Romanticism and Fantasy: The Neoclassical Background

Romanticism and Fantasy: The Neoclassical Background

Lemuel GulliverBy way of beginning a discussion about Romanticism and fantasy, I’d like to take a quick look at where the Romantics came from. If Romanticism was a revolt against Reason, what was Reason understood to be? If Romanticism, as I feel, is essentially fantastic, is Reason opposed to fantasy? To know Romanticism is to know the Enlightenment which it was reacting against, so in this post I’ll try to describe some characteristics of the 18th-century Enlightenment in England that seem relevant to the development of fantasy. I’ll go up to about 1760, and then in my next post point out some of the counter-currents and proto-Romantic elements that were developing at the time and after.

A few broad statements to start with: The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, started in the mid-seventeenth century, viewed by thinkers at the time as a reaction against the wars of religion that had rocked Europe up through the Thirty Years’ War (which ended in 1648). Reason was considered the fundamental human faculty, and human beings were thought to be fundamentally rational actors. Deism, particuarly prominent in England, was a religious philosophy which suggested that God had created the world and left it to develop according to its own laws, without the intervention of miracle and revelation. Free speech, freedom of thought, and humanism were natural, because rational: in a free market of ideas, reason would naturally turn to the true and shun the false. Human rights as we understand them today derive from Enlightenment virtues.

This wasn’t simply a philosophical movement. This was a change in habits of thought across Europe. The scientific method became broadly diffused and rational thinking became an ideal. Isaac Newton developed new theories of physics and optics; he and Gottfried Liebnitz simultaneously developed calculus. The Royal Society was born in the late seventeenth century, helping to systematically spur the development of science. Europeans discovered the secret of making porcelain; clockwork reached new levels of sophistication; mercury thermometers were introduced.

Religion and the Decline of MagicIt has been argued, by Keith Thomas in his excellent Religion and the Decline of Magic, that one of the key developments of this time, a major reason why magical thinking was abandoned, was the advent of insurance. Insurance allowed merchants and businessmen to plan ventures with a new confidence — if a ship sank, the owner with insurance would not be ruined. Rather than invest in good-luck charms or astrological prediction, Thomas argued, you could just buy yourself insurance. It’s an example of the ideological approach of the Enlightenment; a practical improvement, making society run easier and grow wealthier, but one which carries with it a certain disenchantment of the world.

European imperialism and colonialism had worldwide consequences; for Europe itself, those included the importation of all sorts of new goods — foods, cloths, woods. France was the dominant military and economic power of the continent, especially during the long reign of the absolutist Sun King, Louis XIV (1661-1715), and French was the international language of diplomacy. Britain, established by the unification of England and Scotland in 1707, was a rising power under the rule of the House of Hanover, beginning with George I, who reigned from 1714 to 1727, and his son George II, from 1727 to 1760; but the eighteenth century saw Parliament steadily increase its role in governance.

Britain’s economic development affected the creation of a new marketplace for the written word. Why this development? One can talk of mercantilist colonial policies, the lack of a peasantry in England, the development of instutions like a national bank and stock exchange, but it’s worth pointing out that the movement toward enclosures had been underway since the late 1500s, and accelerated during this time. Enclosures were a redistribution of the traditional agricultural fields, a rationalisation of the land. It brought new areas into cultivation — 2 million acres over the course of the century — but caused significant social upheaval, increasing the value of land while making it harder for workers to make a living. Displaced from the land, the workers moved to the cities, creating a workforce for the industrial mills and factories. Industrialisation really set in a little later in the century, but already by 1750 less than half of the population worked in agriculture.

The Pleasures of the ImaginationThe increasing affluence of society helped give rise to a new popular print culture, based especially in London. The city was growing dramatically over the course of the century — by 1750 there were over 650,000 people living in London, a bit more than a tenth of the country’s population; by 1800, there were more than a million. New forms of writing, of printing, and of popular culture developed. In a sense, so did the idea of popular culture; or at least of a distinction between ennobling ‘high’ culture and debasing ‘low’ culture.

High culture emphasised taste over emotion. Pleasure in art was held to be a pleasure distinct from any other — it was a pleasure of good taste, and fundamentally different from sexual pleasure or from what we would now call escapism. Literature was to be moral, didactic, and consciously directed to the improvement of the reader. John Brewer, who describes the creation of the eighteenth-century conception of high culture in his book The Pleasures of the Imagination, quotes a writer of the time:

The cultivation of the polite arts is justly deemed an object of the highest importance in every well-regulated state; for it is universally allowed, that in proportion as these are encouraged or discountenanced, the manners of the people are civillized and improved, or degenerate into brutal ferocity, and savage moroseness.

