English Literary Periods: Enlightenment Era (1689-1790)


It was an age of new discoveries, breaking from tradition and the dawn of new civilizations. The Enlightenment Era led to profound changes in society, culture and literature as the world grew wider and independent thinkers began to debate the need for self-governance of man above the regulation by a monarch. It was during this time that America broke from England, splitting not only politics but also literary canon and traditions. During this era, the novel became an industry unto its own allowing more people to expose themselves to literature than ever before.


Marking the end of the Stuart dynasty and the rise of the Hanoverians, the Enlightenment era brought new thoughts into the realms of science, politics, math and art. Newspapers flourished and a new artform - the novel - began taking the literary world by storm. Works by the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and Fanny Burney began flying off the shelves. It was an age of revolution in letters and in life. Oddly enough, the Enlightenment is also referred to as the Neoclassical period. While people were forward thinking in trying to find more scientific and factual based solutions and answers, they were also rediscovering ancient works. The thirst for knowledge possessed by ancient societies not only influenced the Enlightenment's own quest for information but also influenced fashion, decor, the arts, and government.


Historical Background


Two things about the Enlightenment era made the growth of literature during this period possible. The first was the “Republic of Letters” that made the Enlightenment possible. The term was coined by Pierre Bayle in 1664 to reference the Enlightenment ideals of sharing ideals and knowledge across political and religious rivalries for the betterment of society as a whole. The term originally applied to French thinkers including Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau whose works were later translated into English. The network of this Republic of Letters was vast enough that Stanford University is still working to map it. While these letters were largely exchanged within the confines of Western Europe, there are exchanges all over the world from explorers, scientists, colonists, and others.

A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728

In addition to sharing letters with each other, letters during this period were often read aloud for the entertainment of others. The French salons were often places where letters were read and shared along with ideas. The women who hosted these salons, the salonnières, also breached the barrier of education built up between men and women. During this period, the idea of educating women in similar ways to men began to gain traction as well, allowing more viewpoints to be shared.


With so much news coming from so many places, it became important to find a faster way of sharing information than just from a single person reading a letter aloud in a room. Revolutions in printing made it easier to publish broadsheets - the first newspapers - that could catalog the most recently available information monthly, weekly, daily, or even multiple times of day for public consumption. By the mid-1700s, Grub Street became the headquarters for the printing industry in London with garretts on the street filled to the brim with writers. While the term “hack” at the time was an abbreviation of hackney, meaning a person whose services who were for hire. Therefore, the hacks on Grub Street were writers willing to sell their services to anyone rather than today’s interpretation of “hack” writers. Grub Street soon became the center of periodical literature like newspapers and early magazines.

Political cartoon set in a coffee shop

Political parties on both sides of the aisle published newspapers, and often these newspapers were sold in coffeehouses. The patrons would read and then debate the positions of the newspapers and debate them amongst each others in the coffeehouses. This free expression and exchange of ideas allowed the ideas that fueled the Enlightenment. Despite royal taxes designed to stamp out some of the more sensational publications, newspapers and magazines began to flourish. Today, Grub Street is now known as Milton Street. By the Victorian Era, the city's publishing industry had shifted further south towards the Thames on Fleet Street.


The second influence on this period was the rise of the book industry. The increased desire for reading material did not stop at letters, newspapers, and periodicals, and the printing presses also allowed the mass manufacture of books. The upper and middle classes in particular consumed the majority of these books and the number of books published in Europe doubled between 1720 and 1780. The majority of these books were about science and art while the number of books on religious subjects dropped. Some historians have dubbed this time period the “Reading Revolution.” Literacy rates increased among both sexes and collecting massive libraries became a source of pride for families, establishing them as well-to-do.

"The Librarian"

Of course, not everyone could afford their own library, and so state-run “universal libraries” to provide sources of reading material to the public, the forerunner to the modern public library. However, most of these libraries only lent their books out for a small fee and some bookstores earned extra money by lending out books for a cost. There were also subscription libraries where members paid fees to access the library's wealth of information. Sometimes, rich patrons paid fees for students and academics to use these resources as well.


