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About this book

This essential guide defines literature of the eighteenth century as a literature written and received as public conversation. Moyra Haslett discusses and challenges conventional ways of reading the period, particularly in relation to notions of the public sphere. In her wide-ranging study, Haslett reads key texts - including The Dunciad, Gulliver's Travels and Pamela - in their literary and cultural contexts, and examines such genres as the periodical, the familiar letter, the verse epistle and the novel as textual equivalents of coterie culture.

Table of Contents

Introduction. Defining the eighteenth century: public sphere conversations

Introduction. Defining the eighteenth century: public sphere conversations

Abstract
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.
Moyra Haslett

Conversational Forms

Frontmatter

1. Literary Communities

Abstract
In this passage from his essay ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’, David Hume identifies the ‘spirit of the age’ as one of sociability. Men, and women, meet in polite and easy company and together they create a revolution in manners and thinking. Crucially, they need one another: men can educate and elevate female understanding, women can refine and make more polite the behaviour of men.1 Although Hume’s is the more famous, Henry Fielding’s essay ‘On Conversation’, published in his Miscellanies (1743), makes broadly similar points: ‘Man is generally represented as an Animal formed for and delighted in Society’ (DeMaria 1996, 825). Similarly, if more briefly, Samuel Johnson referred to his own period as a ‘clubbable’ age (1775). Clubs, societies, coteries, conversational circles, literary groups, salons, coffee houses — all of these are ideas and spaces we associate with the eighteenth century. Eighteenth-century literature also associated these ideas with its own culture. While other cultures and histories have just as good a claim on many of these terms, it is the eighteenth century that presents these ideas as its own dominant self-image. The very term ‘sociability’ was coined by natural law theorists in the early eighteenth century as a response to the sense that ‘society’ existed outside of the state. This is the foundation on which Habermas builds his theory of an eighteenth-century public sphere.
Moyra Haslett

2. Social/Textual Forms

Abstract
Much contemporary work on eighteenth-century literature defines it as a discursive space in which writers can imagine and challenge the social order. Indeed this statement might summarise the vast amount of work on the novel in the 1980s and 1990s: John Bender’s discussion of the novel as prefiguring changes in prison design and legislation (Bender 1987), John Mullan’s argument that eighteenth-century writing in general, and the sentimental novel in particular, attempts to stage society as a scheme of consensus (Mullan 1988) and John Richetti’s account of the reciprocal definitions of fictional self and society (Richetti 1999) are prominent examples of this tendency. For John Richetti (1992 and 1999) and Paula Backscheider (2000), eighteenth-century prose fiction is the genre in which a textual public sphere becomes possible. And, as we have seen in chapter 1, John Bender links Fielding’s style of narration with the negotiation of a rational public consensus within the public sphere. This chapter further develops these arguments by examining how literary forms in the eighteenth century, including the novel, might be said to continue the ideals of sociable, critical discussion and to extend those ideals into a specifically literary sphere.
Moyra Haslett

3. Female Communities

Abstract
In 1779 the painting exhibition at the Royal Academy included a group portrait of prominent female artists, entitled The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain. The nine women represented there were the singer Elizabeth Linley Sheridan, the painter Angelica Kauffman, the poet and critic Anna Lætitia Barbauld, the scholar and poet Elizabeth Carter, the novelist Charlotte Lennox, the educator and writer Hannah More, the writer and actress Elizabeth Griffith, the bluestocking literary patron, writer and critic Elizabeth Montagu, and the historian Catherine Macaulay. While this group included notable bluestocking figures (Carter, More and Montagu), in reaching beyond members of that circle it represented an imaginary or virtual coterie of female artists. That these ladies might form a female artistic tradition or ‘club’ was picked up by Elizabeth Carter, writing of an earlier engraved form of this painting to her friend Elizabeth Montagu:
One thing is very particularly agreeable to my vanity, to say nothing about my heart, that it seems to be a decided point, that you and I are always to figure in the literary world together, and that from the classical poet, the water drinking rhymes, to the highest dispenser of human fame, Mr. Johnson’s pocket book, it is perfectly well understood, that we are to make our appearance in the same piece. (Carter 1817, III 47–8).
Moyra Haslett

