Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Pleasures of the Imagination

BrewerThis book by John Brewer (a reissue from its 1997 incarnation) is a monster. It’s a huge, magnificently illustrated and pleasingly well produced slab of a book on eighteenth-century British cultural history. It’s very, very readable. It’s also very heavy, and produced in a largish format that, with its length, makes it just a bit too heavy to hold comfortably in one’s hands while one tries to maintain the right distance between the type and one’s eyes. I was reading this most of the time in bed, or with the book resting on a fat cushion on my lap.

But I really wanted to keep reading, discomfort or not, because this history book is now, for me, the last word on how British literary culture changed between the last days of the early Modern period and the really Modern period of the Victorian age. We move from Charles II to the Prince Regent, from Milton to Byron, from periwigs and tumbling skirts to naturally ruffled hair above stocks and cravats. There is also a great deal about painting, prints, the world of art, and of course the stage. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is tackled several times: it was the theatre phenomenon of the age. But the real value of this book lies in the beautifully described cultural and social events, movements, fashions and facts that changed history. This book is the epitome of history as process, and if Michael Gove doesn’t like that, he’s unfit to be in charge of the UK’s history teaching.

Here’s a fact that nearly made me drop the book: (did you know this? I didn’t) from 1737 it was illegal to act on a stage for money in the whole of Britain, except for two licensed theatres in London, for the rest of the century. No wonder David Garrick was the actor of the age, because he had those two theatres tied up nicely. The theatre-loving populace had to watch him, or watch operas (pricey then as now), or watch a play performed surreptitiously elsewhere and risk the actors being arrested and hanged. What does that do to a country’s theatrical culture, or the art of acting?

Challenging top-down control was common to many of the changes that John Brewer describes here. The court of Charles II controlled what people would want to watch or read, because the court controlled fashion. Forty years later, the courts of the Hanoverian Georges had very little say in what the people read or watched, because by the 1720s the people were deciding for themselves. Coffee-houses, newspapers, clubs, societies, pleasure gardens, concert halls, print shops and subscription novels democratised culture so practically, in perpetuity. The 1737 Licensing Act was an attempt to control the stage, but there were many other means to enjoy aesthetic entertainment that the government did not approve of; among which were revivals of The Beggar’s Opera, and its multifarious spin-offs and merchandise (my favourite is the pack of playing cards giving the words to the hit songs).

a scene from The Beggar's Opera (John Gay)

a scene from The Beggar’s Opera (John Gay)

Brewer divides his book into sections about genre, on Print, Paint, and Performance, in which stories of how the opera singer and the caricaturist operated in different forms wander in and out of the narrative.  The last three sections, on ‘Making a National Heritage’, ‘Province and Nation’ (with case studies of the inevitable Lichfield,  which spawned Dr Johnson, David Garrick, and the intimidatingly cultured Anna Seward; Thomas Bewick, he of the book of birds that so ravished the childhood imagination of Jane Eyre; and the composer John Marsh), and the short but sonorous ‘Britain’, tackle the century from a different angle, taking in all the arts at once from the perspective of the people who gobbled them up.

Buy this book if you are a school librarian: it’s definitely within the scope of fourteen year olds and older, and is general enough for them to connect up things they will already know, while opening up new vistas of what makes history. Buy this book if you are a novelist specialising in the eighteenth century: it’ll give you a lot of excellent angles and ideas, and pointers to resources. Borrow this book from your library if you have a long wet holiday ahead (possibly roaming through eighteenth-century stately homes?), but only if you don’t have to carry your baggage. And give this book as a present to your favourite amateur historian: they will love you for it.

John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination. English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), £35.00, ISBN 978-0-415-65885-0

Kate podcasts about the books that make her go WOW, on

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

6 comments on “The Pleasures of the Imagination

  1. Truehobbit Monika
    June 6, 2013

    Kate, do you think this book is also for the non-amateur historian? The title sounds like just my kind of thing (I had vague plans for a PhD on 18th c. English mentality once 😀 ), even if it’s very general – the question is, do you find it based on sound scholarly work? 🙂

  2. Kate
    June 6, 2013

    Oh it is, absolutely! Brewer is a seriously eminent academic historian, blessed with the gift of writing sensibly for the non-academic reader for pleasure. Or else he has a fantastic editor whom he obeys. This book is apparently a classic of its kind, reissued again even more lavishly.

  3. Miss Bibliophile
    June 6, 2013

    You’ve sold me. Onto the To Read list it goes….though maybe not the best choice to pack in my beach bag 🙂

  4. Jackie
    June 6, 2013

    This sounds really interesting, I’m especially curious about the Art parts. Here in the U.S., we tend to concentrate on the latter decades of that century, so it would be great to learn more about the earlier years.
    Wonder if this is available in ebook format? It would be a lot easier to handle on my Nook. 😉

  5. Truehobbit Monika
    June 10, 2013

    Thanks, Kate! 😀

  6. CFisher
    July 4, 2013

    I wonder where this would fit into Gove’s plans to reform the teaching of history in schools. I suppose the the glib answer (does that make it any less true?) is that it doesn’t. So, a good reason to buy the book, I’d say.

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