The “Royal” Wedding: An Eighteenth-Century Invention?

In some senses, English subjects have always cared about whom their queens, kings, princes, and princesses chose to marry, and speculations about marriage agreements and relationships have long preoccupied courtiers, members of parliament, and the wider public. Despite popular anxieties about her authority and the perpetuation of the succession, for instance, Elizabeth I chose not to marry, although she engaged in delicate courtship rituals and marriage negotiations as tools of foreign and domestic policy. Charles I, when still Prince of Wales, undertook a disastrous trip to Madrid to negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful (and unpopular) match with the Infanta Maria, daughter of Philip III of Spain. Instead he wed the French Catholic Henrietta Maria by proxy in 1625, and despite their union getting off to a rocky start, by the late 1630s Parliamentarian critics satirized the king as an uxurious husband who put the interests of his papist wife above the welfare of the kingdom. During the Succession Crisis and debates about Exclusion in the later 1670s and early 1680s, some Whig-leaning writers insisted that Charles II had secretly married the Duke of Monmouth’s mother, Lucy Walter, in 1649, thereby establishing the Protestant Monmouth as the legitimate heir in place of the king’s Catholic brother James, Duke of York. Others urged Charles to divorce his Catholic, childless queen, Henrietta Maria, and remarry. Indeed, any list of royal matrimonial escapades must mention George I’s ill-fated marriage to Sophia Dorothea, whom he locked away in a castle in Ahlden in 1694 after he discovered she had been unfaithful (possibly also ordering her lover to be murdered and tossed into the Leine river). And who can forget George IV’s secret marriage to the widowed Catholic Maria Fitzherbert in 1785 when he was still Prince of Wales, or his public estrangement from Caroline of Ansbach and his infamous (and unsuccessful) attempt to divorce her amid widespread criticism and out-of-doors demonstrations of loyalty for the wronged queen? [1]

But when we search for historical antecedents to the rise of the “royal” wedding as a mediated cultural phenomenon that disseminates the spectacle of monarchy and the romance of regal conjugality to an increasingly mass audience, we usually look to the nineteenth century, especially the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. In the weeks prior to the ceremony, newspapers carried effusive stories about court preparations and the queen’s chosen bridal color—“Lily, or English Pure White,” of entirely British manufacture—which was predicted to become the “prevailing colour of the season.” [2] Victoria’s dress, stitched of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace, included a long train trimmed with orange blossoms, and journalists reported that the lace alone cost more than £1000. [3] Houses along the queen’s procession route between Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Palace were decorated with flags, banners, and illuminations. Despite the rainy February weather, throngs of anxious spectators lined the city streets or purchased tickets to watch the couple pass from windows, balconies, and the roofs. “Every eye was directed to the state carriage,” one newspaper reported, “and as soon as it was in motion, the sounds of loud huzzas, and the strains of the national anthem rent the air, while on every side the waving of hats and handkerchiefs greeted her Majesty.”[4] Those unable to witness the marriage in person, of course, purchased broadside renderings of the royal couple, delicate engravings of Victoria in her wedding clothes, and panoramas of the marriage procession. [5]

Anne, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange and William Charles Henry Friso Prince of Orange.

I want to suggest, however, that the most promising place to look for the origins of the royal wedding as a celebrated event that also turned the royal family into quasi-celebrities is in the eighteenth century, and specifically the 1730s. This was a moment shaped by the continued maturation of London’s newspaper and periodical press after the expiry of print licensing in 1695, and the emergence of the patriotic opposition to Robert Walpole’s ministry, which overlapped with emerging divisions within the royal household. Although George II is still remembered as a rather frugal but staunchly Protestant ruler, adverse to large crowds and baroque spectacle, the Hanoverian court continued to function as a center of elite cultural life within London. [6] And a brief examination of the printed representations of the weddings of George II’s two eldest children—Princess Anne to William IV, Prince of Orange, in 1734, and Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha in 1736—reveals the ways in which the royal nuptials had become a space of popular longing, partisan criticism, commercial celebration, and affective political drama, especially as the events became the focus of new journalistic practices. Newspapers eagerly covered all aspects of each wedding, offering their readers vivid descriptions of the activities and engagements of the betrothed, the decoration of palace buildings and apartments, and the au courant fashions worn by courtiers and royals at each marriage ceremony.

The Prince of Orange was small of stature with a misshapen spine and slumped right shoulder, and when he arrived in England in November of 1733, he immediately contracted a fever, delaying his marriage with Anne until the following spring. London newspapers eagerly reported on William’s recovery, though, and his subsequent travels through Bristol, Bath, Oxford, and Windsor the following February, with some writers intending their glowing coverage of the prince’s popular acclaim as a dig at the king’s seeming inaccessibility and frequent trips to Hanover. Upon his arrival in Bristol, the Daily Journal and the Penny London Post, among other newspapers, reprinted lengthy extracts from a letter detailing the prince’s entry and entertainment in that city of pleasure. Met on the main road into town by two sheriffs in a chariot and six, over eight hundred horsemen, and gentlemen and merchants in private coaches, the procession marched to the common led by the Company of Wool-Combers dressed in white shirts and “Orange-Coloured Wool-Perriwigs.” “The Streets and Houses being so thronged with Spectators,” the correspondent reported, “that the City appeared as one great living Body bespangled with Eyes.” [8]

Anne and William’s wedding was held in March at St. James’s Chapel, which had been richly decorated for the occasion by the celebrated architect and painter William Kent. A contemporary engraving of the ceremony captures the prince and princess with hands clasped in the act of exchanging vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury, while ostentatiously dressed courtiers fill the chapel, gossiping and fanning themselves flirtatiously. [9] The wedding was thoroughly documented in almost every London newspaper, and writers emphasized the size of the crowds at the palace, the rich appearance of the nobility, and the voluntary festivities of London’s citizenry, which included the illumination of the Monument and Ludgate with glass lamps, plentiful bonfires, and fireworks. The Daily Journal published a laboriously detailed narrative of the entire wedding procession to and from the chapel, concluding with a public dinner in the State Ballroom, before the nobility filed through the prince and princess’s bedchamber to view them sitting up in their marriage bed “in rich undress.” The London Evening Post and the Penny London Post offered rambling descriptions of the wedding costumes and other finery observed at court. The bride wore diaphanous “Virgin Robes of Silver Tissue, having a train six Yards long, laced around with a massy Lace, adorn’ed with Fringe and Tassels; on the Sleeves were several Bars of Diamonds of great value; the Habit was likewise enrich’d with several Rows of oriental Pearl.” The women of the beau monde donned “fine laced Heads, dress’d English,” and their dresses featured “treble Ruffles, one tack’d up to their Shifts in quil’d Pleats and two hanging down; the newest fashion’d Silkes were white Paduasoys, with large Flowers of Tulips, Peonies, Emmonies, Carnations, &c. in their proper Colours, some wove in Silk, and some embroidered.” Other papers claimed that the “Embroidery and Beauty” of the princess’s wedding clothes “exceed any thing that has been ever seen here, tho’ all of Manufactures of this Kingdom.” [10] These lengthy and exacting descriptions of fashionable and fine court costume as reproduced in metropolitan newspapers broadcast important political messages. Expensive and newly purchased court attire was used to demonstrate allegiance to the crown and respect for the person of the monarch, while careful accounts of hairstyles, dress cuts, and fabric patterns portrayed the court and royal family as taste leaders who followed fashion trends and encouraged native industry. [11] At the same time, the wedding inspired the production of a whole range of commemorative commercial objects for consumers in Britain and the Netherlands, including medals, highly ornamental engraved paper fans, and enameled porcelain bowls decorated with the portraits of Anne and William, who seem to gaze into each other’s eyes. [12]

