Devoted to the wit, wisdom, and thought of an extraordinary age
by David Lawrence
I added, “There is nothing new under the sun.” “No,” said (George) Selwyn, “nor under the grandson.” The Letters of Horace Walpole, Vol 3 1759-1769
Whenever I despair of the world around me, find it too annoying to endure, or overwhelming in what feels new and unprecedentedly hideous ways, I turn to history for a bit of perspective. The above excerpt from Horace Walpole’s letters often comes to mind. It is funny, of course. But it also reminds one that despair, frustration, and feelings of hopelessness are as old as Adam. We often term many earlier eras ‘simpler times’, which fails to consider what is always present in the present: uncertainty. The reader of a history almost always knows the outcome of past conflicts, too easily forgetting that the contemporary players did not, and that whatever were changes of the era were seldom seen as simple.
Yet the labeling as ‘simpler times’ is nothing to the sinister trend I now observe – the seeking to erase from history, and schoolbooks, what came before because the authors fail to meet current ideals and standards. I was lucky enough to attend school before vast swathes of preeminent authors (even Shakespeare himself), if they are taught at all now, received the apologetic introductions ‘chauvinistic, patriarchal’, their works carefully pre-chewed of anything digestible before being served up to all-knowing judges (one certainly can’t call them students). No doubt every author (women included) I celebrate in writing about Georgian England believed homosexuality was a sin scarcely less than murder. And so should I rob myself of Smollett, Burney, Fielding, Johnson?
Dear Reader: History is a warm bubble bath of times different from our own, and, not surprisingly, of different ideas. Most ideas discordant with those of today originated in very real fears, concerns, and imperfect beliefs (as our own will be deemed in a hundred years). I don’t want any of our modern authors introduced with ten disclaimers stating ten different ways that this person has nothing to tell highly evolved individuals of the future. I want an accurate record preserved, presented without bias. And so we must rally against the very thought of discarding what came before, warts and all. Living in an echo chamber which reinforces only those comforting ideas we had at the age of six produces screaming adults unable to cope with anything they find disagreeable. Just like children of six.
Solution? Perspective. Not such a scary word. Quite a mild word, I think. Samuel Johnson defined it as: “A glass through which things are viewed.” Simply, beautifully stated. And, yes, stated by the scariest of modern boogeymen – a straight, white, likely homophobic male who probably believed many chauvinistic things without a second thought. He was also a human being, a product of his times, who spoke passionately in favor of abolition. And, incidentally, a staggering intellect of unparalleled wit and eloquence. I ask you: if he had any unconventional thoughts on, say, homosexuality, could he have set them to paper? I have no reason to think that he had, and I don’t care one way or the other. But the fact remains that writers of the era who might be disdained as (well, whatever we arrogantly wish to term them) wrote in times, and from accepted attitudes, more restrictive than we can possible – than we can possibly – understand.
Dismiss previous eras because of imperfections, and you dismiss no less than a better understanding of yourself, human nature, not to mention dismissing the extraordinary balm of putting one’s own problems into perspective.
Dismiss Georgian England, and you dismiss Eliza Haywood (a predecessor not just of Jane Austen, but of Fanny Burney). The final section of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751) is a startling perspective on marriage presenting the life of a woman after being passionately pursued. Haywood is not the equal of Jane Austen (who is?) yet Austen never wrote so scathingly (or, let’s be honest, at all) about what happens after the ceremony. I found this both shocking and glorious. Because, by the the novel’s end, you have a glimpse of ideas both modern and quite thrilling. And this glimpse is why we read history.
Look closely. Look thoughtfully. There is a remarkable defense of homosexuality in Smollett’s Roderick Random of 1748. I don’t for a moment wish to imply that Smollett was actually defending it. Certainly the context of the defense implies ridicule. And YET! Such a fully thought-out defense never fails, frankly, to blow me away every time I read it. Because the thought was there – in 1748! Whether it was Smollett’s own, or that of ‘elsewhere’ as he writes. And this is more thrilling to me than a million rainbow flags bouncing along in a Pride Parade to Lady Gaga.
Perspective. That is all I wish to say to you good readers who have put up with me to this point. I believe perspective may be obtained by looking at any place on earth, and from any period in that place. Yet the place and period I turn to most often is England in the era of the 3 Georges (1714 – 1820. And yes, I am cheating and including Regency. George III died in 1820, regardless he had lost his marbles).
Why? This was a time of much change etc., etc. – such can be said of most of history. Jane Austen makes the point best, though referring to fiction, regarding the extraordinary powers at work in this era. These authors produced: “only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
So it is not only this age, but the staggering collection of writers whose abilities so deftly convey another age to modern readers, which is why I love this era so much. A reader gets every fictional work from Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels to Belinda and Persuasion.
And what of non-fiction? Because the Georgian era is, for me, the one era in which the beauty, the brilliance, and yes the poetry of non-fiction often outshines those works of imagination. The letters, histories, diaries, and treatises of Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Fanny Burney just to name a few…
So here are a couple particularly significant as regards Hugh:
The False Alarm, 1770 – Where to start with Samuel Johnson? The False Alarm is as good a place as any – his treatise addressing the imprisonment of, and subsequent uproar over, John Wilkes. A joy to read and, my goodness, could Johnson turn a phrase! Why say, “I shall not stoop to speak ill of such a low man”? He said instead, “Lampoon itself would disdain to speak ill of him, of whom no man speaks well.” And why simply say, “Don’t be surprised if Wilkes causes even more trouble once he is released from prison,” when you can say it this way: “…that few are mended by imprisonment, and that he, whose crimes have made confinement necessary, seldom makes any other use of his enlargement, than to do, with greater cunning, what he did before with less.” The False Alarm, 1770 – Samuel Johnson
The Sublime and Beautiful, 1757 – an early and often overlooked work by Edmund Burke, who would go on to be one of the era’s most brilliant philosophers and economists. A thoughtful, unusual treatise, and quite well known in its day. True, Beauty is defined primarily as a man’s view of feminine beauty, but I would hope that grown-ups today can see the larger vision he is laying out, and not condemn a man who was writing in another time and place. There is a deceptive simplicity to the ideas laid out here and they stay with you. This is a wonderful gem I personally found so compelling it gave the framework I needed for Hugh’s chaotic path toward adulthood. The Sublime and Beautiful, 1757 – Edmund Burke
If you’d like to discuss the era, and perhaps let me know your own favorites (I would love this), do drop me a line.