the screen of classical myths and forms.  The third period, concluding with the death of Johnson in 1784 and the publication of Cowper’s The Task in 1785, confronts the old principles with revolutionary ideas that would come to the fore in the Romantic period.  A respect for the good judgement of ordinary people, and for standards of taste and behavior independent of social status, marks many writers of the age.  Throughout the larger period, what poets most tried to see and represent was nature, understood as the universal and permanent elements in human experience. 

 

1.       The history of eighteenth-century literature was first composed by the Romantics, who prized "originality" and "individuality." For examples of Romantic poetry, see Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by George Gordon, Lord Byron, and Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley, covered in "The Romantic Period" (see pages 617-635 and 775-815, respectively, in volume D).

2.       Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasso, the African, Written by Himself presents an early view of the effects of the British slave trade on Africa. For a view of the legacies of the slave trade and colonization, see Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, covered in "The Twentieth Century" (see pages 2624–2709 in volume F).

3.       The writings of female authors, such as Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney, investigate from a female perspective the gap between the self as it appears to us in introspection and the identity that others fasten to us. These writings anticipate the more political stance of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, covered in "The Romantic Period" (see pages 170-195 in volume D), but they also draw parallels to the much earlier Book of Margery Kempe, covered in "The Middle Ages" (see pages 384-97 in volume A).

4.       Aphra Behn's Oroonoko escapes classification as fact or fiction, history or romance, continuing a tradition in English literature that includes Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, covered in "The Middle Ages" (see pages 439-56 in volume A).

5.       The “Village” poems of Crabbe and Goldsmith address the perennial theme of rural poverty.  For a medieval view of the same problem, see William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Passus 6 (pages 343-50 in volume A).  In “The Romantic Period,” Shelley would take a more radical view of the question in his poem “Men of England” (see page 770 in volume D).