From the Accession of James II: After February 1685

A history of seventeenth-century English literature - Thomas N. Corns 2014

From the Accession of James II: After February 1685

James II and the Williamite Revolution

Charles II died on 6 February 1685, after a brief illness initiated by a cerebral haemorrhage. Before his death a priest was called, and he confessed according to the Catholic practice and received extreme unction. He died without legitimate offspring. His brother James, Duke of York, succeeded to the throne. James’s own conversion to Catholicism was long standing and widely known. The Exclusion Crisis it had provoked in the late 1670s and early 1680s was unpropitious.

Yet at first the new regime enjoyed considerable success. James rapidly incorporated into government the predominantly aristocratic and Tory politicians on whom Charles, in the closing years of his reign, had relied, rehabilitating some whose fortunes had lately been in decline. But there was change as well as continuity at court. James was a womanizer, albeit more discreetly and on a more modest scale than his brother. Yet he attempted the sort of cultural transformation Charles I had made on his own accession: ’he declared that he would not employ drunkards, blasphemers, gamblers and men who did not pay their debts. He warned that anyone who came to court drunk would lose his place and admonished husbands to be faithful to their wives and sons to obey their fathers’ (Miller 2000: 121). William III and Mary II made much of the reform of manners; arguably, James had already started that process.

Politically and economically, the new regime opened well. James worked assiduously to reduce the burden of debt Charles had accumulated, in part through bringing to government his own innate parsimony, and in part through attacking waste and corruption. Moreover, the parliament he called in February 1685 ’showed itself generous’ (ibid.: 137). Given the propertied classes’ understandable aversion to civil disorder, James’s position for a while seemed fairly secure. John Miller summarizes the issues thus:

The danger of rebellion was virtually non-existent, Scotland and Ireland were quiet and the sea largely isolated England from the dynastic power politics of the continent. Once James’s first Parliament had granted him an adequate revenue, he had little real need to call another, so there was little real danger of serious disputes there with his subjects. The Tories were still vociferously loyal. The Whigs, shattered and demoralized, lay low or crept to make their peace with the new King. James’s position was thus so secure that he could make all kinds of mistakes without placing his regime in serious jeopardy. (Ibid.: 124)

Yet by the end of 1688 he was functionally finished in England, and by 1690 all his kingdoms were lost to him.

Religion lay at the root of the disaster. Almost certainly, James nursed neither hope nor expectation of winning England back to Catholicism. Yet, like his brother, he sought to remove the disadvantages under which his Catholic subjects laboured, which both hindered the open observation of their faith and precluded their participation in government, in parliament and in public office. Like his brother, he was prepared to associate that ambition with a general toleration that would have similarly emancipated Protestant dissenters. However, his boldness, stimulated by a powerful coterie of Catholics with whom he surrounded himself, proved widely alarming.

Three issues proved crucial. James admitted Catholics to public office by suspending the Test Act, which would have excluded them. Though he acted within the precedented privileges of the crown, his actions seemed a manifestation of the return to arbitrary government and caused particular concern when exercised in the area of military appointments in a newly expanded standing army. As J. A. Downie, quoting J. R. Jones, summarizes, ’Officered by Catholics in open defiance of the Test Act, the army was quartered in the provinces ’’so that by 1688 the whole kingdom was taking on the appearance of a country under military occupation’’’ (1994: 31). Secondly, James alienated the leadership of the Church of England. Toleration was never likely to find much support in such quarters. However, he sought confrontation, especially in the field of academic employment. Oxford and Cambridge were intended exclusively for those conforming to the Church of England. In high-profile cases, James imposed Catholic appointments. He was frustrated in imposing a Catholic President (that is, Master) on Magdalen College, Oxford, and responded by depriving the fellows of their fellowships and barring them from holding any benefice in the Church of England. The case proved very destructive to his standing: ’By his rigidity and vindictiveness, he put himself in the wrong and completed the alienation of the Anglicans’ (Miller 2000: 171).

The third and final event, under other circumstances, would have been a support to the regime: in June 1688, the queen gave birth to a male heir, James Francis Edward, the future ’Old Pretender’. James already had two surviving children, the Princesses Mary and Anne. Till that point, the former was his heir. She was married to James’s nephew, William, Prince of Orange, the strong man of the Dutch republic and since 1678 ’an absolute monarch in all but name’ (Ogg 1965: 434). William was perceived as Europe’s leading Protestant prince. The Stuarts, hitherto, had proved relatively short-lived as English monarchs. Neither James I nor Charles II had survived to their seventh decade. James II was 52 at his accession. An optimist could reasonably have expected his to be a brief Catholic interlude before the restoration of a Protestant succession. But the young prince, born to a Catholic mother, to be educated as a Catholic, and probably to be subject to a Catholic-dominated regency should his father expire, took away that consolation.