The broad journal coverage of Anne and William’s wedding evinces both desire for accessible royal figures and readers’ fascination with the theatrical spectacle of British court culture. Although newspaper coverage did not spotlight individual personalities or the intimate side of the royal family in the same way that later eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century journalists and periodical authors would, this reportage, nonetheless, opened the royal palace to the public gaze, inviting spectators and entire cities “bespangled with Eyes” to take part in the drama of royal romance.

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales

Frederick’s 1736 marriage follows these same journalistic patterns, with newspapers offering glowing coverage of Augusta’s arrival at Greenwich in late April. “Several thousand people” were reported to have flocked to glimpse Britain’s new princess at the Queen’s House—the editor of Read’s Weekly Journal estimated that the crowds numbered no less than 10,000 persons—and Augusta was described as having “very beautiful features, a fine complexion” and “a very Majestick and becoming Air.” The press circulated rumors that the wedding would take place not at the chapel at St. James’s Palace, but at the much larger St. Paul’s Cathedral, which could accommodate additional spectators and would allow a state procession through the City in full regalia and coronation robes. [13] Ultimately, this story proved false, a mere reflection of public desire for access to the pageantry of royal romance that would have represented a far-reaching departure from the precedents governing state marriages. Newspapers printed encomiastic verses about the princess’s august Protestant pedigree, plays were performed in honor of the royal couple, and the wedding gave enterprising churchmen an excuse to publish sermons on virtuous love and conjugal duty. Church bells rang, bonfires were lit, and toasts were given throughout cities and villages in England, Scotland, and Ireland, all of which was reported in the metropolitan press. And again journalists offered tedious descriptions of court dresses, stockings, shoes, jewels, and hairstyles worn for the wedding celebrations, with entire pages dedicated to reproducing the lavish spectacle of the British crown and the beau monde. [14] The bride’s dress and the court costumes of her ladies in attendance were embroidered by a Mrs. Ganderoon, Her Majesty Queen Caroline’s appointed embroideress, requiring “above 120 persons at work in making the rich cloaths.” “There’s the greatest Demand at this Time for Gold and Silver Stuffs (against the Prince of Wales’s Wedding) that ever was known,” the London Daily Post announced, “and those that are now made, are reckon’d the richest Patterns ever seen.” Indeed, individuals of rank were invited to view Augusta and Frederick’s wedding clothes displayed in their newly renovated apartments at Kensington Palace in the week prior to their betrothal. [15] Charles Philips also painted a three-quarter-length portrait of England’s newest princess in her heavily embroidered couture silver dress, topped with ermine-lined state robes, and the acclaimed engraver John Faber Jr. soon after produced a mezzotint copy of the picture for consumers. [16]

By the 1730s, then, the royal wedding was invented as a theatrical and theatricalized spectacle of statecraft and romance, fostered through the commercialized newspaper and periodical press and a growing marketplace in regal pictures and objects. The eighteenth century was the great age of celebrity, Joseph Roach has argued, engendered through media representations, especially the circulation of charismatic stage icons and cultural luminaries who stoked desire by offering spectators the illusion of intimacy despite the reality of physical inaccessibility. [17] Whereas we are quick to recognize the theatricality and affective appeal of Victorian monarchy, which permitted consumers to imagine personal attachments to individuals whom they would never meet in real life, I want to draw attention to the ways in which the early Hanoverian royal family was adapting to and adopting the characteristics of celebrity culture (whether they were entirely reluctant to do so, like George II, or eager to chase popularity, like Prince Frederick). Newspapers offered new possibilities of royal publicity, allowing spectators access to exclusive palace rooms, court finery, and the nuptial bed in completely novel ways that mark an abrupt departure from discussions of state weddings in the later Stuart period. At the very least, we should recognize that our contemporary fascination with royal engagements and the extravagant wedding dresses worn by English princesses has an eighteenth-century origin—for better, (or) for worse.

Notes

[1] For further reading, see Carole Levin, Heart and Stomach of a Queen: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), chapter 3; Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Laura Lunger Knoppers, Politicizing Domesticity: From Henrietta Maria to Milton’s Eve (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Andrew C. Thompson, George II: King and Elector (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), chapter 1; Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money, & Personal Character in Eighteenth-Century British Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Thomas Lacquer, “The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV,” Journal of Modern History 54 (1982): 417-66.

[2] “Queen Victoria’s Bridal Colour,” Woomer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 11 January 1840, 2504. On the tension between domesticity and sovereignty in representations of Victoria as bride, wife, and mother, see John Plunkett, Queen Victoria: First Media Monarch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 29-35; Margaret Homans, Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837-1876 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 17-32.

[3] “Marriage of Queen Victoria,” The Bradford Observer, 13 February 1840, Issue 314.

[4] “Royal Marriage,” The Blackburn Standard, 12 February 1840, Issue 265. See also “Marriage of the Queen,” The Morning Post, 11 February 1840, 21542.

[5] See, for instance, British Museum: 2006,U.2079; 1902,1011.886; 1894.0516.59; and 1902,1011.8909.

[6] See Hannah Smith, Georgian Monarchy: Politics and Culture, 1714-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Hannah Greig, The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 99-130.

[7] For excellent discussions of William’s recovery and his wedding to Princess Anne, see Marilyn Morris, Sex, Money and Personal Character, 103-09, and Thompson, George II, 108-13.

