Roger Lewis: My encounters with ‘Georgian’ literature
To keep us going during this difficult ‘lockdown’ period, Stephen gave us an interesting reading list (literature of the Georgian period) – see the entry for 28 March 2020. This prompted me to consider my own early encounters with Georgian literature.
Literature of our period was not much favoured in schools of the 1950s/1960s (I suspect even less so now). Apart, of course, from the novels of Jane Austen (published in the second decade of the 19th century, so quite late on). I recall studying ‘Emma’ at some stage in my mid-teens, probably for ‘A’ level (and I enjoyed it; it’s currently serialized on Radio 4 by the way).
The history of the adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his friend Mr Abraham Adams
The other novel I recall – again it must have been required for ‘A’ level – was (to use the shortened title) ‘Joseph Andrews’. This was written much earlier, in the 1740s, and is much more within the tradition of what we probably think of as ‘Georgian’ with swashbuckling adventures on the road, inns, stagecoaches and people living lives we associate with the period. It is also different in form from the novels of Jane Austen; a ‘picaresque’ novel formed of loosely-connected episodes, characters seen largely externally and with long ‘digressions’ (as par excellence in ‘Tristram Shandy’ published between 1759 and 1767) and chapter summaries (so you know what to expect), for example: ‘Containing many surprising adventures which Joseph Andrews met with on the road, scarce credible to those who have never travelled in a stage-coach’.
I still have my paperback copy – with yellowed edges and pages falling from the binding like a pack of playing cards; and a sticker on the front indicating that I paid four shillings and sixpence for it in September 1961.
Skimming it, I recalled my enjoyment of the book. Fielding is an attractive author – warm, sophisticated, generous in his view of humanity, encompassing all aspects of life including the immediate and the bodily. The book began as a parody of a solemn and ‘moral’ contemporary novel by Samuel Richardson; ‘Pamela or virtue rewarded’ was altogether too pious and unrealistic for Fielding.
Essays from ‘The Spectator’ by Joseph Addison
My next foray was when I became a teacher in a technical high school in Kent in the early 1960s. One book on the literature syllabus (‘O’ level I suspect) was a selection of Addison’s essays.
Now this fits perfectly our stereotype of ‘Georgian England’. ‘The Spectator’, a daily paper, ran 1711-1712. It was remarkably successful; one-tenth of the London population read it in one form or another (rather like ‘The Church Times’ today it was passed from person to person). Its aim was to raise the level of ‘polite conversation’; women were an important target audience (as presumably it was thought the level of their conversation needed raising) and it was suggested that the publication should be an integral ‘part of the tea-equipage’. The phrase is revealing for we are in the heyday of tea and coffee consumption; ‘The Spectator’ would have been read in the coffee-house, much as people today read the daily papers provided by our own coffee shops. The intention was admirable – bringing ‘philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools, and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffee-houses’ – literature of a civilizing kind at a time when civilized behavior was considered an ideal (though not, from the paintings of William Hogarth, always a reality).
Reading Addison with 16-year-old boys with a technical bent in the 1960s was something of a challenge though I recall enjoying both the essays and the teaching. In those days remoteness from pupils’ experience was not considered a problem when selecting texts for public examinations; indeed, the more remote may have been thought the better as students would then have to work harder to understand what they were reading. Not, it seems to me now, a bad argument.
When I went to university the Georgians were ‘off’ the approved list of reading in favour of more modern work and works of greater complexity (‘complexity’ was a term of praise). A friend of mine greatly enjoyed Samuel Johnson, this was considered an eccentric taste (people didn’t read such stuff or if they did, they didn’t talk about it). ‘Georgian literature’ is something of a contested term. Does it mean a style (such as the picaresque novel or the elaborate poetry written in ‘flowery’ language in classical forms such as the ode)? Or is it simply a matter of date? The definitions take us to very different places. In poetry, for example, we do not think of the best work of Wordsworth as ‘Georgian’ in style, in fact quite the opposite – yet the Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798, comfortably within our period.
Roger Lewis, 16 June 2020