Some years ago, reflecting on philosophical changes that, for better and for worse, have altered our sense of the world we live in, Leo Spitzer declared the middle decades of the 18th century to be “the great caesura” in the intellectual history of the West—the moment when a new materialism displaced confidence in a providential world view. Just how abruptly the ideas of the philosophes transformed political thought in this same period is suggested by Jacob Viner’s observation that in the hundred years from 1660 to 1760 not a single work published in England advocated egalitarian principles of government; yet before the century was out, there would occur political cataclysms in America and Europe that signalled the demise of the old order. The story of these radical transformations in 18th-century life has been often told by historians. What John Brewer provides in this magnificent book is instead the story of a gentler aspect of this century of revolution—the story of what might be called the civilizing of a nation, of England, through the rise of “High Culture” and the widespread commercial diffusion of the objects of aesthetic pleasure.
There is much about Brewer’s book that justifies hyperbole. To begin with the least of its virtues, it is handsomely designed and, despite its length (nearly 700 pages), it is a pleasure to read: numerous aptly chosen illustrations share space on the page with the narrative, and three bright garlands of color plates are gathered at intervals to cheer us on the way. The scope of the work is also generous. Brewer undertakes to trace the evolution of taste in the arts over a period stretching from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the early decades of 19th-century romanticism; and in the course of this history he describes the process by which a new commercialism, replacing the desultory patronage of kings and noblemen, revolutionized the production and marketing of books and prints, and opened theaters, concert halls, and pleasure gardens to a wider public. His survey is broad, taking in the immense variety of a people’s pleasures—books and the visual arts, opera and the theater, country dancing and bell-ringing, tourism, and much, much more: it is indeed, as the author of a “puff” on the dust jacket has it, “a splendid cornucopia of a book.” It is also rich in illuminating detail drawn from primary materials—contemporary journals, memoirs, tradesmen’s ledgers—among them important sources for the most part previously untapped: the journal (in 17 volumes, covering the years 1773—1828) of Anna Larpent, for instance, who “personified a cultured lady of late eighteenth-century London”; the papers of the West Country miniaturist Ozias Humphry (1742—1810), an archive revealing the difficulties faced by artists of the period as they tried to establish a place for themselves in the profession; and the manuscript autobiography (in more than 28 volumes!) of the provincial musician and composer, John Marsh (1752—1828), who left behind “a saga,” as Brewer calls it, “of one man’s pursuit of musical and Christian harmony.”
Because they are so little known Larpent, Humphrys, and Marsh are among the more interesting figures in Brewer’s strategy of organizing this crowded history by means of a series of biographical “sketches” that serve to exemplify his themes and bring them, as it were, to life. The “characters” who serve in this way to enliven his account of the cultural life of London are for the most part more familiar: Richard Steele for the coffee-houses; Jacob Tonson the publisher and Samuel Richardson (who was a master printer as well as novelist) for the book trade; Johnson and Boswell for literature; John Gay and Garrick for the theater; Hogarth and Reynolds—rival advocates, respectively, for a native realism versus an ideal classicism in painting; Handel and the historian Charles Burney for music; Jonathan Tyres, creator of Vauxhall, for the pleasure gardens; Sir Francis Dashwood and Richard Payne Knight (learned author of An Account of the Worship of Priapus ) for the sensualist connoisseurs of the Society of Dilettanti. These, and far too many others to mention, combine to animate Brewer’s thesis in a way that makes the metropolis itself, in all its variety, his most fascinating “character.”
Though London is Brewer’s principal subject, his concluding chapters on cultural life in the provinces cover less familiar ground and provide a special pleasure, documenting the ways in which trends in the capital were emulated in the county towns not only by the gentry, but by literate artisans and tradesmen. A chapter on the renowned wood-engraver Thomas Bewick (1753—1828) allows Brewer to explore the cultural interests of Newcastle, the prosperous center of coal mining, and after London, Oxford, and Cambridge the most important printing center in England; Newcastle had its theater and concert hall, its clubs and associations where members debated political and philosophical topics in a liberal spirit.
