Almost every day, the long eighteenth century seems to be getting longer. And wider. It’s all a matter of where to draw the artificial boundaries between the stages of time over which human culture continues to change. This volume offers just one version of a period of history many refer to as the ‘long eighteenth century’, especially as it relates to the literature and culture of England.
This version of the long eighteenth century begins in 1660, when a particularly momentous historical event offers a convenient place to begin this story. The Restoration of Charles II marks a point when the nation – or, at least, some of the most powerful and influential individuals alive at the time – decided to ‘restore’ to England a form of national government which combined monarchical rule with an elected parliament. The cultural impact of the Restoration, and how authors anticipated its effect on the country’s future, is widely evident in contemporary literature. So, too, are authors’ meaningful reflections on previous periods of English history, and how depictions of that history could be refashioned to suit new ideas about England’s national culture. Looking back to the beginning of the long eighteenth century, it is worth noting that the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 itself presents the culmination of ongoing political debates from earlier periods in English history, notably the period of religious and civil unrest which erupted into civil war from about 1642. The long eighteenth century The Long 18th Century
starts to get a little bit longer, in other words, as soon as we seek to understand specific events in relation to cultural developments over time. In Part Two, a more detailed overview of such events is provided to give a fuller sense of this period’s rich, but necessarily complex, cultural history as a whole.
A Cultural Overview
Different strands of religious, economic, political, artistic and social issues are woven together throughout this volume to give a broad understanding of the long eighteenth century. It would not be an exaggeration to say that religion plays a fundamental role in all of the momentous cultural events of the period (the English Civil War, the Restoration and even the Industrial Revolution), but each event also has its political, economic and – vital to our understanding of the period’s literature – its artistic dimension.
We must also consider precisely what it is we mean by the term ‘literature’ (the primary focus of artistic consideration in this volume). Several decades of critical debate about the kinds of writing that scholars should study in order to understand the past have questioned the formal boundaries that have long existed between ‘history’ and ‘literature’. There is no doubt that the imaginative writing of the past (poetry, fictional narratives, essays and so on) help us to understand past cultures, but so, too, do other forms of extant writing (including, but not restricted to, private correspondence, household accounts, ecclesiastical records, menus, legislation and so on). The increasingly recognised value of these alternative sources of cultural history, sometimes referred to as ‘historicism’, is one that is taken for granted in this volume although the principal subjects for discussion here are works of imaginative literature in the traditional sense.
This book is intended to help students gain a better understanding of the long eighteenth century but also invites its readers to think about the ways in which we study the past, and past literature, in order to understand our own culture. The period between 1660 and 1790 witnessed the acquisition of many aspects of daily life that we now take for granted as ‘modern’. This is a cultural feature of the period which makes its study especially interesting to social historians and others keen to explore what ‘modernity’ really means. Indeed, the end of our period is also frequently described as the...