- Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century, and: Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660–1800
Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century is a promising title, but this book of essays does not really satisfy that promise and one wonders just how and why the editors decided to put it together. The book starts with two essays by Roy Porter, one summarizing the eighteenth-century luxury debate and the other reviewing the consumer revolution and the commercialization of leisure. As one would expect, this is competently done and, although he says nothing very new, it is obviously useful to be reminded that the eighteenth century developed “a faith that the pursuit of pleasure would advance the general good” and that in turn the entrepreneurs of the day were eager to develop new and profitable ways for people to pursue pleasure.
One would expect the remaining essays to develop the themes surveyed by Porter by examining the various pleasures available to the men and women of the eighteenth century. This in fact is what we get in the next two essays by Simon Varey and Marie Mulvey Roberts, who examine in turn the pleasures of the table and the strange proliferation of clubs, although Varey’s essay is rather too thin to provide a satisfactory meal and Roberts spends too much time in listing real and imaginary clubs and too little in explaining why people were so fond of them, beyond the rather obvious point that the pleasure principle common to all of them was conviviality.
The rest of the essays seem too specialized and remote from the general theme to belong to the book. The best of these is Carolyn D. Williams’s essay on the “luxury of doing good,” which analyzes the relationship between charity and the development of ideas about sensibility, sympathy, and the pleasures of benevolence, her themes being well illustrated by a case-study of the Royal Humane Society, which was founded in 1774 to promote the rescue and resuscitation of people, mainly from drowning. Vivien Jones then uses the concept of the “resisting reader” to suggest that female readers of conduct-books, far from being molded or repressed by them, got pleasure from the fact that they stimulated the very desires they sought to repress. This is an interesting thesis, though obviously one that is virtually impossible to establish. The book ends with three very detailed pieces of musical, aesthetic, and literary criticism by Derek Alsop, E. J. Clery, and Susan Manning. These are interesting enough, especially Alsop’s critical examination of the pleasures given by Handel and the Italian opera in the years 1711–28, but seem too dependent on specialist knowledge of contemporary literature and music and the contemporary critical debate to be easily accessible to the general reader envisaged by the tone and content of the introductory chapters.
Fruits of Empire is also about pleasure or rather the astonishing global impact of the simple pleasures of the British people, their love of sweet tea and, to a lesser extent, sweet coffee and chocolate and the addiction of the male half of the population to tobacco. James Walvin examines each of these exotic imports in turn, discussing their cultural functions in their native habitats and then showing how, tentatively at first, and in the face of medical and social criticism, they were adopted and their original functions modified until they had become a fundamental part of British domestic consumption.
No one could possibly have predicted in the sixteenth century that British taste would change in such ways but the fact that it did, combined with the development of [End Page 154] imperialism, naval power and the worldwide search of merchants for profit was to transform the face of the globe. Clearing land for the tropical staples completely changed the appearance and flora of many parts of the world, while that accidental European...