Here is where I will discuss any helpful wide-ranging secondary literature that I find, be they historical surveys of the period or critical texts dealing with multiple canonical thinkers or works…
…To be continuously updated!
Chronologically-speaking, the first, go-to secondary text for the Long 18th Century should probably be Paul Hazard’s The Crisis of the European Mind (1935, depicted at right), which treats the period from 1680-1715, or the very beginning of our journey. Since I am in the middle of that book as I type this, I shall leave my update on this monument to intellectual history until a later time… except to say that it is about European thought, not European social or political or cultural history….
All about those other things, however, is the ninth volume from Will and Ariel Durant’s masterpiece, The Story of Civilization, The Age of Voltaire (1965), covering the early-to-mid part of the 18th century and embraces just about every aspect of European life.
A stunning achievement of erudition, intellectual sympathy, and skepticism (the latter always tempered by unparalleled moderation). I cannot recommend this more heartily, as while reading, I had the distinct impression that the Durants favoured the history of music somewhat over the history of the novel, and in terms of pages this was true enough, but my feeling that they focused much more on France than on England is a false one if you extract the 200 or so pages that close the volume which focus upon the attack upon Christianity by the French Philosophes (Voltaire, Diderot, et al), which the subtitle to this volume does warn us makes a “special emphasis on the conflict between religion and philosophy” here.
Again, to be honest, I find that military history (you know, those endless battles and interchangeable Seventy-times-nine-years Wars of the Blah-blah Succession…) to be both wearisome and vertiginous, and Durant, concerned with Civilization in all that that term implies, only gives us small doses of the battlefield, for which I am eternally grateful.
But seriously, if there is one book to rule them all in terms of panoptic/synoptic history, this might be it. Each section (be that on the novel, the life of the salons, or even geodesy [no, I did not know what that meant before, and have almost forgotten it now as I type this]) leaves you wanting more*, and that can never be a bad thing.
*If you know me at all, then you know that I always want more political economy, and the sections on the South Sea Bubble (England, 1720) and the collapse of Lord’s Systeme in France (also 1720?) amounted to no more than petits amuse-bouches (sp?) for me, alas!
Limiting its scope to nascent Great Britain but spanning the entire century, Roy Porter’s English Society in the 18th Century (1982, also part of the Folio Society History of England) is an incredibly thorough trawl through an era of accelerating social change, and it largely kept me engaged and interested. Perhaps the abundance of detail and statistics could get a bit much at times for this non-specialist, e.g.
Many of the conurbations of modern England – Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Huddersfield, Preston, etc. – had merely been sprawling villages in 1700, but had grown into great towns by 1800, the change being due largely to industrial developments. The classic mill towns were shooting up before the end of the century. By 1801 Wigan had a population of 10,989, Bury 7,072, Oldham 12,024, Blackburn 11,980, Bolton 12,549, Preston 11,887 and Stockport 14,850.
Thankfully, that level of fine-grained statistical detail doesn’t happen all that often.
This is also written as if from an Olympian height in terms of its voice (something I’ve never minded, haha!), but its somewhat Mandarin Oxbridginess can grate at times as well, e.g.
Even rapid industrial change, or the abrupt disruption to ingrained patterns of rural life that enclosure could create, did not produce Jacqueries or la grande peur.
Additionally (getting all my quibbles outta my quiver outta the gate for sure, to mix metaphors in a way that would drive the esteemed author batty, I’m sure), this dude kinda sorta assumes we all Englishy enough to know what parrochial items like “worsted” is, to name just one of many in-group items. And the book is divided thematically, too, which does have its advantages, though a part of me did occasionally long to be chronologically force-marched through time….
But really, I am nit-picking here. This book gives the curious reader an incredibly well-researched, almost pan-optical overview of a fascinating century. In his conclusion, he finally gathers together all of the threads he is weaving on his auto-loom:
First, the fundamental strength and resilience of its social hierarchy. It was presided over by a super-confident proprietorial oligarchy, swimming with the tide, with no obvious Achilles’ heel; an order whose dominion was consolidated early in the century and never – at least not till the 1790s – seriously challenged, let alone jeopardized.
My second theme has been this: though the social hierarchy was inegalitarian and oozing privilege (some of it hereditary), it was neither rigid nor brittle. There was continual adaptiveness to challenge and individual mobility, up, down and sideways. More than in other nations, money was a passport through social frontiers. English society was not frozen into immobilized, distended and archaic forms.
The ruling order was, however, alert to the problems of maintaining order within the fluid and to some extent polarizing society they presided over, recognizing that they had to find ways to continue cracking the whip of capitalism without the workhorses rearing up. Hence the third main focus of this book has lain on their attempts to secure consensus within this acquisitive, restless society.
Covering the longest-specified “long eighteenth century” (from the Glorious Revolution to the accession of Queen Victoria), and taking in politics as much as it does social history, Frank O’Gorman’s The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History 1688–1832 is high on my “TBR” or “To Be Read” list, and I am just leaving space for it here at present….
Moving on to the novel (which, depending upon your definition of same, was birthed early in the century. by Daniel Defoe perhaps (perhaps not!), one of the “fathers” of the history of the form is The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt (1957), which I am reading in stages as I go through the century over the next few (hopefully) years …
To date, I have only read the introductory chapters and those on Defoe, but I consider this essential reading for any amateur or professional scholar of the rise of the novel, or for any reader interested in the work of DeFoe, Fielding, or Richardson…