In other words: what you read and what art you experienced shaped who you were. Art had a practical purpose, and aimed at your ennobling; the pleasure it provided was not a private pleasure. “Politeness,” refinement, was the goal — one learned manners, one learned comportment, one learned how to sing and sketch and how to read both silently and aloud. One learned how to speak, and how to uphold one’s part in polite conversation. Old popular forms, ballads and woodcuts and folktales, were not a part of this effort. Nor were new popular forms such as ‘afterpieces’ and pantomimes staged with plays.

An Essay on CriticismThe era believed in restraint in art and creativity, and in systems: “Hear how learn’d Greece her useful rules indites, / When to repress and when indulge our flights,” wrote Alexander Pope (1688-1755), perhaps the greatest poet of the age; flights of pure creativity had to be repressed by useful rules. Pope’s own poetry was defined by rules and structure, by well-turned heroic couplets — two rhyming lines that usually between them expressed some thought in precise, measured language. He and the writers of his age looked back to the writing of Greece and Rome, and the ‘rules’ they were supposed to have discovered for literature. The writers they chose to emulate provided models of clarity and elegance; the ‘ancients,’ in this view, were models of sophistication and reason, who had determined the rules of proportion by which one created harmonious art.

‘Enthusiasm’ was a negative quality. As Pope said: “Avoid extremes; and shun the fault of such / Who still are pleased too little or too much.” This was an ideology of moderation, in art especially. Being so concerned with tradition and moderation, it naturally tended to the conservative.

“Wit” was prized, the clever use of words and images to make a point clearly, elegantly, and concisely. “True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” said Pope (all these quotations are from his 1711 “Essay on Criticism”). ‘Nature’ here is not the exterior world; it is human nature, the universal truths of human society. Nature is not temporary, or a thing of the moment. To the extent nature was specific, it was a specific case that demonstrated the universal. Poetry was to shun the idiosyncratic or unusual.

Addison and SteeleThese were the critical ideals governing what good art and good writing was supposed to be in the early eighteenth century. Politeness and wit were both conscious and artificial. In that sense, there’s a theatricality to the age; a feeling of art as a play. On the other hand, there’s also an unironic belief in progress, in the development and increase of rationality, technology, and commerce. In fact, from a practical perspective, technology and commerce were changing and expanding the reading audience considerably.

Coffee-houses and newspapers both became common at this time; a new social environment, and new reading matter to go with them. Periodicals like The Tatler and The Spectator developed an essay form based around thoughtful reflection. You could find issues, and bound collections, in the coffee-houses, some of which also maintained libraries of recent books.

Circulating and subscription libraries developed over the eighteenth century. Circulating libraries weren’t free; they were a side-enterprise of booksellers. For a fee you could borrow books from the seller. If you liked them, you could then pay more and buy them. Books weren’t cheap, and the libraries were popular. A misogynistic stereotype developed about the circulating library, which was said to appeal to fashionable ladies who were mostly interested in fiction; in light reading. Subscription libraries, where members paid a fee for part-ownership in the library (though the distinction between the two types of libraries seems difficult to draw in practice), seem to have appealed more to males, as did book clubs — both tended to focus on non-fiction, books about politics and religion.

Robinson CrusoeBooks and reading were becoming more common. One study suggests that 45% of men in England in 1714 were literate, and 25% of women; by 1750 those figures had risen to 60% and 40%, and that may be understating the literacy of women — the studies looked at the numbers of people who could write their own names, and it has been argued that women of the era were more likely to be able to read than write. But it is nevertheless clear that reading, and hence writing and publishing, were flourishing as they never had before. Writing was becoming less courtly and aristocratic, and more a function of the middle and lower classes.

In 1695, the expiry of the Licensing Act in England ended prior censorship by the government and removed the legal limit on the number of master printers in the country. The number of printers immediately expanded, and networks of vendors and booksellers emerged. The new freedom of the press helped spur the development of the publishing industry, which seems to have already been going through a growth spurt that began in the 1680s and continued through the 1730s, after which it levelled off until a new period of growth started in the 1760s.

Particularly, a subculture of struggling writers developed in London, based around Grub Street. A flood of almanacs, pamphlets, and suchlike ephemera was produced for the increasing number of readers, everything from political propaganda to a guidebook to the whores in Covent Garden. The booksellers (who were also what we now would call publishers) owned the copyright in the works they produced, which were considered perpetual. Books were often compilations or group productions — one writer would produce a preface, another an index, and the main contents might come from several different pens. They were not, in other words, individual creations.