James overcame with facility the Monmouth Uprising of July 1685. James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, launched in the West Country a doomed attempt to secure by arms what he had failed to secure through the Exclusion Crisis. The minatory edge of Absalom and Achitophel (see above, chapter 6) proved prophetic. Monmouth’s irregulars were routed at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Monmouth was captured and decapitated. About 300 of his supporters were hanged, drawn and quartered in the marketplaces of their native counties, and many more were transported into virtual slavery. With the birth of James’s son, a much sterner coalition formed against him. Respectable Whigs, who had been terrified by the judicial savagery that had followed the Rye House Plot and had avoided involvement in Monmouth’s adventure, were radicalized by old anxieties over popery. Tories who had not converted to the king’s denomination both shared those concerns and were appalled by the apparent attack on such Anglican institutions as the universities. Moreover, William of Orange now saw that the waiting game, through which he expected access to England’s resources on the eventual accession of his wife, was lost, and he possessed qualities of leadership, military experience and a disciplined army, all of which Monmouth, for the most part, lacked. On 5 November, that most resonant of dates in English Protestantism, he landed in the West Country with a substantial force.

James put an army in the field, but as it wavered in allegiance, he tried to flee, was captured in humiliating circumstances and returned to London. Once the city was in William’s control, a second escape attempt was facilitated, and James fled to France, from where he organized resistance in Ireland, his one kingdom with a majority of Catholic subjects. But in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne, his army was defeated, and he once more left for France. ’Jacobites’, as his diehard supporters were termed, remained thereafter either associates of his increasingly impoverished court in exile or, in rather greater numbers, marginalized figures outside the significant arenas of English political life. The Williamite revolution was complete and irreversible. It withstood the death of Mary in 1694; Anne, strictly the immediate successor, complied with William’s continuing rule, eventually acceding on his death in 1702.

The new regime brought with it immediate reforms. Since William intended to ally British resources to Dutch in resistance to Louis XIV and since he recognized that, constitutionally, supply depended on parliamentary resolutions, parliament remained in session throughout his reign. A legislative programme that shaped the English constitution into a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy followed on from the Declaration of Rights, which asserted the errors of the reign of James II and pointed towards the obligation of monarchs to summon parliaments, the ascendancy of the Protestant faith and a degree of toleration for dissent. Legislation further disabled the Catholic community, though in effect they ’became what they had been under the Protectorate and in the earlier days of Charles II, a quiet body, not actively persecuted’ (Clark 1955: 153). The Licensing Act, which in various earlier guises had governed the work of the press over the century, lapsed in 1695 and was not renewed. Religious controversy certainly does not disappear from the subject matter of English literature, though it loses its centrality.

By 1690, the ideological landscape of England — and with it its cultural life — had changed at least as drastically as in 1603. England became, in association with the United Provinces, a powerful presence in continental conflicts. Until the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), William retained a large English army in the field against France, setting a course of English foreign policy that was to continue to the twentieth century. Necessarily, since armies depended on votes of supply, a different relationship between parliament and government emerged. With that came a new kind of political writing. As Tony Claydon (1996) has carefully charted, William relied on a coordinated and highly effective propaganda machine. Through the early years Gilbert Burnet orchestrated the campaigns. He himself was a career clergyman, as were many of his ablest associates — men like John Tillotson, the Dean of Canterbury, and Simon Patrick, the Dean of St Paul’s. Revolutionary independency had Milton and Nedham; the proto-Whigs had Marvell. Here we see a shift to writers, not of creative genius and vivid expression, but people of high competence, praised in their own age and subsequently for a calm and lucid eloquence (Williamson 1966: 358—9). Only around the close of the William’s reign, in the figures of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, do creative writers of canonical status once more emerge in the context of explicit political engagement.

Aphra Behn: The Late Works

Aphra Behn’s royalist partisanship was plainly evident in her earliest writing, and her currently most regarded play, The Rover, assiduously celebrates cavalier values in the nostalgic context of the Restoration (see above, chapter 6). Her Tory commitment allowed an easy transfer of her loyalties to James II. For his coronation, she produced and published a Drydenesque ’Pindarick Poem’, though its lofty celebration of James’s heroic status peters out in grandiloquent reportage of the event itself: ’And now the Royal Robes are on, / But oh! what numbers can express / The Glory of the Sacred Dress!’ (’A Pindarick Poem on the Happy Coronation of His most Sacred Majesty James II’, ll.465—7; Behn 1992—6: I, 212). She remained quick to praise the king throughout the reign. She wrote poems both on the news of the queen’s pregnancy and on the birth of the Prince of Wales: ’No MONARCH’S Birth was ever Usher’d in / With Signs so Fortunate as this hath been’ (’A Congratulatory Poem to the King’s Most Sacred Majesty, On the Happy Birth of the Prince of Wales’, ll.15—16; ibid.: I, 297).