Some of these universal or subscription libraries had a wide variety of information while others were more focused on research topics like history, medicine, or science. The concept of libraries lending books for free would not happen until later on in the 1700s. Coffeehouses also also offered books alongside the newspapers and periodicals they stocked. Of course, the wealthy and their private libraries remained the largest collections during this period.


While books were widely read, they and other forms of publication still faced steep censorship and publishing houses that printed materials found suspicious or in defiance of these censorship codes could lose their license to print. Despite this, readers were interested in sensationalist stories of royalty, politicians, and common criminals. It was often a delicate balance for publishers to print what the public wanted without risking their reputation or publication license. As a result, many writers found the best way to publish a scandalous story was to tie it up with a moral lesson at the end.


Augustan Era (1700-1750)

Illustration of the Battle of the Books by Swift

The scientific writing of Isaac Newton, Descartes, John Locke and Francis Bacon helped herald an age of questioning and exploration that epitomized the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. In addition, comical works of parody and satire started to come to prominence such as William Congreve’s 1700 play The Way of the World and Jonathan Swift’s two 1704 publications A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. International translations also widened the scope of literature with the first translation of The Arabian Nights and other works from the ancient empires of Greece, Rome and the Middle East.


This combination gave rise to the Augustan Age of literature, which is mainly considered to have lasted between the more narrow dates of 1720 and 1740, though its influences can be seen in the decades before and after. Produced from the reigns of Queen Anne I to George II, this period was marked by increased output of novels, a huge surge in satire, political works and attempts to recapture the style of writing and ideals of the Roman empire. Thus, the period was named after Augustus, the most famous of the Roman Emperors to not be stabbed to death before he could really take hold as emperor. Just like Rome was seen to be in a Golden Age during the reign of Augustus, the English wanted to create their own golden age of ideas and learning.


Voltaire was living in exile in England during this period, after challenging the wrong aristocrat to a duel and narrowly dodging a trip to the Bastille. During this period, Voltaire not only hobnobbed with some of the greatest minds of England’s Enlightenment but also began to read Shakespeare, whose work was still largely unknown outside of the English speaking world. Two of the most prolific English-language writers in this period were Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. Defoe turned from becoming a political pamphleteer into writing works like Robinson Crusoe in 1917, Captain Singleton in 1720 and Moll Flanders in 1722. Swift also authored what is considered one of the first satirical novels with his Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726. He followed it up with this A Modest Proposal in 1729.

Defoe’s Moll Flanders created a desire for the so-called “working class novel,” in which people experience falls from grace and women in particular have to fend off unwanted sexual advances or become sexual creatures in order to survive, often with dire consequences. Defoe’s own works Colonel Jack in 1722 and Roxana in 1724 started the theme, but it was Samuel Richardson who made the genre his own and created the basic plot formula for the story. His 1740 novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded was an epistolary novel showing how a woman protecting her virtue from lechers could rise from the working class to near nobility.


Naturally, Richardson's Pamela was instantly mocked with works like Henry Fielding’s satires Shamela and Joseph Andrews. Of course, this did not stop Richardson from publishing Clarissa, which had a plot opposite Pamela’s where a scheming rake forces the downfall of a virginal woman. Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett produced similar works, and this time Jonathan Swift responded with his satire Tristram Shandy. These novels were usually meant to teach a moral lesson, but it was the more lascivious details within them that often drew the attention of readers. These scintillating stories of women's fall from or restoration to grace were typically written by men.

Fanny Burney

Female novelists also began to emerge in the Augustan age, and the topics they wrote about are much different than the “moralistic” tales laid out in some of the male novels. One of the first famous female novelists was Sarah Fielding - the sister of Henry Fielding - whose work David Simple outsold her brother’s works. Fielding was one of several women moving away from the romance plots that had long dominated novels focusing on other subjects. Sarah Scott’s utopian novel Millenium Hall and autobiographical stories like those published by Frances Burney sold well as did Charlotte Lennox's more philosophical work The Female Quixote. Of course, men still dominated the literary field and while women could make money and fame by writing, it was still taking a risk to do so.