[8] The Daily Journal, 26 February 1734, Issue 4091; Penny London Post, 27 February 1734, Issue 80.

[9] Jacques Rigaud after William Kent, The Wedding of Princess Anne and William of Orange in the Chapel of St. James’s as Decorated by William Kent, 1734. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D32900.

[10] Daily Journal, 16 March 1734, Issue 4107, and 18 March 1734, Issue 4108; London Evening Post, 14-16 March 1734, Issue 986; Penny London Post, 18 March 1734, Issue 88; and Penny London Post, 19 October 1733, Issue 24.

[11] Greig, The Beau Monde, 119-25; Hannah Smith, “The Court in England: 1714-1760: A Declining Political Institution?” History: The Journal of the Historical Association 90.297 (January 2005): 23-41.

[12] See British Museum: Anonymous unmounted engraved paper fan, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.375; Martha Gamble, Unmounted fan-leaf with orange tree, rose bush, and poem celebrating the marriage of Princess Anne, c. 1734-35, 1891,0713.426; Qing Dynasty Porcelain Bowl, c. 1734, Franks.1447.

[13] Daily Gazetteer, 27 April 1736, Issue 260; Reads Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal 28 February 1736, issue 386. See also 20 March 1736, issue 389.

[14] For instance, see Reed’s Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 1 May 1736, Issue 608; London Evening Post, 27-29 April 1736, Issue 1318.

[15] London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 2 April 1736, Issue 443, and 17 April 1736, Issue 456; London Evening Post, 13-15 April 1736, Issue 1312.

[16] Charles Philips, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales, c. 1736, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2093; John Faber Jr, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, after Charles Philips, c. 1750, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D10778.

[17] Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2007).

The Secret History of The Crown

The Crown (2017); Photo Credit:  Alex Bailey, Netflix

With the premier of the second season of The Crown (2017), Netflix’s extravagant costume drama about Elizabeth II, the show has again occasioned debate among media critics and British historians.  Everyone seems to agree that the acting, the settings, the lavish decor, and the meticulously detailed period clothing are all enthralling, but this is also the problem:  according to Sonia Sodha, the show “may be good fun, but it’s not always good history” (The Guardian Online).  Peggy Noonan admonishes The Crown for its “cheap historical mindlessness,” for taking extreme liberties with the private lives and intimate relationships of ministers at a time when so-called fake news has undermined truth in politics.  In other words, the show’s writers and creators adventure to invent what they cannot possibly know.  “In its treatment of history,” she claims, “there’s a deep clueless carelessness” (The Wall Street Journal Online).

Furthermore, academic historians of Britain and the independent nations that were part of the former British Empire criticize the show for glossing over brutal aspects of the imperial and industrial pasts.  Kenya, Ghana, Malaya, New Guinea, and Tonga are reimagined as playgrounds for patrician globetrotters.  The complexities of postcolonial politics are neglected; Southeast Asia and the South Pacific are problematically portrayed as spaces of exotic sexual spectacle for the white male colonial gaze.  Viewers are offered a kind of Bildungsroman narrative about a reluctant but responsible queen coming into her own as wife, mother, and sovereign.  We are asked to “sympathize with aristocrats and an unelected head of state,” Sam Wetherell writes, “The endurance of the monarchy in Britain is an open political question, but it goes unasked in The Crown” (Perspectives).

While I want to echo Rebecca Rideal’s recent argument that the show is fiction—it does not claim to be “real” history—and therefore it should be evaluated as drama, here I also want to suggest that it is actually doing something much more compelling in its engagement with historical evidence and narrative (New Statesman).  The Crown, I think, should be understood as a secret history of monarchy.  Secret history is a revisionist mode of historical writing that became fashionable in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England, at a particular moment when popular anxieties about the lack of truth in partisan politics were at a crescendo.  Analyzing it as such reveals that the show’s central question is precisely the one that Wetherell claims it fails to ask:  How do we account for the affective appeal and almost perverse persistence of the British royal family in a world where, as Lord Altrincham reminds the queen in the sixth episode of season two, “republics are the rule and monarchies are very much the exception”?

With the rapid expansion of the ephemeral press in England following the end of pre-publication censorship in the late seventeenth century, the private lives of kings, queens, and other royal subjects became increasingly open to public representation and debate.  One group of texts that dealt explicitly with issues of regal privacy, state secrets, and the domestic politics of royalty were secret histories of the crown.  As the literary historian Rebecca Bullard contends in her book The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725:  Secret History Narratives (2009), these texts challenged authorized accounts of the recent political past by exposing the private lives of ministers and monarchs to public scrutiny.  They originated as a genre of writing popular with Whig authors and audiences:  they reflected contemporary concerns that there were plots afoot to introduce absolutism and undermine political liberties within Britain, and they aimed to disclose conspiracies by teaching readers how to see through political deceit.  Secret historians dramatized questions of truth in politics and media, encouraging audiences to adopt a skeptical stance toward print and political culture, often claiming to disclose hidden “facts” about the past that were, nonetheless, dubious. [1]  After the 1688 Revolution, most secret historians focused their efforts on the revelation of political and sexual intrigue under the later Stuart kings, Charles II and James II, as well as France’s Louis XIV.  Such texts, Michael McKeon argues, disrupted absolutism by publicizing the designs and misdeeds of monarchs. [2]

Other secret histories, however, do not fit this pattern:  they are not overly partisan and they aim to allow readers access to the affective lives of royal figures even while their narrative structures reinforce the implausibility of their claims.  These are the secret histories of Queen Elizabeth–the first, not the second.  In 1680 The Secret History of Q. Elizabeth and the E. of Essex was anonymously printed in London, while The Secret History of the Duke of Alancon and Q. Elizabeth was first published in 1691. [3]  Both continued to be widely reprinted in cheap editions across the eighteenth century, and the accounts they offered were reimagined in chapbook romances, plays, and operatic songs.

Both books call into question the celebrated history of Elizabeth’s reign and her status as an exemplar of Protestant queenship.  The Secret History of Elizabeth casts the queen as exceptional but amorous, ruled by her love for Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, reinterpreting his rise, rebellion, and subsequent execution in 1601 as a consequence of the queen’s jealousy and manipulation by courtiers.  In The Duke of Alançon, the marriage negotiations that took place between Elizabeth and the French prince in the late 1570s are reimagined to depict the queen as a power-hungry ruler whose love of independence leads her to reject all possible suitors and murder a made-up member of the royal family.  Inexpensive and widely available, these stories perhaps invited middling readers to compare themselves favorably to Elizabeth.

