Reading the Restoration

July 3, 2013

Authored by Michael F. Suarez, S.J., Editor-in-Chief for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online and Director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia

It is difficult to imagine two authors of the same period who are more different than John Bunyan and John Wilmot, or Lord Rochester, as he is most commonly known.  Bunyan, the son of an artisan, received a rudimentary education, fought in the parliamentary army, became a Nonconformist preacher, and spent a significant portion of his adult life in jail. Rochester, whose father was a Royalist hero in the civil war, was made—at the age of ten—second earl of Rochester, Baron Wilmot of Adderbury, and Viscount Wilmot of Athlone. He studied at Oxford (receiving his M.A. at fourteen), toured the Continent, and returned home to a life of excess among the beau monde. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), one of the all-time best-selling books in English, has been translated into nearly 200 languages (read a free extract of The Pilgrim’s Progress now). After the Bible, this Christian allegory written by a tinker in prison, may well have been the most widely read book in the Anglo-American world throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In sharp contrast, Lord Rochester’s writings – despite the considerable influence they exercised on Dryden, Swift, Pope, Goethe, and Tennyson, among others – scarcely figure in the mainstream poetic canon. The frank sexuality of his poems undoubtedly drove many earlier generations of would-be readers away, but Wilmot’s singular and unwavering examinations of ageing and debility resonate poignantly in our own time.

At nearly every turn, Bunyan’s writings urge conversion of heart and soul; Wilmot’s scurrilous lampoons excite laughter and derision. Bunyan is the unswerving servant of the evangelical cause, Wilmot the troubadour of sex (both its pleasures and disappointments). Yet, upon closer examination, these two antithetical authors and their writings defy simple classification. Bunyan’s jeremiads are perhaps even more searchingly political in their social critique than Wilmot’s most mordant satires. Wilmot’s capacity for self-knowledge and scathing self-dramatization at times exceeds Bunyan’s most thoroughgoing self-indictments. Both chiefly directed their voices toward particular and predictable audiences, the minister in a steady stream of print, and the courtier through manuscripts passed from hand to hand. Perhaps inevitably, both are mostly known for a few titles, none of which is wholly representative of their respective oeuvres. Both authors abundantly repay more comprehensive scrutiny.

Wilmot, untroubled by the Christian ethos of his day, notoriously “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness” (Samuel Johnson). In a confounding turn of events, however, the sybaritic satirist apparently came to understand his licentiousness as an abridgment of true freedom, repented on his deathbed, abjured his former life, and embraced the Christian faith at the eleventh hour. So precipitate was Wilmot’s conversion, however, that many contemporaries strenuously doubted its authenticity. Bunyan, by his own account, also led a life of irreligion and immorality – albeit with far fewer opportunities for profligacy than Wilmot – throughout his later youth and early adult years. His conversion was a titanic battle that lasted nearly a decade; the outcome of that struggle forever altered the landscape of English letters. 

Understandably, Bunyan, the foot soldier in Cromwell’s New Model Army, does not appear in Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, but Wilmot’s father, the Cavalier officer renowned for his audacious loyalty to the king in the midst of near-insuperable odds, figures prominently. Written by a contemporary observer for an age when “the passion, rage and fury of this time shall be forgotten,” Clarendon’s History contains memorable portraits of many of the central actors in the civil wars. A milestone in historical writing, this best-selling work also made a major contribution to the history of scholarly publishing: the great proceeds from Clarendon’s History (which was given to the University of Oxford by his heirs) were used to build a new printing house for Oxford University Press that served as the center of its operations for nearly a century. 

The manifold riches of the Restoration – now made newly accessible in highly reliable, fully searchable, scholarly editions through Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO) – are here for your exploration. The inquisitive reader will find masterful poets: Milton, Marvell, Dryden, John Oldham, Samuel Butler, Thomas Traherne, and Matthew Prior. Here in this module of OSEO is the ready wit and entertaining dramaturgy of great playwrights: William Wycherley, Thomas Otway, Thomas Southerne, and George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham. The philosophical productions of Locke, Leibniz, and Malebranche and the writings of such innovative minds as Elias Ashmole further grace the age. Disparate as they are, Bunyan and Wilmot reflect an era that eludes easy categorization.

Every period construction necessarily promotes certain kinds of observations while obscuring others. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 has commonly been used to demarcate the early modern period (c.1500–1660) from the long eighteenth century (variously signifying 1660 to as early as 1789 or as late as 1830). Despite the heuristic uses of this routinely employed boundary, however, the literary continuities among English writings on either side of the political threshold of 1660 far outweigh whatever may be distinctive. Now that OSEO will facilitate both comprehensive reading and strategic searching across the somewhat artificially constructed fenceline of the Restoration, we may come to see the seventeenth century with fresh perspectives that may well conduce toward new research and more coherent understandings of the seventeenth century.


The Restoration module is now available on OSEO – visit the title lists page to view a complete list of titles.

You can also read a free extract of The Pilgrim’s Progress now (part of the Restoration Prose module).

Are you interested in using OSEO? Go straight in to some selected works, or watch our new how to videos. If you don't have a subscription find out how to subscribe, including to the Restoration Prose module*.

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