Mary Hays, pitches and the third novel.

So today I’ve spent reading the majority of ‘Memoirs of Emma Courtney’, which, despite and perhaps because of its terrible importance as an enlightenment feminist text, is also quite exquisitely terrible. It is, of course, vaguely autobiographical (so thinly veiled that contemporary critics, after having read it, went on to make the most fearful caricatures of Hays. In that regard, any criticism feels somewhat mean spirited, especially when one considers the gendered, patriarchal oppression that ran through the period. Despite this, however, not one sympathetic character appears, each being as ghastly as the last. As I’m already familiar with the plot, I look forward to the sad ending, and continue to rue the fact that it will be necessary, proto-feministic and philosophically inclined as it is, to re-read for my thesis next summer.

Apart from enduring this novel, I’ve also sent off a pitch to comment is free. Fingers crossed for that idea, but as ever, I’ve already come up with an idea for pitch number 3, which awaits tomorrow morning to be sent off to the spectator.

You might have noticed by now, I have the tendency to barely complete one thing before being enraptured by the next. Speaking of which, and despite the fact that novel 2 needs another draft or two before being sent off in search of an agent, I’m already super-duper excited about novel three. Whether or not this is due to the fact that I seem to need to be writing something to not be a restless bundle of nerves, or whether I’m truly excited about the plot itself is surely irrelevant, and no doubt a mixture of the two. Then again, that’s how I know that the writing life is for me. A day without thinking about a project feels like a day without coffee.

Enlightenment: Roy Porter. A review, of sorts.

This evening, I finally finished reading Roy Porter’s Enlightenment. While it was an interesting and erudite enough read (it won the Wolfson prize in ’01), and the fact that it somehow managed the enviable trick of squeezing a survey of the British Enlightenment into <500 pages, it’s brevity and wide scope came at the cost of several costly omissions which ultimately prove fatal to its central thesis.

In brief, Porter argues that as far as we can define it, the British Enlightenment was an argument in print, fuelled by burgeoning print culture and racked by its early temporal position. By being the amongst the first to propose radical ideas, we suffered from being forced to both delineate and defend them concurrently. To back this up, we’re given small mini biographies of English and Scottish figures, whose works are mostly formed though argument with each other and their predecessors. The reason we’re not now a republic, argues Porter, is that our major thinkers were too busy arguing amongst themselves to push the nation in any unified direction. 

The first issue here is that while delineating a national enlightenment in terms of print culture, Porter ignores the extent to which these debates were influenced by both European readings and European actions. If, as he implies, the reason we didn’t see revolution here is that we weren’t quite sure what we were arguing ourselves, then we would expect to see a unified French Enlightenment school of thought. This is clearly not the case. In addition to ignoring social and economic forces, the French revolution was a higgledy-piggeldy affair, unified more by the repression of the french court than any real ideological coherence.

This leads us nicely on to another flaw in Porter’s schema. ‘Enlightenment’s’ structure and content tends more to a history of ideas, which as Skinner argued persuasively, ignores the social and econoomic stratas and the extent to which non-aristocratic thought influenced the classics. In ignoring the bigger picture, Porter misses the extent to which, thanks to liberal press laws, English social society was permeated at all levels by news and print in a way that, thanks to court repression, France lacked. By silencing the voice of the masses, we ignore the extent to which literally every section of English society understood, responded and influenced 18th century public life.

Taking this in to account, and thinking of the way in which, pace Israel’s radical Enlightenment, there existed a quasi-european literary culture, if not per se a European Enlightenment, we get a picture of a public conversation informed by European news in place of a parochial disagreement centred on a simple rejection of staid Anglican Oxbridge Discourse.

In his haste to isolate a ‘British’ Enlightenment, then, Porter picks his case studies selectively. He isolates the biggest thinkers, talks about their influence in strictly national terms and then sets them on their merry way before strolling off to the next example. Though not committing the error of Jonathan Israel in claiming that there  were such reified concepts as ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ enlightenments, (he does at least chart the extent to which political positions changed, radicals talked with moderates etc), he does commit the same sin, one that historiography should have grown out of a long time ago.