But, more importantly, the books commoditize the representation of Elizabeth’s personal life in an attempt to appeal to a public that increasingly desired personal access to and connection with celebrated royal figures.  Their plots hinge upon the conflicts between queenship, love, and marriage, and they raise questions about how to distinguish between true affection and artifice, and about the kinds of authority the queen must yield to her husband if she marries.  For instance, in The Secret History of Elizabeth, readers are privy to implausible conversations that take place between the queen and the Countess of Nottingham, to whom she divulges her secrets in a long narrative that takes up almost the entire first half of the novel.  “You do not yet know Me, the Force I have long put upon My Self, hath made you think with the rest of the World, that the Height of my Spirit, hath raised Me above the Infirmities of Nature; and the Greatness of my Thoughts, secur’d Me from the troubles of Life,” the queen declares, “But, Alas! poor Elizabeth is a Slave to Her Weakness” (4).  Her weakness, of course, is love.  Similarly, after the French prince proposes to the queen in The Secret History of the Duke of Alançon, the narrator describes that she “began to tremble at the prospect of her condition to which she saw herself reduced, not unlike a Person who unexpectedly finds himself upon the brink of a Precipice” (40-41).  At other moments, Alançon has an extended debate with a rival lover about the division of authority in marriage, about whether a husband should be his “Wife’s slave” or her “Tyrant” (47).

These books therefore reach into the domestic realm. They feign to represent the emotional lives of royal subjects in an invitation for readers to work through their own ideas about love and marriage through the sensational history of a queen—an extraordinary but nonetheless ordinary woman.  The monarchy is here cemented into the affective history of the family, made central to conversations about emerging ideals of companionate marriage.  These texts never claim to be true histories, nor were they seen as such.  As one anonymous critic of secret history alleged in 1691, such books were mere romances, full of malice and forgery, contrived to snare “young Gentlemen and Ladies, who are addicted to such kind of Foolish Toys.” [4]  Thus, much like other criticism of early novels, secret histories were thought to cause a kind of reading addiction among overly credulous readers, not for the revelation of political plots but for their false and morally suspect content, especially dangerous given their low cost.

The Crown, like the secret histories of Elizabeth that I have been discussing, draws attention to the contradictions between the public image and the private reality of queenship, and in so doing it highlights the enduring sway of emotion in contemporary politics.  Much of the series focuses on the struggles within the royal family and tensions within the royal bedchamber.  “What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family?,” Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh demands of the queen after she reveals that she will retain her own surname in season one.  The new season ends with a contrite Philip confronting a heavily pregnant Elizabeth as she hides away at Balmoral from the unfolding Profumo Affair, which threatens to engulf the prince.  “We both know that marriage is a challenge, under any circumstances,” the queen states as the prince moves to rest his head in her lap, before the show suddenly cuts to her giving birth to Prince Edward.  No witnesses, aside from viewers, are present at these intimate moments when sovereignty and conjugality collide.  Rather than asking us to believe that these conversations actually happened, the show instead spotlights the ways in which the English royal household remains a space for the popular negotiation of domesticity and the affective bonds of the family.  By anxiously condemning The Crown for lying and for misleading viewers who are thought to primarily get their history through popular culture, we replicate the same snobbish discourses with which eighteenth-century critics blasted secret historians:  audiences are credulous, we worry, and they mistake the spectacle of romance for the truth of history.  This attitude seems patronizing at best.

Finally, seeing The Crown as a secret history of monarchy allows us to appreciate how the show self-consciously calls attention to the role of media in the cultural nostalgia of English royalism.  The writers repeatedly point out that the magic of regality is a commodity, delicately manufactured through public audiences, radio addresses, and, since the late 1950s, television broadcasts.  Elizabeth’s coronation is an exercise in “Smoke and Mirrors,” the title of that particular episode declares, and we follow the camera lens as it reveals (and shields) the spectacle at Westminster Abbey.  In the new season, Lord Altrincham criticizes the clipped tone and remoteness of the crown, quoting no less than the Victorian journalist Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1865-67).  Bagehot emphasized the constitutional role of monarchy as a kind of innocuous but vital entertainment for the masses.  He attributed the sentimental appeal of royal figures to their celebrity status as the public face of the government, allowing subjects to form intimate attachments with individuals they would never meet in real life.  “A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events,” he wrote, “It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to ‘men’s bosoms’ and employ their thoughts” [5].  By exploring how sovereignty is staged for public consumption, by using theatrical drama to unmask royalism as mere theater, and by probing the gap between the public history and fictionalized private lives of Elizabeth II, The Crown presses audiences to consider the political endurance of English monarchy.

Notes:

[1] Rebecca Bullard, The Politics of Disclosure, 1674-1725:  Secret History Narratives (London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2009).  See also Rebecca Bullard and Rachel Carnell, eds.  The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820 (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[2] Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity:  Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[3] Anon., The Secret History of the Most Renowned Q. Elizabeth and the E. of Essex.  By a Person of Quality (Cologne:  Printed for the Will of the Wisp, at the Sign of the Moon in the Ecliptick, 1681); Anon., The Secret History of the Duke of Alançon and Q. Elizabeth.  A True History (London:  Printed for Will of the whisp, at the Sign of the Moon in the Ecliptick, 1691).  All quotations from these editions.

[4] N. N.  The Blatant Beast Muzzl’d, or, Reflexions on a late libel entituled, The Secret History of the Reigns of K. Charles II and K. James II (London, 1691), “To the Reader” (8).

[5] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, ed. Paul Smith (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001).  37.

Statement of Support for the National Endowment for the Humanities

The 18th-Century Common was developed with substantial support from the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute, which itself was founded with generous support from an National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant. We are grateful that NEH funding has enabled an international array of scholars writing for The 18th-Century Common to share research with nonacademic enthusiasts of eighteenth-century studies.

Read the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute’s Statement of Support for the NEH.

The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen

GreatForgettingThe Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen is a free podcast series addressing the lives and works of eighteenth-century women writers,  devised and produced by one journalist and three academics.  One day while chatting on Twitter, Helen Lewis (deputy editor of the New Statesman, a leading British weekly magazine focusing on politics and culture) Jennie Batchelor (University of Kent), Sophie Coulombeau (Cardiff University), and Elizabeth Edwards (University of Wales) discovered that they shared not only a love of eighteenth-century women’s writing but also a conviction that the world needed to know more about it.  An idea was born: a six-part podcast series, aimed at the non-specialist listener, about the lives, works and legacies of the women who changed the face of literature – but had, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, been gradually subjected to what Clifford Siskin calls “The Great Forgetting.”

Each week, we came up with a different theme to shape our conversation.  In the first week, Rewriting the Rise of the Novel, we asked: who gets overlooked when we let Defoe, Fielding and Richardson hog the “rise of the novel” narrative?  In this episode we aimed to explain the importance of some of the eighteenth century’s most prolific and innovative female novelists; from Aphra Behn and Frances Burney to Eliza Haywood, Maria Edgeworth, and Delarivier Manley.  We asked what sorts of challenges these women overcame in order to make it as successful writers, and what flak they received in return.  And we spoke about some of our favorite moments in female-authored novels: from Evelina’s odd monkey to the glorious butch of Harriot Freke.

In the second week, we put Bluestocking culture under the microscope.  Who were the Bluestockings, why did they matter, and was their footwear really as lurid as we’ve been led to believe?  We explained how, through salons hosted by the likes of Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Hester Thrale Piozzi, this group of highly educated women helped shape a new age of sociability and creativity, making it commonplace rather than controversial to assert that a woman might be the intellectual equal of a man.  And we also revealed juicy details about Elizabeth Carter’s snuff-snorting habit.

Week three saw us turn to the subject of Sociable Spaces.  We focused first on the Lady’s Magazine, asking who wrote it, read it and published it, and how far its subject matter might be defined as “feminine.”  We then turned to think about the proliferation of all-female debating societies, such as La Belle Assemblée, in the early 1780s.  What topics did women want to chew over?  How were their debates alternatively valorised and satirised?  And why did these societies die out?  Highlights included discussions of eighteenth-century mansplaining in the pages of the Lady’s Magazine, and #everydaysexism in the galleries of the debating chamber.

In week four, we examined the Unsex’d Females, advocates of radical politics – and the conservative powerhouses who opposed them.  Novelists, poets and pamphleteers including Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, and Mary Wollstonecraft all engaged with major political questions of their day including the French Revolution, the slave trade, and women’s rights – and argued for radical reforms.  But not everyone approved of their zeal: Hannah More and Hester Thrale Piozzi argued in favour of conservative agendas, and Richard Polwhele lamented the “Female Band, despising Nature’s Law” in his memorable poetic rant, “The Unsex’d Females.”

Week five saw us roll up our sleeves and enter the ring for Fight Club, each of us slugging it out on behalf of our favorite woman writer of the eighteenth century.  Sophie was in Frances Burney’s corner, Liz flew the flag for Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Jennie championed an unusual candidate – “Anomymous.”  Who won? Listen to find out…

In the sixth and final week of the podcast, we put the idea of “The Great Forgetting” under the microscope.  Why, exactly, do the vast majority of people now draw a blank at the mention of these women’s names?  How did they go from enjoying fame and success to obscurity?  How did their works shape the literary canon?  And why is it important that we remember and celebrate them in an age when female writers and scholars still face disadvantage and marginalization?

The podcast was devised and recorded in early 2016 and broadcast in April and May via the website of the New Statesman.  It remains available to stream or download here and through iTunes.

Our hope in creating The Great Forgetting was that we would be able to help a wide non-academic audience to become familiar with these writers and their works, and to stimulate reflection on the gendering of literary prestige in the past and present.  In that, we seem to have succeeded: in just the first three weeks, the podcast received almost 3000 listens, exclusive of iTunes downloads.  We continue to be delighted and excited to think that, as the podcast remains online, more thousands of people might encounter the writing of women like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, Frances Burney, Hester Thrale Piozzi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Hannah More, Ann Yearsley, Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Montagu, and Charlotte Smith.  We’re beginning to think about ways in which we might integrate the podcasts into our teaching curricula, and we would love to hear from anyone else who has done so.

But, although making the podcast was a rewarding experience, it also provoked some sobering reflections about what happens when traditional academic methodologies meet new media.  For example, we were chagrined to discover – even faced with the luxury of over three hours’ airtime – how many women writers we still ended up leaving out.  We were abashed to realize that we hadn’t managed to give novelists such as Sarah Scott and Sarah Fielding any attention, while our paucity of female playwrights was another sore point.  We spoke far more about the second half of the eighteenth century than the first.  In light of this, we were forced to ask ourselves what criteria (aesthetic? biographical? canonical?) we had unthinkingly imposed on our selection process for subjects for the programe, even as we railed against ideas of “literary value” that had been dominant in the past.  On a similar note, it was difficult – almost impossible – to credit the academics whose works we drew upon, heavily, in our conversations with Helen.  In other words, you can’t add a footnote to a podcast (though we did try to remedy this a bit by providing reading lists every week – see here).  With initiatives like this, then, might we run the risk of appearing to present ourselves in glorious intellectual isolation – ironically erasing the work of previous scholars (many of whom are women) even as we argue against that very process?

These, and other issues, preoccupy us as we evaluate the success of the podcast series.  If readers of The 18th-Century Common have any feedback, we’d be delighted to hear it.

The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life

Marquis d'ArgensThe Marquis d’Argens (1704-1772) is mainly famous for a book he did not write, Thérèse Philosophe.  That is a great pity, as the books he did actually write are far more fascinating and entertaining than that unfortunate misattribution.  D’Argens was a sceptic, a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, whose books were denounced by the Inquisition; one of them, La Philosophie du Bon-Sens, was burnt in Paris.  He was also a close friend of Voltaire, and he belonged to the generation that is often overshadowed by that towering genius.  Voltaire greatly admired d’Argens’ Lettres Juives, an epistolary work in which he wrote from the point of view of learned Jews discussing and often mocking the beliefs and customs of the Christian world.  The book manages to combine the subtly intellectual with the entertaining in a remarkable manner.  As a novelist, philosopher, translator, classical scholar, and art critic, d’Argens’ works are so divers that he is difficult to categorize; he was notorious in his own time for his scandalous Memoirs, in which he recalled his youth and love affairs in Paris and Italy in the 1720s and 30s.  A wild elopement, a brief army career, and an ongoing battle with his father, who wanted him to study law, provided the main subject-matter.  Those who read these Memoirs sometimes formed the opinion that he was merely a libertine and a lightweight, but that is not borne out by a careful study of his work.  The mind that emerges from them is deeply reflective, and the philosopher is always apparent in the novels, just as the imagination of a novelist lurks in his works on philosophy.