She poignantly claimed the latter was written ’with Prophetick Fire’ (l.7). Five months later William landed. Behn died in 1689, though the final year of her life saw her at least considering a realignment with the new regime. Gilbert Burnet, director of William’s propaganda system, evidently attempted to turn her, and was rewarded with another ’Pindaric poem’, ’On the Honour he did me of Enquiring after me and my Muse’ (ibid.: I, 307—10). In the event, she wrote and published only one overtly Williamite poem, ’A Congratulatory Poem to Her Sacred Majesty Queen Mary, Upon Her Arrival in England’ (ibid.: I, 304—7). She shows considerable polemical ingenuity. As a well-known supporter of the ousted king, she must proceed with care. William goes unmentioned. James figures frequently as a melancholy figure of uncertain political standing. A solemn and rather funereal tone is gradually displaced by the arrival of Mary, who is hailed not as wife of William, but as daughter of James, which practically (though, in strictly constitutional terms, dubiously) lends some specious legitimacy to the regime change:

And thou, Great Lord [James II], of all my Vows, permit

My Muse who never fail’d Obedience yet,

To pay her Tribute at Maria’s Feet,

Maria so Divine a part of You,

Let me be Just — but Just with Honour too.

       (ll.54—8; ibid.: 305)

Honour is an elusive concept for Tory turncoats, and she moves on to the strongest argument for accepting the regime change: that it allows a new stability in which all parties (except for the diehard and predominately Catholic Jacobites) could live in orderly fashion: ’You Great Cesar’s Off-spring blest our Isle, / The differing Multitudes to Reconcile’ (ll.107—8; ibid.: 307).

If James noticed the poem, he may reasonably have felt that reconciliation had come a little early and a trifle cheaply. Yet Behn as a professional writer had only the alternative of honest poverty. Indeed, she may well have felt under financial pressure since 1682 when the formation through merger of the United Company reduced the demand for new plays, although she continued to write for the stage till her death. Her late political poetry was written for print publication and presumably was sold by her to publishers, though it had a secondary purpose of securing patronage and protection in a suddenly uncertain world. Janet Todd suggests that the same pressure may have prompted her in her final years to write a number of novellas of a disparate kind (Behn 1992—6: III, xi). Some draw on real events or on continental sources. Among them, the most remarkable, Oroonoko: or, The Royal Slave. A True History, first published in 1688, achieved some contemporary success and in recent times has reached canonical status. It was dramatized by Thomas Southerne in 1695. In recent years it has become an anthology piece (Abrams et al. 2000: I, 2170—215).

Yet it is a curiously conflicted work. In the aftermath of the Monmouth rebellion, its hero’s misfortunes, enslavement, castration and dismemberment, were punishments meted out to captured rebels. Apart from about 300, who were spectacularly executed, ’Many others were transported, which meant that they were granted to courtiers who sold them into slavery in the colonies’. The going rate was £10—£15 each (Miller 2000: 141—2). The author of Oroonoko seems unconcerned about judicial cruelty and slavery per se. Oroonoko as a warrior prince has habitually sold captive enemies to white slavedealers, a practice which receives no hostile authorial comment; presumably, it is his ruling-caste privilege, much like the courtiers who traded in Monmouth’s men. Once in slavery, he attempts to negotiate his own release with the offer of ’a vast quantity of Slaves’ (Behn 1992—6: III, 93).

Milton had argued that, if the race of princes were indeed superior to other men, as horses bred in Tutbury were superior to other horses, then kingship would be justifiable as a system of government (quoted above, chapter 5). Behn’s celebration of the innate superiority of royalty takes no chances. Oroonoko is physically quite distinct from other Africans. Certainly he is black, in fact blacker than the others, ’not … that brown, rusty Black which most of that Nation are, but a perfect Ebony, or polish’d Jett’. But his physiognomy is distinctively European: ’His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His Mouth, the finest shap’d that cou’d be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes’ (ibid.: 62—3). When the revolt he leads fails through the pusillanimity of his followers, he concludes that he erred ’in endeavoring to make those Free, who were by Nature Slaves’ (ibid.: 109).

Ideologically, then, Oroonoko endorses slavery in general but exempts from it those who are genetically distinct, as of royal blood and disposition. The ’royal slave’ of the secondary title is an oxymoronic term around which much of the narrative pivots. Yet the book has an appeal that is virtually independent of its principal argument. At the end of her career, Behn, an accomplished professional in other genres, showed herself to be a considerable writer of a fictional prose which was both evocative and sensational. Surinam is vividly depicted as at once a kind of earthly paradise and a place of danger for incomers, a land of voracious predators and deadly reptiles. Todd notes that the depiction ’looked forward to Defoe who in Robinson Crusoe located the hero’s island somewhere near the mouth of Orinoco River and drew on Behn’s slave for his own character Friday’ (ibid.: xvi). But her narrative structure is arguably subtler than Defoe’s. Whereas he favours a pseudo-autobiographical form, Behn has her tale told by a figure who witnesses the events mostly at a remove and who comments on them, not as royal or a slave, but as an intelligent and not uncompassionate observer. Her text stands, too, as an early ancestor of the novel of imperial adventure, a remote precursor of H. Rider Haggard. Behn invests her African scenes with a frisson of sexual strangeness that borders on the pornographic, not least in the unconsummated relationship between the king, Oroonoko’s grandfather, and Imoinda, his beloved: ’he commanded [she] shou’d be brought to him, they [his servants] (after dis-robing her) led her to the Bath, and making fast the Doors, left her to descend. The King, without more Courtship, bade her throw of her Mantle, and come to his Arms’ (ibid.: 66). Behn’s sense of her market remained acute.

