18 Century Popular Culture Essay

The engagement of eighteenth-century women with popular culture, then and now, produces a few success stories, a few outright or near failures, and a large number of highly ambivalent outcomes—a fact that this collection amply demonstrates. Part I is compelling and cohesive. Ms. Potter closely reads Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That Pope trivializes Belinda and her interest in fashion offers no surprises; that Grahame-Smith’s zombies “provide a literalization of the threat of a social death in spinsterhood” proves an apt and entertaining premise. Ms. Potter’s juxtaposition of eighteenth- and twenty-first-century texts mirrors that of the collection; however, the choice of texts by male authors subtly undercuts the notion of women’s cultural contributions.

The remaining essays in Part I emphasize women’s ability to use and alter popular culture in ways that empower them and influence others. Berta Joncas focuses on ballad opera, a genre that “stereotyped, derided and censured women,” and how two singers, Lavinia Fenton and Kitty Clive, “shaped and popularized the works they performed” through careful manipulation of their performances of femininity. Paula Backscheider’s essay examines eighteenth-century revivals of Otway’s Venice Preserved, a popular play “available for volatile interpretations over time”; in particular, the actresses playing the part of Belvidera—Elizabeth Barry, Ann Barry, Susannah Cibber, and Sarah Siddons—could alter interpretation by emphasizing either pity or horror. Actresses also provide the focus of Jessica Munns’s essay, which demonstrates how “Female aristocrats and [End Page 181] lower-class actresses were mutually involved in circuits of representation in which they drew on each other’s manners and appearance.” Last, Elaine Chalus examines how eighteenth-century women used fashion in order to make political statements and to influence political outcomes: “politicized fans . . . provided women with an additional way of expressing political opinions, commenting upon national and international developments, and adding to the overall politicization of the spaces through which they moved.”

If the majority of essays in Part I demonstrate that women could use popular culture to shape and influence public opinion, essays in Part II show the failure or near-failure of their efforts. Robert James Merrett show that English women cookbook writers privileged English bourgeois dishes over French haute-cuisine, nationalism, middle-class readership, and pressures from the publishing industry; however, “female cookbook authors contributed to the stratification that disadvantaged their gender” and “cookbooks addressing middle-class women impeded the thoughtful amalgamation of erudite and peasant cooking that leads to great cuisine.”

Isobel Grundy explores the “shifting fashions in the English female letter-writing subject, her voice and her self-construction, largely through the topic of fashion in its most basic sense (styles of clothing) and resistance to that kind of fashion,” with close readings of letters by Damaris Masham Cudworth, Lady Mary Pierrepont (later Wortley Montagu), and Mary Pendarves (Mrs. Delany). While all three women mention fashion in their letters, only Delany revels in providing details of fashionable dress. Mary Chadwick investigates riddle books, which were consumed largely by women from the middle stations with leisure; yet riddle books and riddles paradoxically critiqued this unproductive use of female time, with its use of conduct-book tropes and themes, as well as stereotypes of women. For Ms. Chadwick, Emma reveals the late eighteenth-century culture of enigma solving.

Holly Luhning examines Haywood’s amatory fiction to argue that Haywood “turned her intangible skills of intelligence, creativity, and acute social insights into a product—her writing—and in doing so created for herself a position of authority in which she possessed significant cultural currency.” Ms. Luhning’s close, persuasive reading of D’Elmont’s body in Love in Excess, shows how Haywood “subverts the popular image of masculine rake by exposing him to feminine disorders.”

Part III centers on twenty-first-century novelistic appropriations of eighteenth-century culture, as well as screen adaptations of the novels of Jane Austen. These are beyond the Scriblerian’s range.

As a whole, despite some absorbing essays, the...

By Abigail Williams

The literature, and particularly, the poetic satire of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century is obsessed with the distinction between high and low art forms, and with shoring up the frontier between genuine literature, and mere ephemeral hack work. It is the period that, critics have argued, sees the invention of the category of ‘literature’: that is, the idea that some select native literary texts could be compared with classical greats. The rest, by implication, would never stand the test of a week, let alone centuries of literary history. Yet it was also a period in which we see the creative exploitation of low cultural forms, literary works whose effect was dependent upon the juxtaposition of high and low within the same text.

In this period, the perceived relationship between high and low literature is intrinsically linked to questions of literary merit. Writers such as Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and John Gay are trying to make firm distinctions between classic works of literature, and ephemeral rubbish. Pope’s Dunciad, Dryden’s Macflecknoe, Swift’s Tale of a Tub all relentlessly satirise what they see as low culture – the proliferation of popular and populist pamphlets, poems and novels that they saw as saturating the marketplace. They attacked the work of most of their contemporary poets and novelists as the short-lived rubbish of greedy and talentless hacks, whose most likely fate was to end up as the wrapping for a pie, or toilet paper.

So why were people so concerned with making these distinctions between the high and the low? Part of the reason for this anxiety about distinguishing between good and bad writing was to do with the commercialisation of literary culture, and the rise of professional writing. Literature had formerly been associated with leisure and privilege. It required reserves of learning and an intensity of concentration possible only for those who could combine a gentleman’s education with freedom from the need to earn a living. Those writers without independent means needed patronage, but nonetheless assumed an elite readership associated with the patron. This changed with the creation of a literary marketplace, in which authors wrote for money, rather than patronage, and in which writers were increasingly able to make a living from their writing, rather than being either men of independent means, or tied to the demands of an aristocratic patron. The world of literature was opened both to authors, and to readers, that had previously been denied access.

