Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

11
Puritan and Provincial Englands: From
Emily Brontë to D. H. Lawrence

THOMAS CARLYLE, echoing the tones of a revivalist preacher, declared in 1845 that 'The Age of the Puritans is not extinct only and gone away from us, but it is as if fallen beyond the capabilities of memory herself … Its earnest Purport awakens now no resonance in our frivolous hearts.'1 The 'Age of the Puritans' may be said to have ended with the birth of the modern English nation in 1688, the year of John Bunyan's death as well as of the Whig triumph which Thomas Babington Macaulay and others celebrated as the 'English Revolution'.2 In Victorian England Macaulay's progressive or 'Whig' interpretation of history found at least as many adherents as Carlyle's harking-back to an epic past, yet Macaulay found it curiously difficult to shake off the memory of seventeenth-century Puritanism. His uncompleted History of England (1848–61) begins with a lengthy discussion of the 'State of England in 1685', and terminates less than twenty years later with William III's death in 1702. Looking for the beginnings of the two-party system, Macaulay suggests that the division of English politics between progressives and conservatives began with the meeting of the Long Parliament in October 1641.3

Carlyle as a young man had planned to write an essay on the Civil War and the Commonwealth as a reflection of 'some features of the national character'; what he eventually produced was his edition of The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845), a work of biography rather than history.4 The idea that history could be explained by 'character'—whether the character of individuals, a nation, or an age—was one of the great commonplaces of nineteenth-century thought. It joins political history to literary narrative, emphasizing history's relationship to the novel rather than to drama. Walter Bagehot, for example, found Macaulay's History of England too theatrical: brilliant in its portrayal of politics as spectacle, it was deficient in character analysis. For Bagehot the 'form and life' of the Civil War was that of the 'two great characters—the Puritan and the

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