Wednesday 1 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part One)

In January I made a list of my top fifteen favourite books of the previous year. I had wondered why the list had been fifteen and not the usual ten, then I tried it. It was hard. 

Well today, I am going to try something even more difficult; I am going to try an make a list of my top ten favourite eighteenth-century bits of writing. I have decided to include everything from periodical essays to plays. If it fits the time period and I have read it, it counts.

I’ve decided to split this up, 5 today and five tomorrow.

So with no more ado…

Number 10

Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry.

The books that didn’t made this list; Evelina, Captain Jack, Joseph Adams, Rape of the Lock, John Ball… And I have put Pompey the Little above them. Why?

It’s fun. The narrative voice is similar to Henry Fielding but is younger and more optimistic about life and the people that weave through it. Although he doesn’t have Fielding’s mastery of the ironic tone, his youthful pleasure makes up for it.

The novel doesn’t get boring. Pompey moves from owner to owner with such rapidity that no one owner drags for too long. The people who take him in are also different enough in station and personality to keep the journey varied and interesting. What’s more, Coventry is so good at his brief pen-portraits that the characters Pompey meets are full of life for the brief moment he knows them.

Besides, anyone who can write a moment of such beauty and clarity as the following extract, deserves to be on the list.

“‘Mr Rhymer was walking home in a pensive solitary mood, wrapped up in contemplation on the stars of heaven, and perhaps forgetting for a few moments that he had three-pence half-penny in his pocket.”

Number 9

Vathek by William Beckford.

This is a strange book.

We are introduced to Vathek, with his eyes that could kill and his unimaginable wealth and we are already unsettled. This is a man who is hungry for knowledge and flesh and will do anything to pursue them. The prophecies of a mysterious merchant send him on an insane quest for the ultimate in power and knowledge but lead ultimately to Hell.

This is the book I was hoping ‘Castle of Otranto’ would be. It is is deranged and obsessed and builds up a remarkably strong sense of inexorable doom for its short length. The reader comes out the other side feeling sullied by it, borne on its constant push towards the mouth of Hell at the end.

These strong, emotional, almost abstract effects, distinguish it from all the other books on this list and set it apart.

Number 8

The Midwife by Christopher Smart.

Here we get Christopher Smart before his incarceration and he is silly and funny. 

The Midwife is a magazine written in the character of Mary Midnight, an old spinster who is the secret fount of wit and wisdom in Europe, or so she would believe.

More rambunctious then the Spectator, slyer then the Grub Street Journal and sillier than The Rambler, this set of magazines remind me a lot of Spike Milligan’s Q Series of TV programmes. There are mills to grind people young, learned discourses about fossilised turds, romantic advice to ancient widows and all other manner of parody and all out silliness.

I would deny the notion that there was biting satire secreted in the pages that got Smart unjustly locked away for being mad, and say that the politics in this are like those of the Goon Show; anarchic, anti-establishment and for the ordinary person. And I’d recommend the reader to dig some out.

Number 7

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Although Vathek is the book on this list that operates most on an emotional level, Gulliver’s Travels is the one that lingered longest.

It’s such a bitter book when viewed as a whole. Gulliver is inflated, deflated, tossed around the unknowable sea of learning and then anchored with the rational Houyhnhnm before being wrenched from them and landed back on our shore.

Gulliver is a changed man by the end of the book and I think the reader is in a small way. It’s an elegant book, it’s a funny one but it is rooted deep in the ‘savage indignation’ declared in Swift’s epitaph.

I recommend it as so much more than a fun adventure but warn the reader they may want something jollier to cheer them up afterwards.

Number 6

The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

I think I know the words to most of the songs. This is the first bit of eighteenth-century writing I came into contact with and the love has remained. 

Like a lot of my favourite stuff, the characters are clear and relatable without being fully types. I root for Macheath even though he is a scoundrel, I love the argument song between Polly and Lucy, I enjoy the scheming of Peachum and Lockitt. Even the naff happy ending makes me smile.

In some ways the view of life is as pessimistic as in Gulliver but the characters themselves never realise it. They carry on scheming, loving, drinking and singing because it’s all they can do.

‘Think of this maxim and put off your sorrow, the wretch of today can be happy tomorrow.’

So, what will the top five be? I think it’ll be pretty obvious but I’ll pretend there’s a mystery.

All yours

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