It is really quite astonishing to me that novels as fascinating as Le Philosophe Amoureux, ou Le Comte de Mommejan, and Memoirs de M. De Meillcourt, ou Le Legislateur Moderne, are so entirely neglected.  The time I devoted to reading all of d’Argens’ novels, and his other works, was frankly huge fun; his philosophical works and translations are all highly idiosyncratic and full of his personal enthusiasms and insights.  D’Argens was an intellectual, but he was also a passionate man, who loved art and music and adored women.  After many love affairs, and one youthful marriage, he settled down with a wife who shared his intellectual pursuits and was happy for him to teach her Latin and Greek so that they could be as closely united in literary as in amatory respects.

D’Argens’ life was extraordinary and well worth a biographer’s attention; after his wild youth he managed to obtain a post as chamberlain to King Frederick the Great, and he became a member of the Berlin Academy.  This meant that he encountered many of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment and was able to observe them even when they were behaving deplorably–which they quite often were.  When we appreciate the true erudition and range of his six-volume Histoire de l’Esprit Humain, we have to acknowledge that d’Argens is a major author.  I have had the satisfaction of putting together the first reliable catalogue of his genuine works.  He was at the nerve-centre of the Enlightenment, and rediscovering him will really enrich anybody’s understanding of this epoch and the development of its thought.  You can learn more in my biography The Marquis d’Argens: A Philosophical Life.

We Want You to Get Involved with The 18th-Century Common

The Coffeehous Mob, frontispiece to Ned Ward's Vulgus Britannicus (1710).

The Coffeehous Mob, frontispiece to Ned Ward’s Vulgus Britannicus (1710).

We’re excited to announce new ways to get involved with The 18th-Century Common, the public humanities website for nonacademic, nonstudent enthusiasts of 18th-century studies.

There are two kinds of posts on The 18th-Century CommonFeatures posts and Gazette posts.  In Features posts, scholars describe their own research, whether published or in progress (Read Rebekah Mitsein’s account of how her Features post on The 18th-Century Common helped her on the academic job market).  Features posts can be on existing topics gathered in thematic Collections on The 18th-Century Common, or on new topics.  We also seek new Collection Curators,  who draw on their existing scholarly networks to solicit Features or Gazette contributions from scholars on a specific topic of interest to the Collection Curator.

In Gazette posts, scholars or students situate recent publications by others—whether in academic or popular media—in scholarly contexts.  Gazette posts show how a recent publication participates in the conversations of eighteenth-century scholarship (see, for example, Cassandra Nelson’s Gazette post on a BBC article by Adam Gopnik about the “Mechanical Turk”).  We’re using the content curation plugin PressForward to generate topics for Gazette posts.  PressForward enables 18th-century enthusiasts (nonacademic or academic!) to nominate content from around the web for inclusion in 18th-Century Common Gazette posts by posting a link on Twitter with the hashtag #18common.  We also use PressForward to collect abstracts of new journal publications for possible Gazette posts.  We encourage faculty to incorporate the writing of Gazette posts into their graduate seminars or advanced undergraduate classes.  Writing a Gazette post gives students practice situating work in scholarly contexts as well as practice communicating ideas clearly to an intelligent, nonacademic readership.  Gazette Contributors will have access to a range of possible material for Gazette posts gathered by PressForward; a Gazette Contributor may choose the topic of a post from this material or from other publications.

Read more about these ways of getting involved in The 18th-Century Common:  our Get Involved page includes tutorials on nominating content with the Twitter hashtag #18common as well as on using PressForward to create Gazette posts.  Contact the editors at [email protected] with questions, proposals for Features or Gazette posts, interest in serving as (or assigning your students to serve as) Gazette Contributors, or interest in becoming a Collection Curator.

The Adventures of an 18th-Century Common Post

In 2015 I wrote a Features post for The 18th-Century Common because I will never pass up an opportunity to tell the world about James Bruce, the verbose Scottish explorer who traveled to Abyssinia in the 1760s in search of the source of the Nile.  But beyond the instant satisfaction of sharing something I find fascinating, contributing to a public humanities website turned out to be worthwhile for other reasons:

It was an opportunity to practice translating my research.  In Fall 2015 I was on the job market, faced with the tasks of describing what I study to people outside my field, articulating how I make it interesting and relevant in undergraduate classes, and advocating for its intellectual and social impact.  Reworking even a small piece of my project for a public audience helped me start developing language and examples to communicate its exigency.

It was a quick and open-access way for people to see what I do.  I sent the link to people outside the academy who have been resources for me, and to friends and family who wanted to know more about what I study.  It came up when search committees looked me up online.  Students in the department that I will be joining in the fall read it, and they asked me questions about it during my campus visit.

It had a fast reach.  I recently ran across a web exhibit about the European exploration of the Blue Nile that was put together by a History class at Washington and Lee University.  I was pleased to see my post among their sources and amazed at how quickly it had an impact.

It turned out to be both fun and useful.  And how often does that happen?

Editor’s note:  Learn how you can get involved in public humanities project that is The 18th-Century Common.

Haiti’s First Novel: Expanding the Study of the Age of Revolutions

We might say that of the many topics we 18th-centuriests study, the “Age of Revolutions” tops the list.  The French and American Revolutions have long been examined as crucial turning points in the history of the modern world, and we tend to think of the “before” and “after” as two distinct periods.  However, for almost as long, we in the West studied the “Age of Revolutions” without paying much attention to what is arguably the most important of the era’s political transformations:  the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).

In recent decades, important work has been done to deconstruct processes of “silencing” the Haitian Revolution and to reconstruct the Haitian archive.  The most successful revolt by enslaved persons in history, the Haitian Revolution resulted in a completely autonomous antislavery, postcolonial nation in 1804, and shocked the wider world.  Haiti has struggled to deal with this shock for most of its existence.  It took decades for Great Britain and France to recognize Haitian independence.  The United States waited over half a century.

Unsilencing Haiti’s Revolution and inserting it into the intellectual framework of the “Age of Revolutions” requires conceptual as well as material reexaminations.  An important step is the recovery and reading of Haitians’ own words about their country’s history.  For example, until now, few students of the Revolution have read the first novel written by a Haitian author, Stella (1859), which is also a text about the Haitian Revolution.

Émeric Bergeaud wrote Stella hoping that the form of the novel would draw more interest to his country’s history.  Describing a tension between history and literature, he writes:

History can tell only what it knows.  Its sight, limited to the horizon of natural things, has trouble knowing the truth that shines behind that horizon.  The miraculous is not within its domain.  History leaves the field of mystery to the Novel.  (86)

In his explanation, Bergeaud was being clever even as he was being poetic.  Tired of reading the slanderous accounts of the Haitian Revolution published in France, Great Britain, and the United States, the novelist wanted to be sure that his readers would instead know Haiti’s great foundational myth and recognize the story as the miracle that it was.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud's novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d'Histoire d'Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud's homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

A note providing clues as to the provenance of one of the rare copies of the second edition of Bergeaud’s novel, published at the behest of his widow in 1887. This copy was acquired by the University of Florida in 1961 from the Librairie d’Histoire d’Haïti, which was a famous library and bookstore in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Thanks to this note, we know that the work did circulate in Bergeaud’s homeland even though both of its nineteenth-century editions were printed in Paris.

