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date: 08 August 2020

Literature and Social Class in the Eighteenth Century

Abstract and Keywords

Marxist interpretations of class conflict between the aristocracy and emergent middle class are unhelpful in describing the political situation in eighteenth-century Britain and its literary works. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, British society remained under the firm authority of the monarchy, aristocracy, and the landed gentry. Nonetheless, Britain was also being transformed by the Financial Revolution after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In response to this paradoxical situation, a nation ruled by the old elite but increasingly dominated by commerce, authors experimented with socially mixed combinations of tragedy, comedy, the epic, pastoral, and satire. These classical genres generally failed to resolve the contradictions of the social hierarchy. The success of the novel, on the other hand, owed less to its promotion of “middle-class” values, which had not yet taken a distinctive form, than to its inherent flexibility and ability to mediate a complex and changing social order.

Keywords: social class, eighteenth century, literary genres, aristocracy, middle class, commerce, novel

Writers and readers of the eighteenth century were shaped by their daily experience of a culture dominated by an almost unquestioned belief in social hierarchy. Our understanding of this hierarchy, and its literary impact has nonetheless been hindered by theoretical obstacles and historical simplifications. A now long line of scholars has argued that the conception of “social class” is highly misleading when applied to a culture that conceived of itself through gradations of “status” or “rank.”1 The rising economic power of the so-called middle class or bourgeoisie, itself a deeply divided and complex grouping, did not translate into a grab for power, or even a disrespect for traditional ideas of political authority. Traditional Marxist analysis does not make much sense of a situation where the leaders of capitalism tended to support the ancien regime though few aspired to any title above “Sir” or invested in great landed estates. The sons of merchants tended to remain in the family line of business, though their daughters more often married into the gentry (see Gauci 2001: 70–72, 92–94).

Understanding the role of the literary artist in this complex and changing situation raises even more formidable problems. As noted by Raymond Williams, the period after 1680 showed a marked change in the social origins of authors, with more deriving from the middle ranks and fewer from the aristocracy and upper-gentry (1961: 234). Swift, Gay, Haywood, Richardson, Johnson, and Goldsmith came from very modest backgrounds while other writers such as Pope, Fielding, and Burney claimed roughly genteel status without great wealth or an automatic claim to recognition. Moreover, from the Restoration onwards, successful authors tended to write for a distinctly plebeian group of City-based booksellers who regarded literature as a trade and who sometimes became very rich from the “business of books” (see Raven 2007: 154–220). Especially following the Glorious Revolution in 1688, writers often subjected the traditional elite to scathing satire, contrasting the decadence and greed of the present aristocracy with traditional ideals of genteel honor and virtue. Nevertheless, writers equally denigrated the avarice and vulgarity of the rising financial elite and seldom suggested that the commercial ranks should take power. Literary representations of the old and new elite, inherited and newly made wealth, are generally characterized by a controlled tension rather than confrontation, generating a series of higher values of morality and national interest while implicitly underwriting the legitimacy of the traditional social hierarchy. In this way, literature played an arguably significant role in mediating the social and political tensions that exploded into revolution in France.

What occurred in Britain was, notwithstanding, a “revolution” of a more gradual kind. Just as political society in the 1790s was in fact profoundly different from that of the 1690s, literary culture had undergone a significant transformation. Traditional genres such as tragedy, the pastoral, and heroic poetry were being displaced by new forms such as the novel and hybrid kinds of drama and verse. This evolution occurred because the older genres simply failed to reflect the emerging realities of a fluid and multifaceted commercial society and a broader, more socially mixed audience. These new forms were indeed defining, through a long process, what would eventually be recognized as “middle-class” social and aesthetic values, though this term was rarely used until the early nineteenth century (see Wahrman 1995). To understand this evolving interrelationship between social change and literary form, we need to begin with the confused and volatile situation that existed in the aftermath of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The Social and Literary Impact of the Restoration

Although historians debate whether the political upheaval between 1642 and 1660 counts as a “revolution,” there can be no doubt that these events had a profound and lasting on impact on how writers and readers perceived the nation’s social hierarchy.2 The creation of a republic in 1649 not only eliminated the king but also temporarily raised a stratum of the “middling sort”—including minor gentry, yeomen, domestic traders, shopkeepers, and army officers—into positions of unprecedented power and influence. This upstart regime abolished the House of Lords and subjected the royalist aristocracy and gentry to sequestration, severe fines, and the ruinous exploitation of their land. This was a social upheaval recalled with disgust in popular comedies such as Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee (1662), George Etherege’s The Comicall Revenge, or Love in a Tub (1664), and Thomas D’Urfey’s The Royalist (1682). Although the displacement of the traditional elite from the basis of its economic power was largely corrected after the Restoration, it left lasting and bitter memories. Even the first Earl of Shaftesbury, amidst his challenge to royal authority in 1683, confided to John Evelyn that he wished no return to “Mechanic Tyranny” and would fight to his last breath to preserve the monarchy as the only means to ensure order (Evelyn 1985: 304).

