The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Books of the English 1500 to 1800 Part 5

Above the flood of pamphlets a few books stand out like landmarks, preserving the continuity of letters through this stressful period. Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici made its appearance in 1642, and in 1645 Milton's collected poems were brought out by Humphrey Moseley, then the leading publisher of that class of literature, who also issued works by Crashaw, Suckling, Herrick, and other poets. In 1650 came Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living, followed the next year by his Holy Dying; and the first edition of Izaak Walton's Oompleat Angler was published in 1653. There were also larger books, like the first volume of Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum (1655); and that tour-de-force of the English seventeenth-century press, Brian Walton's Polyglot Bible, which contains the text of the Scriptures in nine languages and was printed by Thomas Roycroft in six folio volumes in 1654-7.

In the more settled times of the Restoration literature experienced a revival. This revival was accompanied by a resuscitation of the censorship, and the Licensing Act of 1662, as administered by the active zealot Roger L'Estrange, was the most stringent measure of press control ever put into force in this country. This act, after being renewed at intervals, finally expired in 1694, and no further attempt was made to supervise the output of the press. Among the books of this time theology holds a largely preponderating place, particularly that section of it usually termed practical divinity, such as the writings of Richard Baxter and John Bunyan, and the sermons of South and Tillotson. Indeed, the Pilgrim's Progress, which made its first appearance in 1678, is more typical of the books in common circulation at that time, than, say, Wycherley's play The Plain Dealer, published in the preceding year. The pamphlet, though now occupying a less prominent position, was still much used as a vehicle for the expression of political and controversial opinion.

With the opening of the eighteenth century the world of books begins to approach modern conditions. The habit of reading was no longer confined to the limited circle of the learned and the leisured, and literature was now addressing itself to the people at large. The Tatler of 1709-11 was succeeded by The Spectator of 1711-12, which circulated in thousands and had many imitators and successors. Robinson Orusoe made its debut in 1719, and the Gentleman's Magazine was launched by Edward Cave in 1731. Richardson's Pamela, which appeared in 1740, was followed two years later by Fielding's Joseph Andrews. After these came Olarissa Barlowe (1747-8), Smollett's Roderick Random (1748), Tom Jones (1749); and the novel, thenceforth, takes a continuously increasing position in the world of books. The remarkable literary activity of this century is also noticeable in other directions. Up to 1709 the collected works of Shakespeare were accessible only in the four folio editions of 1623, 1632, 1664, and 1685; but between 1709 and 1790 there were published upwards of twenty critical editions.