Eras Journal – Agland, J: Review of “A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century”, Cynthia Wall (ed.)
Cynthia Wall (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century,
Blackwell Publishing, Malden (MA), 2005
A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, Cynthia Wall explains in her editorial introduction, “is not an introduction or a standard companion in the sense of laying out the basic territory to the novice pilgrim”. Rather, it is “a companion of new perspectives for the eighteenth-century student and scholar” that seeks to upset “certain widely held assumptions about eighteenth-century cultural contexts or literary practices” (p.3). While some of the contributors are unconvincing in their attempts to establish decidedly “new perspectives” on eighteenth-century culture, this is nonetheless a challenging and stimulating set of essays that succeeds in encouraging and facilitating a more critical evaluation of eighteenth-century texts. As the collection covers a wide variety of texts and themes, including the novel, drama, poetry, travel narratives, scientific literature, representations of London beggars, and scatological imagery in the works of Dryden, Pope and Swift, I will limit my comments to the collection’s significant strengths and weaknesses for historians of representations.
Many cultural historians will be pleased to find a commitment to the relationship between representations – both primary and secondary – and historical realities, particularly in the first half of this collection. Tim Hitchcock, for example, compares representations of London beggars in the literature of Defoe, Gay, Swift, Fielding and others to the realities of beggarly life in the metropolis, and traces the impact of this “literary vision” on the operation and development of the city’s institutions (Chapter 4:”The Streets: Literary Beggars and the Realities of Eighteenth-Century London”). Others are more concerned with what they regard as popular scholarly misconceptions and misrepresentations of the period. J.A. Downie, for example, rigorously tests Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the bourgeois public sphere against “our knowledge of Restoration and eighteenth-century England” (Chapter 3: “Public and Private: The Myth of the Bourgeois Public Sphere”). Despite the thoroughness of Downie’s assault, I suspect that cultural historians of the Enlightenment will continue to find the broad concept of a public sphere – if not a bourgeois one – attractive and necessary until a convincing alternate “model for the emergence of public opinion as a force in the state” emerges (p.77). These essays certainly raise some interesting conceptual and methodological possibilities.
The role of representations in managing and ordering conceptions of place and space is one of the most interesting features of this collection. The opening chapter by the historical geographers Miles Ogborn and Charles W. J. Withers (“Travel, Trade and Empire: Knowing other Places, 1660-1800″) provides an invaluable analytical guide for students of eighteenth-century geographical writings. They clearly show that the “earth writing” of the period “took different written forms, and did so to reflect different intentions and the demands of different audiences keen to know about other places” (p.14). Ogborn and Withers urge us to consider these writings as a rich and complex set of texts rather than as simplistic and insincere agents of imperialism and colonialism. “There was a vast production of geographical knowledge”, they argue, “because no one could be sure what was useful, or what would sell. Geographical knowledge was produced for many reasons, and its forms and content exceeded the boundaries of imperial power” (p.19). Rachel Crawford takes us from this largely uncertain world of “other places” to the more intimate and enclosed spaces of Georgian England (Chapter 11: “Forms of Sublimity: The Garden, the Georgic, and the Nation”). Through her study of architectural, agricultural, and horticultural plans and writings Crawford contends “that land itself could be imbued with changing national ideals so long as it remained familiar – so long as it could be recognized in its vernacular forms”. In the context of the Parliamentary enclosure debates of the mid-to-late eighteenth century she shows that “though ideal English space was represented first by the unhindered view and later by the restricted garden space, both expressed a linkage, sometimes fantasized, between enclosure and productivity” (p.229). Ultimately, containment became “a sign of vastness and power”. A fascinating correlation emerges with Ogborn and Withers as Crawford notes that “in kitchen garden manuals the self-enclosed world is, like Milton’s Eden, a horticultural plenum filled with diverse fruits and vegetables from the four corners of a Britannizable world” (p.243). Crawford observes that the reader’s gaze is voyeuristically drawn “through the chink in the wall or break in the hedge”(p.244), whereas the travel journals examined by Ogborn and Withers opted for forms that lent them credibility in the eyes of uncertain and sceptical readers (pp.19-23). Mark R. Blackwell (Chapter 7: “The Gothic: Moving in the World of Novels”) also addresses the manipulation of space – albeit very briefly – through literary forms, comparing Gothic romances to rollercoasters that “transport us, both physically and emotionally, by managing our experience of space and time” (p.149). Although these particular essays have different concerns and are written from different disciplinary perspectives, it is a little curious that the Introduction does not direct the reader to compare them.
The nature of truth, trust and authenticity in eighteenth-century texts is also impressively handled, firstly by Ogborn and Withers and then by Susan Staves (Chapter 8: “Gendering Texts: ‘The Abuse of Title Pages’: Men Writing as Women”). Ogborn and Withers suggest that truth and trust could be claimed, though not guaranteed, “by careful adherence to certain representational conventions” in journals of voyages (pp.22-3). Staves looks deeper into questions of authorship and authenticity, beginning with a general account of “hoaxes, deceptions, and frauds” and then moving onto instances of male authors posing as women (p.162). Sometimes this was a consensual arrangement, sometimes it constituted the theft of a woman’s fame and reputation for commercial gain, and sometimes, Staves argues, it took the form of “quasi-rape”. The texts in this third category are usually satiric attacks on “women considered to have violated the decorums proper to women: notable religious dissenters, political dissenters [such as Catherine Macaulay], and women guilty of sexual transgressions” (p.172). In many cases women’s “lived experiences” held a particular power that some male writers sought to appropriate. I am unconvinced, however, by Staves’ concluding suggestion that “the Enlightenment concern about the relation between authors and title pages is evident in current controversies over the supposed memoirs of Asian women and Native Americans written by white men and the supposed Holocaust memoirs not written by survivors” (p.181). These recent literary hoaxes emerged in the context of different authorial presences, related through a variety of media, which were heavily influenced by the nature of Holocaust and other “survivor” testimonies of the mid-to-late twentieth-century.
Some contributors offer equally compelling interpretations and parallels but fail to adequately explain how their work differs from that of previous scholars. This is unfortunate as it denies their work the credibility – at least in the context of this collection’s stated objectives – that it probably deserves. Joanna Picciotto’s sophisticated analysis of scientific experimentalism, for example, demands considerable knowledge of the complex debates on the relationship between science, philosophy and theology during the Restoration and eighteenth-century (Chapter 2: “Scientific Investigations: Experimentalism and Paradisal Return”). This is an impressive essay in itself, but as this collection claims to offer new perspectives a clearly established relationship to prior scholarship is necessary.
Despite these shortcomings, some of which may be due to the limited space offered to the contributors, this collection succeeds in keeping us mindful of the polysemic nature of eighteenth-century texts, whether we approach them from the perspective of historians or literary scholars. A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century should spur some interesting revisionist and cross-disciplinary work.
School of Historical Studies, Monash University