The restoration of the old regime in 1660, including the nobility and the bishops, was celebrated with a ceremonial magnificence that impressed even former officials in Oliver Cromwell’s government, such as Samuel Pepys, with a sense of royalist fervor and gratitude for restored order. Dramatists such as the first Earl of Orrery, Sir Robert Howard, and his brother-in-law John Dryden attempted to translate this spectacle into the heroic dramas of the 1660s, epitomized by Dryden’s two-part The Conquest of Granada (1670–1671). In his dedication of The Conquest of Granada to the Duke of York, the future James II, Dryden defended heroic drama as “sacred to Princes and Heroes” (1956–2002, 11:3), reflecting the traditional view that the genres of tragedy and the epic should be about noble characters and designed for elite audiences. Early in his career, Dryden professed to write comedy only grudgingly, arguing in the preface to An Evening’s Love (1668) that as comedy required “much of conversation with the vulgar” it was “in it’s [sic] own nature inferiour to all sorts of Dramatick writing” (1956–2002, 10:202). He came particularly to despise the comedies of his rival Thomas Shadwell who expressed an equal disdain for high heroic drama. Beginning with The Sullen Lovers (1668), Shadwell developed a version of Ben Jonson’s “humours” comedy characterized by the farcical portrayal of even genteel characters, along with a great deal of “vulgar” physical stage business.

Because of the lasting admiration for Dryden’s mock-heroic Mac Flecknoe (written 1676; published 1682), we tend to forget that Shadwell arguably won the debate into the 1680s and even later. Shadwell’s low comedies were highly popular with the genteel audiences that predominated in the theatres, including Charles II. In response to Dryden’s class-based understanding of drama, Shadwell mocked the Poet Laureate as a pedantic upstart and pseudo-poet in the character of “Drybob” (coitus without emission) in The Humourists (1671). This joke was later repeated by Lord Rochester, for even among the restored aristocracy Dryden’s efforts to raise the dignity of the theatre met with disdain and ridicule. The alleged bombast of his heroic plays, along with his supposed pretentiousness, was satirized in The Humourists (1671). This joke was later repeated by Lord Rochester, for even among the restored aristocracy Dryden’s efforts to raise the dignity of the theatre met with disdain and ridicule. The alleged bombast of his heroic plays, along with his supposed pretentiousness, was satirized in The Rehearsal (1671) by a group of writers attached to the extravagantly decadent Duke of Buckingham. Later critics, like Thomas Rymer, believed that The Rehearsal put an end to “huffing” heroic drama in rhymed couplets, as Dryden last attempted in Aureng-Zebe (1675). These critics nonetheless underrated the complexity of Dryden’s evolving views on the relationship between literary art and the social hierarchy. He defended English “mixed” drama against French neoclassical models in An Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668) and himself wrote tragicomedies in the tradition of Fletcher and Beaumont to the end of his career. His poems, which eventually entered the English canon, including Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel (1681), are masterful experiments of combining high and low genres. When Thomas Rymer, eventually a Whig and supporter of William III, attacked tragicomedy in The Tragedies of the Last Age (1678), Dryden replied in an essay on tragedy appended to his revised version of Troilus and Cressida (1679). Here he defended Shakespeare’s tragedies as natural and affecting despite their notorious mixtures of comedy (1956–2002, 13: 229–248). Dryden’s decision to revise Troilus and Cressida is significant, for he retained this tragedy’s ignoble comic characters Thersites and Pandarus and even intensified its irreverent portrayal of the heroes Achilles and Ajax.

As suggested by the rejection of high-heroic drama, the popularity of Shadwell’s “low” comedy, and Dryden’s widening search for socially mixed literary forms, the restoration of the old political order had failed to restore the hegemony of the old elite over a submissive and deferential commonality. This failure is often belied by the extreme elitism of much drama during the period. During the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis (1678–1683), a flood of drama, poetry, and periodical writing seemed to confirm a virtual class war between the landed aristocracy and the “City,” identified with both religious dissent and the defense of the people’s rights against arbitrary monarchy. In comedies such as Otway’s The Soldier’s Fortune (1681), Durfey’s Barnaby Whigg (1681), Behn’s The City Heiress (1682), and Crowne’s City Politiques (1683), Tory rakes cuckold Whig merchants, a sexual demonstration of aristocratic prerogative against the threatening discontent of the mercantile City (see Dawson 2005). Royalist hatred of avaricious merchants is also dramatized in Dryden’s satire The Medal (1682) and the tragedy he co-wrote with Nathaniel Lee, The Duke of Guise (1682). We need to beware, however, of interpreting these works too literally as anticommercial. First, City audiences evidently also enjoyed the joke of rakes cuckolding merchants and aldermen, as in Edward Ravenscroft’s spectacularly popular The London Cuckolds (1681), a fixture at Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations over the next half century (Dawson 2005: 71; Johnson 2006, 2:332). Moreover, the Restoration was a period of a vigorous growth in trade promoted by the crown, which justified two wars again the Dutch in the cause of protecting English commerce.

Swaggering displays of rank in the English aristocracy in fact disguised its own internal divisions, anxieties, and diminished confidence. The significant expansion of the aristocracy in the seventeenth century through the purchase of titles, notably the newly created “baronet,” had already diluted its prestige (see Stone 1967). A large segment of the nobility had either turned against Charles I or cooperated with Cromwell’s regime. These embarrassments help to explain why the aristocracy widely abandoned and even scorned their supposed “vocation” as the nation’s moral exemplars, as set forth in the immensely popular The Gentleman’s Calling (1662) by the royalist Richard Allestree. Much of the business of government shifted toward hard-working officials like Pepys, who enjoyed the spectacle and theatre of the age but bemoaned the decadence and idleness of the restored regime. In reading the most popular rake comedies of the 1670s, such as Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) or Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), we should keep in mind that they were performed in the context of intense controversy in the press about the behavior of the aristocracy and its fashionable imitators further down the ranks. Although these authors evidently appealed to a largely genteel audience that wished to be entertained rather than instructed, they exhibited a disillusioned detachment from their elite characters, as exemplified by Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer (1676), a play much admired later for its frank satire of fashionable absurdity.

