Here are five books about seventeenth-century England that cut across several disciplines, linking history with literature, literature with economic and social history and with feminist studies, the novel and science with social and cultural history. Things are looking up.
Kevin Sharpe had bad luck with Criticism and Compliment. In 1984 Martin Butler published Theatre and Crisis, 1632–1642, which established brilliantly that the drama of the 1630s, even the plays put on at the court of Charles I, have wrongly been neglected as being decadent and sycophantic. The court was not monolithic: all great aristocrats had a right and a duty to be there, just as gentlemen had a duty to take on the office of justice of the peace. The court was the principal source of the patronage that was essential if one was to succeed as a poet; we can hardly blame those who sought it. The once fashionable dichotomy of “court” and “country” began to look rather different after Butler’s work. Butler worked out in detail the way in which nuances of opinion at court were discreetly aired in plays, in particular criticisms of Charles I’s pro-Spanish foreign policy originating from a group around Queen Henrietta Maria.
Butler’s book, instantly recognized as authoritative, succeeded in changing attitudes toward the drama of the 1630s. Kevin Sharpe tells us that he was working along similar lines when Butler’s book appeared. So what was there left for him to do? He has studied in detail court masques, about which Butler had little to say, and has concentrated on three poets—Sir William Davenant, Thomas Carew, and Aurelian Townshend. “Historians,” Sharpe complains, “have scorned the masque as a distraction from the reality of governing. To Charles I it was rather a duty, a ritual no less than his participation in the services of the Anglican church.” “In 1637 he practised for Britannia Triumphans daily.” We need not impugn the king’s sincerity by querying his scale of preferences, of values.
Kevin Sharpe confirms Martin Butler’s analysis. Some masques convey veiled political criticisms and suggestions of different policies: the divergent political outlooks of the king and his queen made this possible. Yet Sharpe’s thesis contains contradictions. He dismisses “the old familiar charge” that the masque fostered the illusion that because “disagreements, doubts and disorder could be transcended by the king on the stage, they could be as easily dispelled from the commonweal.” He wants us to take seriously the dramatists’ argument that “through the poetry of love, nature and innocence, men, society and government might…regain the immortality of their first perfection.” “Charles…hoped through his personal example to lead the realm back to order and virtue.”
Yet Sharpe also wants to show that the poets were not sycophantic, that they retained their critical independence. He quotes passages from their work that undermine the ideology that he attributes to them. “The court has corrupted love,” Townshend declared. He was the least successful of Sharpe’s three writers, who all suggest in their work a “disenchantment with masque,” and “criticism of the values and culture of the court.” Townshend suspected that, so far from his counsel being taken, he would lose “the king’s ear and the patronage he sought.” He did. Carew wrote only one masque, Coelum Britannicum. Sharpe thinks this may be explained by the “ambivalence and irony” it revealed. Even the more successful Davenant devoted a whole play to Henrietta Maria’s favorite subject of Platonic love, in which he did not believe, thus exhibiting “a concern far greater than that merited by a fashionable cult soon to expire.” Precisely. “It is less to the particular than to the larger, universal debates that our authors addressed, and were able to address, themselves” (“and were able” conceals the fact that it was not safe to be specific). All three of his poets, Sharpe admits, were driven sooner or later to question the whole ethos that their expensive spectacles represented. Two of the three who, he argues, preached the sanctity of chaste married love were notoriously victims of syphilis; Aurelian Townshend was described as “pocky.” Theory and practice seem to have got separated.
A definition of decadent literature might be one totally abstracted from political and social reality. We do not need the hindsight that the royal government is going to collapse in 1640 to tell us that contemporaries were aware of powerful social tensions; in the elections of the 1620s the word “courtier” was already a term of abuse. Kevin Sharpe has convinced me that the label “court masque” should not predetermine our expectations. Perhaps some of his apparent contradictions can be dialectically resolved. He is not generous in his references to Martin Butler. He is positively offensive to Margot Heinemann, whose pioneering work, Puritanism and Theatre, initiated and inspired the recent spate of serious works on the literary history of the early seventeenth century.
Kevin Sharpe has difficulty in fitting Milton into his schema. Comus shows what a really independent artist could do with the masque. Comus too was written for a court, that of the Lord President of the Marches of Wales. But some thought that the Earl of Bridgewater had been sent down there to expiate his Puritan leanings. Keith Stavely and Joseph Wittreich both stress Milton’s radicalism. Wittreich has undertaken what might seem the daunting task of refuting the charge of misogyny traditionally leveled against Milton. He shows that representative women in the eighteenth century, from Mary Astell to Mary Wollstonecraft, from Lady Chudleigh to Hannah More, were avid readers of Milton and regarded him as a spokesman for their sex. Wittreich attributes to the eighteenth-century male literary establishment the “critical objective of neutralizing or, more exactly, emptying Milton’s politics from his poetry.” They denied his political radicalism and religious heresies, represented him as a conventional patriarchal Puritan.
