View from Pisgah
The eighteenth century was one of the long steps in what was once confidently called “the liberation of man”. Few of even the faithful readers of English fiction—those to whom Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and George P. R. James are more than names—have read widely in the fiction before Austen’s time. Austen was inclined to look without interest upon the unvarnished plain citizen, except in his proper place—in the tenant farmer’s cottage or in a footman’s livery. Before the eighteenth century, polite literature had been addressed principally to the upper classes, who all but monopolized the privileges of wealth, fashion, education, and indeed general literacy, all combining to give them the tremendous social leverage known as influence. Henry James Pye, then poet laureate, argued the rival claims of class in two incredibly dull novels, The Aristocrat and The Democrat, to a conclusion quite acceptable to the opinions of George IV.