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Four portraits : studies of the eighteenth…

Four portraits : studies of the eighteenth century (1945)

by Peter Quennell

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Very good read on eighteenth century life

I picked this up from a second-hand stall, not sure if I really wanted to read short biographies of four important writers from the eighteenth century, but it is so well written it was hard to put down. Quennell gives a subtitle 'Studies in the Eighteenth Century', and his 'pen portraits' of James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Laurence Sterne and John Wilkes give a wonderful sense of what life was like around the 1760's to 1790's. These writers are picked for the different aspects of life which they and their writings contributed to the spirit of that age, and which go together to give the flavour of the culture of late eighteenth century England. To quote his conclusion:

‘To each portrait can be attached some distinguishing features of the latter eighteenth century. Wilkes typifies that passion for personal and political freedom which Englishmen had inherited from the preceding epoch and were to carry on triumphantly throughout the next; Gibbon, the ironic detachment with which classicism mined away at classicist foundations. Boswell, inquisitive and introspective, tormented by the desire "savoir tout au fond," represents a new revolutionary mode of thinking and in literature. As for Sterne — it was his function to introduce the cult of sympathy and, whereas the Augustan Age had condescended austerely towards the weak and miserable, to discover in unhappiness and helplessness a positive moral charm, thus anticipating the age of Jacobin enthusiasts who for the sake of humanity would sign inhuman sentences, till the tyrannous reign of good intentions was at last replaced by the relatively mild despotism of a military dictator.
London, September 1944’ ( )
  demot | May 20, 2008 |
  johnslostit | Jan 19, 2008 |
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