English Culture in the Eighteenth Century
By John Brewer
Farrar Straus Giroux. 721 pp. $40

Go to the first chapter of "Pleasures of the Imagination"

Go to Chapter One

Beyond Lace and Frills

By Michael Dirda

Sunday, November 9, 1997; Page X01
The Washington Post

Every so often a work of intellectual history comes along that reinvigorates the common reader's interest in the past. Sometimes that book is the summary of a lifetime's scholarship, such as John Hale's magisterial Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance; at other times, it is a work of graceful and authoritative popularization -- think of Simon Schama's lavish study of the Netherlands in its golden age, The Embarrassment of Riches, or James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Civil War. To this select company one should add, despite a few reservations, John Brewer's engrossing The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century.

Many of us carry around a stock image or two of 18th-century England -- a massive, twitching Dr. Johnson laying down the literary law in a London coffeehouse; the white-marbled Georgian columns and rotundas of Bath; languid ladies in powdered wigs shamelessly flirting with preening fops or buck-toothed stableboys. In recent years many of our ideas about this period naturally derive from pretty costume dramas like "Tom Jones," "Barry Lyndon" and "Sense and Sensibility." For the most part we think of Augustan England, aside from a few rowdy taverns and picturesque gambling hells, as a world of stability, order and elegance, when the canon meant Virgil and Horace, people knew their place and Britannia ruled the waves.

Brewer's study, however, points up that this "peace of the Augustans" -- George Saintsbury's phrase -- is quite illusory: The period from roughly 1660 to 1789 was actually an era of great intellectual ferment, social dynamism and cultural change. Though drawing heavily on the biographies of certain notable and once-notable figures -- the painter Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick, the provincial lady of letters Anna Seward -- Brewer mainly uses these lives to investigate a variety of cultural institutions. This may sound dry or doctrinaire, but in fact allows for a close-up look at all sorts of fascinating matters, from the organization of a coffeehouse to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Art, from the impact of Bewick's wood engravings to the decades-long success of "The Beggar's Opera."

In general, Brewer vigorously shows how art became commodified, linked with particular corporate bodies or commercial practices, and often relegated to a patriotic, even jingoist, function. The plays of Shakespeare, for example, served many ends besides those of dramatic entertainment. Because of the licensing act of 1737, which drastically limited the number of London theaters to two, writers felt little incentive to create original dramas; as a result, old classics like "Richard III" and "King Lear" were revived again and again. Since the Tonson family of booksellers held the copyright to Shakespeare's plays, they shrewdly promoted the Bard's interests and their own by periodically commissioning distinguished figures (Pope, Johnson) to oversee new editions of the complete works. In his quest for respectability the socially ambitious David Garrick co-sponsored the Shakespeare Jubilee celebration in Stratford, and then incorporated elements from it into a special dramatic afterpiece that regularly brought down the house at Drury Lane. Not least, because Italian opera was satirized as foreign and effeminate, the spoken dramas of Shakespeare (along with the oratorios of Handel) were raised up as properly masculine and particularly British. All too often cultural success depends on factors other than artistic merit.

The Pleasures of the Imagination -- the phrase comes from Addison's 10 essays on the subject -- will especially appeal to many readers as a fount of incidental anecdote, bits of trivia and shrewd observation. Horace Walpole, a solid Whig as well as author of the proto-Gothic The Castle of Otranto, slept with a copy of Charles I's death warrant over his bed. "Between 1750 and 1770 six of the twenty most popular novelists in England were women." An issue of the Spectator cost one penny. Throughout the century the sermon was, surprisingly, still "the single most important literary form." Londoners given to the sins of the flesh could purchase a convenient volume titled "Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies." A libertine, however, was often thought to be effeminate because he lacked a true gentleman's ability to moderate his desires. "Traditional Christian works saw life as a journey . . . politeness represented the world as a theater." Showman David Garrick was always smiling, always on, so much so that his friend (and former teacher) Samuel Johnson commented that "no man's face has had more wear and tear." The first official performance of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" was a fiasco, starting with hot, drizzly weather and ending with a fire that burned a specially built pavilion to the ground.

