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Noelle Gallagher, Historical Literatures. Writing about the Past in England, 1660-1740
by R. C. Richardson

Gallagher, Noelle. Historical Literatures: Writing about the Past in England, 1660-1740. Manchester, New York: Manchester UP, 2012. xx + 252 pp. ISBN: 978-0719087622. $95.00 cloth.

In part this book is an essay in rehabilitation. It stakes a higher claim for recognition of the historiographical achievements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries than this denigrated period has normally been deemed to merit by critics looking back from the “high ground” of the Enlightenment and historicism and echoing some earlier disgruntled verdicts. (“Eloquence and History are, God knows, at the lowest ebb imaginable among us,” opined Lord Bolingbroke in 1724 in a letter to Alexander Pope cited on page 1). But beyond this, the title and sub-title of this book—and indeed the front-cover illustration—are highly significant and accurately point the way to what follows. The author, a literary specialist rather than a historian, does not focus exclusively on what are normally classified as conventional “histories” and historians, though some of them at least, such as Paul de Rapin Thoyras, White Kennett, and John Oldmixon, come under discussion. Hers is a quite different kind of investigation from Laird Okie’s traditional survey of Augustan Historical Writing: Histories of England in the English Enlightenment.[1] Rather this study takes a much broader view of historical consciousness and its decidedly plural expressions. Almanacs, allegorical poetry, advice-to-a-painter poems, memoirs and diaries, journalism, satire, panegyrics, scandal chronicles, and early novels all come under review here in a rounded discussion of a wide, experimental, interacting, not always successful assortment of “historical literatures.” In view of this coverage the “cast list” here is necessarily different; Edmund Waller, John Dryden, Delarivier Manley, and Daniel Defoe all find a secure place in Gallagher’s pages. Gallagher has an extremely capacious notion of “historiography” and continues and extends lines of inquiry first opened up by other scholars before her, among them Anthony Grafton, Philip Hicks, Ruth Mack,[2]and Everitt Zimmerman. Three earlier articles by Gallagher herself have partially anticipated what the author offers more extensively here.

A broadly thematic treatment of the subject is provided in this volume in a four-part presentation of the material, each section corresponding to a major genre of writing—memoirs, secret histories, satires and panegyrics, and “histories” in the normally understood sense. In each case at the outset a general overview is provided outlining the principal defining features of the genre in question and its relationship to others. Detailed case studies—sometimes of unexpected or largely-forgotten works—follow. The book as a whole is framed by an introduction which outlines why this period of historiography has often been disparaged—by some contemporaries as well as later commentators—and a conclusion which consolidates the author’s case for a well-deserved re-assessment and shows how the acknowledged great writers of the later part of the century, Hume, Boswell et al., drew heavily on what had gone before.

Though Gallagher maintains a consistently effective line of argument it is the various case studies which stand out most notably. The first is An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber (1740), a popular work in its day, twice reprinted in rapid succession, which put theater history on the map at the same time as offering an unflattering self-portrait of an author all too aware of his own vanity. The longer discussion of John Evelyn’s Diary treats this well-known text not primarily as a source for late seventeenth-century social and political history—though Gallagher is well aware of its value in these respects—but as a literary text refracting the contemporary world around it. Self-consciousness and historical consciousness here, the author shows, were mutually reinforcing in an essentially secular piece of writing which in all respects was conditioned by Evelyn’s scientific outlook and interests; Biblical typology invariably gave way in Evelyn’s pages to the working through of scientific principles of analogy. Events and phenomena from widely separate moments in time were often tellingly juxtaposed in a “diary” that was frequently written up in its final form after a lapse of many years. Fundamentally this was a “historical” text in its reflectivity. But, as befitted a man involved in the early strivings of the post-Restoration Royal Society, it was profoundly scientific in its curiosity about the physical world, about animal life, and human biology, and scientific in a different way in its use of shorthand symbols.

Other well-handled case studies in Gallagher’s account feature scandal chronicles such as Defoe’s characteristically impassioned Secret History of the White Staff  (1714-15), Manley’s Secret Memoirs and Manners of Persons of Quality (1709), which targeted and lampooned the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and Eliza Haywood’s Memoirs of a Certain Island adjacent to Utopia (1725), a thinly-disguised commentary on individuals in her own day who were depicted in her pages as multiple personae, at times even transcending gender. (Such writings took their cue, perhaps, from Procopius’s secret history of the reign of Justinian, first issued in English translation in 1674). Elsewhere she offers insightful readings of Waller’s and Marvell’s advice-to-a-painter poems (1665-67), and of Dryden’s well-known panegyrics Annus Mirabilis (1667) and Absalom and Achitophel (1681), together with others much more obscure. When she comes to more conventional “histories” of this period—Oldmixon’s History of England during the Reigns of the Royal House of Stuart (1730) and Roger North’s Examen (1740)—Gallagher brings out how these, too, shared some of the same features of the other genres of historical literature, not least their combative passion and partiality. (Oldmixon openly displayed this in foregrounding himself by the use of the first person pronoun). Folio-volume format did not automatically entail dignified restraint, objectivity, sonorous prose, and detached, plodding narrative.