Shock at the revelation of the Rye House Plot (1683) to assassinate the king solidified a national desire for order, leading to the smooth accession of James II in 1685. This accession did not, however, remove widespread dissatisfaction with the behavior of the royal family and the aristocracy or abiding discontent with the immorality and profaneness of society and the stage. This discontent made its impact felt in literature after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Social and Literary Change after the Glorious Revolution

Historians have again debated whether the overthrow of James II can be properly called a “revolution,” as this event was engineered by the aristocracy and great gentry.3 The accession of William III and his wife Mary II nonetheless had a major and long-lasting impact on the social hierarchy and its literary representation. First, the Revolution Settlement forced the government to rely as never before on financing provided by the City, leading to the creation of the Bank of English in 1694 and a “Financial Revolution” that involved the whole ruling order in massive debt and speculation (Dickson 1967). The aristocracy and upper gentry remained firmly in control, as well as surprisingly impervious to interlopers from below (see Cannon 1984; Stone and Stone 1984). This elite nonetheless presided over a “fiscal-military state” invested as never before in the mercantile and speculative fortunes of the City (Brewer 1989). It is impossible to read accounts of this era by, for example, John Evelyn or Gilbert Burnet without noticing their greatly heightened attention to questions of money and the economic state of the nation. In the popular comedies of Sir John Vanbrugh and William Congreve, inherited title is far less important than sheer wealth. In Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1694), Lord Foppington has bought his title and, though a study in vacuous and absurd luxury, cannot be treated as merely a foppish irritant like Etherege’s Sir Foppling Fuller or Sir Novelty Fashion in Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (1694). He has real authority, and the rakish activities of the high society around him do not seem glamorous, as in much earlier comedy, but instead degraded and marginal to the real dynamics of power. In Congreve’s The Double Dealer the same year, Lord Touchstone, rather than an avaricious Cit, becomes the cuckold of a conniving interloper, Maskwell, who was raised from obscurity but who now seeks to seize the nobleman’s estate. In The Way of the World (1700), Fainall connives to steal the estate of Lady Wishfort and is thwarted only through the clever legal precautions of Mirabell, a reformed rake who utilizes the skills of a lawyer and accountant.

Second, the Glorious Revolution unleashed a new moral tone that, in reaction to the previous Stuart monarchs, imposed a renewed demand on the landed elite to fulfill its theoretical role as the nation’s exemplars of virtue, manners, and religion. Jeremy Collier launched a scathing critique of the representation of the nobility in contemporary plays in A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698). A Tory and nonjuror, Collier targeted his attacks on Whig dramatists like Vanbrugh and Congreve, whose alleged sins were in fact inherited from the tradition of Tory dramatists like Dryden, Etherege, and Behn. Now, however, there was little disagreement between the political parties about the need for drama to school the elite into morality. The same demand was also made by the Whigs Sir Richard Blackmore and Gilbert Burnet. In The History of his Own Time (1724–1732), Burnet launched a harsh attack on the aristocracy of the Stuart era, presenting the City as the steady bastion of morality and decency. Vanbrugh, Congreve, and other Whig authors replied to Collier by arguing that modern comedies simply mirrored the real state of a lewd and profane aristocracy, which should recognize their need for reform. Collier nonetheless found wide agreement with his case that drama should not just reflect society but rather represent the elite in ways that were appropriately exemplary and edifying. Literary representation was increasingly acknowledged as having a significant impact on social attitudes. Moreover, the belief that noble or even royal birth carried with it a set of inherent virtues, along with indefeasible prerogatives, could not easily survive the accession of William III, who possessed neither hereditary claims to the throne nor regal graces, even in the eyes of his supporters. The flood of Whig panegyric that followed the Glorious Revolution dressed up William and Mary in the trappings of classical heroism, stressing the king’s courageous actions and moral rectitude rather than his princely blood (see A. Williams 2005: 93–134). Popular Whig tragedy of the eighteenth century, such as Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane (1702) and Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713), celebrated their heroes’ moral “nobility” rather than the royal pedigree of their villains, Bajazet and Caesar.

The success of Collier’s polemic in changing the representation of rank on the stage was bolstered by a notably higher proportion of newly wealthy and middle-rank people in the theatre (see Dennis 1939–1943, 2:278). This was an audience more likely to be critical of the traditional elite, as well as receptive to the promotion of virtues that flattered its own claims to respect. Consider, for example, Colley Cibber’s The Provoked Husband (1728), among the most successful and admired comedies of the eighteenth century. The title of Cibber’s play, an adaptation of Vanbrugh’s unfinished A Journey to London (written c. 1715–1717), alludes to the same dramatist’s The Provoked Wife (1697), a major target of Collier’s attack. The Provoked Wife comes close to justifying Lady Brute’s willingness to cuckold her husband Sir John Brute, the very epitome of elite drunkenness, moral degeneracy, and lawless tyranny. In Cibber’s play, on the contrary, the upstanding Lord Townly berates and eventually expels his wife Lady Townly for her nightly excursions to fashionable assemblies and gambling-tables. In this moralistic comedy, even Lady Townly stops short of cuckolding her husband, though her extravagance harms the nobleman’s reputation and depletes his purse. Lord Townly is not, however, the real hero of the play but rather it is the untitled Manly, a virtuous, censorious, and rich landed gentleman who finally marries into the Lord’s family. Although the nobility remains in charge in Cibber’s vision, it is now this upper-middle-rank gentleman who really sets the appropriate moral tone.