Throughout his book Brewer implicitly draws parallels to our time. Who should decide what is great art -- and what mere pornography? Connoisseurs? The public? Or painters themselves? Authors periodically complain that "written drama was being displaced from the centre of theatrical performance by music, special effects, fairground entertainments, and all forms of what Aristotle had taught critics to see as the lowest form of drama, spectacle." "The Beggar's Opera" -- with its "arch knowingness," pop songs, contemporary references, and mixture of the high and low styles -- appears as a classic of what modern critics call inter-textuality. John Bell's elegantly designed set of the British poets subtly exemplifies "the trend to present culture as a 'treasure.' " Like his 20th-century descendants, the 18th-century tourist usually "arrived at the moment when what he wanted to see was beginning to vanish."

As now, social pretension and genuine intellectual commitment often dwelt side by side. Early book clubs, for instance, "brought together the local elite of professional men, merchants, affluent farmers and minor gentry in the convivial environment of the local inn or tavern, where together they chose the club's acquisitions, debated the issues of the day and last, but by no means least, ate and drank. The books they bought were overwhelmingly controversial and topical, pamphlets and slim volumes on politics and religion. The ephemeral character of these books is indicated by the common practice of auctioning them or selling them to members by lottery at the end of each year." Some things never change.

Brewer draws on much manuscript material -- the diary of a bluestocking named Anna Larpent, the personal history of provincial composer John Marsh -- and he tantalizes with gossipy obiter dicta like this: "In 1755 Charlotte Clarke," the rejected daughter of poet laureate Colley Cibber, "wrote a remarkably candid memoir, more revealing than anything penned by her father, in which she recounted her life as actress, grocer, oil dealer, puppeteer, strolling player, waitress, novelist, transvestite and lesbian lover. She published her sensational life in order to escape poverty . . . but she died destitute in a Grub Street garret five years later." (Today Clarke would be a bestseller with her own radio talk show.)

For all its obvious merits as a work of scholarship, including more than 200 period illustrations, The Pleasures of the Imagination is nevertheless slightly flawed as a book. Far too many typographical or spelling errors mar the text: It's Giulio (not Guilio) Romano; Pope Julius II's family name was della Rovere (not Covere); the 18th-century song is "Heart of Oak" (not "Hearts of Oak"); and Donald Stauffer (not Strauffer) wrote a standard study of biography. At one point the painter Claude Lorrain gains a feminizing E, while Rousseau's Nouvelle Heloise loses its initial H; at its first mention Handel's middle name is given as Frederick instead of Frideric. Although Brewer's prose is usually clear and occasionally elegant, he sometimes allows his syntax to grow tangled, so that, for example, in one sentence he appears to have Dr. Johnson being hanged for forgery. On page 125 he writes "effulgent" when almost certainly he means "effusive." Finally, it is probably fruitless to regret the frequent occurrence of constructions like "For an actor or actress to be accepted by high society they had to . . . "

In a stimulating bibliographical essay Brewer points out that his book is based largely on scholarship of the past 20 years and that one of his aims in writing has been to "bring much of this work to the attention of an audience that extends beyond specialists by presenting it in an accessible way." This he does with great panache, though I confess to a certain unease about the lack of footnotes. Just how much of his material is original with Brewer? It is difficult to gauge this, though I recognize many of his points about Shakespeare from the generously acknowledged source. Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare. I also wish there were more references to the great 18th-century historians and critics of the past: Scholars should honor their predecessors. Surely the half-forgotten Austin Dobson, to pick just one, deserves a mention for his numerous historical essays and "vignettes" devoted to Grub Street, the Spectator, Vauxhall Gardens and other matters that interest Brewer. I suspect that at least a few of the discoveries of the past 20 years may be less original than they seem.

But that's a matter for specialists to argue about. For the rest of us, The Pleasures of the Imagination stands as an exhilarating work of great scope and substance. No one interested in modern intellectual history should miss it.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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