OroonokoAmong the flood of texts, the most significant by number were printed editions of sermons — 3 of which were published per week — and collections of verse, which accounted for 47 percent of titles. New forms of literature developed as well; in 1744 John Newbery essentially created children’s literature as we now know it. The magazine was invented: in 1731 The Gentleman’s Magazine became the first general-purpose magazine, followed by others such as The Monthly Review (in 1749), and The Critical Review (in 1756).

And, of course, there was the novel, which developed in England alongside the publishing industry, but was far from the dominant form numerically. One study suggests that novels made up only 1.1 percent of the total production of books and pamphlets between 1720 and 1729. By 1770 that number had risen, though only to 4 percent. Bibliographers estimate that roughly 3550 novels were published in English in 18th century, including translations and reprintings (by comparison, Bowker, the publishers of Books in Print, have over 47,000 fiction books being published in the US alone in 2010, more if things like public domain reprints are taken into account).

How one defines a novel is a vexed question. Broadly, a novel was a long story in prose about modern life, in explicit contrast to the medieval romances of knights and wizards — though often appealing to the same popular audience. You could say that the novel had its roots in the Spanish picaresque tale, stories of avaricious adventurers (from picaro, rogue), that culminated in Don Quixote — which itself begins with a book-burning of romances, specifically setting its story apart as a new thing. You could then go on to say that the proto-novel thrived, especially in France, over the course of the seventeenth century, particularly in the form of the roman à clef; stories, usually satires, in which real people are described under the form of fictional alter egos.

The Pilgrim's ProgressBut all this begs the question of whether the picaresque and the roman à clef are really separate from the novel. Could the novel can be said to refer to a fantastic allegory like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or The Holy War (1684)? Some would say no, that the distinction between the novel and the romance is the realism of the former. But then the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century also produced ‘amatory fiction,’ said to be the precursor of the romance novel (itself not to be confused with the traditional chivalric ‘romances’). Were these novels or not? They were long prose narratives typically written by women and aimed specifically at female readers — incidentally a sign of the presence of women in the developing publishing industry, both as artists and audience. Traditional (male) critics have tended to discount them as novels, but it’s notable that at least one of these writers, Jane Barker, had her books promoted as ‘novels’ specifically because the term ‘romance’ had fallen out of favour.

What I think can be said is that the novel, as it developed in 18th century Britain, tended to move increasingly in the direction of what we would now call realism. That is, writers tended to be concerned with finding new and better ways to represent life as it is lived. Even when the goal was fundamentally escapist, the means were realist.

Among some of the most significant early novels: the first Englishwoman to live as a professional writer, Aphra Behn, published Oroonoko in 1688, which has been called both a novel and a romance; it’s the tragic story of an African prince who goes through various adventures in the quest for his true love. Behn’s novels were published in a collection in 1696, which went through six editions by 1718. In 1692 22-year-old William Congreve published a novel called Incognita; though it sold well, he decided to seek his fortune as a playwright, in which field he became famous. Delarivier Manley may have written the anonymously-published roman à clef, The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazians (1705, with part 2 following in 1711); she was certainly questioned in 1709 over a libel case following the publication of her political satire The New Atalantis, but the case was ultimately never brought. Jane Barker published Love Intrigues in 1713, the first part of her Galesia Trilogy (A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, 1723; The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen, 1726), and in 1715 her political novel Exilius. In 1719, Eliza Haywood published Love in Excess, a long fiction following the slow reformation of a rake due to the love of a good woman. From 1719 to 1725, Daniel Defoe published a number of long prose tales, starting with Robinson Crusoe, and continuing with picaresque books including Moll Flanders and Roxana. Most notably, from a fantasist’s perspective, the Irish writer and satirist Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in 1726.

PamelaThe book that really defined the novel as a work of realism focussing on the internal psychology of the characters was Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela. Hugely popular, a massive success in England and across Europe, the book follows a maidservant pursued by a young nobleman, telling its tale through letters and journals written by the characters. The book was celebrated, parodied, and copied relentlessly, including to some extent by Richardson himself. Although the publishing industry at the time was somewhat stagnant, Pamela was a tremendous popular success. It established the novel firmly as a popular form, and as a form that aspired to represent the real world.

