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In order to appreciate fully the merits of an author, it is necessary to throw a search-light upon the period in which he wrote. His writings should not be studied alone, isolated from their companions, but should be viewed in relation to their social, political, and his torical conditions. This is particularly advisable in criticising the literature of a previous century whose customs, manners, tastes, and opinions differ so widely from those of our own. We must obliterate our prejudices and fixed ideas; must shut our eyes to the present, and transporting ourselves to the past, live in spirit with the people of that time, be participants in their work, their recreations, their joys, and their sorrows; must eat at their tables and take part in their conversations; must wear the clothes they wore, travel the roads they travelled, read the books they read, visit the people whom they visited, appreciate their hindrances and limitations, and survey the whole field, not with a satirical, fault-finding spirit, but with clear vision and sympathetic comradeship.
With this purpose in mind, let us, like Gulliver at Lilliput, open our eyes on the new scene – the Eng. land of the Queen Anne period, from the latter part of the seventeenth century to the early middle of the eighteenth. The scene naturally divides itself into London, and that which is not London; and the latter, though so much greater in magnitude, may be quickly seen, as there was much sameness throughout in customs and mode of living. In the country, roads were poor and neglected, and the country people travelled but little — mainly on horseback. When it was necessary for a man to go to London, and he who had been to London “had seen the world,” and was looked upon with a degree of awe and respect by his simple countrymen, he could walk to the nearest main road, and at a given time, take the stage-coach which passed once a week on its way to the great metropolis. Public schools were being instituted, but they were few, and most people were uneducated could neither read nor write. Society, in its accepted term, was confined to the comparatively few wealthy landowners who kept large numbers of horses and hounds, and when at home filled their mansions with guests who delighted in hunting, the chase, and the other amusements which the free-hearted host could originate, On portions of the estates were grouped the little homes of the tenants; and these, with an occasional
small village where the farmers gathered and discussed the price of crops, or told to open-mouthed, eager listeners the latest scandal or gossip retailed by the servants of the gentry, gave life to the slow-going and lonely country.
But the well-to-do people were spending less and less time in their country seats, and more and more in the growing towns, where congregated learning, business, wealth, and society. Many cities were growing; but the most prominent one was London, which was, and is, to England, what Paris is to France, or Athens was to Greece - the centre of all progress and culture. Almost any theologian of note in England was to be found “either in the episcopate or at the head of a London parish;” here came all authors and would-be authors; here was the active and turbid stream of manufacturing and commercial life; here was the court with its attendant vices and virtues, and Parliament with its frequent assemblings; and here was the gayest and most frivolous society of all England, with its vulgarity, licentiousness, and law. lessness.
The question which is perplexing the anxious, over burdened man of the nineteenth century, “ Is life worth living ?” might, with some propriety, have been asked in the eighteenth of the social dawdler whose days were rounds of sensual pleasures. Thackeray says,