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Two Hundred Years Ago

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Johnson’s England. Edited by A. S. Turberville. New York: Oxford University Press. Two Volumes. $14.00. The Clubs of Augustan London. By Robert J. Allen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $3.00. The Life and Friendships of Dean Sivift. By Stephen Gwynn. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.75. Dean Swift’s Library. By Harold Williams. New York: The Macmillan Company for The Cambridge University Press. $4.25.

The eighteenth century is not an easy age to under-

stand. One reason for our difficulties in proper judg-

ment and appreciation lies in the very amount of intervening time. Two hundred years are, as time flies, not very much; our great-grandfathers were born in the eighteenth century: surely we may have faith in our interpretation of an era so close to us, indeed just close enough to emphasize our heritage. And therein we err, for the age of Swift and Johnson is sufficiently distant to require considerable orientation but sufficiently near to cause a neglect of that orientation. Moreover, the modern European world may be said to date from the Renaissance or, on a stricter definition, from the French Revolution. Without doubt, that fever of the world, with its direct actions, its causes and products, changed the patterns of Western civilization. Humanita-rianism, democracy, socialization, libertarianism, industrialism, and mechanization have blossomed or dug deeper roots since the storm across the Channel, and have altered the tempo of life in a fashion hardly dreamt of by Reynolds or Addison.

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to a clear and sound judgment of this period has been the tardiness and infrequency of eighteenth-century studies which embody the best fruits of true scholarship. We have at last begun to stand on firm ground, to know a, few facts and draw a few valid inferences. The study and enjoyment of a great literature have long been vitiated by shibboleths, phrases thrown from one author of a one-volume history to another, untested and easy mottoes—”prose and reason,” “imitation of the classics,” “rules,” “lack of imagination and emotion,” “neglect of Nature,” etc.: such are the facile terms so casually accepted, so seldom defined. The eighteenth century, literarily or intellectually or socially, was not of a piece; it was as full of contradictions and inconsistencies as our own century, mutatis mutandis; a few phrases cannot adequately illuminate its broad highway or dark recesses. An era that contains so many brands of rationalism and sentimentalism, such good manners and bad prisons, Dr. Johnson and Henry Fielding, Lord Chesterfield and John Howard, Arthur Young and Dick Turpin (both of whom were interested in roads), Captain Cook and Capability Brown, Parson Woodforde and Bishop Watson, Chippendale and Priestley, the Bridgewater Canal and Strawberry Hill, cannot be regarded as other than diverse and confusing, with a homogeneity ever to seek.

Such a manifold, contradictory, and withal attractive England has been presented in Mr. A. S. Turberville’s symposium, “Johnson’s England,” which is designed to act as a companion to the volumes on the age of Shakespeare issued by the same press. Herein twenty-seven essays describe the life of the “fast-anchor’d isle” in the widest sense social—the age of Johnson; church; navy; army; exploration and discovery; travel and communications; London and the life of the town; town-life in the provinces; industry and trade; agriculture and rural life; poverty, crime, and philanthropy; manners, meals, and domestic pastimes; sports and games; costume; taste; painting and engraving; sculpture; architecture and the garden; interior of the house; drama and the theatre; music; education, schools, and universities; science, mathematics, and astronomy; medicine; law and the lawyers; authors and booksellers; newspapers. The contributors are all experts without the recently won opprobrium of that term. The pitfall of symposia, great unevenness, has here been escaped; though one topic will have its enthusiastic reception at the expense of another, there is a surprising lack of spottiness in the products of so many pens. Thus at the risk of unfairness this reviewer would illustrate the distinctive quality of the essays by naming several of the authors: G. M, Trevelyan, Sir John Fortescue, G. D. II. Cole, W. J. Lawrence, Sir Henry Hadow, Sir Frank MacKinnon, R. W. Chapman, D. Nichol Smith.

The essays, with abundant plates comic and serious, a scantling of footnotes, and short, suggestive bibliographies, average thirty pages. In this space numerous passages, frequently from little-known sources, serve to let the eighteenth century speak for itself. Indeed, there is no skimping of facts, and the authors provide sound conclusions without stumbling into hasty generalizations. “Johnson’s England,” sprinkled with references to the Great Cham himself, attempts no total view of the political, philosophical, and literary worlds, but rather a compact and authoritative survey of the institutions, professions, habits, outward forms, and non-literary arts of the England that lived from 1730 to 1790. The appearance of these volumes, easily superseding such recent works as those by Richardson, Mowat, and Mac-coby, constitutes a highly significant event in eighteenth-century publications and must be so recognized by both scholar and general reader.

