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From the outset it inspired fear by its very existence. In the time of general fear produced by the French Revolution, such dread and hostility became chronic, affecting the old ruling class and the new industrial bourgeoisie alike, and creating a climate of total repression. What was possible but revolt, in the face of this?

Humanity, pulverized and recast in this grim mould, had to rebel in order to live, to assert itself as more than a mere object of history, as more than an economic instrument.


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And yet, what became of this revolt? The great English working class, this titanic social force which seemed to be unchained by the rapid development of English capitalism in the first half of the century, did not finally emerge to dominate and remake English society. It could not break the mould and fashion another. 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. 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.

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.

Richardson described Clarissa a new kind of Christian tragedy — 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. 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 has examined the many largely forgotten novels in the s and s that particularly targeted the vulgar and immoral parvenus who began to invade established circles of privilege. For example, Cecilia 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.

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. 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.

Literature and Social Class in the Eighteenth Century

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.

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. Barry, J. Barry and C. Brooks eds. London: Macmillan, Find this resource:. Blackmore, R Sir. A Collection of Poems on Various Subjects. Brewer, J. New York: Alfred A. Brown, J. Brown, T. Burney, F. Cecilia, or the Memoirs of an Heiress , edited by P.

Sabor and M.

Oxford: Oxford University Press. Cannadine, D. Class in Britain. Cannon, J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Clark, J. Corfield, P. Corfield ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Crawford, R. Crehan, S. Dawson, M. De Bruyn, F. Dennis, J. The Critical Works, 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Dickson, P. New York: St. Dryden, J. The Works of John Dryden 20 vols. Swedenberg et al. Berkeley: University of California Press. Duck, S. Poems on Several Occassions. Eagleton, T. The Rape of Clarissa. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Erskine-Hill, H. Poetry of Opposition and Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Evelyn, J. The Diary of John Evelyn , edited by J. Fielding, H. Joseph Andrews , edited by Martin C. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press. Tom Jones , 3 vols, edited by M. Battestin and F.

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Literature and Social Class in the Eighteenth Century - Oxford Handbooks

Gauci, P. Harris, T. London: Penguin. Hill, C. New York: Viking Press.


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