Manly’s positive influence is exerted in part through his high reputation with bankers, who value his morality as an assurance of reliable credit. The play thus underwrites the beneficial cooperation between commerce and the landed elite rather than their opposition. It has been noted that the merchant gained a newly dignified role on the early eighteenth-century stage, sharply in contrast with the satire of “Cits” during the Restoration (McVeagh 1981: 53–82). In Sir Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1722), for example, the merchant Sealand retorts to Sir John Bevil with a ringing defense of the virtues of his commercial class: “give me leave to say, that we Merchants are a Species of Gentry, that have grown into the World this last Century, and are as honourable, and almost as useful, as you landed Folks, that have always thought your selves so much above us” (1971: 359). Similarly, the moral exemplar of George Lillo’s highly successful The London Merchant (1731) is the merchant Thorowgood. But even Sealand thinks that merchants are only “almost as useful” as landed gentleman, and Thorowgood wants his daughter Maria to marry a man of “noble birth and fortune,” as such advantages exhibit a good man’s “virtues in the fairest light” (1965: 14). Later eighteenth-century drama presented a series of meritorious merchants, such as Freeport in George Coleman’s The English Merchant (1767), Stockwell in Richard Cumberland’s The West Indian (1771), and Thomas Oldham in Samuel Foote’ The Nabob (1772). Nevertheless, these characters all have in common a desire not to take power but rather to thwart the designs of self-interested villains in order to promote the virtuous interests of their landed betters. Merchants cede final authority, for the Financial Revolution by no means effaced traditional suspicions concerning the deleterious effects of a life spent pursuing wealth. In his essays on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” in The Spectator (1712), Addison indicated that the “mean and familiar” surroundings of men of business rendered them incapable of appreciating the refined beauties of art, more properly cultivated by “the Pomp and Magnificence of Courts” (1965, 3:564, 3:578). Suspicions of commercial greed were intensified by the premiership of Sir Robert Walpole from 1721 to 1742. Reflecting the view that Walpole ruled the nation through financial corruption after the South Sea Bubble in 1720, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) dramatized a world in which avarice and peculation had infected all ranks of society, leveling polite society with the inhabitants of Newgate prison.

In the face of this chaos of social order, in which bad men like Walpole rose from modest origins to positions to power, the theoretical ideal in both the nation and its literary imagination remained the virtuous landed gentleman. Drama, poetry, and even the novel continued in general to affirm a fairly traditional role for the landed gentry as the nation’s natural leaders, though authors denounced the licentious class privilege of England’s elite during the Restoration. Revisionist historians who insist only on political and social continuities between the Restoration and the late eighteenth century, dwelling solely on the persistence of a royalist and aristocratic ideology, nonetheless underrate the profound effects of the Financial Revolution and the challenge to inherited authority reaffirmed by the Hanoverian Succession in 1714.4 If literary artists continued to defend a traditional vision of society as ruled by the landed elite, they needed as well to appeal to an audience raised by the nation’s expanding economy and disillusioned with mere claims of hereditary privilege. These opposite demands for continuity and change placed authors under pressure to adapt traditional genres to new social realities, generating experimentation and the creation of new literary forms.

Generic Change and Experimentation

The established rules of genres inherited from classical tradition placed considerable restraints on what writers could achieve without seeming “low” or absurd. Money and commerce, in particular, were regarded as ignoble subjects suitable to comedy and satire. These subjects could be combined only with great difficulty with the “high” forms associated with the nobility and gentry—tragedy, the epic, and the heroic. The influence of French neoclassical criticism after the Restoration indeed hardened these boundaries and left the English tradition of “mixed” genres in discredit. Thomas Rymer’s attack on tragicomedy, as exemplified by Fletcher and Beaumont, led to the virtual extinction of this mixed form by 1700. Rather than the mere alternation between tragedy and comedy in a double-plot, dramatists sought to meld these genres into unified forms. Congreve tried to achieve such a unity in his comedies, particularly The Double Dealer and The Way of the World, where he obeyed the classical unities and introduced serious forms of villainy into a comic plot. For this combination, Congreve was praised by Dryden as his natural successor, a sign of how far this now-prestigious writer had moved from his previously class-based demotion of comedy beneath tragedy. As we have seen, however, Congreve failed to satisfy Collier’s influential insistence that the aristocracy be dramatized as virtuous exemplars rather than comic buffoons and infidels. Comedy became more serious and moral. But prominent critics such a John Dennis found the humorless sentimentality of comedies like The Conscious Lovers “frivolous, false, and absurd” (1939–1943, 2:274). It was the ludicrous confusion of “high” and “low,” as in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, that most impressed audiences as socially insightful and dramatically effective.

Meanwhile, the “huffing” tragedy of the Restoration, intended to exalt an aristocratic conflict between love and honor, had been laughed off the stage as pretentious and distinctly unnatural. Contempt for heroic tragedy fueled the success of Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb (1730), soon after expanded into The Tragedy of Tragedies (1731). Although new tragedy went into decline with literary critics, the “she-tragedies” of Nicholas Rowe—notably The Fair Penitent (1702) and Jane Shore (1714)—aimed explicitly to make tragedy appealing to a middle-rank audience in the aid of values of domestic virtue. But Samuel Johnson, writing in 1779, noted the failure of Rowe to inspire the Aristotelian effects of fear and pity for characters not endowed with royalty and high rank (2006, 2:205). The dilemma of making tragedy appealing to a broad audience that included both the upper gentry and middle ranks was most successfully resolved by Shakespeare, who underwent a historical revival led by David Garrick, actor and manager of Drury Lane Theatre after the 1740s. Shakespeare was rescued by the belief that the pleasure experienced by a socially mixed theatre audience represented what Johnson called “general nature” (1968, 1:65), an opinion that the Tory Johnson shared even with Whig enemies like Charles Churchill (see Hudson 2007: 53–58). According to this perception, Shakespeare bridged the social and political divisions of the age, for he dramatized human realities shared down the ranks from kings to commoners. Complaints against Shakespeare’s mixed drama by Rymer, echoed in England by Dennis, now struck Johnson as “the petty cavils of petty minds” (1968, 1:66). Nevertheless, even Garrick removed the grave-diggers from Hamlet and the Fool from King Lear.