Wittreich makes his point with a plethora of quotations, and also by careful argument. Milton, lucky to escape execution in 1660 as a defender of regicide and passionate opponent of the restoration of Charles II, could not freely express his subversive views, even in his poems. It had to be done by indirection—by describing Nimrod instead of attacking monarchy, praising the egalitarian democracy of the ant instead of proclaiming republicanism, emphasizing the human nature and achievements of Christ rather than the vicarious sacrifice of an incarnate deity. “I sing…unchanged,” Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, to alert his readers to the fact that he was still a political and religious radical, still a believer in marriage for love. Twenty-odd years earlier he had outraged respectable opinion by arguing for divorce where there was no love, or where temperaments proved incompatible.
Joseph Wittreich has to dig through layers of conventional male criticism to recover Milton’s Eve—a full equal to Adam before the Fall, who shares his intellectual interests and discusses with him on terms of equality. What Wittreich calls “the illusion of inequality between the sexes” in Paradise Lost is, he argues, based on Satan’s comments and Adam’s prelapsarian prejudices, for which he is checked both by God and by the archangel Raphael. Misogyny entered the world with the Fall “as primary evidence of its deformation.” After the Fall it is Eve who ultimately effects the reconciliation between herself and Adam. “It is Eve who gives life to Adam, who redeems him and history and restores Paradise to both.” She is given the last speech in the epic—normally reserved for a god or the hero—and this speech is a prophecy of future salvation, concluding, “By me the Promised Seed shall all restore.” Adam—unusually—listens in silent approbation. Wittreich reminds us that preaching and prophesying by women had been a feature of the revolutionary decades that had particularly outraged conservatives: Eve follows Mary Cary and Martha Simmonds.
In Paradise Regained it is again Satan who is misogynist. Mary is an unexpectedly prominent figure in the poem, and it ends with the Son of God, having overcome Satan in the temptation of the temple, coming down from the pinnacle and returning to his mother’s house to resume his job of preaching. In his discussion of Samson Agonistes Wittreich comes to the rescue of Dalila, who is traditionally taken as an expression of Milton’s misogyny. The misogyny is expressed by the Chorus, and by Samson in his unregenerate state. Dalila is not the heroine of Samson Agonistes, but she is depicted as a real human character who gives as good as she gets in the fierce quarrel with Samson. She claims, rightly, to be patriotic in the ways that the great heroines of the Old Testament were—Jael, for example. Samson’s quarrels with her and with Harapha, in each of which he is shown as no better than the Philistines, form part of his reeducation from his initial despair; Dalila helps to bring about the internal transformation that prepares Samson to accept his call to the temple of Dagon, where he destroys the Philistine aristocracy and priests. Dalila does not have the last word in Samson Agonistes; but Manoa’s description of how Samson will be remembered by his people as a hero deliberately recalls Dalila’s vision of what her posthumous reputation would be.
Wittreich’s case throughout is well argued, and much of it strikes me as convincing. It is a pity that he does not face Milton’s blatant sexism in the divorce pamphlets, where male superiority is assumed. The real strength of the book comes from its demonstration of the existence of a popular interest in Milton in the eighteenth century quite distinct from that of the elite; and from the impressive array of quotations from women readers claiming Milton as an ally. And not only women: one of the emendations that the great Richard Bentley proposed for Paradise Lost was to change Milton’s notorious line “He for God only, she for God in him” to “He for God only, she for God and him.” The original, Bentley thought, must be “a shameful error,” contradicting what Milton wrote elsewhere in the poem. The words—utterly conventional in the seventeenth century—were in fact Satan’s. The survival of Milton’s traditional patriarchal reputation, Wittreich argues, comes from literary critics reading other literary critics with more care than they exercise when they read Milton. His well-documented onslaught will, one hopes, educate literary critics and give us all much to think about.
Keith Stavely has no doubts about Milton’s radicalism. He “should be seen as standing ultimately with [the Ranter] Coppe and [the Quaker] Nayler, rather than with those whose values these radicals so effectively satirized.” Milton dissented as sharply as Coppe and Nayler from “the emergent alliance of Protestantism and capitalism.” Milton is as severe as Bunyan against the hypocritical godly—their “close ambition varnished o’er with zeal,” as Milton put it. Stavely sees Satan as “a heroic exemplar of the Protestant ethic.”
