Enlightenment - Queens' Old Library

The Age of Enlightenment: 18th-century English literature in Queens’ Old Library

Horace Walpole: Works (1798)



The assortment of novels, plays, essays and satires on display in this exhibition reflect some of the diversity in literary print culture that played so important a role in that cultural movement now termed the ‘English Enlightenment’. During that age an English reading public unprecedented in its size, affluence and social diversity both devoured the printed word and informed key literary developments. In the writings of Swift, Defoe, Fielding and Sterne and many others on display here we see some of these developments, perhaps the most notable being the emergence of the novel. The fact that almost all of these publications were acquired by Queens’ at around the time of their publication is significant in itself as evidence of engagement with this material by Queens’ readers.

Interestingly, around half were donated in the earlier part of the century by a dissenting cleric and a one-time fellow and Vice Chancellor of Queens’, David Hughes (1727-77). His vast and eclectic 2000-book donation to the College is nowadays remembered, if at all, for its concentration of sermons and related pamphlets that convey vividly the religious and political concerns of the day. Whilst the latter are all included in the Library’s 19th-century catalogue, it is interesting to find that the many dramatic works bearing Hughes’ mark of ownership were excluded, no doubt, on account of their worldly and scurrilous content. As a scholar and cleric, the sheer diversity of Hughes’s interests as revealed in his collection testifies to the all-encompassing thirst for reading that characterized not just him, but also his age.

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