Writing about the past in England, 1660–1740

For Restoration and early-eighteenth-century writers, history proper was only one of a wide range of forms that could be used to represent the past. Accordingly, while some sought to record historical phenomena using large-scale formal narrative, others chose to depict the past as satire, secret history, scandal chronicle, biography, journal, letter, and memoir. A poem like John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, for example, could claim to be fulfilling neoclassical history's moral purpose of warning readers against vice, but it could present historical phenomena with an undisguised political bias. Equally, Daniel Defoe's Secret History of the White-Staff could address the same public events as a formal historical narrative, but recount them through the eyes of a politically opposed narrator. Writing for a broader audience, memoirists, scandal chroniclers, historians, and satirists were naturally prompted to depict historical phenomena in ways that differed from the neoclassical ideal. The increased attention to topical events and individual characters likely helped to attract new groups of readers to historical literature, but it was not without its critics. The genres of memoirs, satires, and secret histories, often painted portraits using far more than the 'two or three Colours' recommended by artes historicae. By mid 1750, the perceived 'ebb' in English historiography had ended - but also had the sense that history could be authoritatively defined as 'a continued narration of things true, great, and publick'. The full-length narratives of John Oldmixon, and other 'hack' historians had by mid-century been hastily consigned to the library or the dustbin.

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English historiography at its ‘lowest ebb’

The most successful English history had been penned by a Frenchman, Paul Rapin de Thoyras, whose Histoire d'Angleterre met with immediate critical and commercial success on its publication in 1724, only sharpened the collective sense of embarrassment. Just as the flaws in English historiography were diagnosed with reference to the tensions between ancient and modern, so they were identified with respect to the distinctions between the various literary genres. Library records and subscription lists indicate an increasing social diversity among history's readers as well, with the names of merchant-class and female subscribers beginning to appear alongside aristocratic male ones. Writing for a broader audience, memoirists, scandal chroniclers, historians, and satirists were naturally prompted to depict historical phenomena in ways that differed from the neoclassical ideal.

in Historical literatures
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Colley Cibber’s Apology and the development of social history

For many preface-writers, the use of apostrophe facilitated the inclusion of autobiographical minutiae, providing an inherent rationale for the revelation of personal details in a public forum. Colley Cibber's Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber used the defensive rhetoric of the apology for the purposes of literary history, glossing an artist's creative output by situating it in the context of his own past experiences. Throughout the work, Cibber manipulates the rhetoric of apostrophe, using the conjunction of specific addressee and broad audience to commemorate those actions that substantiate an artist's, rather than a statesman's, claims to historical importance. Although the Apology is nominally formulated as a response to a particular cluster of readers, it is clear from the outset of the work that Cibber has set his sights on a much broader audience.

in Historical literatures
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Delarivier Manley’s Secret Memoirs and Manners and the modern chronicle

For most early modern scholars, the chronicle was a primitive form: it provided an artless, eclectic 'history of the times', its diverse contents organized on the basis of simple chronology. By exposing the vast and complicated social network behind history's seemingly automonous heroes, texts like Delarivier Manley's were able to question the political views and social hierarchies that underpinned neoclassical history's smooth narratives of masculine achievement. From its first appearance in booksellers' shops in 1709, Manley's Secret Memoirs and Manners sparked controversy, and Manley herself was subsequently sued, unsuccessfully, for libel. Despite operating under a single name and inhabiting a single body, a 'hero' like Godolphin maintains his power, Manley's chronicle suggests, by highlighting the different sides of his personality. Within himself, he can inhabit a variety of different social personae.

in Historical literatures
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Edmund Waller, Andrew Marvell, and the advice-to-a-painter poem

According to the dictates of neoclassicism, history was meant to be a narrative rather than a descriptive form. By substituting an iconic portrait of a particular person or scene for a general account of the historical process, history painters transformed their human subjects into metonyms, reiterating in visual terms the connection between great men and great events. The panegyric that marked the commencement of the painter poem's popularity in England as a historiographical form was Edmund Waller's Instructions to a Painter. The months following the poem's initial appearance accordingly witnessed a flurry of satiric and panegyric responses, many of them taking up the advice-to-a-painter form. Among the most prominent of the resultant poems were three satires by Andrew Marvell: The Second Advice to a Painter, The Third Advice to a Painter, and Last Instructions to a Painter.

in Historical literatures
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Daniel Defoe’s Secret History of the White-Staff in dialogue

By tracing a familiar account of the past back to a biased individual speaker, dialogic secret histories undermined the notion of 'omniscient' historical narration, exposing the degree to which every tale is shaped by the thoughts and opinions of its teller. For most literary critics, Daniel Defoe's secret histories have been of interest primarily insofar as they can be seen to reflect the features of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fictional writing. As one of Defoe's most well-known contributions to the genre, The Secret History of the White-Staff stood at the centre of a particularly lively textual controversy. Near the end of the White-Staff's second volume, Defoe's narrator acknowledges that he has made use of the classical device of inventing harangues to support his work's interpretation of events.

in Historical literatures

This chapter considers Roger North's Examen; Or, an Enquiry into the Credit and Veracity of a Pretended Compleat History. North's work borrows substantially from the secret history tradition, and its arguments betray not only a close adherence to the rhetorical principles of dialogic secret history, but also an overt concern with problems of generic categorization. North's reflections on his work's genre, the 'historical controversy', prompts him to explore the relationships between secret history, historical criticism, and formal historical narrative, and he positions his enquiry within contemporary historiographical debates and a broader political discourse. The massive, multi-authored Complete History of England was in many ways a logical target for North's critique. The History's preface flaunted its communal authorship as the badge of its public authority, making claims to omniscience on the basis of its masterful assemblage of different historical texts.

in Historical literatures
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John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel and historical allegory

Historians writing in the Restoration and early eighteenth century inherited a number of conflicting theories about the patterns and purposes of history, two of which specifically identified historical change as proceeding according to a consistent overall pattern. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries produced many accounts of the past in allegorical form, but John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel is often cited as the original and best, example of the genre. His dissolution of the poem's defining metaphor truncates the work's narrative arc, rendering it, like Andrew Marvell's satires, 'partial' in formal as well as ideological terms. While few writers could have failed to see the political diplomacy in the poem's suspended plotline, Samuel Johnson was by no means the only reader to criticize Dryden's unabashed abandonment of his poem's symbolic narrative.

in Historical literatures
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Memoirs and the history of the individual

Restoration and early-eighteenth-century writers made little active distinction between memoirs written from a biographical perspective and those written from an autobiographical point of view. In addition to the difference in perspective, memoirs could also include material that would be considered irrelevant or extraneous to a formal historical narrative. Although neoclassical history was addressed exclusively to elite public men, its readership included 'Grandees of all Countries and all Ages', statesmen of both the present and the future, the nation and the world.

in Historical literatures
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John Evelyn’s Kalendarium and the public diary tradition

Like the prefatory address, the diary can be understood as part of a larger shift in historiographical values, as seventeenth- and eighteenth century writers reconsidered who or what was worthy of historical commemoration. It is pleasingly appropriate that the two best-known diarists of the Restoration era, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, should have been involved in the fledgling scientific efforts of the Royal Society. Evelyn's Kalendarium boasted an additional connection with scientific methodology, in fact, in its association with the secular diary's most prominent precursor form: the almanac. Evelyn's descriptions of remarkable historical events often feature numerical figures. Public statistics serve an emphatic function, as Evelyn conveys the magnitude of military conflicts like the Anglo-Dutch war or human catastrophes like the 1665 plague by making a note of the growing numbers of recorded fatalities.

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