To some extent a generational shift was underway. Writers like Pope and Swift had mocked Grub Street authors, but when Richardson published Pamela he was a fifty-year-old printer in the heart of the industry. New writers — notably critic, poet and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and poet/essayist/playwright/novelist Oliver Goldsmith — came out of the Grub Street factories; Johnson famously observed that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Writers were becoming more professionalised, and the general public was becoming more important as an audience, but the literary ideals did not change. Nor did the commonsensical notion of what a good story was, nor the division between high and low culture. Novels were considered a low form (especially from the 1750s on), and even unhealthy — particularly for women, who were believed to be at risk of moral or mental corruption from frivolous or trashy literature. An afterpiece at a play might present a pantomimed version of the Faustus story, a writer like Henry Fielding might stage a satire like Tom Thumb (which he did in 1730), but these were popular trivialities.

The Rape of the LockThis was not an age that celebrated the fantastic, or the ‘romantic,’ an adjective that included the unlikely as well as the impossible — tales of adventure and far-off lands. As the realistic novel developed, as ideas of character and character development were devised, the fantastic was conflated with the larger-than-life, with flat characters that had no meaningful development or internal reality. The romantic was held to be a lesser, lower form than the realistic. Even Newbery’s children’s books were by and large relatively realistic fables like 1765’s The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, avoiding fairy tales in favour of moralising fables; Delectando monemus was his motto, ‘instruction with delight.’ In some ways it seems to sum up the whole of the age.

Of course you can find the fantastic here and there during these times. Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the most famous fantasy of the first half of the eighteenth century. Alexander Pope’s 1712 “The Rape of the Lock” is a mock-heroic poem in which a real practical joke, the cutting of a lock of a noblewoman’s hair, is retold with a machinery of sylphs and fairies. Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis has goddesses walking about Atlantis, but aims at presenting a contemporary satire. Samuel Madden’s 1733 book Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is what we’d now call science fiction. Robert Paltock’s charming 1751 Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins follows its Gulliver-like hero as he travels to distant islands and finds a race of winged humans.

Still, I have some difficulty seeing most of these as fantasies as I understand the term. In general the fantasy’s there only for very specific and usually satirical reasons. The fantasies don’t seem to develop their worlds out of themselves. The fantastical elements exist for the sake of satire, not for the story or the setting, and there’s a consciousness of artifice, a winking to the reader; their direct application to this world tends to make them difficult to take seriously as an internally coherent narrative (though it should be noted that supposedly one bishop who read Gulliver’s Travels said he found it full of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it).

The Thousand Nights and One NightFor the most part, as well, these books don’t seem to speak to each other (Gulliver’s influence on Wilkins being the main exception). I don’t find a continuity of fantastic writing. Consider the contrast between the translation of The One Thousand and One Nights into French and English. Antoine Galland’s French translation began to appear in 1704, and included some stories Galland seems to have fabricated himself, including “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba.” Parts of that translation began to appear in English from 1706 on. But while Galland’s translation inspired a large number of French imitations and parodies, stories with Arabian settings and magical items, little work of that sort was produced in English, and the Nights seem to have had little direct impact — at least for several decades. No tradition developed.

I think that at around this time people learned to read in a new spirit. Here’s C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, talking about medieval readers:

I am inclined to think that most of those who read ‘historical’ works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true. But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false. I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds. That, if it was anyone’s business, it was not theirs. Their business was to learn the story.

He’s talking there about people who are specifically reading history as history; a way of reading that puts the primacy on the story, not on the story’s relationship to actual events. Compare Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, from about 1579:

Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet, as I said before, never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writeth. He citeth not authorities of other histories, but even for his entry calleth the sweet Muses to inspire into him a good invention; in troth, not laboring to tell you what is or is not, but what should or should not be. And therefore though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true he lieth not; without we will say that Nathan lied in his speech, before alleged, to David; which, as a wicked man durst scarce say, so think I none so simple would say that Æsop lied in the tales of his beasts; for who thinketh that Æsop wrote it for actually true, were well worthy to have his name chronicled among the beasts he writeth of. What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes? If then a man can arrive at that child’s-age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written. And therefore, as in history looking for truth, they may go away full-fraught with falsehood, so in poesy looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative ground—plot of a profitable invention. But hereto is replied that the poets give names to men they write of, which argueth a conceit of an actual truth, and so, not being true, proveth a falsehood. And doth the lawyer lie then, when, under the names of John of the Stile, and John of the Nokes, he putteth his case? But that is easily answered: their naming of men is but to make their picture the more lively, and not to build any history. Painting men, they cannot leave men nameless. We see we cannot play at chess but that we must give names to our chess-men; and yet, me thinks, he were a very partial champion of truth that would say we lied for giving a piece of wood the reverend title of a bishop. The poet nameth Cyrus and Æneas no other way than to show what men of their fames, fortunes, and estates should do.

