- Reviewed by
My reading list has expanded exponentially thanks to these engaging books. Each of these texts explores different facets of literary production and invites an interrogation of the assumptions and definitions scholars employ in evaluating literature. Considering these books together in a group like this opens up questions about how we define specific genres (especially the novel), how we demarcate periods of literary history, and how we characterize—and value—literature itself. Finally, working on this review kept me sane through more than one hundred hours without electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Arthur, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
My first and most frequently recurring thought while reading The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780 was where has this been all my life? This book, edited by John Richetti and filled with essays by scholars of note, updates three volumes (8, 9, and 10) that appeared between 1906 and 1917. While Richetti acknowledges that these volumes, organized around the central figures of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson, are still valuable, they betray their age when you consider that they contain few accounts of women writers. Carl Van Doren expressed surprise at the exclusion of “Mrs. Manley and Mrs. Haywood” from volume 9 (Modern Language Review 8, no. 3 : 381), [End Page 151] so he would be no doubt heartened to learn that the current volume contains two chapters dedicated exclusively to women writers: Paula R. Backscheider’s “Eighteenth-Century Women Poets” (209–34) and Felicity A. Nussbaum’s “Women Novelists 1740s–1780s” (745–67). As well, William B. Warner’s “Novels on the Market” (87–105) opens with a discussion of the important role of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood in developing the English novel. The Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660–1780 fills this gap and many more as it addresses the ways in which eighteenth-century studies have expanded since the early twentieth century. Richetti notes how new methods and approaches to the English history of this period have helped to open new avenues in literary studies, creating a cultural studies approach to the eighteenth century. These essays form both a history of eighteenth-century authors, genres, and trends and a history of how the field has changed through the last one hundred years; thus, it is invaluable for students of the period and those trying to put together a survey of eighteenth-century literature for the first time.
The issue of the canon is explored in many of the essays. In his introduction, Richetti observes that the increased attention to social and economic contexts has created interest in rescuing an authentic eighteenth century. J. Paul Hunter argues that the poetry written between 1660 and 1740 is undervalued due to misunderstanding and misrepresentation perpetuated by Romantic bias about the nature and values of poetry. Backscheider is critical of the Great Man tradition of literature in her essay, which calls attention to the many excellent, but often neglected, eighteenth-century women poets. She notes that “literary movements are not made by single great poets; these are collective efforts that express a number of things—the taste of a time, the longings and aspirations of a people, the creative genius of a poet and the feelings of an individual writer” (234). This concern to question our definitions of literature—and to recover forgotten works of contemporary significance—is a frequent refrain in the collection.
Robert D. Hume’s contribution, “Drama and Theatre in the Mid and Later Eighteenth Century” (316–39) is perhaps the most surprising...