The Enlightenment The advocation of reason
The Enlightenment was the predominant background for European literature in fiction and philosophy among other fields in the 18th century. It was driven forward through many great men in different areas. Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei made important and astonishing breakthroughs in science. Adam Smith was responsible for new economical ideas. Denis Diderot would be the main editor of the Encyclopédie in which all human knowledge was assembled. Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire were spreading ideas of philosophy which also made impact in politics. Political ideas like theirs would inspire the American politician Thomas Jefferson that would lead to the Declaration of Independence in America and ideas of Enlightenment would finally culminate in the French Revolution that was get underway in 1789.
During the period 1660-1789 the phenomena of a “reading public” emerged. It was a shift created by a development of print technology and increasing literacy.1 The novel would become dominant in measures of readers and begins to being printed on a much greater scale than ever before.2
It was a time in which the author of fiction literature begins to obtain a commercial awareness. The reading public increased as the literacy improved dramatically in many European countries. New genres emerge as the book market grew: criminal autobiographies, political propaganda, travel narratives and a large diversity of fiction included. The anonymous circumstance of the printed words involved a bigger variety of writers, embracing voices from different parts of society and religion. 3
For British writers of novels, one of the noticeable themes was national identity (the British national anthem “God Save the Queen” was composed in this period and patriotic texts was a typical expression of poets in the Augustan literature). It was eventful times including the union between England and Scotland in 1707, and the political process that finally lead to a union with Ireland in 1801. In the 18th century, the language were still spread among alternatives such as Welsh, Gaelic and Erse.4
The modern novel is born
The ideals from the French classicism was still present in the beginning of the new century, but the novel of the 17th century would bring in novelties that forever would change the novel and would be a foretaste of the realism in the next century.
The 18th century coincides with an emerge of a more realistic approach in fiction. Among the feature was the subject of common people that would often replace the traditional hero. Furthermore, the story would often take place in present time and not as before in the past with historical surroundings.
This tendency was, however, not in sole control whereas romance still was present in novels. For example, the English writer Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), wrote fiction which didn't encapsulate the common life in a high degree. She was very popular during her lifetime and ahs the last decades been an interesting object for studying the English literature history during this period.
- Gulliver's Travels: The classic satire
- Robinson Crusoe: Survivor on desert island and in culture
- Pamela: The epistolary novel that was an 18th Century bestseller
Notable writers in the 18th Century
English writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding may be the most known among novel writers in the 18th century, but there is of course more authors worth mentioning. In another culture super power at the time, France, writers like Marquis de Sade and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos achieved big controversy with scandalous novels because of the open sexual contents. De Laclos is most known for Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782) that later had been adapted for the cinema at several occasions (and maybe most successful in 1988 in a film with the same name as the novel). Marquis de Sade has also remained in the popular culture, perhaps more for his life as a libertine than for his literary work, even though a novel such as The 120 Days of Sodom (Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage, 1904) is recognizable by many.
1. Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Charlotte Sussman. 2012, p. 1
2. Ibid p 2
3. Ibid p 42
4. Ibid p 9ff