Dryden and James II

Dryden retained the post of poet laureate under James II, an appointment that proved more lucrative than in Charles’s days since the new king’s sounder financial management meant he was paid more regularly (DNB 2004). Dryden’s support for James extended back through the days of the exclusion crisis to the Anglo-Dutch wars. He had shown a loyalty staunchly manifest at a time when his eventual succession seemed uncertain, and James himself had been a significant patron of the poet. The poetry he wrote during his reign shows ideological continuity and coherent development.

His earliest task was to commemorate the death of Charles. His Threnodia Augustalis: A Funeral Pindaric Sacred to the Happy Memory of King Charles II exhibits his accomplishment in the form of the freely structured ode he favoured for most of his late commemorative poems, a classical and elevated genre that admitted an effusive flow of panegyric associations. The poem works towards a concluding theme Dryden had established in his earliest Restoration poetry (see above, chapter 6), that Charles had established a navy that would extend British influence ’ev’n to remoter Shores’ (l.510; Dryden 1995—2005: II, 420). En route, much of what had concerned him in his poetry of the last quarter century is reprised: Charles’s forgiving nature, his commitment to the hereditary principle, his support for his brother, his tolerant endurance of ’senates, insolently loud, / (Those echoes of a thoughtless crowd)’ (ll.319—20; ibid.: 409). An abrasively Tory poem, it reflects the confidence and triumphalism of the last years of the reign. This is not a poem to heal a nation but to reassure the new ruler and the factions closest to him.

Dryden shortly returned to considering authority and interpretation in matters of religion, issues which he had treated from a Protestant perspective in his Religio Laici (1682) (see above, chapter 6). At some point between its publication and the winter of 1686—7 Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism. In a spirit and with a motivation that cannot now be determined, but with a palpable honesty, he launched a sort of debate with his former self. The Hind and the Panther argues for the superiority of the Catholic faith in terms of the sure guidance the church gives in matters of interpretation. Dryden attributes to the Panther, the figure representing the Anglican perspective, attacks on authority which the Hind, representing Catholicism, traces back to Puritan arguments against the patristic tradition. Milton, for example, had made similar points against the episcopalian defences of prelatical church government which drew on evidence from the early church (see above, chapter 5). In The Hind and the Panther Dryden persistently nudges Anglicanism into a compromised position, too dependent on Catholic modes of thought to subscribe wholeheartedly to radical Protestant declarations of the coherence of the gospel independent of the interpretative tradition: ’For purging fires traditions must not fight, / But they must prove episcopacy’s right’ (Part II, ll.286—7; ibid.: III, 101).

Dryden takes up another argument, well worn in the controversies of the 1640s: that a true church must be capable of controlling schisms and sects. Episcopalians had raised the charge against Presbyterians and Independents. Dryden carefully surrounds the Panther with other beasts representative of nonconformity, and points to them, not simply as uncontrolled by the Church of England but nurtured as allies united by their opposition to Catholicism: ’No union they pretend but in non-popery’ (Part II, l.462; ibid.: III, 108). To this he opposes a brilliant image of the indivisibility of Catholicism:

One in herself, not rent by schism, but sound,

Entire, one solid shining diamond,

Not sparkles shattered into sects like you,

One is the church, and must be to be true:

One central principle of unity.

       (Part II, ll.526—30; ibid.: 111)

James’s master plan to secure toleration for his co-religionarists, which culminated in his Declaration of Indulgence promulgated shortly before the poem was finished, rested on the strategy of securing broad support by extending toleration both to dissenters and to Catholics. It was an old game, first played by Charles II in the 1670s with no great success. While some Anglicans favoured tolerating some sectaries, most sectaries joined with Protestants within the national church in opposing toleration for Catholics. James, nevertheless, persevered, and indeed William Penn the Younger, a well-connected Quaker leader, had a growing influence on him through his reign (Miller 2000: 156). Among less radical groups, support for the crown was much less evident. In The Hind and the Panther, in his epistle to the reader, Dryden explicitly endorses the official policy: ’there are many of our sects, and more indeed than I could reasonably have hoped, who have withdrawn themselves from the communion of the Panther, and embraced this gracious indulgence of His Majesty in point of toleration’ (ibid.: III, 40). His avowed target consists of those in the broad spectrum of Protestant belief who resist the irenic royal indulgence. But the poem seems much more belligerent. Besides the Panther, his beast fable extends to the Bear (Congregational Independents), the Hare (Quakers) and the Boar (Baptists), whom he represents with a satirical savagery in the opening lines of the poem. He associates them with the Panther as an indictment of its failure to control scandalous schism. Inevitably, too, since the poem is an oblique conversion narrative, Dryden finds much to say about what drew him to Catholicism. The result is fascinating, eloquent and, as a rehearsal of James’s policy, flawed.