Poetry was also prolific during this period and Alexander Pope in particular was the most successful poet of the age. He and many other poets fought over which two forms of poetry was the proper model of poetry. Pope himself advocated the pastoral and like many of his age believed in the doctrine of decorum or ensuring that the proper words making the proper sense and diction were put together. However, other poets championed the mock-heroic during the period and Pope used this form as well in his famed Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad. Pope also translated The Iliad and Odyssey into English, and his translation became the pinnacle of the period. He and many other poets considered these works to be some of the most important poetical works and tried to emulate them.

While drama had been prolific during the Renaissance and Restoration, it began to decline in the Augustan age. The special effects popular during the Restoration were losing their lustre and opera was taking over the stage. Unable to rival the drama and splendor of the opera, many writers turned to comedy instead but acting out satire proved more dangerous than simply writing it. The fact that the monarchs of the period were not big fans of theatre did not help fill seats as those well-off enough to afford to see a good play followed the fancy of the king or queen. The few notable works of drama from this time include George Lillo’s The London Merchant, one of the first melodramas.


Age of Johnson (1750-1790)

The deaths of Swift and Pope in the 1740s let the scene open for a new literary figurehead to emerge in the 1750s and that figure would be Dr. Samuel Johnson. His influence on the next forty years would be so great it came to be known as the Age of Johnson, though some consider it the Neoclassical period because of the continued influence of Greek and Roman literature. Others have dubbed it the “Age of Sensibility” because of the devotion to more emotionally wrought works of literature, setting the stage for the rise of the next major literary period: Romanticism. However, the Age of Sensibility can be seen as a separate literary movement happening concurrently with the Age of Johnson.

Ben Jonson

To know about the age of Johnson, one must know about the man himself. Born to a bookseller who wound up impoverished, Johnson was a sickly child but also an intelligent one. He was in and out of school throughout his youth due to his father’s debts and his own mental and physical illnesses associated today with diseases like Tourettes syndrome, autism, and infections of his lymph nodes. Leaving college without a degree his first go-round, Johnson was able to secure a teaching position and made money writing translations. Eventually he moved into writing his own works but it would be his dictionary that would change English literature.


Johnson was approached initially in 1746 about publishing a book that defined all the words in the English language. It wouldn’t be the first such book published nor the most ingenious. However, Johnson did manage to write and publish it in eight years while a similar book commissioned in France had taken 40 writers a total of 40 years to complete. However, Johnson’s dictionary was the most popular of its kind and became the most important dictionary or reference book until the Oxford English Dictionary was published 150 years later. Johnson went on to write essays, annotated editions of Shakespeare and histories of English writers, rulers and the history of Scotland.

The dictionary had its flaws and didn’t put much into Johnson’s pocket, but it had a massive influence on the English language both at home and abroad. Some reported that the book’s popularity was second only to the Bible and would inspire the great rivalry between American lexicographers Noah Webster and Joseph Emerson Worcester. In both his dictionary and subsequent works, Johnson championed neoclassical aesthetics which included both an appreciation for beauty but also a scientific type of analysis of all things. Knowledge was valued over faith and superstition and beauty was taken from natural rather than manufactured.


As a result, non-fiction books seeking answers to questions also became popular just like Johnson’s reference tome. Astronomy, politics, language, medicine, architecture, ancient history, and travel in the modern worlds became popular topics for books. The non-fiction genre blossomed during this period as people thirsted for more scientific explanations to their questions about the world around them, rather than relying on church teachings and folk beliefs. Because of this, Johnson’s influence is seen as the last gasp of the Enlightenment movement.


Age of Sensibility (1750-1790)

Scene from Pamela

During the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Isaac Newton showed that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The literary equivalent of the opposite reaction to the Age of Johnson was the Age of Sensibility. While Johnson and his fellows were focused on analytical, scientific works, another facet of society was rebelling against the Enlightenment ideals of thinking and focusing more on feeling and emotion. Roughly the same time as Johnson was breathing the last breaths into the Age of Enlightenment, a movement toward sentimental writings that evoked emotions in readers was happening, paving the way for the upcoming trends of Romanticism, Gothic literature, and the Victorian use of literature to advocate progressive social change.