This is the period that sees the emergence of the class of professional writers collectively known as Grub Street. It also witnessed the rise of the professional woman writer, and of the labouring class author. The combination of the proliferation of printed material, combined with a rise in literacy, created a body of readers who consumed voraciously the thousands of pamphlets, poems, and novels emerging from the presses. While these developments may from our perspective seem like social advances, to many contemporaries they seemed deeply frightening. The rise of the professional writer made these matters more pressing: how was one to distinguish true literature from the masses of rubbish coming off the presses? In a market-driven cultural economy, who would now legislate for good and bad writing? These moves seemed to threaten the hierarchy of literary forms, based on classical models, and to threaten the elite white male as the guardian of the nation’s literary culture. We might compare what was happening in the early eighteenth century with modern claims for the dumbing down of culture: when the consumer is king, is popular appeal the only driver in cultural production? Is success the only indicator of merit?

The exploitation of culture
Title page of first edition of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons One of the most fascinating aspects of this era is that many of the generic forms distinctive of the period are forms that exploit the perceived distinction between the high and the low: they draw on the low cultural forms that they so forcefully attack in order to create their satire. So, for example, looking at the drama of the period, perhaps the most successful play of the period is John Gay’s comic opera, The Beggar’s Opera, which offers political satire by taking the elite form of an opera, but filling it with highwaymen and whores, and setting it in prisons. The ballads and popular songs that were the embodiment of popular music and poetry provide the arias in this transformation of operatic form, traditionally associated with the political and social elite, but now linked to the low life of contemporary criminal London. We can see a similar fusion of opera and native ballad in Henry Carey's The Dragon of Wantley and Cibber's Patie and Peggy.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, now considered as a literary classic is a work which relentlessly parodies the popular travel writing of the period. In depicting Gulliver’s implausible but, he emphasises, authentic voyages to the lands of the Lilliput and Brobdignag, Swift mocks the truth claims and outlandish exaggerations of the travel narratives that were so popular with contemporary readers. Yet it is the ingenious elaboration of these imaginary worlds that make Gullivers Travels such a compelling read. It is a work which draws on the shock value and novelty of its low brow antecedents, whilst at the same time parodying their claims to shock and entertain. And Pope's Dunciad, possibly the most influential poem of this period, takes as its subject the intersection of the high and the low, using the elevated epic form to satirise the low life of the contemporary London literary scene. Some critics have seen an irony in the fact that Pope's most imaginative work gets its creative energy from the texts and authors that it attacks.

Another aspect of this intersection between high and low culture is the newly emergent periodical press. One of the big inventions of this period is what we might call ‘lifestyle journalism’. Right at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Joseph Addision and Richard Steele began to publish the Tatler and the Spectator, the first generalist periodicals that eventually paved the way for the magazines and journals we read today. Their periodicals took the form of an essay published once or twice a week in which a persona such as ‘Mr Spectator’ or ‘Isaac Bickerstaff’ would discuss, in a conversational way, some aspect of modern culture: this could range from a play currently being performed at the theatre, to the latest fashion for hooped petticoats, to the nature of modern manners, or the relative merits of coffee versus alcohol drinking, or some general matter of ethics. They were essentially designed to introduce key debates for a readership who was often female, often at home, who did not have access to the clubs, societies libraries and universities where one might traditionally get this kind of knowledge.

In terms of literature, they effectively gave their readers essays which showed them how to appreciate literary texts: how to be a literary critic. So, for example in the Spectator, Addison wrote a series of essays explaining and showing the merits of Milton’s Paradise Lost: showing those readers who didn’t have Greek and Latin how the poem worked as an epic; which particular passages demonstrated Milton’s verbal ornament, or his Christian adaptation of pagan mythology. In terms of the reception of Paradise Lost, it provided the first important popularisation of the poem, and paved the way for its acceptance into the English literary canon: for the first time, it was presented as a work of genius by an English poet, not the dubious offering of a regicide and republican.

So in terms of access, the new periodicals represented the popularisation of high literary culture: they showed middling class people the vocabulary, the ideas, the framework of reference that they needed to appreciate high literature. It gave them ideas, and it gave them opinions, all carefully presented in a conversational, approachable way to enable them to feel part of the republic of letters, which had up till now been associated with aristocratic gentlemen amateurs, men with the time and education to devote themselves to these rarified pursuits. But one of the interesting things about the Spectator was that in addition to these essays on how to approach ‘high’ literature, it also contained a series of essays on the English ballads, emphasising the existence of a native literary tradition that should be taken as seriously as that imported from classical Greece and Rome. We can see the influence of this kind of literary revival and antiquarianism in the many editions of ballads published later in the century. This was a time before ‘English Literature’ existed as a concept, let alone a discipline. It is only during the eighteenth century that people start to see Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser as literary greats, and start to take seriously the idea that there might be a tradition of English literature worth talking about. There definitely wasn’t a sense of the transition from Anglo Saxon, to Middle English, to the Renaissance that you have now. So it was a big deal to assert the literary merit not just of earlier English literature, but of popular cultural forms like the ballad. Those essays in the Spectator anticipate the wider take up of English ballads and popular tradition in the late 18C and romantic period, like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, or Keats’s Eve of St Agnes, which are all rooted in a sense of the imaginative potential of native popular cultural forms. So we can see again that at the same time that satirists were policing the boundaries of the popular and the polite, there was also a groundswell of interest in the truly popular: ballad forms, earlier oral culture – and the ways in which it could be read as literature, rather than cultural detritus.

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