How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: Aphra Behn

Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature

John Dryden, major English author of the Restoration and early 18th century, and family.

Literature of the English Enlightenment: Courage to Use Your Own Reason

Our newest Timeline and Reading List features literature from the English Enlightenment. Lasting from 1660 to the late 1700s, the era often referred to as “The Long Century”  is an incredibly rich period, not only for innovations in literature, but also for developments in philosophy, science, mathematics, and political thought. Historians and students of culture find a common quest over these years to apply human reason to ultimate questions.

This “long 18th century” has been given many names: The Age of Reason, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Individualism, and The Age of Empiricism.
In much of the literature of the era, writers did not just document their own times, but sought for general truths that applied to people at all times, everywhere.

What made people tick, and especially, how can we formulate those truisms?

Much literature focused on moral questions: what values are right, true, good, and everlasting? Who on the public scene, especially writers and politicians, are following them and who is breaking them, and what are the consequences?  Based on these values that are good for people and good for society as a whole, how do we judge our politicians, writers, and dramatists in light of these truths?

Join us for a look at some background information on the literature of this era that can help readers understand and enjoy it. For an overview of the culture, authors, themes, and major works of this prolific and seminal era, click the “Continue Reading” link under the London river view painting. To skip the overview and go directly to the Restoration and 18th Century Timeline, or to any specific section of it, use the links just above “Continue Reading.”

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “This painting combines the two genres: the imaginary foreground is inspired by antiquity, while in the background is a view of the north bank of the Thames with St. Paul’s cathedral, the Tower of London, and Old London Bridge.” Painted in late 1740s.

Links:

The blue links will skip the rest of this background article and go directly to the Timeline.

To read more of this background post, click “Continue Reading” button just below them.

English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

Restoration Literature: 1660-1700

Augustan Age: 1700-1750

Age of Johnson and Sensibility: 1750-1789

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Defoe and the Invention of Realism in the Novel

Shows featured author, Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Realism in the Novel is an old story today. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Realism was something new, and Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers to practice it.

In the early 1700s, a metamorphosis in English fiction writing took place. Fewer stories featured high-born princes and gorgeous ladies, clever rogues, or their slaves and minions. Instead, fiction focused more on clerks, maids, sailors, lawyers, bankers, bakers—realistic, ordinary people that an 18th century reader might actually meet.

Settings moved from vaguely described kingdoms lying somewhere in foreign lands to everyday places, like the streets of London or Colchester, or the inside of a shop, rooming house, or jail. Instead of characters who spoke in high-flown witty phrases manifesting extremes of emotion, fictional characters slowly began to talk more and more like real people.

Before the advent of this newer way of writing fiction, which became known as Realism, writers had not focused on providing “verisimilitude” to their tales. That is, they had not developed all the writerly techniques that make readers feel that a story could have happened in the factual world, the one they saw daily out of their windows.

But with Daniel Defoe’s publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Moll Flanders in 1722, “verisimilitude” is exactly what readers saw: fictions that seemed as real as actual memoirs or biographical accounts. In fact, many of Robinson Crusoe’s earliest readers believed that this fictional account was a true story. With Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and other novels to come, Daniel Defoe was helping invent something that seemed new: Realism and the Novel genre, which developed as showcase for the Realist’s techniques and aims.

Defoe made his storytelling in Crusoe feel real by basing its form on a popular memoir of an actual castaway, Alexander Selkirk. Defoe populated his faux-memoir Crusoe’s pages with numerous mundane details to make readers feel he was writing about the real world, not just dreaming up wild events in his imagination.

In Moll Flanders, the Defoe novel that I know the best, he continued to experiment and develop with techniques to make a story feel real, so much so that you can watch Defoe’s techniques develop and the story’s texture evolve as you read it from one end to the other.

To learn more about where Defoe got inspiration for this new way of writing, and how he invented and honed his Realism, come along for a closer look at Moll Flanders, and an important fictional predecessor to Defoe, a famous teller of sexy romantic tales, Aphra Behn. And before that, we’ll talk a bit about whether Realism is really a “thing,” and if so, where it might have come from.

“Before”–painting by William Hogarth

Links to Related Topics:

Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature: Background information

Timeline and Reading List: Restoration and 18th Century English Literature

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