Out of print for over a century, Stella has often been overlooked.  This neglect is partly due to a nineteenth-century colonial mentality that denigrated Haiti and Haitians, constantly judging them against standards established for the purpose of exclusion.  It is also due to Bergeaud’s own obscurity—he died in exile in 1858—and the fact that few, if any, physical copies of the original editions survive.  These circumstances have meant that literature by early postcolonialists like Bergeaud has never received the attention that it deserves.

A new English translation of Émeric Bergeaud’s 1859 novel aims to aid in the unsilencing processes and to invite Anglophone readers to examine this period more fully.  Bergeaud’s insistence that Haiti is the true inheritor of republicanism helps us to understand how Haitians viewed their history in terms of the “Age of Revolutions” well before Western academics began making similar connections.

Recovered texts and new translations like this one offer a means to chip away at the power of the colonial mentality and to challenge the silencing of what we might call the most significant of the age’s revolutions.

Sex and the Founding Fathers

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas Foster

Sex and the Founding Fathers by Thomas A. Foster

Living as we do in an era in which public figures are subjected to extreme scrutiny in the form of media intrusions, we tend to think of our interest in reconciling public images with private sexual conduct as uniquely postmodern. In fact, Americans have long invested national heroes with superior moral status and at the same time probed into their private lives. If the Founding Fathers seem remote to us now, that distance persists despite the efforts of generations of biographers who attempt to take their measure as leaders and tell us what they were really like in their most intimate relationships. From the early years of the Republic till now, biographers have attempted to burnish the Founders’ images and satisfy public curiosity about their lives beyond public view. At the same time, gossips and politically motivated detractors, claiming to have the inside track on new information, have circulated scandalous or unpleasant stories to knock these exalted men off their pedestals. Looking back at the stories and assessments that have proliferated in the two and a half centuries since the Founders’ generation, we see the dual nature of these accounts and how they oscillate between the public and the private, between the idealized image and actions in the intimate realm. We see how each generation reshapes images of the Founders to fit that storyteller’s era.

On the one hand, the Founders appear desexualized. The images of the Founding Fathers that we regularly encounter—as heads on money, as reference points in discussions about political ideology, and as monuments at tourist sites—assert their status as virtuous American men. They typically appear either disembodied—as heads or busts—or in clothing that reminds us of their political or military position. Their flesh is covered from neck to wrists, with only hands and face exposed. Typically, the men are frozen in advanced age—generally gray-haired, if not topped off with wigs—further confirming their identities as desexualized elder statesman for generations of Americans who associate sexual activity with youth (1).

On the other side of the coin, curiosity about their “real” lives has continued seemingly unabated into our own time. In 1810, Mason Weems, originator of the cherry-tree myth, emphasized the importance of discussing George Washington’s personal life. Weems argues that “public character” is no “evidence of true greatness” and calls for a spotlight to be shined on his “private life.” Weems gives the compelling example of Benedict Arnold, who could “play you the great man” “yet in the private walks of life” reveal himself to be a “swindler”—including not only his political deception but his use of the “aid of loose women.” For Weems, the Founders’ intimate relationships should not be off limits for Americans: “It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life, that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life.” To truly know them, their conduct in that realm is an important piece of the puzzle (2).

By tracing how intimacy has figured in popular memory of the Founders from their own lifetimes to the recent past, Sex and the Founding Fathers shows that sex has long been used to define their masculine character and political authority and has always figured in civic and national identity (3).  Each generation has asked different questions about the Founders and their private lives, but Americans have consistently imagined and reimagined the private lives of the Founders through the lens of contemporary society. As Michael Kammen and others have argued, countries “reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully record them” and “do so with the needs of contemporary culture clearly in mind” (4).  Gore Vidal has referred to our selective national memory as “The United States of Amnesia” (5).  It is true that we tend to embrace the the national narratives that we desire and “forget” those that we prefer to hide away. Stories about the Founders’ lives have always been told in ways that make use of the norms and ideals of the time period.  Founders can never be embraced in their late-eighteenth-century context, for, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country—and the Founders lose their cultural utility when viewed as foreigners. Americans want to see themselves in their images, because these men, the men who created America, are by their actions the embodiment of the nation and of our national identity.

The Founders lived in a world that fit neither the stereotyped image of a Puritanical past nor a more modern sexual culture that makes them “just like us.” The problem with using sex to make the Founders relatable is that sex is not transhistorical: It can’t be used in this manner any more than medical or racial understandings of the day can be used to connect readers from early America to today.  Remembering the intimate lives of the Founding Fathers with simple tropes, hyperbolic superficialities, and meaningless romanticized generalizations prevents us from meaningfully engaging with eighteenth-century sexual variance. Doing so also trivializes sex, perpetuating our own discomfort with the topic, a discomfort with a long history. Superficial glosses relegate the subject of sex to the status it held in previous generations—one of titillation, shame, and humor—all of which rely on a certain assertion of the transhistorical or human understanding of sexuality. But the ways in which Americans have ordered their sexual lives and their sexual identities have changed greatly over the centuries.  Viewing the Founders’ intimate lives and identities as somehow accessible to us through surface descriptions, such as “love at first sight” or “healthy sexual appetites,” prevents us from taking historical sexual identities and sexual expressiveness seriously. By focusing in a sustained way on the manner in which Americans have asked and answered their own questions about sexual intimacy and the Founders of the nation, we can examine how Americans have both broached and obscured sexual realities and the cultural connections between sex and nationalized masculinity in the public memory of these men.

Collectively, these stories show how gendered sexuality has long figured in our national identity via the public memory of the political leaders of the American Revolution. By tracing these histories of public memory, we are confronted with how blurred the line has long been between sex and politics in memories of the Founders and how sex has helped tie an ever-diversifying American public to a handful of staid, lite, white, eighteenth-century men.

