Decadence and Decorum: Eighteenth-Century England's Profane Virtues

Four worldly men, one with a simper, one a squint, one a button mouth, and the fourth with a strut, embodied much that fascinates about eighteenth-century England. In his latest ATLANTIC essay, Mr. Kronenberger, critic and author, recaptures those men and their time.


THANKS to its sense of form and powers of consolidation, eighteenth-century England is one of the great eras or cultures that seem fairly possible to encompass. Civilized, urbane, we say of it; or, more glibly, Augustan — the practice of sanity, the dominance of reason, the pre-eminence of taste, with such verbal evidence as Pope’s verse, Horace Walpole’s letters, Hume’s skepticism; with, again, such visible evidence as Bath’s crescents and London’s squares, Adam houses and Zoffany conversation pieces. One has not merely the desire, one has the actual data, to allow the century’s cultivated side the air of a gentleman’s cream-andgilt library, its artistic side the look of a compact, well-ordered, modestly domed museum. Furthermore, if we think of the century that preceded the eighteenth in England, when one monarch lost his head and two their thrones; when science and superstition, when Rome and Canterbury, when Divine Right and unspeakable wrongs bloodily collided; or if we think of the century the eighteenth gave way to, that yoked reform to respectability, that belched steam and smoke, that bounced with invention and clanged with discovery — if we look before and after, it is to come back to an era whose perspectives seem harmonious and proportions manageable.

But of course the truth about the era is by no means so simple. By squeezing “eighteenth-century England" inside a formula or framework, we must leave out far too much of it — leave out all that concerns the dull as well as the poor, the pious as well as the lawless, the born lackeys as well as the brutes. Still, even to be able to make a half truth of a hundred years argues a demonstrable set of attitudes and a sense of direction; and the half truth stands, or almost. Almost: because the era’s very reasonableness can come to seem a little mad (half an hour before he was to be executed, Admiral Byng “took his usual draught for the scurvy”); its assured Augustanism is riddled with grotesquerie, its urbanity caked with grime. What keeps the half truth valid is not that the century comes off an integrated picture but that it never quite bursts its frame. It is not only that there is something tractable and human-sized about most of its realities, but from Swift’s prime until Blake’s, there is no trampling thrust to its imagination.

The cultural dimensions and décor of the era are constantly recalled to us in Peter Quennell’s Four Portraits, a reprint (with revisions) of an attractive book published some years ago under the title of The Profane Virtues. The earlier title remains a pretty apt one not only for characterizing the four figures portrayed — Boswell, Gibbon, Sterne, and Wilkes — but for moving down the main avenue, while constantly glancing to left and right, of the period they inhabited. Certain consanguineous virtues unite all four: Mr. Quennell instances “their vitality and their versatility, their devotion both to the pleasures of the world and the satisfactions of the intellect.” Yet ultimately they are not at all alike, if only from being so extraordinarily much themselves. Still — and just so must we keep weaving back and forth — they were extraordinarily much themselves in an eighteenthcentury way.

An eighteenth-century way: not the eighteenthcentury way, which, if there is such a thing, applies to Gibbon alone. Sterne and Boswell were often odd, neurasthenic, and rather disreputable in their wayfaring, given, when not dining with the great or consorting with the wise, to clouded reveries and spotted escapades. What they shared was that great flavorer of eighteenth-century art, temperament — something not very easy to isolate. It is more than just idiosyncratic, musky, mercurial; it pervades the period as well as the person, the approach to subject matter as well as the prose.

What, of course, Sterne and Boswell had, along with Gibbon, was genius, and an ability to make effloresce something superbly their own and, just so, strangely new. Mr. Quennell notes how Boswell was at once “exceedingly passionate and oddly dispassionate”; and indeed he was a mesh of opposites, the most hail-fellow of snobs and daring of toadies, as he has proved the most rewarding of busybodies and, for all his self-love, perhaps the frankest of self-observers. Moreover, in the process of bringing to life a great man who bespoke the past even more than the present, Boswell bodied forth the biography of the future. Sterne, in the course of expressing a whimsical, arch, salacious, determinedly charming, catch-in-the-throat talent, very possibly coined the word “sentimental”; he certainly gave sentimentalism a new allure, and the novel a new sensibility and impressionist approach. Gibbon, in the long labor of chronicling the decline and fall of the classical world, effected an awesome triumph of the classical ideal. The Life of Johnson. Tristram Shandy, and the Decline and Fall — each, as it happens, bv a man who died in his mid-fifties — are masterpieces which both represent their century and show how widely it could roam. Gibbon may seem to have hugged the center, his career laid out like a Roman road, his demeanor at times suggesting less a person than a procession. But, as Mr. Quennell remarks, selflove, so destructive to Boswell, was Gibbon’s “best friend.” He was also so disciplined as sometimes to seem prissy. Where else do we find such a candlesnuffer to youthful romance as Gibbon’s “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son”? Who else so classical was also so fat that having dropped to his knees to avow a subsequent love, he had to summon the servants to get him back on his feet again? All that recalcitrant flesh so dreamt of marble that Gibbon was taxed with mistaking himself for the Roman Empire.