“Man is said to be a Sociable Animal,” wrote Joseph Addison, “and, as an Instance of it, we may observe, that we take all Occasions and Pretences of forming our selves into those little Nocturnal Assemblies, which are commonly known by the name of Clubs.” Thus it is universally accepted that the men (and women) of Augustan London gathered in multiform groups and therefrom frequently derived their ideas and motives and purposes. Moreover, the club quite naturally attained a fictitious existence which permeated the essay periodical and enriched it, as the partisans of Sir Roger and Will Honeycomb can bear witness. In “The Clubs of Augustan England,” Mr. Robert J. Allen writes about the real clubs and the fictitious in their heyday. After outlining the rise of the club he sets forth in detail the history and activities of the Kit-Cats, the Hanover Club, the Calves-Head, the Tory Saturday and Brothers and October Clubs, the Mohocks and Hell-Fires, the Robin Hood Society, the Beefsteaks, and White’s. The discussions of the fictitious club and its use as a framework in the periodicals will prove the core of the book for the literary student, though all the clubs in the “Spectator” and “Guardian” are not mentioned, and the frame device in the former journal receives an attention incommensurate with its great importance. The final chapter examines the interrelations of club and author with special emphasis on the little senate at Button’s and the Scriblerus Club. The investigator has amassed a sizable body of pertinent information, often of a variety hard to come at, and he has organized his data wisely. He seems to regard Swift as the most important focus of club activity, despite Swift’s comparatively brief residence in London and his slight connection with the fictitious club. The reader may regret Mr. Allen’s unwillingness to leave his temporal and spatial limits for the sake of illustration or proof of influence and broad significance: for example, the Easy Club in Edinburgh, at which a “Spectator” paper was read each meeting and Allan Ramsay wore the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff, is not alluded to, and no picture is given of the literary club made famous by Johnson and his circle. The research behind “The Clubs of Augustan London” will be of much service to literary and social historians, but the book does not possess enough of that philosophic, associative, bird’s-eye-view quality which would have done complete justice to an excellent subject.

Mr. Stephen Gwynn’s volume, “The Life and Friendships of Dean Swift,” produces no new facts about the man who has inspired more original investigation than any of his contemporaries. Using Swift’s correspondence (he wrote the best letters of his time), the incomparable “Journal to Stella,” and the published prose and verse, and eschewing the more extreme psychographic methods which we trust are fast fading from us, Mr. Gwynn writes the tale of the “Dean, Drapier, Bickerstaff, or Gulliver,” in his traffic with personal, political, and literary friends and foes. My lords Har-ley and Bolingbroke, Temple, the Scriblerus wits, Stella, and Vanessa stand forth, and quite skilful is the treatment of the women and their relations to Swift. Mr. Gwynn believes in his subject’s capacity for friendship, in his tenderness, in his amiability that not infrequently surmounted pride and vexation. This interpretation comes as a welcome antidote to the prevalent notion, which needlessly sharpens the barb in the fighter’s spear or breeds the misanthrope in a madhouse of complexes. To be sure, the author has far from mastered the many items in our scholarly Swif tiana, and he might have informed himself on the appropriate topic of Mr. Allen’s work, but the unpretentious book he has written is by no means vicious. The temptation in such difficult matters of personality is to rest on the saying that one man’s guess is as good as another’s; such an attitude of escape, however, is unfair to an honest, sensitive effort to explain the workings of a great man’s mind and heart. This book then, “popular-istic” and interpretative, may well direct our interest to Jonathan Swift, who, be it said, is above all the English man of letters who should be living at this hour to “give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

Swiftians are already in the debt of Mr. Harold Williams, whose latest study is an admirably written and beautifully printed essay, “Dean Swift’s Library.” The reading of the learned satirist is a subject which has point for any student in the ways of literary preparation and composition. Mr. Williams traces the vicissitudes of Swift’s own books and uses as main guides two manuscript lists, compiled many years apart, and the sale catalogue of more than six hundred items, published the year of Swift’s death and here reproduced in facsimile. The owner annotated some six dozen of these items, of which we know the whereabouts of only a handful. The analysis of the library shows a large number of classics and French books, no large proportion of theological works, and a victory of history, law, politics, economics, and sociology over belles-lettres and books on travel. Swift wrote his two early satires when he needed few books of his own, for his elbow then rested on Sir William Temple’s plentifully supplied desk; thus his sources would probably not be found in the sale catalogue. But a comparison of the volumes he is reputed to have read for “Gulliver” and the known entries in his own library is disappointing for the “restless discoverer of source books.” Upon this excellent evidence, the chief sources of the “Travels” were “originality in the author and some general reading.” Within its chosen limits, Mr. Williams’ small volume would be most difficult to improve. On such studies, well conceived and well executed, are builded the true knowledge and therefore the wise enjoyment of eighteenth-century letters.


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