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Notes

1.  Indeed, in recognition of this issue, several museums of Founding Fathers’ homes have launched efforts to circulate more youthful, vital images in an effort to connect to modern audiences. And recent biographies that strive to make the Founders more appealing (dubbed “Founders chic” by friend and foe alike) likewise frequently highlight the heights and musculature of the men in their youth in efforts to dispel the dusty old images held in most American’s minds. The term “Founders chic” comes from Evan Thomas (“Founders Chic: Live from Philadelphia,” Newsweek, July 9, 2001). But “Founders chic” “is really “‘Federalist chic,’” according to Jeffrey L. Pasley, who observes that the increased interest in Founders often focuses on conservatives who did not embrace democracy or the “expansion of individual rights,” such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Pasley, “Federalist Chic,” Common-place.org, February 2002, http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml.

2.  Mason Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1927), 8.

3.  This book, therefore, builds on my earlier work on sex and masculinity and on the long history of sexual identities in America. See, for example, Thomas A. Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); and Thomas A. Foster, ed., Long before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America (New York: New York University Press, 2007). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and Regina G. Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

4. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3. See also Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); David Glassberg, “Public History and the Study of Memory,” Public Historian 18, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7–23; and Patrick Hutton, “Recent Scholarship on Memory and History,” History Teacher 33, no. 4 (Aug. 2000): 533–548.

5. Gore Vidal, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (New York: Nation Books, 2004).

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Read more about Thomas A. Foster’s work on sex and the Founding Fathers:

George Washington’s Bodies

Intimate Lives on Display: Monticello and Mount Vernon

The Tercentenary of the Birth of Laurence Sterne: a Man for Our Times

by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, 1760 NPG 5019 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Laurence Sterne, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, 1760
NPG 5019
© National Portrait Gallery, London

From July 8th to 11th the tercentenary conference celebrating the birth of Laurence Sterne was held at the Royal Holloway University, attended by 68 delegates, mostly professors from universities around the globe. Over 60 papers were presented about Sterne and his works over four days, revealing not only his genius but also his appeal, providing adequate interpretation is given. Yet Sterne is little known outside of academia, and from my reading of him and my understanding of today’s world, there are, I believe, distinctive connections which make him a man for our times regarding religion, personal identity and human rights.

First: religion. Sterne’s time was one of spiritual unrest following the civil war of the previous century and there was a charismatic phenomenon taking place in the Methodist movement sweeping the country. Today, religious unrest has led to the expression of religious observance in many new forms, while fundamentalism in all its forms, suffused with charisma, is flourishing. Sacred texts provide the backbone for most religions and it is here that we find Sterne’s focus most relevant. Sterne’s sermons have a unique, free flowing style; in one instance he inserts, into a short passage of twenty lines, the paraphrases of seven Biblical texts, Mtt. 5.44 and 6. 14-15, I Pet. 2.11, Cols. 3.2, Hebs. 11.10 and 13.14, and Ps. 50.9, and no other preacher would have turned one of the most lurid and gory of Old Testament stories, “The Levite and his Concubine” into an example of the beauties of companionable friendship between the sexes. To treat scripture like this was a daring and audacious thing to do and singles him out as representing an approach diametrically opposed to the literalist and dogmatic.

Second: personal identity, a peculiarly modern concern. Fifty years ago, Helen Moglen in her essay for the bicentenary conference writes: “Tristram seeks with the anti-hero of the contemporary world an answer to the unanswerable question, ‘Who am I?’”[1] Sterne lived at a time of emerging scientific discovery; he refers to that “great harvest of … learning…now ripening,” and “icals” were appearing as distinctions were recognized. Among these “icals” he refers to the “physical,” “physiological,” and the “chemical” (Tristram Shandy 1.21.57). Neuro-science today is making new discoveries at a brisk rate and at the same time they are discovering their ignorance about it. When we think of the brain and the workings of the mind, we can only say with Tristram: “———Endless is the search of truth” (TS. II.3.80). Such humility is needed today as we learn that every scientific discovery opens a door onto yet another mystery, the biggest being that of our own minds.

Personal identity is inextricably bound up with sexuality, and Sterne speaks to us with particular relevance about this most basic of subjects.[2] Today its nature is being re-evaluated, with the undermining of taboos and inhibitions and the recognition that it is much more complex, with the masculine and feminine capable of interchange and multiple categories of sexuality emerging. Jesse Molesworth refers to Sterne’s “feminized men of feeling in Toby and Yorick and his masculinized women like the Widow Wadman.”[3]

Lastly, for me Sterne connects with our times in his espousal of human rights. Today religion is involved, often in a negative way, with human rights, and in society at large discrimination, injustice and cruelty are only too painfully alive and kicking. How does Sterne relate to this? Sterne favored abolition; Donald Wehrs and Molesworth find material in support of it in the Sermons, Tristram Shandy, The Letters and A Sentimental Journey, anticipating abolitionist thought.[4] He is against the excessive floggings that were administered in the army, sometimes on trumped up charges as noted in the case of “the poor grenadier … so unmercifully whipped … about the ducats” (TS. IV.4.247). Sterne was no religious controversialist: his criticism of the Catholics is for their cruelty in the inquisition, namely their violation of human rights, and his comments about the “enthusiasm” of the Methodists is in line with his cautionary word about those “who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of eloquence, — who heat …cool …melt and mollify, —- and then harden it again to your purpose —- .” With regard to women’s rights, Sterne has been read as a misogynist author, marginalizing them and reflecting the view of the division of the sexes in his day, but Tristram’s excruciating account of his birth and the way in which his mother was treated by her husband and Dr Slop, with her narrow escape from the lethal caesarean knife, reveals an acute awareness and concern for women’s lot in the 18th century.

In the penultimate chapter of the last volume of Tristram Shandy, we find:

HUMANITY – – – – thus. (TS. IX.31.584)

The word humanity screams at us from the page and sums up his unique contribution.

So is Sterne a man for our times? I believe that he is, and that his voice, speaking of a humanity dominated by benevolence, is urgently needed to remind the religious of this basic component of their religion; to direct people towards their common humanity; and, in the course of this to help us to determine what, in fact, it means to be human.

[1] Helen Moglen, “The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne,” in The Winged Skull, Essays On Laurence Sterne.

[2] See Elisabeth Harries, “Words, Sex and Gender in Sterne’s Novels” in The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne.

[3] Molesworth, “Sterne Studies on the Eve of the Tercentenary,” Literature Compass. 9: 453-463. doi.10.1111/j.1741-4113.2012.00897.x

[4] Donald R. Wehrs, “Postcolonial Sterne,”in The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne, and W. B. Gerard, “Laurence Sterne, The Apostrophe, and American Abolitionism, 1788 -1831,” Swiftly Sterneward: Essays on Laurence Sterne and His Times in Honor of Melvyn New.