18th Century English Society and Literature


(Painting attributed to Joseph Farringdon, source daggettgalleries).

Goodday folks!

Yes, it’s that time of the year again, when the students who have mid-terms are stressing about their exams (including yours truly). That is why I’ve used a list of terms (created with love by my tutor… at least I hope that it was with love), to make a lovely summary of what I had to learn for the mid-term about the 18th Century Society and Literature (so far).
Most of my information is from The Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL), The Restoration and the 18th Century, and my notes. Whenever I use another source I’ll add the link or the title/name of the source I used. There will be pictures, some less impressive intrusive comments (made up all by myself *looking proud*) and hopefully some useful knowledge.

A ‘Brief’ History

But, Cindy, you might wonder at this point, the Restoration was in the 17th century and not the 18th century. Why are you talking about the 18th century?
In short: there is the usual century of a hundred year, but some events start before the turn of the century. It is called the ‘Long 18th Century’ starts because it includes a historical movement that starts (in this case) around 1660 CE.

Click the image to open in full size.1660 CE marks the return of the monarchy (also known as: the Restoration). After the collapse of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Charles II was restored to the throne and ruled from 1660-1685 CE. (If you want to know more about Charles, click here). This restoration included the reinstatement of the established church. However, parliament and the monarchy didn’t get back together, and Charles’ struggle with the parliament would eventually lead (1680 CE) to a division, creating two political parties: the Tories and the Whigs. The Tories were supporters of the monarchy, while the Whigs were the opposition.

“After both parties survived the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the Tories guarded the pre-eminence of the established church (sometimes styling themselves the Church Party), while the Whigs tended to support toleration of Dissenters (those who were not a member of the established, Anglican, church). Economically, too, the Tories defined themselves as traditionalists, affirming landownership as the proper basis of wealth, power, and privilege (though most thought trade honourable), whereas the Whigs came to be seen as supporting new “moneyed interests”: managers of the Bank of England (1694 CE), contrivers of the system of public credit, and investors in the stock market. But conservatism and liberalism did not exist as ideological labels in the period, and the vicissitudes of party dispute offer many surprises.” -Greenblatt, NAEL, p.2180.

At the start of his reign, Charles II made himself popular by opening the playhouses and authorizing two new companies of actors (The King’s Players and the Duke’s).
It was two years later in 1662 CE that Charles II approved the scientific revolution, and he chartered the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. They were not the scientists we have today, but the microscope and the telescope would, together with travels to unknown lands/regions, increase the understanding of nature.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor James II england
Unfortunately, Charles II died in 1685, giving his Catholic brother the chance to take over the throne. Even though James II had been the leader of the Tories, neither the Tories nor the Whigs were all that pleased with him after he was made king. James was able to claim the right to make his own laws and filled many positions in the army and his court with other Catholics. (If you want to know more about James II, click here).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor william iii and mary iiSince no one was a great fan of James, a plan was created to overthrow this Catholic king by putting his daughter Mary and the Dutch (yes, a Dutchman was king of England for a while! HAHA) William of Orange on the throne. The plan succeeded in 1688 CE, James II fled to France and was exiled. (Sadly, James would be heard of again).
This is called The “Glorious” Revolution, another option according to the NAEL is The Bloodless Revolution. Following the revolution was the Bill of Rights in 1689 CE (The bill revoked James’s actions, limited the power of the monarchy, reaffirmed the supremacy of parliament, and guaranteed some individual rights. – Greenblatt NAEL p. 2179).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Anne stuartOf course William III and Mary II changed more during their reign, but I will not elaborate on that. They ruled together until 1694 CE, when Mary died, and William III was king until he died in 1702 CE.
He was succeeded by Anne Stuart, the youngest daughter of James II, who ruled from 1702-1714 CE. She was even Queen of England and Scotland after the Act of Union in 1707, when the two countries became Great Britain. (If you want to know more about Anne, click here). Since she had no surviving heirs, she would be succeeded by George I, the first Hanoverian king of Great Britain.

I told you James would be heard of again! Since James II wasn’t really done being a king yet, he gathered his followers (called Jacobites) in order to ‘ restore’ the Stuart dynasty. The Jacobites would follow James II and his descendants until their last Rebellion in 1745 CE. (If you want to know more about the rebellions, click here).


The writing that was published after 1660 CE showed the division in personal opinions. I will discuss literature later on, but for now I want to focus on the intellectual change during the long 18th century.
According to Greenblatt in the NAEL, a shared intellectual impulse was the distrust of dogmatism. Not everyone agreed on what dogmatism was the most dangerous (i.e. Puritan enthusiasm, papal infallibility or the divine right of kings), but people agreed that the civil rivalry was because of these dogmatisms.

“Many philosophers, scientists and divines began to embrace a mitigated skepticism, which argued that human beings could readily achieve a sufficient degree of necessary knowledge (sometimes called ‘moral certainty’) but also contended that the pursuit of absolute certainty was vain, mad, and social calamitous.” – Greenblatt NAEL p. 2182.

New theories, projects and explorations were only started because of the distrust that people had of the old dogmas. An example is that the king’s divine authority was no longer discussed using a religious approach, but through a naturalistic argument that defended the royal absolutism. This is were Charles’ Royal Society comes in, though not everyone was all that fond of this society (as Jonathan Swift shows in Gulliver’s Travels).