Steven Zwicker points to the curious silence within high literary culture with which the Williamite coup was received: ’It is hard to think of a political crisis in [the seventeenth] century so unremarked in literary form.’ From this generalization he rightly exempts Dryden’s heroic drama Don Sebastian, the ’only literary masterpiece’ produced in response to the coup (Zwicker 1993: 174). The play was performed by the United Company after the Jacobite rout in England, ’sometime late in 1689’ (Dryden 1956—2000: XV, 382), and it reflects in complex and sometimes tangential ways on the fall of a regime with which Dryden had been prominently associated.

Though he retains blank verse, rather than the couplets of his earliest heroic drama, the play in other ways has a retrospective and nostalgic air. As in The Conquest of Granada, the subject matter is a legendary interpretation of Iberian history. Its roots lie in the adventurous involvement of Sebastian II of Portugal in a bold intervention in the civil wars of Morocco, which ended in disastrous defeat at Alcazar in 1589. The king’s body was never found, and several alternative legends arose about his fate. Dryden selects from those a version which has him survive, but end his days in eremitical seclusion (see ibid.: XV,383—91). He withdraws from the world after consummating his marriage to a Moroccan princess, who turns out to be his half-sister conceived through his father’s adulterous relationship.

The events depicted cannot easily be read as a coded attack on William III or a lament for James II. Although Dryden could scarcely have anticipated this, the exiled James ended up living an increasingly devout and withdrawn life almost as austere as a hermit’s: ’In his last years he scourged himself and wore around his thighs an iron chain studded with spikes’ (Miller 2000: 234). Moreover, in post-revolutionary and Williamite London, no theatrical company could have engaged in open and hostile criticism of the new regime. Theatres could be closed; they could be devastated by riots; audiences could take direct action during performances perceived as disloyal. There is some safety in evasiveness, and Dryden and the company that performed the play, formerly the Duke of York’s Company, came as close to recent events as prudence allowed.

Nevertheless, Dryden scores numerous hits on the Whigs and their allies. The play celebrates as openly as Oroonoko the notion of the innate nature of monarchy. Among the forces captured after Alcazar, the royal prisoners, though disguised, are immediately recognized as distinctively superior to the rank and file, much like Behn’s African prince: ’these look like the Workmanship of Heav’n: / This is the porcelain clay of human kind’ (I.i.239—40; Dryden 1956—2000: XV, 88).

Most of the negative points Dryden makes come in his depiction of the church and the mob. His Morocco has an established church, albeit an Islamic one, and it allows its leader, the Mufti, a platform to dabble very actively in the politics of the state. James’s reign had been bedevilled by the leadership of the Church of England, who defied his designs for the toleration and promotion of Catholicism. The Mufti has a corrupt sense of how states may be manipulated, offering advice on rousing and directing the mob (III.1.373—56; ibid.: XV, 139). He admits his role as ’chief of my Religion’ is ’to teach others what I neither know nor believe my self’ (IV.ii.2—3; ibid.: XV, 161). The mob plays a crucial part in the resolution of the civil war. Mustapha, its leader, though a comic character, is sinister enough, a slave-dealer who humiliates a Christian prisoner by riding him round the stage, and he is a lord of misrule. The Mufti may claim ’The voice of the Mobile [that is, the mob] is the voice of Heaven’ (IV.iii.219—20; ibid,: XV, 169), but their motivation is simpler. As the character designated ’Second Rabble’ puts it: ’We are not bound to know who is to Live and Reign; our business is only to rise upon command, and plunder’ (IV.iii.33—5; ibid.: XV, 170). Mustapha rallies them with recollection of their recent success:

Do you remember the glorious Rapines and Robberies you have committed? Your breaking open and gutting of Houses, your rummaging of Cellars, your demolishing of Christian Temples, and bearing off in triumph the superstitious Plate and Pictures, the Ornaments of their wicked Altars, when all rich Moveables were sentenc’d for idolatrous, and all that was idolatrous was seiz’d? (IV.iii.124—30; ibid.: XV, 173)

When the play was first performed, the most immediate recollection of riot was the recent sacking of Catholic homes and places of worship in the aftermath of James’s flight. Dryden ridicules the avowed piety of the mob, and in so doing stirs among his propertied audience that old suspicion of the many-headed monster. But Mustapha’s account links their activities not only with recent events but also with the routine sacking of churches by the Puritans in the 1640s, and thus it more subtly suggests the ancestry of popular support for William in the less glorious revolution of the mid-century.