As against the view that Milton degrades the heroic Satan of the first two books of Paradise Lost into the crawling serpent of Book X, Stavely argues that
anyone contemplating the broad outlines of Anglo-American development during the past three centuries must see not willful literary manipulation but rather profound historical understanding in the degradation of Satan from a rebel against authoritarianism and an indomitable laborer and builder in the wilderness to an imperialist policy maker and insatiably combative technocrat.
Stavely’s very original objective is to pick up from the later history of Puritanism in America themes and contradictions that are anticipated in Paradise Lost.
Two thirds of his book analyzes the careers of an eighteenth-century minister and a nineteenth-century journalist in two neighboring New England country towns. Ebenezer Parkman was minister of Westborough, Massachusetts, from 1725 to 1782, living through “two formative upheavals:… the Great Awakening and the American Revolution.” From his diary and voluminous surviving papers Stavely illustrates with sympathy and irony the decline of radical Protestantism in a secularized world, the reduction of the high tragedy of Paradise Lost to petty squabbles in a New England village, which recall “in many ways the pattern of Adam’s and Eve’s descent into a vain contest that appeared to have no end.” “Hierarchical relations in New England,” like the relations between Milton’s Adam and Eve, were not always “marked…by deferential harmony,” but rather “by chronic ambivalence, uneasiness, and conflict.”
Stavely’s second case study is of Charles F. Morse, editor of the Marlborough Times from 1877 to 1892. Morse was a man of liberal principles who asserted “liberty of trade, liberty of press, liberty of religion…and…free competition.” He opposed prohibitionist enthusiasm in the interests of ordered reform. He defended (for a time) an Irish Catholic priest against no-popery extremists. But on “the central issue of the time,…relations between capital and labor,” Morse affirmed the general right of labor to organize, “while at the same time denying it the right to make its organizing meaningful and effective.”
The movement of secularized Puritan discourse from…soaring grandiloquence to fast-talking conjurations is…the intellectual and rhetorical movement made by Satan as he proceeds from his magnificent entrance into Paradise Lost to his ignominious exit from it.
This part of Keith Stavely’s book cannot be adequately summarized. The success of his daring and ambitious project will be best appreciated by those who know more than I do about eighteenth and nineteenth-century American history. But Stavely’s earlier analysis of the relationship of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost is the most brilliant and most convincing that I have read anywhere. It is close reading in the best sense of the word, watching every nuance, every turn, of the exchanges between the two, relating barbed remarks to unforgotten earlier disputes, earlier misunderstandings and failures. Eve’s quick intelligence undermines Adam’s patriarchal platitudes. Raphael told Adam that Eve “sees when thou art seen least wise”; and both parties in this epic matrimonial power struggle turn this knowledge to the disadvantage of the other. Stavely’s analysis of their swift and devastating exchanges reminds us that Milton originally designed Paradise Lost as a play; and helps us to understand why Samuel Richardson so greatly admired Milton. Paradise Regained looks forward to the psychological novel, Paradise Lost to Clarissa.
“The Fall,” Stavely sums up, “unfolds from deep within the essential Puritan social configuration. Satan’s function is to concentrate and distill those psycho-social and ideological tensions that have always been present in Adam’s and Eve’s relationship,” controlled but never resolved. Eve’s relationship to Satan is analyzed with equal subtlety. Satan assaults with a tissue of notions and reasoning such as had been prevalent in radical circles during the English Revolution, persuading her that she can become a “goddess among gods” by eating the forbidden fruit. She is trapped in “longing for liberation from Puritan hierarchy.” Adam was not converted to Eve’s “Ranter” ideology: he ate the apple because he loved Eve, expressing his irrational feeling in marvelous poetry, which Stavely, like Milton, finds “deformed…by an undercurrent of sentimentality.” What follow is
reminiscent of the way in which the mid-century revolution degenerated, in 1659 and 1660, into futile squabbling among those Puritan factions that had not already opted for a Restoration. It is also…prophetic of the contentiousness that…would be the fate of a great many Puritan communities in Colonial New England.
. . .
A large part of what is compelling about the recovery from the Fall is that, like the Fall itself, it records the real vicissitudes of specifically Puritan existence.
Stavely’s analysis of the debate that led to reconciliation is clinical in its dispassionate accuracy. “A breaking through toward peace must also in some significant sense be a breaking beyond the patterns by which relations have hitherto been ordered.” “If Paradise Lost concludes by insisting that we harbor no great expectations,…it also requires that we live nevertheless as though our actions might make a difference.” A very stimulating book, provoking thoughts about the present as well as about the past.
Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel is perhaps the most ambitious of all the ambitious books under review. Its object is to extend and broaden the perspective of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which has held the field since 1957. McKeon goes back to the Reformation’s self-conscious break with what were then first called “the Middle Ages,” to its revival of apocalyptic historiography. The coincidence in time of the invention of printing with the Reformation made Protestantism the religion of the Book, and so contributed to historicizing habits of mind. “The scrupulous historicity” of the narrative in John Foxe’s enormously influential Book of Martyrs set a pattern for using “the mundane circumstantiality of common lives” to establish verisimilitude, all in the interests of major underlying themes—Protestantism against Catholicism, the common people suffering for God’s cause at the hands of the great and powerful. “Romance” acquired medieval associations; factual history was modern.
Next came the deep influence of the propaganda battles of the English Revolution. Each side tried to establish verisimilitude by reporting its “facts” with what McKeon calls “naive empiricism”; each was skeptical of its opponent’s inventions as “romances.” John Rushworth claimed that in his Historical Collections (1659 onward) he had been to great “pains and charge…to separate Truth from Falsehood, things real from things fictitious or imaginary.” It sounds just like Defoe, or one of the Royal Society’s “true histories.” Rushworth, however, was challenged by John Nalson’s rival collection of documents, claiming equal authenticity.
The plethora of rival “factual” narratives led from positivistic claims to objectivity to skepticism and ultimately to solipsist subjectivity. Against this background the novel emerged from a variety of literary forms—“the saint’s life, spiritual autobiography, the picaresque, criminal biography, and the travel narrative”—and, we might add, works of casuistry, from Perkins to Baxter and Bunyan. Between 1600 and 1740 there was a change in ideas of how truth and virtue were to be authentically signified. The novel, McKeon argues, came into existence to mediate this change in attitudes, and so was a contradictory amalgam of inconsistent elements. There was no lack of self-conscious critical theory. But we should beware of looking only at the novels that posterity remembers, as though they alone influenced one another. Contemporaries did not know what the great tradition was to be; countless now-forgotten works contributed to the novel’s evolution.
McKeon also faces the difficult problem of the relation of the rise of the novel to economic and social changes, to the rise of capitalism and the rule of the market. The concept of “honor” was being transformed from a social to a moral concept. The Heralds’ Visitations to ascertain claims to gentility, McKeon reminds us, began in 1529 and ended in 1686: a significant time span. At least one contemporary attributed the English Revolution to sale of honors which “took off from the Respect due to Nobility, and introduced a parity.” The simultaneous rejection of epic values and the military virtues by poets so different as Samuel Butler and Milton testifies to profound changes in social perceptions. Joseph Wittreich and Keith Stavely show how Adam and Eve, Samson and Dalila, are already more like characters in a novel than like traditional epic heroes and heroines.
The English Revolution was a period of “status inconsistency,” of accelerated social mobility combined with “relative deprivation” of some traditional expectations. “The social significance of the English novel at the time of its origins lies in its ability to mediate—to represent as well as contain—the revolutionary clash between status and class orientations and the attendant crisis of status inconsistency.” In Richardson’s Pamela, McKeon observes, Mr. B. shed his aristocratic prejudices about marriage but retained his male prejudices about female inferiority. The rise of the doctrine of “poetic justice” from the 1660s McKeon relates to a society in which “divine justice is felt to be in jeopardy,” as so many on both sides had felt during the ups and downs of the Revolution. Poetic justice could replace divine providence insofar as rewards and punishments in the afterlife receded with the defeat of millenarian enthusiasm. Fiction could satisfy expectations for retribution better than fact. The secularization of the Protestant ethic, the rise of the Nonconformist businessman, is part of the same process. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was impelled by “rousing motions” no less than Milton’s Samson.
The fragments I have quoted from McKeon’s long and sophisticated book cannot give a proper impression of its merits. It is a powerful and solid work that will dominate discussion of its subject for a long time to come.
Margaret Jacob, in concert with Charles Webster, J.R. Jacob, and a select few others, has transformed the history of science in seventeenth-century England from an esoteric subject in which one great scientist influences another great scientist by the “truth” of his ideas. They have established that modern science did not develop in an ivory tower; the scientists were influenced by as well as influencing their times. Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and the Newtonians were far from being “pure” scientists; they were knee-deep in the political controversies of their age. Boyle prided himself on the usefulness of his scientific theories in combating both radical sectarian “enthusiasm” and the “atheism” to which he believed this led; men who were later to become Latitudinarian Anglican parsons played a big part in the history of science from the mid-1650s onward, and of the Royal Society. These scientists came to reject Descartes because they thought his ideas led to atheism. Newton’s achievement for many of his contemporaries was that his great synthesis seemed to establish God firmly at the heart of things, to the confusion of Cartesians and atheists.
