PRIVATE AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS
The eighteenth century thus saw the birth of a new type of media culture, in which both private affairs and personal opinions came to be given unprecedented publicity. This development fuelled the freer public discussion of sexual matters, facilitated the celebrity of immoral women, and provided novel opportunities for the manipulation of public opinion. What is striking is that the same tendencies can be found in the fiction of the period, as well as in many other genres of contemporary writing. This points to the third major source of novel attitudes towards sex – a profound change in how men and women conceived of personal identity and its public significance.
At one level, this involved a transition away from the traditional view that character was primarily to be determined from a person’s actions, and towards the presumption that the key lay in somehow uncovering their innermost feelings and private transactions. The more naturally inaccessible to others, the more potentially revealing such personal information might be. As the literary critic Hugh Blair explained, it was not just appropriate for a biographer to record his subject’s intimate life, but essential: for ‘it is from private life, from familiar, domestic, and seemingly trivial occurrences, that we often receive most light into the real character’. Dr Johnson agreed: the deepest insight came from biographers who ‘lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside’. It was for similar reasons that Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiography (first published in 1782) was to lay great weight upon his sexual feelings and actions. ‘If there be a [single] circumstance in my life, which describes my nature,’ he announced at the beginning of one such confession, ‘it is that which I am going to relate. . . Whoever you may be who are desirous of knowing a man, have the courage to read the two or three following pages, and you will become fully acquainted with J. J. Rousseau.’1 In this growing stress on the primacy of private sentiments the foundation was laid for one of the most basic assumptions of modern sexual attitudes. Instead of thinking that someone’s sexual conduct merely reflected his or her general temperament, the idea was eventually to take hold that everyone had an essential inner sexuality, which itself shaped their outward personality.
Another manifestation of the changing outlook was that in many areas of intellectual endeavour the notion was advanced that truth lay not in the general and the universal but in the individual and the particular. This tendency derived from the popularization of philosophical trends that had been started in the mid-seventeenth century by Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke, and were consolidated by their successors after 1700. Instead of proceeding on the basis of inherited assumptions and supposedly innate ideas, it gradually came to be the logical ideal to accept nothing on trust and to rely solely on one’s personal observation of the facts. The empirical scrutiny of specifics accordingly became much more important, for it was no longer merely a means of confirming universal truths, but an end in itself, the cornerstone of real knowledge.
As literary critics have long appreciated, there are remarkable parallels between these trends in philosophy and aesthetics and the simultaneous rise of fictional realism. The early-eighteenth-century novel, too, introduced into literature a new and influential way of describing reality, one which aimed at authenticity through particularity, whose characters were supposed to be indistinguishable from real people, and whose truth was seen to be inextricable from its verisimilitude. The same change of emphasis can be observed much more widely, not just in newspapers and other new forms of journalism, but in social description generally.2
Throughout the seventeenth century, as in earlier times, whoredom had been conventionally epitomized in the stock characters of ‘a whore’, ‘a bawd’, ‘a town miss’, and so on. When writers described particular sinners, they likewise focused on their correspondence to universal norms, rather than their individuality. Even in John Dun – ton’s Night-Walker of the 1690s, which in many respects was in the vanguard of journalistic realism, the harlots and rakes are all essentially anonymous figures. To have emphasized their particularity would have been to diminish their universality, and their paradigmatic quality.3 In the eighteenth century the position came to be reversed: now the addition of personal detail served only to heighten the apparent truth of a narrative. It is this new desire to personalize social phenomena that helps to explain, for example, why mid eighteenth – century sexual charities were so keen to publish the letters and stories of individual penitents; and, equally, why there was such interest in the supposed histories and memoirs of impenitent whores. Nowadays we are so used to this way of thinking that it seems scarcely remarkable. It is largely by learning about particular examples that we tend to accumulate our knowledge about, say, adultery, rape, or marital breakdown, and the more detail we have of specific instances the better we feel we understand the phenomenon as a whole. Yet it was only in the course of the eighteenth century that it became normal to treat individual stories in this way.
