A Wealth of Characters

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Henry Fielding. Engraving after William Hogarth, c. 1762

CHAPTER 39

An Essay on the Essay

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The art of fictional dialogue imitates the practice of conversation. In the middle of the eighteenth century, when the novel emerged fully armed upon the stage of the world, there were in London “conversation assemblies” and conversaziones. In high art “conversation pieces” were considered to be distinctly modern, because conversation itself had become the single most important medium for understanding. The idea of conversation, as the proper form for public and socialised truth, was pre-eminent in a culture of coffee-houses, clubs and weekly periodicals.

London had of course always been the center of political and economic debate. But the notion of polite conversation, making judgements and recording opinions, spread as rapidly and as widely as the newly emerging “middling classes” of London merchants and professional men. The discussion of essays played a large role in these informal debates where, by general report, the latest Spectator or Idler would be commended or disparaged. The Spectator was primarily designed for readers “in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-Houses,” with the assumption expressed by the Earl of Shaftesbury that “All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our corners and rough sides by a sort of amical collision.” The civic virtues of the seventeenth century had been those of hardy frugality and moral independence, but these in turn gave way to condescension and civility. The unamiable rigours of Hobbes’s Leviathan, for example, were replaced by a blander benevolence. The martial spirit was outmoded and unfashionable; the new key-word was sensibility not untouched by sentimentalism.

The success of the essay depended upon a shared set of values and assumptions, therefore, in turn allowing an intimacy or familiarity of tone; a certain rapprochement between author and reader was to be desired. Johnson, in one of his own essays in The Rambler, associated himself with Francis Bacon. “Bacon, among all his pretensions to the regard of posterity, seems to have pleased himself mainly with his essays, ‘which come home to mens business and bosoms’ and of which, therefore, he declares his expectation that they ‘will live as long as books last.’ ” It is this desire to reach “bosoms” as well as “business” which suggests a connection between the essay and the novel, but with its unique form and its formidable strength the essay itself takes its place as a true feature of the English imagination.

The first collections were published in the 1780s, the great contributors being Johnson and Goldsmith, who had succeeded Addison and Steele; after them came Hazlitt, Lamb, and the series of English Essayists published between 1802 and 1810. Samuel Johnson was a natural and prolific essayist, so there is more than a touch of humorous self-abasement in his remark that a writer “needs only entitle his performance an essay, to acquire the right of heaping together the collections of half his life, without order, coherence, or propriety.” Here again is the English aptitude for variety, even if it is ironically expressed. Essays were not only conversational and various, however; they were also practical and useful. They were modes of instruction and exhortation; where once the circulation of learning was maintained by the pilgrimage to European libraries or by the work of scholarly exegetes, the demands of knowledge were now amplified and communicated in the various journals and periodicals of London coffee-house society. Matters of theology and of physics, of medicine and of economics, were now the subject of the “easy” and “familiar” style of the English essayists. The contribution of the essay to moral and homiletic literature was therefore immense. As Addison remarked in the tenth number of the Spectator, “I shall be ambitious to have it said of me that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.” The other merit of the essay lay in its brevity; as one writer of the early eighteenth century put it, it was more appropriate to “the Brisk and Impetuous Humour of the English, who have naturally no Taste for long-winded performances, for they have no sooner begun a Book but they desire to see the End of it.” That is perhaps why the essays of Montaigne, translated by Florio in the early seventeenth century, acquired such an enormous popularity at an earlier date. So the form, first popularised in English by Francis Bacon, sets its seal upon eighteenth-century civilisation. It has been concluded that the essay was “the only literary form used by every major author of the century”;1 its influence can be traced in the more fluent and informal tone of dialogues and sermons, treatises and poems. And, of course, shortness was all.

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