At numerous points Gallagher is at pains to emphasize that the four categories of historical writing she examines were at times overlapping rather than mutually exclusive, and that they impacted on each other even while attempting to be different. Readers of Roger North and John Oldmixon may have been drawn chiefly from the ranks of the male elite who had been traditionally attracted to histories and were acquainted with earlier examples; Oldmixon’s three hefty volumes were an expensive purchase and assumed familiarity with other publications such as the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars. But the other three genres arguably had a broader appeal to a differently-constituted reading public which included increasing numbers of women whose rationale for reading was different, whose tastes had been conditioned by other kinds of literature, and whose interests extended far beyond high politics.

Gallagher’s thoughtful and well-written book succeeds admirably in depicting the broad spectrum of historical literatures and “historianship” of this period and in showing that the writers she discusses were more than a collection of second-rate losers. Taken notice of in their own time, their influence resonated later even as historiography took some new turns. The fact that Gallagher was trained and now teaches in an English Literature department gives this volume some of its distinctive strengths and displays an alertness and sensitivity to the different textures of historical writing that historians would be unlikely to possess, let alone rival. The downside of the author’s literary background, however, is that most of the contexts she deals with are historiographical and literary rather than strictly historical; the comparisons she makes are mainly between writers and between literary and cultural traditions. This author’s chosen exemplars are not always firmly anchored in the economic, social, political and religious circumstances of their times. It is revealing that works by historians do not figure conspicuously in her bibliography; two key figures in Augustan studies, H. T. Dickinson and W. A. Speck, for example, are both absent.  G. V. Bennett’s standard work on White Kennett is also missing, as is Pat Rogers’s The Letters, Life and Works of John Oldmixon: Politics and Professional Authorship in Early Hanoverian England.[3] Conversely, the now largely superannuated old warhorse, G. M. Trevelyan’s England under Queen Anne, is accorded a place. As a general observation on Gallagher’s bibliography it is odd (to historians at least) that primary and secondary sources are lumped together in a single undifferentiated list and that in some cases the dates of publication given are those merely of reprints. J. B. Black’s The Art of History, for example, appears here with a publication date of 1965 whereas in fact it was first issued in 1926.

In closing it has to be said that Noelle Gallagher has not always been well-served by her publishers. The facsimile reproduction on page 59 of a page from the manuscript of John Evelyn’s diary is rendered pointless by being completely illegible. While on page 127 the image of James Thornhill’s allegorical painting of William and Mary presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe is so grey and indistinct that it could be anything. Only the fact that part of it is reproduced in full color high-definition on the front cover saves the day. 


R. C. Richardson
University of Winchester, UK


[1] Laird Okie, Augustan Historical Writing: Histories of England in the English Enlightenment (Lanham: UP of America, 1991).

[2] Ruth Mack, Literary Historicity: Literature and Historical Experience in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009).

[3] G. V. Bennett, White Kennet 1660-1728 Bishop of Peterborough: A Study in the Political and Ecclesiastional History of the Early Eighteenth Century;(London: S. P. C. K., 1957); Pat Rogers, ed., The Letters, Life and Works of John Oldmixon: Politics and Professional Authorship in Early Hanoverian England (Lewiston, N.Y: Edwin Mellen P, 2004).




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  • WillSadler 11 months, 1 week ago

    Very interesting reading; thank you for posting it. I love literature, and since childhood, I've been reading a lot. And when I became a student, I was very happy that there was a literature course. But it's a little bit different from just reading because we read and discuss the literature of different periods, and sometimes it can be challenging. Historical literature is pretty different, and sometimes it's pretty complicated to analyze. And when some time ago, I received a task to write on academic challenges, I chose to write on it. I also found this source , which provided examples on that theme and got more inspiration. I decided not to write on all the challenges, but only on this one, and also include how I deal with it. And I know that some of my groupmates will write the same, and it is interesting to compare the finished paper later. But I think that I just need more analytical practice, and soon it will be easier for me to work with such literature.

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Cite as:

R. C. Richardson, "Noelle Gallagher, Historical Literatures. Writing about the Past in England, 1660-1740 ," Spenser Review 44.1.15 (Spring-Summer 2014). Accessed April 19th, 2024.
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