Textual Conversations

Frontmatter

4. The Dunciad: Associating with ‘Republica Grubstreetaria’

Abstract
Pope’s The Dunciad (1728–43) is a poem which is highly self-conscious about its own positioning within a putative literary history, and which overtly reflects upon the status of ‘competing’ texts and authors. Harold Bloom famously discussed literary history in terms of an agonistic struggle between writers and their influential predecessors (Bloom 1973). Eighteenth-century culture, however, reveals a struggle amongst living contemporaries. This makes debates about literary value both more self-conscious and more vicious.
Moyra Haslett

5. Gulliver’s Travels: Ceding Interpretations

Abstract
When Swift published a later edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1735) with George Faulkner, a Dublin publisher he could trust not to excise his work as Benjamin Motte, the work’s first publisher, had done, he added a prefatory letter from his fictional captain to his (also fictional) publisher, Sympson. This letter altered the entire work in a number of significant ways. The Gulliver who speaks here is recognisably the same Gulliver who, on his return from Houyhnhnmland at the end of the book, prefers the company of horses to that of his wife. His contempt for humans is evident in the short extract which serves as an epigraph to this chapter: how could human Nature be degraded, contemptible as it already is, argues Gulliver. Reading this letter as an introduction to all of the four voyages casts doubt from the very first on his reliability as narrator. Can the Gulliver who journeys to Lilliput and Brobdingnag be in his right mind? Perhaps all of the voyages are delusional, the crazy speculations of a crazed mind?
Moyra Haslett

6. The Political Controversies of Pamela

Abstract
Within two months of its first publication, the Gentleman’s Magazine implied that Pamela was being read by every Londoner with the slightest curiosity: ‘[It was] judged in Town as great a sign of want of curiosity not to have read PAMELA, as not to have seen the French and Italian dancers’ (The Gentleman’s Magazine, 11 Jan. 1741, 56). Within the first year the novel had appeared in six authorised editions, a number of pirated editions, an unauthorised newspaper serialisation, and Richardson had published his own sequel. A huge number of critical pamphlets, imitations and parodies had also been published. More than a ‘vogue’, Pamela had become a phenomenon; more than a ‘phenomenon’, Pamela had become a controversy, or, an ‘epidemical Phrenzy now raging in Town’ in the words of Parson Oliver (Shamela; Fielding 1980, 323). The language here of epidemic is appropriate for a publication whose effects were far-reaching and sometimes, it seemed, too radical even for its own author.2
Moyra Haslett

7. Afterword: Continuing the Conversation

Abstract
This study has situated eighteenth-century literature in the context of ideas of coteries and communities of various kinds: literary groups, informal networks of support and collaboration; the communities of readers and spectators and the particular literary forms which seek to call such communities into existence; and the textual communities which surround texts when works are pulled into debates and defences by imitations and parodies. In doing so, it has joined an increasing number of studies which attempt to move beyond traditional paradigms of the period, such as the ‘age of reason’ or ‘Augustan literature’ giving way to an age of ‘sensibility’. No paradigm can totally explain a literary period in all its variety. If we think of the eighteenth century as an age of ‘sociability’ or of literary coteries, then we also need to remember the ways in which these ideas were contradicted by their own culture. This book has thus also emphasised the way in which many writers feared the fracturing of literary communities in the wake of print culture with its anonymous, unknown readers; how representations of community were as likely to reflect upon disputation and noise as upon acts of rational communication and amicable persuasion. At the heart of this book, then, is an ideal model of conversation as debate. The conversation initiated by this study needs to be supplemented with other stories and voices.
Moyra Haslett
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