Why The Late 1700s?

Happy Sunday. If you can, once again have a second tea or coffee as you read this. LOL!

You probably know I am minimizing my Twitter use going forward and why. Still, my time on Twitter since August had also been useful, though, in at least this sense: It had shown me that lots and lots and lots of authors are writing some form of “fantasy.”

Understand, I have nothing against bearded wizards, heroines with magic swords, and FBI agents, just that I feel I cannot write such stories, don’t want to make a fool of myself trying to do so, and so prefer to write more to what I believe are my “strengths.” My own historical and personal interest in roughly 1750-1820 certainly plays a major role. I decided also that I wanted to write fiction about that era because many readers do seem to enjoy truly historical romance; and American independence, to the French Revolution and Napoleon, to Georgian and Regency England, appears especially to captivate some.

[View of part of Royal Crescent, built 1767-74, Bath, England. Photo by me, 2015.]

It is also the last of history before photography appears. So it is also historically just distant enough to be romanticized to an extent, but is close enough also to be familiar to us. If it is difficult easily for us to imagine ourselves living in, say, the 1400s, we can almost see ourselves alive in the later 1700s and early 1800s:

[A “1787” excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris, Copyright, 2017. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

A major reason for that comfort level is the norms of the time are not entirely alien to us: In the era we see the beginnings of the world we live in now.

Between 1750-1820, “continental”-level republican governments (in the U.S. from 1776 and, far more bloodily and less successfully, France from 1792-1799) had begun to supplant monarchy. Capitalism (Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) was emerging. “Secularism” (separating religion from the State) was appearing (again first in the U.S. and then again far more bloodily in republican France). Modern medicine was dawning (with, for example, Edward Jenner’s 1796 vaccine for smallpox being probably the first understanding of immunization as we would recognize it).

[Summary of slavery at Mount Vernon. Photo by me, 2011.]

There was starting also to be serious talk of racial equality. (The first petition – by Quakers – to have the new U.S. Congress act to end slavery was put forward in 1790.)

Calls to recognize women’s equality (Mary Wollstonecraft’s treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, appeared in 1792) were also growing.

It was not just “famous” writers making an impression either. In those days the U.S. President had “free postage” (what British would call today “FREEPOST”), meaning you could address and send a letter to the President without coughing up money for stamps. Even more than to first president George Washington and second president John Adams, “ordinary” people seemed to consider him “more accessible” and so deluged third president Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) – by now his having crafted the Declaration of Independence was fully public knowledge – with often amazing letters.

[Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, Virginia. Photo by me, 2011.]

Evidently still unsure about the new Constitution’s 1st Amendment “freedom of speech” protection as applying to them (particularly after 1798’s “Sedition Act” – which expired in 1801 and despite Jefferson’s having vehemently opposed its passage initially when vice president and as the new president had refused to renew it), most wrote deferentially as if he were almost a king, apologizing for their poor spelling and not understanding “proper forms.” In those letters many are effusively praising him as “a man of the people,” offering friendly political suggestions, and some are even seeking the likes of book reading advice. (Jefferson’s love of books was well known.) Occasionally Jefferson even wrote back personally, a letter which many a family likely treasured forever. (It appears the best way to have teased out a reply from President Jefferson was to have asked him about reading and books.)

In a world before government provided any sort of a “safety net,” there were also those who wrote asking for work or looking for charity because of illness. Desperate women in particular recounted tales of personal woe (a few even offering their, uh, “favors” to him), some of which remain deeply disturbing and even heartbreaking reading even two centuries later. Some also bravely attacked his policies – especially his foreign trade embargo begun in 1807 – as leaving them without bread. While occasionally he privately sent some money, he almost never replied to critics who he deemed irrational, such as to those boldly denouncing him as a “godless infidel” or an “infernal villain” – usually he filed those types of letters away after having scribbled on them just a single word, such as “Abuse” or “Lunatic.” Regardless of the vitriol thrown at him, no “secret police” ever went out to arrest anyone for their opinions of him.

The era in Europe and in America is indeed fascinating on that social level. English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) lived her entire life of only 41 years within that era and never traveled abroad. Her novels set in the early 1800s give us an excellent glimpse into the lives of the lower and middle English gentry (which she knew well) of that time.

