Late Seventeenth Century Writers and Modernity

        Lady Anne Halkett and Lucy Hutchinson, in addition to being excellent examples of Modern English prose writing, also illustrate attitudes and value systems which can help us understand how an important modern use of the word "modern" came into being.  In the OED it's meaning 3a. and 3b.  Look it up--it will be good for you.  Halkett, the Royalist, records her unswerving loyalty to the deposed king's heir, the duke of York, and she does so in a narrative that closely follows conventions of medieval romance.  Certainly there are some unexpected reversals--the lady rescues the duke--but the old forms are still there.  Aphra Behn's Oroonoko shares with Halkett's memoir a backward-looking reverence for the previous generation of English royalty, and a profound horror provoked by the king's execution, which Behn's protagonist's death might be said to represent.  Hutchinson, the wife of a Parliamentarian leader, stands for the acceptance of great changes as the norm, and the very fashion of her prose suggests respect for knowing what's happening on the street, for applying ethical principles to all without respect for rank, and for insisting on the people's right to determine what is good for them, rather than looking to a timeless noble authority for judgment.  She, too, looks backward with nostalgic fondness to her husband's brave invention of reasons why the people ought to resist the king's demands, and her memoir, like Halkett's, tries to control future generations' views of that now-lost past in which the Modern was forged.

        When you think like a pre-Modern, you dread fundamental change and take great comfort in cyclical renewal of old values.  When you think like a Modern, you eagerly seek change, in language, manners, dress, literature, government, social relations, and what ever else in culture that is moveable (i.e., nearly everything, in the end).  You dread the return of the old order with its traditions and its rules and its ceremonies, even though it cuts you off from your own past forever.  Hence, the birth of the Modern is not unlike Milton's allegory of Sin's painful birth from Satan's forehead--driving forward, leaving even itself behind, in its haste to be new, surprising, or even merely "different."  Think about it--when did "different" become a good thing and "sameness" a bad one?  Have you ever wished for less "difference" and more "sameness" in your life?  You're still experiencing the birth of Modernity.

        If that sounds distasteful, remember, there's no going back.  You've killed the King, remember?  (And King Tradition deserved to die, of course--divine right of kings, class determination by birth, refusal to acknowledge empirical evidence that contradicts ancient authorities, etc., etc.)  Once real faith in the inviolability of tradition has been lost, you cannot restore it.  Even for dedicated Royalists like Behn and Halkett, all that is left is nostalgia, and melancholy ("the Spleen") or depression, the hallmark psychological syndromes of the exhausting Modern pursuit of change.  You can find people who actively cultivate lives of deliberate anachronism, playing elaborate games with adopted personalities and social roles that mimic the old ways.  But these are sad and deracinated ("cut off from the root") substitutes for the comforting predictability of a living tradition.  The one pathway I know back to that lost mentality is through the study of early literature and early printed books and manuscripts.

        These are very broad, commonly held (and therefore not "quotable") generalizations about the difference between the pre-Modern and the Modern, but you can use their basic principles to generate paper theses.  The trick lies in being able to detect authors' and/or characters' attitudes toward changes in identity, social roles, social organization, etc.  What do they depend upon to guide their decisions?  Make the questions very specific and you can track what part of this cultural change the author or character reacts to or represents.  If a change causes anxiety to a traditionalist, pre-Modern mind, what kinds of change does your author most notice and why (either stated or implied) does this particular change seem so important to him/her?  If change fascinates and motivates a "Modern" mind, what kinds of change or sources of change attract the character or author you are considering?  What makes that kind of change important to him/her?

        For a second way to see the subtle effects of "modern" mentality upon traditional English culture, click here for a discussion of how "commodification" of words, labor, and people affected writers like Dryden, Swift and Congreve.