Historical literatures

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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