We, on our part, are perhaps in danger of mistaking the eighteenth century for Gibbon. But the measure, the formality, the symmetry that he conveys adhere, otherwise, far more to the century’s letter-writing or portrait-painting or landscapes than to its humankind. As I have said elsewhere, an age that made a god of decorum all too often made a beast of itself. In much the same way had those prototypes of classicism, the Greeks, been pugnacious and unruly in their lives. Indeed, eighteenth-century sanity seems most evident in the dusty, life-rumpled testimony of a Fielding or the abrupt wisdom of a Johnson, himself superstitious, melancholic, terrified of going mad. The century bobbles with insanity, from the sovereign down. Detachment and reason may smile from a box, but oddity and sentiment tend to hold the stage, and the death of Clarissa Harlowe is far more passionately wept over than any death of Little Nell. In the same way, moderation may have been extolled, but the century abounded in mob scenes — in furious riots over gin, over taxes, over Catholics, and, quite often, over Mr. Quennell’s fourth figure, John Wilkes. “Wilkes and Liberty" proved, like “No taxation without representation” a little later, one of the most incendiary of slogans, centering on one of the most attractively flawed of men.

The astonishingly ugly son of a prosperous distiller, Wilkes proved a prodigious rake both before and after marriage (he could talk away his face, he said, in half an hour), and a member of the scandalous Hellfire Club, which met in a Gothic abbey to perform Black Masses and other blasphemies. A man of parts, Wilkes became an M.P. who, in the antigovernment North Briton, anonymously and violently denounced George III’s praise of the egregious Peace of Paris, which Wilkes said was like the peace of God, “for it passeth all understanding.” This unpleasantry led to Wilkes’s arrest on a general warrant, which violated his civil rights; and with that was born eighteenth-century England’s greatest cause célèbre.

Having unscrupulously arrested him, the government next refused, against all precedent, to let him plead parliamentary privilege. Fleeing to France, Wilkes became an outlaw abroad and a tremendous hero at home. When he returned, and was tried and convicted, his imprisonment became the social event of the season — every day, baskets heaped with delicacies and visits from the great. Three times his constituents re-elected him to Parliament, three times the election was thrown out; when they elected him a fourth time, Parliament declared Wilkes’s opponent the winner! At this point the nation was in so great an uproar that anything — ungovernable violence, dethronement, conceivably revolution — might have ensued. But, unvindictive and weary — a “genial martyr,” as Mr. Quennell puts it — Wilkes said, let time vindicate him; and time’s response was to return him to Parliament and make him lord mayor of London as well.

In itself the Wilkes case is chiefly a monument to idiotic government blundering. But both Wilkes himself, in avowing he was “no Wilkite” and in never turning his hero’s role into a demagogue’s, and “Wilkes and Liberty,” in its vociferating the inalienable rights of the trueborn Englishman, were exceedingly eighteenth-century. (A few years later, owing to much the same George III tactics, enlightened England sympathized almost to a man with the Thirteen Colonies, going so far as to describe a great British victory as “the bad news from Long Island.”)