This development was evidently only gradual and far from comprehensive. All analysis of social and sexual relations depends to some degree on generic and impersonal archetypes. The older tradition of discussing whores and rakes in terms of abstract personifications continued throughout the eighteenth century, as did the use of symbolic names in literature, and of satirical stereotypes in prints.4 Nor was the interest in particular life stories entirely new. The point is rather that there was a decisive shift of emphasis. Although many seventeenth – century writings on immorality had been packed with illustrative examples of harlots and whoremongers, much greater authority was always accorded to classical and biblical instances than to present – day exemplars. It was only after 1700 that it became common to rely mainly or exclusively on modern paradigms. In addition, whether real or made up, such personal narratives were now invested with a more immediate significance. Rather than interpreting the lives of individuals as simply confirming patterns of behaviour that were laid down by divine and natural laws, eighteenth-century descriptions of particular persons were increasingly inclined, even when seeking to establish general conclusions, to emphasize the individuality of the subject.
For all these reasons, the period after 1700 saw a growing interest in publishing the stories and materials of private life. Much of the originality and appeal of the first novels lay not just in their purported realism but in the supposed disclosure of confidential accounts and secret writings. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, of 1722, described itself as a true ‘private history’, an autobiographical narrative ‘written from her own memorandums’ by the heroine. A similar format characterized Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Colonel Jack (1722) and Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress (1724), as well as countless later stories billed as autobiographies, memoirs, or histories. Accounts of real-life whores were part of this trend. Their similarity to new forms of fiction was noted as early as 1723 by the Lincolnshire poet and novelist Jane Barker, who observed that the most fashionable histories of the age were those of ‘Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders; Colonel Jack, and Sally Salisbury’.5
There was also an overlap with the increasing vogue for romans a clef which supposedly laid bare the sexual intrigues of notable contemporaries, especially politicians. This was not an entirely new type of writing. Veiled descriptions of recent court scandals had formed part of the elaborate plot of Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, printed in 1621. In the mid 1680s, Aphra Behn published several instalments of Love Letters from a Nobleman to his Sister, supposedly the correspondence of the Whig conspirator Lord Grey of Warke and his sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Berkeley, whose adulterous and incestuous elopement had caused a great stir. However, it was only after the Glorious Revolution, as part of the growing freedom of party political satire, that the genre became properly established in English. Now there appeared numerous retrospective Whig accounts of the ‘secret history’ and sexual corruption of the recent Stuarts; whilst Tory writers mounted a string of acerbic attacks on past and present Whig personalities, led by Delarivier Manley’s notorious ‘secret histories’ and ‘secret memoirs’.6
Letters, another type of private writing, also came to be publicized in novel ways. There were obvious classical precedents for epistolary fiction and for the circulation of private correspondence. In the sixteenth century, humanists and reformers, like many later scholars and activists, communicated their message through letters that were meant to be widely publicized; so too did princes and bishops. In the seventeenth century knowledge of political events was spread through newsletters, and it became a common conceit to print polemical tracts in the form of ‘a letter from’ one personage to another. Only in the eighteenth century, though, did there develop a substantial market for the publishing of personal letters, real or otherwise, as a means of access to the private life of others. We have noted already the dependence of contemporary newspapers and magazines upon correspondence to and from their readers. Telling a story by printing a character’s intimate communications also became a favourite tool of novelists, especially when describing love and lust. Nearly a fifth of all the fiction produced in the eighteenth century, it has been estimated, used some kind of epistolary technique.7
Above all, there was an immense new appetite for biographies of real people. The eighteenth century was the first age of biographical dictionaries, of regular obituaries, of collected letters, and of published memoirs on a large scale. ‘No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography,’ explained Dr Johnson in 1750, ‘since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.’ Even the most ordinary lives, ‘not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes’, were worth relating in print, for in learning about others we inevitably learn about ourselves: ‘we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure’. Not everybody would have agreed with Johnson’s analysis of human nature. Some readers, biographers, and autobiographers preferred to dwell rather upon the oddity and uniqueness of personality. But the net result was the same. By 1800, the lives of a much broader spectrum of people were thought to be worthy of public interest than had been the case a hundred years earlier, and reading about the private affairs of the dead and the living, and collecting their portraits, had become something of a national pastime.8