Don Sebastian is a display of courage not only by Dryden but by the United Company. But it is not a call to arms. Rather, it rehearses a residual loyalty to a displaced ideology and a refusal to endorse the new regime at a time when its victory was still contested; the war continued in Ireland. Thereafter, Dryden’s Jacobitism takes an ever more tangential, quiescent and nostalgic form.

After 1690

Periodization bedevils every attempt at literary history. Which are the cultural watersheds that should structure the endeavour? Even the major dynastic shift of 1603, with which this study effectively begins, may be challenged. After all, Shakespeare, Donne and Jonson, who arguably tower over the early Jacobean period, were already mature authors in the final decade of Elizabeth. Politically, the arrival of the Hanoverians with the accession of George I in 1714 both ended the Stuart dynasty and settled the constitutional changes initiated in 1688. Dryden died in 1700. So, too, did the sole surviving child of Queen Anne, on whom the possibilities for Stuart continuation rested. Otherwise, the mere change of the century was unremarkable.

Few major writers of the Restoration period lived on into the 1690s. Milton died in 1674, Marvell in 1678, Rochester in 1680, Otway in 1685, Bunyan in 1688, Behn in 1689. Etherege died in 1691, though Wycherley survived till 1716; both had long since quit the stage. Nor, except in the case of the stage, are the major writers of the next age already emerging. Joseph Addison published a little juvenilia and made a modest but significant contribution to the editorial material in Dryden’s translation of Virgil (see below). There are a few works of non-fictional prose from Daniel Defoe. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay published nothing till the 1700s. Arguably, in terms of its part in the English literary tradition, the 1690s produced less of abiding merit than any decade since the 1570s.

The best drama of the 1690s appears transitional in several ways. Drama in the brief reign of James II had been distinguished by late plays from Behn and Dryden. It had been reduced to near bankruptcy early in 1685 when the closure of theatres at the time of the Monmouth rising postponed the performance of the opera Albion and Albanius, scripted by Dryden, in which the United Company had heavily invested in props, stage machinery and costumes. In 1695, the monopoly of the established London stage by the United Company broke down. It was a move that anticipated by almost two and half centuries the foundation of United Artists by screen celebrities disenchanted with the established studios. Thomas Betterton, Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, the most prominent actors of their day, broke away to open a new theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In a sense, that marks the coming of age of the star system, rudimentarily present in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, which had been developing since the earliest days of the Restoration stage. It carried theatre further away from its dependency on the protection of the mighty. The King’s Men, in a sense, had finally become their own men, and women, too, took control of their own careers. The actors’ confident initiative, in which Betterton emerged as leader, anticipated the rise of the actor-manager, the entrepreneur bred up in the profession, which reached maturity with David Garrick’s mid-eighteenth-century career and which operated in many English theatres well into the twentieth century. However, at the same time, independence from the court came at a price. As Claydon notes, ’William disliked and disapproved of public entertainments. Reducing royal hospitality to a bare minimum, he gave every impression of having to force himself into what few social events he did offer to the English elite’ (1996: 93). He did not need companies of actors to provide or supplement performances at court celebrations. No longer did royal protection shield the stage from its fiercest critics.

The new theatre opened with the premiere of William Congreve’s Love for Love (1695). ’A Prologue for the opening of the new Play-House, Propos’d to be spoken by Mrs. Bracegirdle in Man’s Cloaths’ represents what was essentially a commercial venture in explicitly political terms:

Freedom’s of English growth, I think, alone;

What for lost English Freedom can attone?

A Freeborn Player loaths to be compell’d;

Our Rulers Tyraniz’d, and We Rebell’d.

       (ll.22—5; Womersley 2000: 506)

As David Womersley observes, the idiom here resonates with recent political significance. It chimes, too, with an important theme in Whig thinking, most perfectly expressed in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, first published in 1690, in which true freedom requires the freedom to use one’s own property and apply one’s own labour without the arbitrary control of others, much as Betterton and his consortium had claimed for themselves.

Congreve’s major plays mark another kind of transition. They share some plot lines with the theatre of Wycherley and Etherege. These are often plays of courtship. They depict witty heroes and heroines. Often the generations are locked in conflict. Congreve resists sentimentalizing relationships overmuch, while avoiding the raw and aggressive eroticism of Restoration comedy. The Way of the World (1700) depicts a London where young men of the beau monde still keep and discard mistresses and where clandestine relationships are consummated. But it celebrates, too, a new kind of civility and a new contract between the sexes. Its principal couple, Mirabell and Millamant, establish a relationship that is both affectionate and rational. Her individuality and aspirations are respected, ’As liberty to pay and receive visits to and from whom I please, to write and receive Letters, without Interrogatories on your part. To wear what I please; and choose Conversations with regard only to my own taste’, and so on (IV.i.244—8; Womersley 2000: 676). This exchange, crucial for the themes of the play, concludes with an image that embodies whiggish values: Mirabell observes, ’Shall I kiss your hand upon the Contract?’ (ll.329—30; ibid.: 677). The word ’contract’ reflects with Lockean concerns about freely entered engagements as a foundation of ordered society and shows a legalism that recognizes how the law should protect equally the rights of partners.