The working class novels like Pamela and Tristram Shandy were the forerunners of what would become known as the sentimental novel or sentimental literature, the cornerstone of the Age of Sensibility. Other novels that fall into this category include Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality, Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling and even later works like Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Even Continental works like Rousseau’s Julie or van Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther show some influence of this movement. The origins of the modern-day romantic comedy can also be seen in these early works of sentimentality and would continue to gain popularity throughout the 1800s. And just Henry Fielding satirized Pamela, he would also satirize these sentimental novels with his famed Tom Jones. Jane Austen would later do so in her own novels as well at a later time period.

As the sentimental novel was designed to make readers feel, it often relied on several conventions believed to tug at the heartstrings. The protagonist was often an orphan, a person falsely condemned to a crime, or a person considered to be a weaker member of society in need of protection. These novels were often written in an epistolary style or as if written in a series of letters and the growing female audience of novel readers was the primary target. A subgenre of the sentimental quickly emerged known as domestic fiction or the conduct novels in which a young ingenue is sent through various social trials and tribulations, pitted against foolish, passive, or uneducated women to show both how women are supposed to behave in society and how female virtue triumphs overall.


While it can be easy to see how the overuse tugging at heartstrings made the sentiment behind these novels somewhat cheap in the end, they were often used as social crusades. Sentimental novels often had hidden messages targeted at fighting social ills such as slavery, poor prison conditions, the limited options available to widows and orphans, and terrible working conditions. The works of Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe clearly take cues from the sentimental novels they both would have been exposed to in their youths.

Eventually, the sentimental novels of the Enlightenment would transition into the Gothic novels of the early Romantic period, which also would see a great deal of lampooning by writers like Austen. Nevertheless, the thread of English literature can be traced from the sentimental novel through the gothic novel to the socially progressive works of Dickens and the moody, brooding Victorian heroes depicted by the likes of the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, and other Victorian era writers. Even today, literature is still used to advocate for social reform and showcase the lives of the downtrodden, tugging on the heartstrings to create change.


Meanwhile in America


This period is also where we start to see the divergence between British Literature and American Literature. While Johnson and those of his ilk did have influence on America, the newly independent colonies were forming their own separate literary traditions as well. More important than Britain’s Age of Johnson to the American literary canon at this point is the Colonial or Revolutionary Period of literature lasting about the same period. The American literary canon puts more focus on figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine who were writing and publishing the words that would found American government and ideals.

It was the culture of coffeehouses and broadsheet newspapers as well as an influx of books and ideas that both made the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Attempts by the government based in England to both pay down the national debt and control colonial communication ended up backfiring. The passing of the Stamp Act and Tea Act caused the conversation to get more heated and for Americans to develop their own independent presses.


Of course, the revolutionary conversation happening in America wasn't completely one-sided and there were many who stood to gain greater benefits for continued loyalty to the island across the sea. Royalists would attempt to fight back in person and in the press as well, through letters such as the ones by an author under the pseudonym Cato that tried to attack Paine's Common Sense and Bishop Samuel Seabury who wrote "Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress" under the pseudonym A.W. Farmer, standing for A Westchester Farmer.


In some ways, the Americans would have their own responses to books placed in the English literary canon. Emerging at this time were works like Franklin’s Autobiography and Poor Richard’s Almanack as well as founding documents like Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, and The Federalist Papers. In addition to the Declaration, works by Thomas Jefferson like Notes on the State of Virginia, Letter to the Danbury Baptists, and his own autobiography would both help define American politics and be used in government debates into the modern day. America even had its own sentimental novels through the publication of works like Thomas Attwood Digges' Adventures of Alonso, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, and William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy.

Foster and Rowson’s works were unique in that, unlike the British novels that firmly had women in their societal place, these new American sentimental novels presented women as equals in the country’s new democratic experiment. These weren’t the only new voices emerging as a unique part of the American literary canon. Works like Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative, and other slave narratives began lending a unique voice to the American literary canon. In the late 1700s, Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan tribe, became one of the first Native Americans to be published with works including A Short Narrative of My Life and Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul.


Moving forward, British literature would continue to influence American literature and vice versa, though the names used by each canon for certain periods are not always the same and sometimes conventions differ. For example, the Romantic Period in British literature is often referred to as a literary movement known as Transcendentalism in America. Likewise, the influence of writers from a more diverse swath of the world continues to create differences between the American and British literary canons.

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