Heroic poetry suffered from the same difficulties as tragedy. For many readers, it seemed absurd to praise a modern commercial society in a “high” poetic form suitable to kings and aristocrats. For example, the Whig and City-based physician Sir Richard Blackmore attempted to revive an English form of the classical epic beginning with Prince Arthur (1695), part of the campaign he shared with Jeremy Collier to reform the representation of the English nobility and gentry. In A Satyre upon Wit (1700), Blackmore (1718) also wrote an attack on the “wits” who surrounded the elderly Dryden at Will’s Coffee-House, a circle that now included Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Addison. This satire combined the affectedly high language typical of his epics with bold metaphors drawn from finance and the City. Notoriously, he recommended that the government set up a “Bank of Wit” just as it had established the Bank of England: “Let us erect a Bank of Sterling Sense, / A Bank, whose current Bills may Payment make, / Till new-milled Wit shall from the Mint come back” (1718: 90). In response, the “wits” collaborated in a volume of Commendatory Verses (1700) that assailed Blackmore’s unapologetic connections with the City and his literary debts to financial imagery. As one of the contributors observed: “In vain thou would’st thy Name, dull Pedant, hide, / There’s not a line but smells of thy Cheapside” (Brown 1700: 5). Although he had some early admirers, Blackmore generally became a laughing-stock of pretentious City-based vulgarity and was later satirized among other poets connected with the City by Pope in The Dunciad (1728–1742). The attempt to lionize the world of trade and commerce was similarly attempted by Edward Young in Imperium Pelagi (1729), better known during the century by the title of its pirated Dublin edition, The Merchant: A Naval Ode. Young’s attempt to turn merchants into heroes worthy of a Pindaric ode was mocked by Fielding in The Tragedy of Tragedies and by Herbert Croft in the “Life of Young” he contributed to Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in 1781. “Let burlesque try to go beyond that,” Croft scoffed, referring to Young’s line, “Her merchants Princes, each deck a throne” (Johnson 2006, 4:165; Young 1871, 2:347).

These attacks were not directed against commerce itself but against the laughable incongruity of combining a noble style with a traditionally plebeian subject. To the ears of many readers, Blackmore and Young had unintentionally written mock-heroics. Intentional mock-heroic revealed the dilemma of finding a suitable style for the age that combined traditionally elitist tastes with the reality of commercial expansion. Understood as a mixed form that did both, the mock-heroic actually broadened the social range of poetry. The major English precursors of the mock-heroic, Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Samuel Garth’s The Dispensary (1699), are set in the City, opening poetry to satiric commentary on the literary marketplace and topical professional controversy. Alexander Pope ingeniously reset the mock-heroic in the world of the Catholic aristocracy at Hampton Court in The Rape of the Lock (1712–1717), satirizing the preoccupation of these fashionable people with luxurious objects gleaned from the expansion of British trade. Modern critics have nonetheless debated whether Pope’s poem should be understood as a celebration or critique of trade and commercialism (see Landa 1980; Crehan 1997; Nicholson 2005). Pope was the son of a retired merchant, and his exactly contemporaneous poem, Windsor-Forest (1713), was propaganda for a major trading pact attached to the Treaty of Utrecht, just about to be ratified by the Tory government. The literary technique of Windsor-Forest is worth considering, for Pope avoids the absurd discontinuity of the mock-heroic by referring to international trade only through indirect allusions and metonymy. Aiming to show the unexpected harmony of supposed opposites, the Stuart monarchy and the expansion of trade, Pope depicts the oaks of the royal forest leaping into the Thames to form fleets. The Thames, in turn, joins Windsor Palace with London, where the river jointly reflects both the seat of government and St. Mary-le-Bow, symbol of the City: “I see, I see where two fair Cities bend, / Their ample Bow, a new White-Hall ascend!” (Pope 1963: 208). Through these indirect means, Pope implied his rejection of the assumption that the old landed elite and the new “moneyed interest” were at odds, an anticommercial doctrine recently espoused in The Examiner by Jonathan Swift, only later a friend.

Windsor-Forest updates another genre inherited from classical tradition, the pastoral. Virgil was the major model for both of the main forms of the pastoral, the eclogue and the georgic. In an age of major economic development on the land, with the increase of enclosure and the development of new farming techniques, the pastoral presented an opportunity for combining a relatively dignified classical genre with the modern economic world. The eclogue was however less amenable to this end, for it envisioned an idealized rural landscape largely without hard work and inhabited by rustics who often seem, as in Pope’s earlier Pastorals (published 1709), very like polished gentlemen and ladies. Like the heroic, however, the eclogue could be used as a poetic style to highlight the jarring disjunction between a noble past and a modern commercial world. Swift’s satires of London, such as “A Description of the Morning” (1709), “A Description of a City Shower” (1710), and “The Progress of Beauty” (1719), deploy pastoral imagery and epithets like “swain” and “nymph” to contrast the vulgarity and degradation of urban life with the innocence and refinement of the classical eclogue. Although Swift mock-pastorals often present figures from the lower ranks with ambiguous repulsion and sympathy, the eclogue was also a major inspiration for a small though briefly fashionable group of poems written by members of England’s largely illiterate mass of workers. This fashion was first inspired by The Thresher’s Labour (1730) by Stephen Duck, a real farm worker whose poem dramatized the hardship and humiliation endured by the rural wage-laborer in language drawn from the eclogue’s leisured Arcadia. In the dark and dirty barns where threshers toil under the supervision of a greedy master, “No Fountains murmur … no Lambkins play, / No Linnets warble, no Fields look gay” (Duck 1737: 13). If there once was a pastoral Golden Age where rural life was filled with play, courtship, and community, it had been entirely destroyed by enclosure and trade, the vision of Oliver Goldsmith’s anticommercial polemic The Deserted Village (1770). Goldsmith’s idealized portrait of the rural “swain” before the rise of commerce and urban decadence was however attacked as a pastoral fantasy by George Crabbe in The Village (1783). Although Crabbe praises “honest DUCK” as the only poet who provided a realistic vision of rural England, he did not mean to promote much sympathy for workers. In this poem dedicated to Lord Rutland, the point is rather that the real poor are immoral, squalid, and in need of more responsible supervision by the aristocracy, gentry, and clergy.

