Augustan literature is the body of work produced during the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I and George II in the first half of the 18th century. The period has also been referred to as the age of neoclassicism, the “Age of Reason”, the “Age of Enlightenment,” the “Age of Exuberance.” as well as the “Age of Scandal”. My interest in this period began when I read Macaulay’s remark: “When she (Anne) was in a good mood she was meekly stupid and when in bad humour she was sulkily stupid.” We know Macaulay as the man who created a class of Babus and was responsible for introducing English as the medium of instruction for secondary education, but Macaulay was a historian as well.
One of the most important developments that took place in the Augustan era was that the printed word became readily available not just to a few thousand educated Londoners but throughout the country. Book prices were reduced dramatically and used books were sold at fairs. Newspapers not only began but multiplied. Scholarly books were published along with ‘digests’ and ‘summaries’ allowing anyone to find what an author had to say on any philosophical, economic or religious topic.
One of the biggest achievements of the era was the rise of periodicals, in particular, The Spectator edited by Addison and Steele, the two names that all students of literature are familiar with. The explosion of information in the early 18th century resulted in the populace becoming markedly more educated. Education was no longer confined to the middle and upper middle classes. One other feature was that circulating libraries began in the newly formed United Kingdom. The libraries were open to all.
It was perhaps because of all the new happenings that Alexander Pope, generally regarded to be the brightest literary light of the Augustan era, wrote to King George II likening his reign to that of the Roman emperor Augustus.
More than any other literary form, the English essay came into its own. The periodical which dominated all others was The Spectator. Its forte was to present the dispassionate view of the world, and it set out a ground wherein Addison and Steele would comment and mediate upon manners and events. The great Dr Johnson gained a large following for the hundreds of essays that he wrote. I have read no more than fourteen or fifteen of his essays and they are full of marvellous insights into the follies of human nature. His extraordinary command of words is another marvel to behold.
It has been noted again and again that the 18th century was the time of enlightened progression in all intellectual fields. We all know about Dr Johnson’s dictionary, but we are not aware that it was a group of London booksellers, and not an august literary society, who commissioned Dr Johnson to compile a set of rules governing the English language which they felt was deteriorating into a tangled mess. After nine years and the help of six assistants the first edition of A Dictionary of the English language was published in 1755. I quote H.C Grierson.
“Johnson’s great knowledge of letters, words and literature brought uniqueness to his dictionary. Each word, defined in detail with descriptions of their various uses and numerous literary quotes, was packed together with Johnson’s personal touch. The definitions full of wit and depth of thought supported by passages from beloved poets and philosophers which a reader could be content spending an evening poring over its pages, Johnson’s choice of structure and format has certainly shaped future. English dictionaries and lexicons and the role they play in language development. It was the first dictionary that could be read for pleasure.”
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Drama suffered the most in the Augustan era. The English stage changed rapidly from the Restoration comedy and drama to the quickly developing melodrama: A print of William Hogarth entitled A Just View of the British stage depicted the famous theatre manager, Colley Cibber and his colleagues rehearsing a play consisting of nothing but special effects while they used the scripts of Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar for toilet paper. Only those plays were staged that were just spectacular; the text of the play was almost an afterthought. Dragons, whirlwinds thunder, ocean waves and even actual elephants and horses were put on the boards.
A large number of political plays were also produced, backed and financed by the two rival political parties. The Whigs and the Tories were at loggerheads in the parliament. Horace Walpole, the Whig politician, was all but prime minister at the time. A play which was anti-Walpolean so aroused his ire that parliament passed the Licensing Act.
The Licensing Act of 1737 required all plays to go to a censor before being staged. The playhouses had little choice but to present either old plays or spectacular pantomimes. This led to the stifling of the continuity of dramatic development in England for the next 150 years.
Another factor in the decline of drama was that men who in the 17th century hastened to London to write for the stage found the means to reach an even wider public by turning to write a novel which began to blossom in the Augustan era.
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Daniel Defoes’s Robinson Crusoe was the first major novel of the 18th century. It was published in more editions than any other novel. Defoe’s Moll Flanders was also a landmark novel. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, though not strictly a novel, is an unforgettable piece of satirical writing.
Apart from satire — refined and coarse — the Augustan period is known for a large number of hack writers who wrote poetry and plays which were politically funded. The ideal of a writer to be above political concerns had become irrelevant. The critic, T. M. White wrote that “the period may be called ‘An Age of Scandal’ for it was an age when authors dealt specifically with the crimes and vices of the world”.
Of all the 18th century novelists, Smollet, Richardson, Fielding, I pick Laurence Sterne. For me Sterne’s Tristam Shandy is the finest novel of the Augustan era. Sterne’s ideas are curious, fantastic; his characters are loveable eccentrics. The novel has no shape no logic and no plot. It leads us nowhere through infinity and back into nowhere again. On the journey it provides us with utmost absurdities and excitements and revelations. We gasp as we follow the crazy carnival of masked characters as they whirl, about each dragging its neighbour into an unforeseen hubbub.
In the Yorkshire dialect ‘Shandy’ is a word which means crack-brained, unsteady, full of gaiety. Sterne was a ‘shandy’ who felt that the world was sad and it must be amused.