That’s a great defense not only of poetry, but fantasy. The writer, Sidney argues, is not concerned with truth or falsity. The writer’s concern is something other than accuracy, something other than what has actually happened (or, implicitly, might happen). It seems like an articulation of the position of Lewis’ imagined medieval reader.

And now here’s Henry Fielding, from his 1742 novel Joseph Andrews, a satire of Pamela:

Notwithstanding the preference which may be vulgarly given to the authority of those romance writers who entitle their books “the History of England, the History of France, of Spain, &c.,” it is most certain that truth is to be found only in the works of those who celebrate the lives of great men, and are commonly called biographers, … The same mistakes may likewise be observed in Scarron, the Arabian Nights, the History of Marianne and le Paisan Parvenu, and perhaps some few other writers of this class, whom I have not read, or do not at present recollect; for I would by no means be thought to comprehend those persons of surprizing genius, the authors of immense romances, or the modern novel and Atalantis writers; who, without any assistance from nature or history, record persons who never were, or will be, and facts which never did, nor possibly can, happen; whose heroes are of their own creation, and their brains the chaos whence all their materials are selected. Not that such writers deserve no honour; so far otherwise, that perhaps they merit the highest; for what can be nobler than to be as an example of the wonderful extent of human genius? One may apply to them what Balzac says of Aristotle, that they are a second nature (for they have no communication with the first; by which, authors of an inferior class, who cannot stand alone, are obliged to support themselves as with crutches); but these of whom I am now speaking seem to be possessed of those stilts, which the excellent Voltaire tells us, in his letters, “carry the genius far off, but with an regular pace.”

This is a charmingly ironic take on the distinction between fact and fiction, between the romance and the novel; but the point of it is that there is a distinction. Books that tell the truth, and specifically that aim at telling the truth, are different in kind from romances. History-writers may claim to tell the truth, but are really only romance-tellers. And romancers themselves record implausible characters and other impossibilities; they don’t even try to describe real people.

Johnson on ShakespeareIt feels to me as though readers in the early 18th century had learned to read with an eye out for the truth. The truth would be improving, refining. If a story referred to something untrue — sylphs buzzing about the Thames, or goddesses descending to Atlantis, or far countries with giants and tiny little people — that was acceptable so long as it had some direct application on the real world. There was a hard and fast distinction between truth and lies, and Sidney’s elegant description of story-tellers as pursuing a third way was forgotten.

In 1745, Samuel Johnson, then only 36, published some Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth. It began by noting that “A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, he would be banished from the theatre to the nursery and condemned to write fairy-tales instead of tragedies.” Since Shakespeare believed in witches, Johnson goes on to say, he was on safe ground: “He only turned the system that was then universally admitted to his advantage and was far from overburdening the credulity of his audience.”

Johnson would go on to become the pre-eminent critic of his day; but though he loved Shakespeare, he never saw Shakespeare’s use of fantasy as worth investigation in its own right. When, in 1765, Johnson published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, he wrote in the preface that “Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life.”

But by that time, things had already begun to change; and new writings were beginning, implicitly, to challenge the accepted distinctions of high and low, true and false. I’ll look at some examples next time.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The précieuses wrote fairy tales. And as an influence on Perrault, they were an unquestionable influence on fairy tales — even folk ones.

Brian Murphy

If I can be forgiven for such a bold statement, here is where the Age of Reason and Enlightenment had it all wrong:

Reason was considered the fundamental human faculty, and human beings were thought to be fundamentally rational actors.

Reason is a human faculty, but we don’t operate purely in realms of reason. That’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, else life would be interminable, and arguably not worth living.

Great piece, by the way.

[…] week, I described the neo-classical attitudes of the Age of Reason, which dominated English literature through most of the 18th century. This week I want to take a […]

[…] my previous posts about Romanticism and fantasy, I looked at British literature in the 18th century through to […]

[…] about Romanticism and the development of fantasy fiction; you can find previous installments here, here, here, and here. To recap so far: I’ve looked at the emergence of the fantastic in English […]

[…] Black Gate (Matthew David Surridge) on Romanticism and Fantasy: The Neoclassical Background. […]

[…] and early nineteenth centuries. The series began with this introductory post, continued with an overview of the neo-classical eighteenth century the Romantics revolted against, considered the Romantic themes in English writing from 1760 to […]

[…] and early nineteenth centuries. The series began with this introductory post, continued with an overview of the neo-classical eighteenth century that the Romantics revolted against, considered the Romantic themes in English writing from 1760 to […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x