These poems also reveal the heightened influence of Virgil’s other contribution to the pastoral tradition, the Georgics, which concern not pastoral leisure but rather productive farm work from the point of view of an expert supervisor. Modern scholars have recently made much of the upsurge of georgic imitation in the eighteenth century, for this branch of the pastoral seemed to provide an opportunity for bridging the classical education of the elite with rising pride in British commerce (see Crawford 1998; O’Brien 1999; De Bruyn 2005). The eighteenth-century georgic was, however, short-lived and seldom faithful to its Virgilian origins. First, the language of the new georgic was characteristically derived from the epic, especially Milton. Beginning with John Philips’s Cyder (1708), georgic imitations including Christopher Smart’s The Hop-Garden (written c. 1742–1743), John Dyer’s The Fleece (1757), and James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764) clothed technical advice on agriculture in the grand blank verse of Paradise Lost. Milton, who enjoyed a major revival after his relative neglect during the Restoration, provided an answerable style because he now seemed to exemplify the modern “Whig” gentleman rather than the urban radical. Biographies of Milton by John Toland and Jonathan Richardson passed over his City birth quickly in favor of his landed heritage and grand tour of Italy. As the Tory Johnson complained, his admirers seemed embarrassed by his stint as a schoolmaster. A second characteristic of the eighteenth-century georgic was its incorporation of significant elements of the eclogue, with that form’s general avoidance of vulgar realism and descriptions of work. Not only does the labor of the “swain” seem gentle, but his toiling body is usually replaced by the autonomous actions of his tools. In Philips’s Cyder, “the arched Knife” (1720: 24) cuts the apple tree rather than the worker. It is the “sharp spade” (1980–1996, 4:51) that digs the ground in Smart’s The Hop-Garden rather than the worker who wields it. Actual labor and the worker fell below the abiding demand that poetry obey the restrictions of classically inspired genres aimed at a genteel and classically literate sensibility.

This had been Duck’s complaint about the eclogue in The Thresher’s Labour. He may have had particularly in mind James Thomson’s immensely admired The Seasons (1726–1730), which had just been completed when Duck wrote his poem. Thomson’s poem, written in Milton blank verse with all its characteristic inversions and Latinisms, avoids the direct description of labor and idealizes the rural “swain” as conventionally happy. The singular success of The Seasons, which continued to be a best-seller during the Romantic era, owed much to Thomson’s elevation of “Nature” as both the hero of his poem and the autonomous agent of economic prosperity. Consider the following passage from “Spring”:

  • Ye generous BRITONS, venerate the Plow!
  • And o’er your Hills and long withdrawing Vales
  • Let Autumn spread his Treasures to the Sun,
  • Luxuriant and unbounded! As the Sea
  • Far thro’ his azure turbulent Domain
  • Your Empire owns, and from a thousand Shores
  • Wafts all the Pomp of Life into your Ports;
  • So with superior Boon may your rich Soil,
  • Exuberant, Nature’s better Blessings pour
  • O’er every land, the naked Nations cloath,
  • And be th’ exhaustless Granary of a World!

Thomson (1981: 6)

Similar to Philips and Smart, Thomson celebrates the “Plow” rather than the worker as the appropriate object of national veneration. More original, however, is Thomson’s suggestion that the prosperity of Britain and its empire is actually the blessing of “Autumn,” the seas, and “Nature” itself. As in much Romantic poetry, nature virtually effaces that laboring ranks and becomes the autonomous and heroic agent of Britain’s economic prosperity. It is significant that Johnson greatly admired Thomson’s poem though he usually found modern georgics absurd. He observed that Thomson “looks round on Nature and on Life, with the eye which Nature bestows only on a poet” (2006, 4:103). Johnson nonetheless ridiculed John Dyer’s attempt to dignify the British wool industry in heroic measures in The Fleece: “The woolcomber and the poet appear to me such discordant natures, that an attempt to bring them together is to couple the serpent with the fowl … the meanness naturally adhering, and the irreverence habitually annexed to trade and manufacture, sink him under insuperable oppression” (2006, 4:125). The Seasons, like Windsor-Forest, beguiled Johnson with its ingenious erasure of the conflict between the “meanness” of modern business and the nobility of classical tradition. The Fleece, on the contrary, left Johnson with the same feeling of absurd disjunction that characterized reactions to Blackmore’s A Satyre upon Wit or Young’s The Merchant. As suggested by the rapid decline of georgic imitations during the last quarter of the century, his judgment was widely shared.