It was during this time that scientific discoveries and investigations affected religious attitudes. There was natural history (facts), natural philosophy (studies what happens in nature), and natural religion (nature as a book written by God), but there were also newly discovered natural laws. Some people even accepted Deism, (religion need not depend on mystery or biblical truths and could rely on reason alone, which recognised the goodness and wisdom of natural law and its creator. – Greenblatt NAEL p. 2184) and empiricism became the superior belief of the ‘intellectual society’, which basically means that people really valued the direct observation of experience.

However, even though there were many new discoveries made, and people started to pursuit wealth and luxury, new varieties of evangelism were founded. One of those was established in 1730 CE and is known as Methodism. This new group brought their gospels to the common people, and they told the people that they would only be accepted and salvation would only be theirs of they would accept ‘the amazing grace, otherwise they would all be sinners and would be damned. (More detail about Methodism can be found be clicking this link).


The individual became more important (for either personal or religious reasons) and people started to keep diaries, write intricate letters, and the novel became increasingly popular. The literature that was written then, shows how a hierarchical system was coming to an end, and that people started to change.

Before the Restoration, and before the novels became what they are today, the lyric poetry was a popular genre. The first novels were those that were not written in poetry, but in prose. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (to read my post about this work, click here), is one of the first works that can be seen as a novel.
Also written at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th century were so called novels of amorous intrigue. Those novels were written by women, and were strangely enough meant to be read by a general target audience existing of men and women. It was because of these novels (which were not considered elevated enough to be seen as literature) that gave rise to the ‘literary’ novels. As usual, there were those who didn’t agree with the existence of novels and a countermovement was assembled that led to an anti-novel discourse. (It wouldn’t be interesting or complicated enough if there wouldn’t be a countermovement to the countermovement, and so there the anti-novel movement got its own countermovement). It is important to know that a reason for the hostile behaviour against the novels of amorous intrigue could be the attack on the patriarchy. In those amorous novels, it was often the man who was the weaker sex, which was not really an image a society ruled by men wished for. Reading novels of amorous intrigue would lead in a change of behaviour (women might even feel like they had power, or they might start to expect certain things). Hence the start of the gender discussion.

It was due to the diminish of the legal rules that concerned publication and printing, there was a massive increase of published works in the 18th century. The act that supported the pre-publication censorship was not renewed in 1695 CE (thanks to William III). Because of this, Britain was able to create a ‘public sphere’:

“A cultural arena, free of direct government control, consisting of not just published comment on matters of national interest but also the public venues such as coffeehouses, clubs and taverns, where readers circulated, discussed and conceived responses to it.” – Greenblatt NAEL p.2189.

Of course, it was easier to get you work published depending on your social class and education. Many writers would have attended well known universities, though there were a few self-educated writers who came from one of the lower classes and fought their way up the social ladder. It is also the print culture in the 18th century that created jobs for the ones who came from lower socio-economic background, and it is in this century that a few woman were able to publish their works. From 1750 CE onwards, woman banded together, and more people became literate (this was mostly in higher classes of the society), even though not everyone was able to afford it. Those who were able to read became more independent, expecting all books were printed in every genre about any subject.

While in the Restoration period under Charles II, literature still kept its heroic ideal of the aristocracy, there was already another genre on the way known as the ‘comedy of manners’ or novels of amorous intrigue. Realism was already popular in the 17th century, and it was during the first half of the 18th century that genres such as satire, travel stories, biographies, and romantic tales became popular (keep in mind that those were often pretended to be ‘real’ while they were often fiction, exaggerated and/or completely false to begin with). Some would even possess moral or religious instructions.

For my literature course I’ve read six novels so far (Oroonoko, Fantomina, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Pamela and Joseph Andrews) that give quite a good insight in how novels changed during roughly 50 years. There are differences, as was to be expected, but there is one striking resemblance between them: they all claim to be based on ‘real’ stories and contain scenes with a great deal of detail in them, which is now known as realism.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor oroonokoAfbeeldingsresultaat voor fantominaAfbeeldingsresultaat voor robinson crusoe

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor gulliver's travels jonathan swiftAfbeeldingsresultaat voor pamela samuel richardsonAfbeeldingsresultaat voor pamela samuel richardsonAfbeeldingsresultaat voor joseph andrews henry fielding

To be honest though… I wouldn’t believe that any of the books that I mention above were ‘real’ even if they gave me a signed document with a declaration of realness (would be so awesome if that was a real things haha).

I don’t claim to know everything, so if you spot a flaw in my work please contact me and I will do my best to fix it! And if you have something nice to say that’s also very much appreciated ^_^

Have you read any of these books? If yes, what did you think? If not… Please, do think again before you do :’)



8 thoughts on “18th Century English Society and Literature

  1. Interesting post! I’m currently studying the Victorian era both in History and Literature classes. As I transferred for my final year, I missed plenty of literature and history moments, so it was nice to read this! Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awesome and thank you ^^ I reallly like the history of the 18th century, but it’s so surreal to think that the pieces of literature that I mentioned were actually very popular at the time haha

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always hope so :’) I just really like to do it and since it’s often quite interesting it’s THE opportunity for me to dive into the material without seeming overachieving haha

        Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting selection for your course! There is one literary school of thought that discounts the amorous tales and argue that the true English novel began with Richardson’s ‘Pamela’. It might be worthwhile (if you are interested and have time) analysing the differences between ‘Pamela’ and, say, Haywood’s ‘Fantomina’ to see whether you agree. Personally, I see the development of fiction as a smooth transition between the work of (eg) Defoe or Swift and Richardson, Fielding or even Radcliffe, and on to Austen and Scott – but would be interested in another opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s