The writing that cost Wilkes his freedom nowhere links him as a writer with Mr. Qucnnell’s other three men. All three knew him, however, and Mr. Quennell quotes from a wonderfully Boswellian invocation to him: “O John Wilkes . . . good without principle and wicked without malevolence, let Johnson teach thee the road to rational virtue and noble felicity.” Political symbol aside, Wilkes survives pungently enough through his spoken wit. I would pass over one or two of his better known retorts in favor of one or two that Mr. Quennell does not include in his book. “Isn’t it strange,” a fatuous young man once asked Wilkes, “that I should have been born on the first of January?” “Not at all,” Wilkes instantly shot back. “Obviously, you could only have been conceived on the first of April.” And there is his answer to a too complacent Roman Catholic’s asking him where was his religion before the Reformation. “Where was your face,” said Wilkes, “before you washed it this morning?” But Mr. Quennell makes up for any omissions with the engaging story of Wilkes’s Italian mistress who, having a portrait of the Virgin over her bed, would draw a green silk curtain across it “from the time she yielded her charms . . . till she arose in the morning.”

In an epilogue Mr. Quennell describes each of his essays as “the portrait of a man obsessed by an idea” — Wilkes by a passion for freedom, Gibbon by ironic detachment, Boswell by the desire “savoir tout au fond“ Sterne by the cult of sympathy. One can’t help wondering just a little whether the epilogue wasn’t something of an afterthought, of an attempt to unify the four portraits, or at least to put a rubber band around them. It is prophets and cranks, men dominated by tenets rather than lubricated by temperament, who are obsessed by “ideas.” Mr. Quennell’s four were too worldly and eighteenth-century for that, though it might be said that Gibbon was obsessed by an ideal, and that Wilkes had obsession thrust upon him. But in all of them except Gibbon there is the freer play of shifting impulse, of divided natures, of a desire to know and experience that leads away from obsession toward participation, from rigidity toward adventurousness or experiment. What they have in common is their being not fanatics, solitaries, square pegs, but social figures, personalities, nonpareils, each with his own profile and birthmark — Gibbon his button mouth, Sterne his simper, Wilkes his squint, Boswell his strut, his “sallying forth like a roaring lion after girls.”

It is precisely this impress of individuality that is one of the great marks of the eighteenth century’s distinction and one of the great merits of the eighteenth century’s creed. It is this outcropping of temperament and even bizarrerie, this, as it were, human decor incised into a firm period design, that endows eighteenth-century England with such glittering singularity, such distinguished misconduct as to make us forget how much, during the same century, was sordid and arid as well. Generation after generation there jut up these bravura personalities, these gorgeous personages: the “Proud” Duke of Somerset, Sarah Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Dr. Bentley; Hervey, Lady Mary Montagu, George Selwyn; Lord Balmerino, Beckford, Porson, the Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince Regent. These are the griffins, the gargoyles, the elegant arabesques. But no less vivid are the cornerstones and central pillars: Sir Robert Walpole, making British materialism prosper through peace; the elder Pitt, making British imperialism proliferate through war; Hogarth, with his hard, humane look at all kinds and conditions of men; Samuel Richardson, beneath the debris of whose insufferable gentility lie piercing insights into the human heart.

All such people do more than tend to redeem what was wrong with the century; they tend to obscure it. We sit happily on their chesterfields and chairs, gaze at their country houses, finger their bibelots and books. No wonder the period has been a happy hunting ground for collectors, a sheltered, almost chaperoned haven for exquisites, a bustling graveyard for scholars. No wonder, too, that the social heritage bequeathed by this world comes, in England, a little high. Spiritually it is from the eighteenth century that England’s upperclass remnant still takes its tone. It is largely from that age, when the beginnings of a decline in power among the wellborn made for a Tocquevillian intensification of privilege, that there derives a caste culture that can be so much governed by shibboleths rather than standards as even today, inside a tight little welfare-state isle, to preserve one of history’s widest social and cultural gulfs.

But, whatever its liabilities, the eighteenth century was the last to forge a durable pattern. It still, after two hundred years, keeps it shape and its shapeliness — the last time in England that a whole conception of life was laced with style, and a set tradition remained, somehow, supple. It had its absurd extravagances; yet what other era, before or since, has seen its fashions and even its fads so often revived? No other age, either, authored such concise malice: in Pope superlatively, but in hundreds of comments like Chesterfield’s on a certain marriage: “Nobody’s son has married Everybody’s daughter.” If the era represents a world often arrogant, self-indulgent, and coldhearted, it yet represents a worldliness that still had time for culture, a place for eccentricity, an eye for noble effects, a mind for enlightened inquiry. Thereafter, the profane virtues — Mr. Quennell quotes the phrase from Gibbon — were themselves to be profaned, whether amid the sanctimonies of the nineteenth century or the vulgarities of the twentieth.