Printer Friendly

To Settle the Succession of the State: Literature and Politics, 1678-1750.

Studies of literature and history, in late-Stuart and early-Hanoverian England abound, many of them distinguished, and some genuinely accessible to undergraduates and the general reader. Professor Downie is thus far from having the field to himself. There is, however, much which is distinctive as well as distinguished in this short volume. Wisely Downie does not attempt another soft-focused study of literature and society, but concentrates astringently on the literary contribution to shaping and contesting the Revolution Settlement. This gives the work a sharply etched narrative theme (English politics from the Popish Plot to the Forty-Five) and a dominant literary genre (Augustan political satire). Formally, too, this study is carefully conceived. Rather than offer us yet another book about texts, Downie has written a book around texts. The reader is offered not short illustrative extracts from 'sources' and a partially freestanding commentary, but longer extracts which give readers unfamiliar with the idiom of Augustan satire and political thought a sense of texture, rhythms, and dominant literary devices.

In these methodologically self-conscious times, few literary studies avoid formally positioning themselves within and against current critical fashions. Arthur Pollard, the Series Editor of Macmillan's 'Context and Commentary' series is firmly of the Ancien Regime, and seeks to corral his authors in the battles against structuralism and post-modernism. 'All the contributors to the series are at one', Pollard assures us, 'in the belief (at a time when some critics would not only divorce texts from their periods but even from their authors) that literature is the creation of actual men and women, actually living in an identifiable set of historical circumstances, themselves both the creatures and creators of their times'. As a manifesto this underestimates the problems of reading texts, determining agency, and constructing the past, but it does have the great merit of taking context seriously. Professor Downie sometimes seems a little uneasy inside this particular corral. Only four pages into his text he is insisting on the primacy of ideology and having recourse to Bakhtin, but after these early wobbles he remains broadly faithful to Professor Pollard's manifesto.

Throughout the range of texts on which Downie draws is admirable, although inevitably weighted towards the familiar. His treatment of the 1680s is particularly rich, taking the reader from mercifully brief accounts of the intricacies of the Popish and Rye House Plots to careful discussions of the ways in which allegiance, monarchical power, and religious pluralism were contested in Restoration England. We move delightfully between Dryden, Allestree, Maryell, Filmer, Locke, Rochester, and Otway. Similarly deft is Downie's illustration of the symbiotic relationship between the politics of faction and the literature of party (and vice versa). Only the fourth chapter deviates from the constitutional and parliamentary highway to consider public culture more broadly. Here Addison, Cato's Letters, Defoe, and Swift figure predictably prominently; but due weight is given to Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, that deeply perceptive and sophisticated work, whose savage satirical power shocked even the satirists. The final substantive chapter explores the literary opposition to Walpole, and the Epilogue touches on the Forty-Five. Downie's conclusion that, by 1750, 'The emergence of a cult of sentiment was ushering in a new era, one dominated by sentiment rather than satire' is conventional enough; although this reviewer did begin to wonder whether this process was not also central to Walpole's ability to survive politically in the face of such sustained literary opposition. After all, sensibility, with its overtones of domesticity and its emphasis on social habits rather than political contestation, at least for a time suggested high politics and literature might inhabit separate spheres. Viewed like this, the demise of political satire marked the final act in the drama of the Revolution settlement.

DAVID EASTWOOD University of Wales, Swansea
COPYRIGHT 1996 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Eastwood, David
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Previous Article:The Illustration of Robinson Crusoe: 1719-1920.
Next Article:Oliver Goldsmith Revisited.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |