This book takes as its presiding motif for eighteenth-century literature the idea of conversation, around which there accrue associated ideas of coteries and literary groups, debates and disagreements, the public sphere and literary intertexts. Thus while ‘conversation’ is the dominant idea which links different parts of this book, and different aspects of eighteenth-century literature, it is not in any sense a single label. It generates a range of associated ideas, rather than necessarily imposing a determinist narrative upon the period. In this way, the book’s account of the eighteenth century attempts to avoid what Hillis Miller terms ‘[t]he singleness of the label [which] implies the singleness of what is labelled’ (1996, 197). The key term of conversation and its associated motifs are used in the awareness that they are appropriate also to other literary periods. Indeed, that is part of the attractiveness of choosing these as defining terms, in that they avoid the tendency to split off and demarcate literary periods as defined through contradistinction. The eighteenth century has especially suffered from this, as many accounts of the century are constructed as a foil by which ‘Romanticism’ can be identified. However, while I would agree that ideas of conversation and debate are certainly also important to other periods and other cultures, this book argues that there is a distinctiveness for these terms in the eighteenth century.
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