The Cultural Meaning of the Scientific Revolution is a summing up and elaboration of this new interpretation. Margaret Jacob is not only a mistress of scholarly research; she is also a great synthesizer and popularizer, and her book deserves (and will get) a wide audience. She states her theme early. “The road from the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial Revolution, although occasionally requiring detours or impasses, is more straightforward than we may have imagined.” Science “became entwined” in the “division between high and low culture” that was one of the central transformations of sixteenth and seventeenth-century history. At a time when increasing divisions between rich and poor were polarizing society, Galileo himself recognized the dangers to the Church and the Bible in the new Copernican science. “The shallow minds of the common people,” he said, must be protected from the truth about the universe.
The Roman Catholic Church chose one method of protection by condemning and silencing Galileo. This helped to popularize Copernicanism in Protestant countries, notably the Netherlands and England. “The history of the printing press,” Jacob writes, “is inextricably tied to the history of the Scientific Revolution from Galileo to Newton, and the history of both became increasingly Protestant in the course of the seventeenth century.” In Protestant countries lower-class discontent tended to take the form of millenarian utopianism; but the millenarian vision was “an important rationale for the acceptance of the new science in Protestant countries,” from Francis Bacon onward. At the end of the century Newton was still trying to date the end of the world. Jacob observes: “While the culmination of the Scientific Revolution is unthinkable without Newton, Newton is unthinkable without the English Revolution.”
The ultimate effect of this revolution was to forge a relationship “between its landed and commercial beneficiaries and the new science.” This gave England a lead over France and the Netherlands, which also aspired to the industrial application of mechanical science. Historians, myself included, have often mocked the Royal Society for opening its membership to parsons, peers, and country gentlemen (and closing it to “atheists” like Thomas Hobbes). Margaret Jacob, on the contrary, sees here a source of the society’s strength. “The alliance…between the new science and the landed and commercial elite” created “an eagerness to promote their vision of industrial progress whatever the immediate…undesirable social consequences.” The commitment to render science useful to trade and industry became part of the ideology of English science. Lecturers made money by popularizing science in the provinces. The gentleman “was now defined as a man of science.” He would play an important part in bringing about the Industrial Revolution. “By the latter part of the seventeenth century the new science had become institutionalized in England.”
The sovereign Parliament representing the gentry helped to facilitate economic progress. The survival of absolute monarchy in France accounts for French failure to keep pace with England. Cartesian scientists emphasized “local motion and mechanical devices” less than Newtonians. “Their science addressed the needs of commercial capitalism,” not of industry, and they looked to the state for support rather than to an educated laity. “The science of the Newtonians was to become the science of constitutional monarchy and of early industrialization,” Margaret Jacob argues. She has fascinating pages on the equal failure of the Dutch Republic, where political conditions seemed more favorable. In both France and the Netherlands industrialization followed political revolution at the end of the century.
Her thesis leads Margaret Jacob to some subversive reflections:
One assumption which used to be fairly common must now be discarded: that “pure” science had nothing to do with industrialization. In the eighteenth century…the distinction between “pure” and “applied” science simply did not exist for the natural philosophers…. They existed within a particular social and political milieu that favored, indeed encouraged scientific knowledge in the service of the literate elite, both landed and commercial.
She also takes a welcome swipe at social historians who still rely on “statistical models and on impersonal laws,” whether demographical or technological, “to explain the origins of industrialization.” A change in culture, in mentalities, is as important as (though not more important than) economic considerations or material circumstances.
So all five books are linked in their disparate themes. Joseph Wittreich and Keith Stavely show Milton ushering in the modern world and the novel, whose interdependence Michael McKeon establishes. Kevin Sharpe reminds us of the constraints on creativity in the artificial world of “honor” and romance that Milton and the English Revolution were to undermine, and that the novel and the scientific revolution were ultimately to destroy. Interdisciplinary history at its best makes narrowly political or administrative history seem bloodless stuff.*
April 28, 1988
There are contributions by Sharpe and McKeon in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, K. Sharpe and S.N. Zwicker, eds. (University of California Press, 1987), an interesting collection of articles that also aims to bridge the gap between the disciplines. ↩