Congreve’s major rival in the later 1690s was Sir John Vanbrugh, whose plays, arguably, retained a stronger affinity with Restoration comedy. Yet both wrote for a theatre that was increasingly aware of external pressures which were broadly aligned with the assertion of the alleged need to reform manners, which was at the core of Williamite propaganda. As Claydon (1996) has demonstrated, the decade was marked by a studied transformation in the ways in which the new regime represented itself and in the manner in which it sought to fashion the cultural life of the country. Combined with a new indifference to the well-being of the theatre, these developments exposed drama to a new onslaught. Early in 1695 the Lord Chamberlain had tightened up the procedures for licensing plays, requiring a full scrutiny before permitting performance. In 1699, Nahum Tate proposed new regulations in ’a clear belief that a total ban on the theatres was being considered if such reforms did not occur’ (Bull 2001: 433). Against this background, Vanburgh and Congreve probably wrote more circumspectly than they would have done had they enjoyed the freedoms of Etherege and Wycherley. Yet, along with Dryden’s Don Sebastian, Love for Love and Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696) recur as targets for censure in A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage by Jeremy Collier (1698).

Collier sits at the end of a long tradition of Puritan attacks on the stage, though he was far from the dissenters in his own religious beliefs. Indeed, despite focusing the moral crusade of Whig propaganda onto the contemporary stage, he was in other respects out of step with the Williamite ascendancy. Although he was in holy orders in the Church of England, he declined to swear allegiance to William, and had ministered on the scaffold to would-be assassins thwarted in an attempt on the king’s life (DNB 2004). His presence among the detractors of the stage certainly indicates how widely that antipathy was shared. His book is quite learned, comparing contemporary plays disadvantageously with classical drama and with the theatre of Shakespeare and Jonson. Yet he does not acknowledge that a comparison of the plays of the 1670s with those of his own time plainly discloses a new self-restraint. There is ultimately a silliness about his project. He concludes with a series of rhetorical questions: ’How many of the Unwary have these Syrens [presumably, the attractions of the theatre] devour’d? And how often has the best Blood been tainted, with this Infection [presumably, enthusiastic theatre-going]? What Disappointment of Parents, what Confusion in Families, and What Beggary in Estates have been hence occasion’d? (Collier 1698: 287). We may not be sure, but I suspect the likeliest answer is ’none’. At least, none seduced by the texts he examines, though no doubt theatres remained, and would long remain, an easy place for quite rich young men to meet a better class of prostitute, a notion which underlies the imagery he selects and probably points to his deeper concerns.

One text towers over the publications of the decade, John Dryden’s magisterial translation of the works of Virgil, published in 1697 by Jacob Tonson, with whom he had worked since 1678 and who retained a prominence among London booksellers (see plates 8 and 9). The work originated in Dryden’s own indigence since 1688: he had lost the post of poet laureate to Thomas Shadwell, whose Whig credentials were irreproachable. Dryden had returned to drama, though abandoned it again in 1694 after Love Triumphant, a ’deliberately old-fashioned’ piece that he evidently regarded as his valediction to a medium he had come to regard as unprofitable and to a public exposure which, in the eclipse of his ideological position, had evidently become wearisome (Winn 1987: 471—5). But the Virgil project broke new ground in terms of the economics of authorship and publishing. Dryden received from Tonson, in staged payments, advances, so-called ’copy money’, that allowed him to live fairly comfortably while he was engaged on the task. The publication itself appeared in two versions, which carried the organization of subscription editions to a new level of complexity. Those who had subscribed at the higher rate of five guineas had their names and coats of arms incorporated into the illustrations in the book and received copies printed on superior paper. Those who subscribed to pay two guineas were merely listed but still received the de luxe edition. The net profit from the de luxe edition seems to have gone wholly to Dryden.

Plate 8 John Dryden, The Works of Virgil (1697), frontispiece and title page. Reproduced by permission of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. G.3.8. Th.


Plate 9 John Dryden, The Works of Virgil (1697), a plate from the Aeneid. Reproduced by permission of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Page 210 and illustration opposite. G.3.8. Th.


Tonson kept the profit from the trade edition on ordinary paper (see ibid.: 475—8). Though Dryden and Tonson quarrelled over the details of the transaction, together they had found a way for an elite author of limited personal means and no patronage to produce a very substantial work of high literary merit.