As the above descriptions suggest, the lines between successful innovation, unintentional absurdity, and deliberate satire had become exceedingly ambivalent and porous. Satire was indeed the most natural response to a perplexed social order where the middle ranks rode the tide of commerce while remaining subservient to royal and aristocratic standards of fashion and prestige. Swift’s Gulliver, a City-bred ship’s surgeon, embodies a middle-rank combination of preening self-importance with servility to even a Lilliputian-sized version of royalty and nobility. As described by Dryden in A Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), satire in the ancient tradition denoted an “Olla, or Hotch-potch,” a mélange he understood in terms of its mixture of forms appropriate to various social ranks (1956–2002, 4:80). The same social mobility distinguished the muse of satire in John Brown’s Essay on Satire: Occasion’d by the Death of Mr. Pope (1745):

  • She pow’rful goddess, rules the wise and great,
  • Bends ev’n reluctant hermits at her feet:
  • Haunts the proud city, and the lowly shade,
  • And swings alike the scepter, and the spade.

(1745: 7)

The two main models of classical satire during the eighteenth century, Horace and Juvenal, both exemplified a kind of enlightened gentility servile to neither titles nor avarice. The patronage of Maecenas did not diminish Horace’s willingness to expose the follies of all the ranks in Rome. He served as the main satiric role model for Pope, who similarly valued his independence and self-sufficiency. Although Juvenal’s social origins were uncertain, he increasingly became a model for the enraged and fearless British patriot. Despite its social flexibility, however, satire could not finally fill the role of bridging the gaps in eighteenth-century society or setting up a unifying model of national identity. During the second half of the century, Swift in particular was often attacked for his lack of patriotism or positive ideals, along with his willingness to dwell on low and vulgar realities.

As we have considered, experiments in mixing or reforming the main classical traditions of drama, poetry, and prose led indeed to some popular and critical acclaimed innovations. It is doubtful, however, that any of the older traditions could be fully adapted to the complex and evolving realities of a nation that, while it still maintained a stabilizing commitment to the old elite, was being transformed permanently by the influx of wealth, the financial empowerment of new groups of people, and a vibrant literary marketplace. The celebrated rise of the novel owed much to these circumstances and to the failure of literary forms linked to a previous kind of social hierarchy.

The Social Significance of the Novel

According to the influential thesis of Ian Watt, “the rise of the novel” accompanied and advanced the simultaneous “rise of the middle class” (1957: 48–49, 61–62). This thesis is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the so-called middling sort incorporated an exceedingly wide and ill-defined range of occupations, incomes, and life-styles from the untitled gentry through to the professions, from great City merchants to moderately prosperous traders and shopkeepers. Second, this wide range of people had few attitudes that were distinctive or unifying, for they usually regarded the fashions and tastes of the aristocracy and great gentry as the standard of social prestige. Even the businessman Daniel Defoe, whose novels are presented by Watt as the first great works of “middle-class” fiction, equated the success of merchants and traders with the acquisition of land, titles, and polite company. The characters of his best-selling novels—Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Roxana—all aspire to obtain the reputation of being gentlemen or ladies, though Defoe retained “Puritan” anxieties about the morality of this ambition, especially among women. Moreover, Defoe’s original success in the 1720s was at least equaled by his rival Eliza Haywood, whose prolific fiction is usually about sexual intrigue in the nobility and upper gentry. Although Watt and others have called her books “romances,” partly because they fanaticize about the aristocracy, Haywood’s audience consisted mostly of readers from the middling ranks. If, as recently argued, this audience sought “an expression of bourgeois self-definition” (King 2005: 272), this definition is modeled on the behavior of an imagined elite distant from their working lives and enacting forms of politeness associated with the writings of Lord Shaftesbury.

It was this upwardly mobile sensibility that disconcerted Samuel Richardson, whose sensational Pamela (1740) concerns a servant girl who bravely resists attempted seduction by a rich landed gentleman until he agrees to marry her. Accused by Fielding, Haywood and others of promoting the social ambitions of the serving class, Richardson invented a genteel heritage for his heroine in the sequel of the novel. The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has depicted Richardson’s next novel, Clarissa (1747–1748), as an “allegory” of “class warfare” between “a predatory nobility and a pious bourgeosie” (1982: 4). This assessment is plausible insofar as the villain Lovelace recalls the libertines of the Restoration stage who demonstrate their elite status through a disdain for the Puritan morality associated with the City. Nevertheless, even Christopher Hill regarded the Harlowes’ pursuit of land through marriage as typical of the landed gentry, not the urban middle ranks (1972: 248). Although the Harlowes have not yet achieved noble rank, modern historians have insisted on the close integration, in part through intermarriage, of the untitled gentry with the nobility in an essentially unified governing class after the Glorious Revolution (see Rosenheim 1997: 13). In the words of Lovelace’s uncle, Lord M., “Let me tell you that many of our coronets would be glad they could derive their descent from no worse stem than theirs” (1985: 1036). That Richardson’s primary concern was not to allegorize social revolution but rather to delineate the behavior of an unquestioned ruling elite is even more obvious in Sir Charles Grandison (1753–1754), whose hero is a landed man of ancient family and virtuous authority. Richardson’s last two novels all but expunge the presence of the newly monied, one minor exception being Anthony Harlowe, a younger son who joined the East India Company. A snob though City-bred, Richardson regarded Fielding’s novels as worthy of a man “born in a stable” (1964: 198) for his licentious comedy involving characters drawn from throughout the social hierarchy. Yet Fielding, proud of his own noble connections, flaunts his classical education and genteel wit in the narration of his novels. The disagreements between Richardson and Fielding were less about the authority of the traditional elite than about the form that this authority should take. Richardson wished the aristocracy to set an example of moral propriety. He led a chorus of criticism against Fielding’s indulgence of good-natured libertinism in Tom Jones (1749), though Fielding in turn accused Richardson of promoting upper-rank avarice and selfishness.

