Denis Donoghue writes about the Age of Rawson, and Rogers

  • Literature and Popular Culture in 18th-Century England by Pat Rogers
    Harvester, 215 pp, £22.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0981 6
  • Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Studies in Literature and Society in the Age of Walpole by Pat Rogers
    Harvester, 173 pp, £22.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0986 7
  • Order from Confusion Sprung: Studies in 18th-Century Literature from Swift to Cowper by Claude Rawson
    Allen and Unwin, 431 pp, £30.00, August 1985, ISBN 0 04 800019 1
  • Jonathan Swift edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley
    Oxford, 722 pp, £6.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 281337 4

Now that the main ideas at large in the 18th century have been elaborately described, students of the period have been resorting to more oblique procedures. In 1968, in The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner turned 18th-century ideas into systems, and derived a comedy of entrapment from the spectacle of men coping somehow with systems designed to suit other people. Install a man in an ill-fitting system, and you may witness that discrepancy between the organic and the mechanical which Bergson regarded as the provocation of comedy. Kenner probably got the hint from Wyndham Lewis: if so, it is explicable that his account of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe makes them seem like Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, respectively. In The Great Cat Massacre (1984) Robert Darnton described a night in Paris in the late 1730s when two apprentice printers went on the hunt for cats and staged a mock-trial before hanging them, to the raucous delight of their apprentice colleagues: the episode, as Darnton tells it, was an instance of elaborately vengeful symbolism in which workers taunted their bourgeois masters, mocked middle-class sexuality, and enjoyed Rabelaisian carnival on the margin of a society they resented. The moral of the story doesn’t seem as dramatic as the massacre of the cats, but street-history is bound to show disproportion between actions and their social meaning.

Pat Rogers’s approach to 18th-century literature is by way of popular culture. He agrees with other scholars that Augustan satire gets much of its vitality from its relation to Lucian and Juvenal, Rabelais and Erasmus, Scarron and Cervantes, but he emphasises its nearer relation to ‘the actualities of 18th-century life’. He is far less concerned with the history of ideas than with pantomimes, freak-shows, raree-shows, masquerades, bear-baiting, boxing matches, newspapers, gossip, advertising. When he refers to Heidegger, he doesn’t mean the philosopher but the operatic impresario John James Heidegger (c.1665-1749). In Literature and Popular Culture in 18th-Century England, as in his Grub Street (1972) and its abridged version Hacks and Dunces (1980), he proposes to describe ‘how things were’ or how they seemed to be to the people who lived among them. It would be accurate, but too high-minded, to describe Literature and Popular Culture and Eighteenth-Century Encounters as studies in the economics and sociology of England in that century. Both books are gatherings of essays in which Rogers comes to a culture by asking what people did to pass the time, what they thought about Italian opera, why they were so fascinated with Jonathan Wild, what exactly went wrong in the South Sea Bubble, and why Swift’s Laputa has more to do with money-making gadgetry than with the Royal Society and its proceedings.

Rogers’s trust in facts is such that he often appears content to be what Kenner thought some 18th-century writer was, an amanuensis of verity. He has a remarkable flair for sensing the particular atom of verity he needs on a particular occasion. His interpretations of the major works are not especially novel. Poems and pamphlets off the official track are likelier to catch his interest than the standard masterpieces. A splendid essay in Eighteenth-Century Encounters studies Gay’s ‘On Mr Pope’s Welcome from Greece’ (1714) by comparing Gay’s parody-account of the arrival of George I in London on 18 September 1714 with Oldmixon’s version of the same event. Gay didn’t publish it at the time, because – according to Rogers’s interpretation – it was politically dangerous. I find the argument decisive.

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