- Differing Echoes of History
In their different ways, these works all serve as reminders of the salience of the historical imagination in the long eighteenth century. That observation may appear counterintuitive as the Enlightenment is usually noted as a period of novelty and change, and historicist elements are not in the forefront of the analysis of the period. This approach, however, represents a misreading of the understanding of the time, notably of the relationships between past, present, and future. Indeed, in order to understand the England of the long eighteenth century, it is important to consider its engagement with history. This was an age that took an understanding of the past very seriously and employed this understanding in much of its discussion. England was suffused with history. That, of course, is not how it is presented in posterity; instead, the narrative is one of change—indeed, of revolution. A plethora of revolutions, a veritable line "to the crack of doom," as if shown to Macbeth by the witches, are found: starting with the first and most famous, the Industrial, and now including the Agricultural, Transport, Financial, Commercial, Consumer, Demographic, Emotional, Sexual, and others. More eighteenth-century revolutions, doubtless, will follow from the fertile keypads of historians. The continuing emphasis is on new ideas, new techniques, new technologies, particularly steam power; on the birth of new sciences, such as economics, sociology, and geology; and on [End Page 125] new cultural forms and themes, notably the novel, the landscape garden, and the Neo-Gothic. The idea of the Enlightenment, indeed of an English Enlightenment, adds a sense that even the very context of ideas was changing. And secularization theorists suggest that religion was on its way out beginning in the eighteenth century. In such accounts, England appears to be a country propelling itself away from its past and very self-consciously toward a transformed future.
Why, then, see historical writing from this period as anything other than a branch of belles lettres? Indeed, there was relatively little then (although much more, concerning both national and local history, than is generally appreciated) of the archive-based research that was to be highly significant in the age of "scientific history" assumed to begin in the nineteenth century. In part, the latter reflected the methods, as well as the location, of a history that was increasingly pursued in universities. Moreover, in considering the earlier period, it is apparent that the English historians of the eighteenth century did not define their own era. Nor were they as influential in cultural terms, as least for posterity, as those writers who developed the novel or the Romantic movement, or, arguably, the landscape gardeners of the period.
Yet eighteenth-century England, the society that more than any other contributed to the creation of the modern age, was itself profoundly historical. This was the case in terms of thought, religion, politics, law, society, literature, art, architecture, music, sculpture, and much else. It was true at all levels of society. Indeed, a sense of history was a unifying social force, a shared interest between mansion and cottage. Therefore, whereas the focus of attention in works about eighteenth-century history is very much on the culture of print, and notably on books with the word "history" in their titles, this does not mean that the approach to the subject necessarily should be mostly in these terms, and certainly not entirely so. Indeed, the literary, like the academic, approach to historiography poses many disadvantages, as it can lead to a failure to appreciate the full range of engagement with history that was seen in the period, and, in practice, in others: what can be termed the "historical culture."
Historical writing and consciousness in the eighteenth century were dominated by contemporary interests and preoccupations. In this respect, history then...