Ms. McGirr’s ambitious Heroic Mode and Political Crisis explores the “heroic” from its rise as a literary and political modality shortly after the Restoration through its pejorated finality in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745—from Charles II to Charles Edward, from the Exclusion Crisis through the Glorious Revolution to the end of the Stuart pretensions. Each chapter is framed by a national crisis, each chapter explores the role of the heroic and its antithesis. Ms. McGirr traces the anti-heroic from Buckingham’s Rehearsal through Steele’s attempts to replicate a “Christian hero” to theatrical farces of the 1730s and especially the 1740s as Buckingham’s Rehearsal returns to the stage with renewed popularity. It is a tall order for a small book.
In 1660, as Charles II returned to claim the throne left empty by the public decapitation of his father, he tried to close the gap left by the Interregnum but could never erase the concept of desecration of the anointed king’s body. Charles brought back the public theater and all the royal trappings that emulated both the theater and the theatrical court of his cousin Louis XIV. He also returned with both an asset and a liability in his brother James, Duke [End Page 81] of York, a leader who provoked great loyalty and greater animosity. James wanted to be seen as the new Caesar, the valiant leader, as the book’s dust-jacket illustration, the portrait of James as Caesar by Henri Gascar, so aptly illustrates. Heroes demand an inflated mode, but what the Stuarts got, as Ms. McGirr shows, was the quasi-idolatrous outpourings of Dryden and Orrery, among others, in the first decade of the Restoration. Plays and poems focused on the return of the rightful king, the recognition of interrelationship of birth and worth; yet several oddities already appeared in that decade, most notably Orrery’s Henry V, a play that used the real coronation robes of both Charles and his brother, as it celebrated the coronation of the son of the usurper Bolingbroke. Ambiguity was further undermining the image of divine right. Even as Dryden’s Conquest of Granada sought, as Ms. McGirr sees it, to ease public tension about James’s religion, the Whigs were turning to satire and mockery, both literary and polemic, to focus public attention on the rigidity, the absolutism, the closet-Catholicism inherent in the heroic.
Privileging the political over the literary, Ms. McGirr, however, seems to forget that the dramatists were often just seeking to get to a third day. Certainly the major undermining of the heroic mode, the Tory mode, came from Buckingham’s Rehearsal, but public tastes do get sated, the ticket-buying public wants something new, and new voices arise to vie for a third day. This is not to sell short what Ms. McGirr does with the history of The Rehearsal and the use to which it is put, especially as Drawcansir in the eighteenth century revitalizes anti-heroics in the service of Whiggism and the Hanoverian succession. In fact, her tracing of the anti-heroic from Drawcansir to Grandison offers a new way of looking at the decline of the notion of the hero in English literature. Her epilogue on “Novel Conclusions,” however, is too brief, and this is one of the areas that needs perhaps a book of its own, a study of how the public turn from the theater to the novel combined with the pejoration of the heroic to bring forward a Tom Jones or a Charles Grandison.
Other less fully developed suggestions tease the reader, such as a hint that the heroic is “indebted to the visual and live arts, especially the baroque and the sensory elements of the Catholic Mass.” Intriguing, especially in the sensuous and sensual description of an ordination Mass in the third part of Behn’s Love-Letters, this insight is, unfortunately, never again addressed, other than to note that James II used little spectacle except for “elaborately staged Masses” and his attempt to make “touching for...