[Opening to Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Photo by me, 2019.]

One of the most famous opening sentences in English language literature is in her Pride and Prejudice. As contemporary novels, her books are all something of a negative commentary on, for instance, women needing to marry well; but they are now often read it seems as period escapism. Her late 18th century and early 19th seem – even if it is an often inaccurate belief – so simple and attractive. Life was lived at a much slower pace, in a world of proper behavior, careful courtesies, and populated by handsome men in breeches and/or gleaming uniforms and lovely women in impossible dresses who did not “hook up,” but “courted,” wrote longing letters to each other when apart, eventually married, and lived and loved (we hope) happily ever after. After yet another dreary day at some job we dislike or find unsatisfying, immersing ourselves in a novel like one of Austen’s, or enjoying one of their many screen adaptations, is an opportunity to get away for a short time at least in our imagination from our present day that seems to be pressing in on us and battering us relentlessly from every direction.

Interestingly, Austen’s novels have little about the ongoing long war that Britain was fighting with revolutionary France and then its emperor Napoleon – wars that went on from 1793-1814 with only a short pause from March 1802 until May 1803. Her best known novel now is probably Pride and Prejudice, which was published in 1813; and by then a threat of Great Britain being invaded by Napoleon’s army was years in the past. In a way, the long war’s omission by Austen in Pride and Prejudice demonstrates how by then the continental war was to Britons “distant” and of little concern in their daily lives.

That should also be little surprise as most lives were then lived – as lives then everywhere were – in their own town and at best county, with international issues of small importance to most. In 1813 Napoleon’s final defeat seemed a matter of time anyway. Most of his huge army that entered Russia the year before had frozen to death, starved, or been killed; and in Spain British forces under Wellington, allied with Spanish guerrillas, had been pushing Marshal Soult’s increasingly demoralized French army back towards the French frontier:

[A “1798” excerpt from Tomorrow The Grace, Copyright, 2019. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

On the eastern edge of Europe was also that gigantic country: Russia and its empire, ruled by its czars. Its governing upper classes – at least until 1805 – were imbued by French and German affectations and dominated by the offspring of generations of intermarriage with Western European aristocracy to the point “native” Russians were by now rare at the highest levels. A German princess, born in 1729, in 1762 became Russian empress Catherine II (after a family quarrel about good governance having overthrown – and possibly ordered killed – her husband, Czar Peter III). Known eventually as “The Great,” she ruled until her death in 1796.

One lesser known fact about her, which Wikipedia tells us:

Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by a British doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel was later inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: “My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger”.

Here in Britain and in America, there has been the recent Sky/HBO Catherine The Great miniseries that starred British (her father had been a Russian immigrant to Britain) Helen Mirren. There is a slightly older Russian-produced (subtitled in English) television series about her now also available on Amazon Prime…

[Photo by me, January 2020.]

And there is also another Russian-produced series about her on Amazon from about the same time. (Rival Catherines?) Probably the Austen-like 18th-19th century period settings has an appeal. More compelling may be Catherine’s “absolute” rule, which is a rarity for that time (indeed, for any time): a “strong woman” dominating men… and it is NOT fiction. Whatever the reason(s), it seems lately we cannot get enough of Catherine either.

However, everywhere it was still the era of pre-electricity and pre-most-machinery. Life was for most precarious, rural, often dangerous, and few rarely ventured more than 100 miles from home. Poverty and short lifespans remained the norm. Yet we also see in the time an optimism in government, in literature, and most of all in science – as Catherine herself demonstrated personally – that life could be better for all eventually thanks to human inventiveness.

An influential counter-voice, however, was one Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 wrote of improved farming techniques leading to increasing population growth outstripping food supply: what became known as the “Malthusian catastrophe.” Ironically in our time we seem to be again following Malthus on fearing “overpopulation” leading to a future in which catastrophe awaits us. Malthus aside, the general intellectual optimism of the late-1700s into the 1800s is (I find) something of a tonic for our pessimistic present day.

[George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Photo by me, 2011.]

Lastly, this: Catherine’s lifetime virtually paralleled George Washington’s. She was born exactly three calendar years before he was, and she died exactly three calendar years before he did. A bit of real life trivia with which to amaze your friends.

Hope you are having a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