Music in the provinces is the subject of a chapter on Bewick’s contemporary John Marsh, who resided in the great cathedral towns of Salisbury and Canterbury, where he could indulge his passion for music to the full. Here a section on dancing masters and the snobbish proprieties of assembly balls illuminates an aspect of country life that evokes the world of Jane Austen. Rewarding as the chapter is, however, Brewer missed the opportunity of Marsh’s close friendship with James “Hermes” Harris of Salisbury to take up an important aspect of provincial culture. For besides Harris’s energetic involvement in the musical life of the Close, he was also, as Clive Probyn has shown in his excellent biography, a learned humanist and the center of a wide circle of like-minded classicists and literary scholars who resided in country towns and villages, spending their leisure hours translating and editing the classics: such were Floyer Sydenham, translator of Plato; Dr. John Taylor, editor of Demosthenes and Aeschines; Canon John Upton, editor of Shakespeare and Arrian; Sarah Fielding, novelist and translator of Xenophon’s Memoir of Socrates; and (before and after he followed Sarah’s brother to London) the Reverend William Young, a classicist of the first rank as well as the original of Henry Fielding’s most memorable character, Parson Adams.
Readers interested in the advent of romanticism and the rising prominence of women on the literary scene will welcome the last of Brewer’s chapters on provincial life. His focus here is on the poet and critic Anna Seward (1742—1809), “the Swan of Lichfield,” who lived out her life within sight of the cathedral of which her father was a canon. An unrelenting critic of Dr. Johnson, whom she regarded as a literary tyrant determined to impose his own taste on his contemporaries, Seward was wholly committed to the aesthetic principles of the Age of Sensibility. In poetry she championed Gray, Collins, Cowper, Chatterton, and Burns, preferring a sentimental lyricism to the unforgiving couplets of the Augustan satirists. Her taste in all things was typical of her time, as she delighted in the affective, more “natural,” modes of Gothicism, sublimity, and the historical romance—themes that moved her in such works as Grays The Bard and Macpherson’s Fingal.
Lichfield, the town from which Johnson and Garrick fled to London in 1737, had since become the setting for a lively and liberal-minded coterie of intellectuals that included Anna Seward and her father, who, among other works, published a poem on the subject “Female Right to Literature”; the educator Richard Lovell Edgeworth, father of the novelist Maria Edgeworth; and the brilliant Erasmus Darwin, whose biography Seward would write. Grandfather of Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution he anticipated, Erasmus Darwin was a materialist and staunch proponent of the French Revolution, holding the progressive views of a man of the Enlightenment. After Seward herself, the most notable literary figure of the Lichfield set was the poet Thomas Day, who, even more eagerly than the rest, swallowed whole the theories of Rousseau: Day, with unhappy if predictable results, sought to educate his adopted daughters according to principles he found in Émile—according, that is, to a régime of total permissiveness that ignores the essential frowardness of human nature. Much like the muddled intellectuals of Swift’s Flying Island, Day stood in the vanguard of romantic thinkers who preferred theory to fact. Through Erasmus Darwin, he became a member of the Lunar Society, an association of scientists and philosophers in the west Midlands who called themselves—aptly it would have seemed to Swift—”The Lunaticks.”
Brewer concludes the book with a chapter on the late 18th-century aesthetic of “the picturesque”—an aspect of contemporary taste which, though gently ridiculed by Austen in Northanger Abbey, continued well into the next century. In paintings influenced by Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, and which in turn influenced the landscape architecture of “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton, Nature as the artist found her was rearranged to conform to a romantic aesthetic that, eschewing geometric formalism, sought to achieve what Pope in the Epistle to Burlington had earlier called “an artful wildness.” But more worldly motives than mere enjoyment also played a part in the creation of the great estates of wealthy aristocrats and merchant bankers. To achieve fully the impression of power and social prestige, the rich remodeled their extensive grounds—at times even going to the extreme of razing churches and removing whole villages that interfered with the view—so that their stately houses would command not only charming prospects, but the awe of the people. Here again Brewer’s evocation of the cultural contexts of country life at the turn of the century improves our understanding of the literature of the period, complementing, for example, Alistair Duckworth’s discussion of Mansfield Park in his classic study of Austen’s novels, The Improvement of the Estate (recently reissued in paper by the Johns Hopkins Press).
In the Preface to this capacious and stimulating book, Brewer states that his aim was “to build a bridge between the general reader and academic scholarship.” This he certainly achieved. What is more, he has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of those revolutionary changes in English society of the 18th century that mark the transition from Past to Present.
In one crucial respect, however, his research may be seen to contradict the usual notion of an early and eager acceptance in England at this time of the scepticism of the philosophes. For, though Brewer makes little of it, his figures reveal just how reluctant the nation was to relinquish the faith that had sustained it. In his chapter on “Readers and the Reading Public” Brewer puts the number of religious works published in the century at more than 50,000 titles: “The sermon,” he declares, “was the single most important literary form”—a form practiced, we may add, by the likes of Swift and Sterne and Johnson. The fact should serve to chasten scholars of our own more secular times who dismiss the importance of religion in the Age of Enlightenment.