In “The novel and social/cultural history” (Chapter 2 of The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel), J. Paul Hunter discusses what he terms “the New Cultural History” of the eighteenth century. Hunter explains that approaches to studying the eighteenth century have changed dramatically in the last fifty years. This “new, more integrated ‘cultural’ history considers all kinds of documents, texts, and material artifacts” from that period, and gives “more attention to daily life and immediate perspectives and less emphasis on patterns that emerge retrospectively” (Hunter 14). This broadened perspective of life in the eighteenth century is particularly useful when reading novels from that period. As Hunter notes, life in the eighteenth century was a radically unstable thing, with “change – often rapid change – as the one constant” it possessed (Hunter 18). As such, it is necessary to know “what particular decades, or years, or days were like” if we want to truly understand the context in which these novels were written and disseminated.
Interestingly, the focus of the New Cultural History on “daily life and immediate perspectives” parallels a shift in literary tradition that is often associated with the rise of the novel (Hunter 14). While more traditional literature “promised universal solutions because human nature was constant across culture and times”, eighteenth-century novels depicted “a present-day individual in a recognizable social and cultural context” and then “offered varied, circumstantial, and individual outcomes” (Hunter 9-10). This shift from the universal to the individual as literary subject matter mirrors the current shift from the public to the private as historical subject matter.
Hunter asserts that the New Cultural History is “more conscious of the domestic, the material, the everyday, and the interconnected, and more ready to study ordinary people who seem powerless and neglected” (Hunter 17). The same can be said of novels we have studied in this course. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko tells the story of a slave, illustrating in acute detail his personal experiences and simultaneously offering a unique insight into perceptions of the slave trade in the late seventeenth-century. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana tells the story of one woman’s experience with the problematic marriage laws of the time, and there is a significant focus on material objects (money, clothes) within the text. Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey depicts an individualized journey through Europe. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is acutely “conscious of the domestic” and the narratives that can take place within a single home. All of the novels we have read focus on individual characters whose circumstances and experiences give us as readers a glimpse into the everyday life of their time.
One issue mentioned by Hunter that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of the significance of the city of London in eighteenth-century culture. He notes that “one reason that the social norms of novels had such cultural power in the eighteenth century was that they usually reflected the values of ‘modern’ London life” (Hunter 23). This point immediately made me think of Evelina, and how London seems to represent the high society to which Evelina rightfully belongs, as opposed to the lower status associated with her life in the country. According to Hunter, “Older Britons tended to hate [London’s] trendiness and distrust its fickleness and shifting standards; younger ones looked to it hopefully for their own futures…” (Hunter 24). Reverend Villars’ attitude toward London and his uneasiness about Evelina’s travelling there aligns him with those “Older Britons”, and Evelina’s youthful hopefulness for her future mirrors the appeal felt by the “younger ones”.
Hunter, J. Paul. “The novel and social/cultural history.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John J. Richetti. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. p. 9-39. Print.