The 18th century, in Britain, is generally considered a golden age, it is a time of surprising broad views and growing freedoms, an age of greater individual awareness that brought more and more people to believe in the right to pursue happiness through personal fulfilment, a time during which entertainment and sexual gratification were no longer associated with sin and even women were granted more freedom, as long as they saved appearances to preserve respectability. The faith in progress and in individual common sense stemmed from the numerous scientific discoveries that improved many aspects of everyday life and boosted economy which was already thriving on the flourishing commerce with the colonies. The exceeding profits from this trade was, for the most part, invested in extensive farming, selective animal breeding and in factories; all these factors contributed to the rise of a new social class, the upper middle class, at the same time, an increasing number of artisans and craftsmen developed into the lower middle class and filled the gap between the upper classes and the poor.

During this time individual and private initiative was encouraged and often prized with enrichment. The State’s main concern was to protect legal rights, but not at the expense of private property, furthermore the State didn’t deal with issues regarding social justice or equality. Those in need were sometimes helped by the philanthropic activity of the country gentry but in the urban areas it was only the non-conformist religious movement, known as Methodism that supplied services for the poor.


Methodism was founded by John and Charles Wesley in 1729, it was a religious movement of evangelical revival within the Anglican Church, mainly concerned with respectability and moral dignity, and they praised a life of temperance and method. The Methodists provided Sunday schools where people studied the Bible, but they actually taught people how to read and write since literacy was not common at the time; there were some schools but few people attended and children belonging to the lower classes usually started work as early as six or seven years old.


Nevertheless, the growing social and political influence exercised by the middle class, along with a greater amount of free time to dispose of without a worry, delineated a new reading public anxious to acquire information on public debates, be updated on current events, and have a guide in social affairs and countenance. Therefore, journalism sprang to respond to all these social and intellectual instances and soon developed into an original thriving literary form. The two most popular periodicals were the Tatler founded by Richard Steel and The Spectator by John Addison; they were not very long lasting, but proved to be interesting experiments that were followed by many novelists of the time who began writing as journalists. These periodicals dealt with many different topics ranging from politics to fashion, etiquette, moral issues. The language and style were clear and simple to attract and suit best middle class readers.


Journalism though, was not the only literary innovation, the novel was the real revolution and what best mirrored the middle class. The pragmatic and down to earth mentality that characterize the British people, enhanced by the faith in the power of reason, individualism and self-reliance that were typical, were all well represented in fiction prose writing. The first British novels appeared in weekly instalments in periodicals, therefore writers were no longer dependant on patrons for their living, and this granted them greater creative freedom. So, the once popular literary themes that had traditionally inspired poets, such as great historical events, legends and myths, were no longer relevant. What was of greater interest during this time was the attempt to portray and analyse real human experiences viewed from different perspectives, the main characters of the novels belonged to the middle class and dealt with the sort of problems that the bourgeois man faced. Writers strived to be realistic, therefore they were very careful with details, depicting a world as real as possible, that is why the action followed a linear development, space and time played a great role in the display of plot, so the settings were described accurately and enriched with names of places and streets, characters now had full names, in order to confer the idea of realism. The authors’ ideas and views were expressed by their characters; the writer was present at all times while the narrator was all-knowing. Needless to say, though, that books were still very expensive and not many could afford to buy them and despite the many social changes that took place during this time and the growing literacy among the population, weekly instalments in periodicals allowed many more people to have access to the reading of novels, along with the growth of the circulating libraries, this system consisted of libraries set up in carts that travelled from town to town and in the countryside, lending books to people.

The preeminent role of novels does not mean that there weren’t any other forms of writing during the 18th century. Religious publishing were still very popular, especially among the lower classes, for their moral support and guiding since many people continued to rely on Puritan morality which was based on the belief that good deeds and proper intentions would eventually lead to success, in other words the very foundations of self-reliance. Alongside we can also find many works of criticism of which Samuel Johnson is its best representative; but criticism was also expressed by playwrights and it changed drama from the old comedy of manners, at first with the sentimental comedy that was meant to portray everyday middle-class family life and marriage, underlining melodramatic situations using a simple and clear language; yet, later on the pathetic happy endings that saw virtue triumphant over vice was replaced by a set of writers who rejected the excessive sentimentality, refused the sexual innuendos of the past but kept the witty dialogues and portrayed a realistic view of their contemporary society through ridicule, irony and parody. It goes without saying that poetry maintained its importance, but once more, it had undergone its share of changes exploiting the new trends, so it became the model of refined behaviour and followed the classical pattern. The poet shielded his true feelings and opinions and any criticism by adopting the past techniques of satire and mock-heroic verse.

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© L. R. Capuana


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