That success marks the maturation of the London book trade. Analysis of both subscription lists show Dryden’s accomplishment and celebrity had secured him a readership across the political spectrum. Princess Anne and her husband both subscribed five guineas. The book itself is, by the standards of London book production in the early modern period, a masterpiece, lavishly illustrated and effectively designed. It offers, too, a cornucopia of information of immense use to a modestly educated readership, in the form of biography, annotation and introductions. That in itself says something about shifts in high culture and its expectations. Of course, translation had for long a place in the English literary tradition.

The poem perhaps marks the emergence of a new political consensus. Superficially at least, it is a major text with no immediate engagement with issues of political and constitutional legitimacy, a sort of holiday from a world still carrying fresh wounds of recent and recurrent divisions. Since his earliest panegyrics, Dryden had simulated a Virgilian idiom for his praise, transiently, of Cromwell and, persistently, of Charles II and James II. Here, apparently, he puts the idiom to rest on less contentious ground.

Dryden’s last publication, Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, & Chaucer: with Original Poems (1700), was published by Jacob Tonson very shortly before the poet’s death. Its title indicates its decidedly miscellaneous quality. The original verse amounts to little more than three panegyric exercises. There is a delicately turned funeral elegy written for ’The Monument of a Fair Maiden Lady, Who dy’d at Bath, and is there Interr’d’: ’A Female Softness, with a manly Mind: / A Daughter duteous, and a Sister kind: / In Sickness patient; and in Death resigned’ (ll.34—6; Dryden 1956—2000: VII, 512). He addresses a long verse epistle to his cousin, ’To My Honour’d Kinsman, John Driden, of Chesterton in the County of Huntingdon, Esquire’. Driden was a minor politician, recently returned to parliament through a by-election. Dryden, no longer so clearly an anti-Williamite partisan, nevertheless returns to political engagement, urging steadfastness on an issue of recent significance. The Nine Years War, in which William had embroiled England on the side of the United Provinces against his old enemy France, had recently ended, and parliament had forced through a marked reduction in the English standing army. The concluding lines, arguing that ’Patriots, in Peace, assert the Peoples Right; / With noble Stubbornness resisting Might’ (ll.184—5; ibid.: 201), surely restates the purposefulness of resisting William’s martial enthusiasm. The verse epistle dedicatory is to the Duchess of Ormond, and it seconds the prose epistle to her husband, the second Duke, the grandson of the Ormond Milton had challenged in his Observations (see above, chapter 5). The second Duke was a Tory loyalist, but had accepted the settlement following the Williamite revolution. He would later resist the Hanoverian succession and thereafter live much of his life as an exiled Jacobite. Dryden has laid his last fruits at the feet of ideologically sympathetic recipients.

The bulk of the considerable volume — it runs to more than 12,000 lines — is made up of a curious range of translations, of tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron and from The Canterbury Tales together with books and fragments from The Iliad and from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Flower and the Leaf, contemporaneously and erroneously attributed to Chaucer. Dryden is attracted to working over some highlights from his sources, such as the sketch of the Parson from The General Prologue or ’The Speeches of Ajax and Ulysses’ from Metamorphoses, book XV. The technical tasks Dryden has set himself are diverse and considerable. Turning Chaucer into modern English needs a careful attention that the Middle English idiom does not corrupt the contemporaneity of the language. Boccaccio requires the versifying of prose. Ovid and Homer are challenges closer to the ones he had so triumphantly met in his Virgil translation.

Indeed, the whole project according to Dryden had its origins in an initial attempt to produce a sample of Homer as a prospectus for a great new translation on the scale of his Virgil. He seems defensive about how the other texts accreted around that unrealized ambition. His own account describes the process of selection, and, while a coherence of sorts emerges, elements of serendipity are acknowledged. After translating ’the first of Homer’s Iliads’ he moved to the twelfth book of the Metamorphoses because it describes the beginning of the Trojan war, but he moves on to the speeches of Ajax and Ulysses for no better reasons than their proximity and the fact that they presented a ’pleasing Task’ (ibid.: 24).

Dryden in a sense takes on his mighty precursors, but the whole preface exudes a respect for the wide and various achievement of great writers, with a touching assurance that they form fit company for the mature genius of the poet. His complete mastery of the heroic couplet remains undiminished. Like the Virgil translation, although on a more modest scale and with a more muted marketing strategy, this volume, too, was a publishing success, and a fitting conclusion to Dryden’s part in the professionalizing of high-culture literary production. Tonson agreed an advance of 250 guineas, to be topped up to £300 to be paid to him or his heirs when it went into a second edition. Straightforward reward for literary dedication proved rare in the opening decades of our period, despite a myriad of panegyric epistles dedicatory. In sharp contrast, Dryden received a hefty present from the Duchess of Ormond — on one contemporary account as much as £500 (ibid.: 573). Literary celebrity, which would extend through Pope and Dr Johnson to our own age, had finally arrived as an element in English cultural production.