The emergent novel cannot be well described, then, as a defense of distinctive “middle-class” values and aspirations. Although Richardson and Fielding are critical of upper-rank immorality and concern about money, the same can be said of The Way of the World, The Provoked Husband, Windsor-Forest, The Seasons, and innumerable plays and poems of the same time. What really made the novel distinctive from poetry and drama was, instead, its freedom from traditional generic constraints and its effortless social range. Although historians of the “romance” dated prose fiction back to the Greeks and even before, this diverse form had no theorists like Aristotle and Horace and no traditional laws hindering its “realistic” portrayal of contemporary society in all its complexity. Fielding famously rejected the laws dictated by “critics” in the essays included in Tom Jones, declaring that “As I am, in reality, the Founder of a new Province of Writing, so I am at liberty to make what Laws I please therein”(1974, 1:77.). The dignity of the novel certainly suffered from its lack of a noble classical pedigree and its commercial appeal to readers who were well down the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, novelists could justify the nobility of their form in the name of the classical genres. Fielding called Joseph Andrews (1742) a “comic Epic-Poem in Prose” (1967: 4) and Clara Reeve denominated the modern romance “an Epic in prose” (1785: 13). Richardson described Clarissa a new kind of Christian tragedy (1985: 1495–1499) and novels drew freely from the conventions of the pastoral and classical satire.

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the novel had gained sufficient authority as a literary genre to enter fully into the debate about the nature of the modern social hierarchy. Novels became highly sensitive to issues of “class” in a more modern sense—that is, the conflicting claims and rights of the landed elite, the newly wealthy, and people without either status or money. “Jacobin” novels of the 1790s brought new attention to the tyranny of the old elite over its dependents and workers (see Kelly 1976). Gothic novels, though not always radical in their political outlook, dramatized a fascinating world of aristocratic lawlessness and chivalry that now seemed to belong to the distant past or the European continent. Equally influential were novels of a more conservative kind that resisted social change or, more accurately, attempted to establish new standards of gentility based on virtue and manners rather than title or wealth. James Raven (1992) has examined the many largely forgotten novels in the 1770s and 1780s that particularly targeted the vulgar and immoral parvenus who began to invade established circles of privilege. During the same era, Frances Burney wrote admired and influential novels preoccupied especially with adjusting the morals of England’s ruling elite. For example, Cecilia (1782) presented a scathing critique of immorality, greed, stupidity, and bad manners pervasive in fashionable London society. Burney also satirized the avarice and vulgarity of the stock-jobber Mr. Briggs, though he is declared untypical of City businessmen “now almost universally rising in elegance and liberality” (1988: 374). The main crisis of this novel, however, concerns the love of an heiress to a rich estate, Cecilia, for Mortimer Delvile, scion of a family diminished in wealth but obsessed with its own noble ancestry. The Delviles’ opposition to their marriage seems arbitrary and outdated because what really counts in the ruling class is not title but rather virtue, intelligence, taste, manners, and concern for the poor. Like Richardson and Fielding, Burney does not openly question the natural authority of the landed elite. Nonetheless, her implication that the ruling class should be defined by these qualities, and not just noble lineage, set standards for a reformed and more inclusive social hierarchy. The moldering gothic castle where the Delviles reside symbolizes an old elite in need of repair, not destruction, by the self-conscious, wealthy, and moral “middle class” that rose to political authority in the nineteenth century.

Conclusion

The implicit argument of this essay has been that “social class” counts very much in the examination of literature between 1660 and 1800, despite the decline of Marxist criticism. A renewed form of literary criticism sensitive to issues of social hierarchy cannot, however, rely on the old concept of “class conflict” between an old aristocracy and a rising bourgeoisie. Rather, eighteenth-century society generally sought stability by maintaining old political structures in the face of economic change and in fearful memory of social upheaval during the Civil War and Interregnum. Literary evolution during this era was highly sensitive to these changes but also to the desire for stability. Harmonizing these opposite forces was not, however, easily accommodated within existing literary genres. Although the eighteenth century was an era of extraordinary experimentation within the traditional genres of drama and poetry, these older models increasingly receded in the face of the commercial tide of the novel. The novel was in turn distinguished less by its “middle-class” attitudes than by its inherent flexibility to explore society without rules dictated by the inherent laws of genre. Generally conservative from its outset, disagreeing about the nature of elite authority rather than its preeminence, the novel seemed uniquely positioned to harmonize rather than exacerbate social difference. Literature had transformed in a complex relationship with social change, a process probably best described by Raymond Williams (1961) as a “long revolution.”

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Notes:

(1) See Perkin (1969: 176–217); Laslett (1979: 12–20); Morris (1979); Corfield (1991: 101–130); Barry (1994: 1–27); Cannadine (1998: 24–56).

(2) Dominating this debate have been reactions to Christopher Hill’s voluminous publications on the “English Revolution,” summarized in R. C. Richardson (1998: 113–146). For a detailed description of the rise and decline of “class” interpretations of the Civil War, see MacLachlan (1996). For continued defense of the view that the rebellion was led by the “middling sort,” see Manning (1996).

(3) For summary of this debate see Harris (2006, 12–15). The “revolutionary” status of 1688 has been most recently defended by Pincus (2009).

(4) The revisionist interpretation of eighteenth-century social and political history is fully set out in Clark (1985). For a revisionist reading of eighteenth-century literature, see Erskine-Hill (1996).