The 18th century was a period of profound literary innovation in England and other English-speaking lands and time of genuine cultural transformation. In fact, much of what we consider to be “modern” literature actually emerged in this period in one form or another, at least in a primordial sense.
Coming out of the Enlightenment, this era witnessed the rise of some of the most brilliant and influential authors the English language has ever known. In this post, I’ll delve into the lives and works of my personal pick for the five best authors of the 18th century, exploring their contributions to literature, their notable works, and some trivia about their lives.
- Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
J Swift, as he’s known among cool guy lit-heads, has to be my number one. This Irish satirist, essayist, and poet is best known for his sharp wit and scathing social commentary. Born in Dublin, Swift’s literary career spanned the late 17th and early 18th centuries, making a truly lasting impact on English literature. He’s #1 with a bullet because his writing helped define the genre of satire and still packs a punch today. A Modest Proposal remains the gold standard for satire, an art that has only gained importance as it’s become increasingly difficult to pull off in a world gone mad.
- “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726): This satirical novel, often classified as a work of fantasy, follows Lemuel Gulliver’s fantastical journeys to imaginary lands. Through these travels, Swift offers critical commentary on his time’s politics, society, and human nature.
- “A Modest Proposal” (1729): A brilliant satirical essay suggesting that impoverished Irish families should sell their infants as a source of food and income for the wealthy, highlighting the harsh reality of colonialism and class disparity.
- Swift’s pseudonym “Lemuel Gulliver” is derived from the Hebrew meaning “My God is perfect.”
- He had a complex relationship with his Irish heritage, often exploring themes of Irish identity and English colonization in his works.
- Jane Austen (1775–1817)
OK, I know what you’re thinking– most of Jane Austen’s most well-known works were published in the early 19th century. That’s true, but her influence on English literature was shaped during the late 18th century, and she started publishing around the turn of the century. You may say I’m cheating by including her, but she’s one of my favorite authors from any century and deserves her place on this list! I honestly can’t imagine a world without Jane Austen.
- “Pride and Prejudice” (1813): This novel is a masterpiece of wit and social commentary, focusing on the themes of marriage, class, and societal expectations. The complex relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy remains iconic in literary history.
- “Sense and Sensibility” (1811): Austen’s exploration of the contrasting personalities of the Dashwood sisters offers insights into the balance between practicality and emotion.
- Austen initially published her works anonymously, referring to them as “the work of a lady.”
- Her writing often highlighted the limited options available to women regarding education and marriage during the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
Samuel Johnson, an English writer and lexicographer, is often called the “father of the modern dictionary.” His lasting contributions to literature and language made him a central figure in 18th-century English literary circles.
This guy literally wrote the dictionary, so he’s got to be on this list, and I think #3 is a good place for him. His books don’t have the lasting recognition the way Austen or Swift’s works do, but c’mon, he practically invented dictionaries.
- “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755): Johnson’s monumental dictionary was the first comprehensive and systematic attempt to define and standardize the English language. It contained over 40,000 entries, along with quotations from prominent authors to illustrate word usage.
- “The Rambler” (1750–1752): A series of 208 essays that covered a wide range of topics, showcasing Johnson’s moral and philosophical insights.
- Johnson’s famous definition of a lexicographer in his dictionary: “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.”
- He was known for his witty remarks and conversational prowess, which earned him a place in the literary club “The Club,” which included other notable writers like Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke.
- Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Like Swift, Alexander Pope was a prolific poet and satirist celebrated for his skillful use of the heroic couplet and his biting wit. His works are known for their philosophical depth and commentary on society. It’s interesting how important satire was to the 18th century, it was a time when the unelected lorded over their charges, and perhaps the only way to get away with a strong critique was through the satirical essay and book,
- “The Rape of the Lock” (1712): A mock-heroic narrative poem that humorously addresses a real-life incident involving the theft of a lock of hair. This work blends satire and elevated language to comment on the frivolity of high society.
- “An Essay on Man” (1733–1734): A philosophical poem that explores the nature of humankind’s place in the universe, touching on themes of ethics, reason, and theodicy.
- Pope was afflicted with Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that stunted his growth and left him with a hunchbacked appearance.
- He was known for his sharp-tongued literary feuds and satirical writings that targeted various figures in the literary and political worlds.
- Samuel Richardson (1689–1761)
If you like novels, you ought to thank Samuel Richardson. While he isn’t the first or even the greatest novelist, he is generally considered one of the most important pioneers of the novel form in English. His epistolary novels and innovative narrative techniques laid the groundwork for developing the novel as a literary genre. He also loved to write about sex, which he did in a roundabout way because of his times, but you can imagine had he lived later on, he might have explored more explicit forms of literature.
- “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded” (1740): One of the earliest novels in the English language, “Pamela” is a series of letters written by the protagonist that chronicles her struggles against the advances of her employer. The novel explores themes of social class, virtue, and the role of women in society.
- “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady” (1747–1748): Another epistolary novel, “Clarissa” is a tragic tale of a virtuous woman’s struggles against societal norms and a scheming libertine.
- Richardson’s novels were praised for their ability to elicit strong emotions from readers, and they had a significant influence on the development of the novel as a form.
- He corresponded with many prominent literary figures of his time and was known for his supportive and mentoring relationships with fellow authors.