Thomas Keymer

Thomas Keymer’s Poetics of the Pillory was reviewed in the LRB of 16 April. Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics is due in July.

John Keats​ went walking in the Lake District in June 1818. It was the first decent summer since the eruption of an Indonesian volcano three years before had tipped postwar Europe into a crisis of failed harvests, mass hunger and widespread social unrest. In Britain, Lord Liverpool’s government had suspended Habeas Corpus; Luddite organisers, revolutionary Spenceans and radical...

Johnson and Boswell’s Club

Thomas Keymer, 10 October 2019

The Turk’s Head​ isn’t the kind of name you’d choose for a pub these days, though there’s still one in Wapping, and another in Twickenham. The famous Turk’s Head was in Gerrard Street in Soho, a precinct first laid out under Charles II, popular with authors and artists from the start (Dryden moved to Gerrard Street in 1687 while still poet laureate), and by the...

Thomas Love Peacock

Thomas Keymer, 8 February 2018

Marilyn Butler​, whose Peacock Displayed was published in 1979, wasn’t the first to connect Peacock’s name with the showy wit of his satires. It started with Shelley, his friend and patron, who joked in 1820 about ‘the Pavonian Psyche’ (pavo: peacock), as though Peacock himself had the kind of name that he specialised in giving to his characters. In the seven novels...


Thomas Keymer, 16 August 2017

You could​ say that in literature you don’t really have a genre until you have a name for it – and the word ‘autobiography’, it turns out, hasn’t been around for very long. In 1786, the labouring-class poet Ann Yearsley (‘Lactilla’, from her day job selling milk) published a memoir in which she berated her patron, the evangelical abolitionist Hannah...

The Tonsons

Thomas Keymer, 4 May 2016

Who​ invented English literature? English literature, that is, as a conceptual category defined by canon and tradition? The 18th century has provided most of the candidates. There were opinion formers like Joseph Addison, who airbrushed out Milton’s regicidal politics, or David Garrick, who turned Shakespeare from upstart crow into national bard; there were theoreticians of...

Frances Burney

Thomas Keymer, 26 August 2015

When​ Frances Burney’s journals were published by her niece in a seven-volume series of highlights (Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, 1842-46), they were savaged by John Wilson Croker in the Tory Quarterly Review. Hatchet jobs were Croker’s speciality: it was his review of Endymion that Byron joked was the cause of Keats’s death in Don Juan (‘’Tis...

Jonathan Swift

Thomas Keymer, 16 April 2014

Swift once said​ his favourite writer was La Rochefoucauld, ‘because I found my whole character in him.’ But what did he mean? Not, surely, that he personally resembled a Grand Siècle courtier who prided himself on – among other incongruous attributes – mild passions, virtuous sentiments and flawless social polish. If it was in La Rochefoucauld’s writing,...

Orientalist Jones

Thomas Keymer, 9 May 2013

Sir William Jones, the Enlightenment polymath who established the shared origins of Indo-European languages and cultures, certainly didn’t lack a capacity for big vision. But he was also keen on details, with no time for broad-brush talk about the seven ages of man. He was 47 – still in Jaques’s fifth age (‘And then the justice … with eyes severe’) –...

Eliza Haywood

Thomas Keymer, 3 January 2013

Alexander Pope’s slur has loomed for centuries over the reputation of Eliza Haywood, the most prominent female author of her day. In The Dunciad, she is the prize of a pissing competition held between talentless hacks:

  Who best can send on high The salient spout, far-streaming to the sky; His be yon Juno of majestic size, With cow-like udders, and with ox-like eyes.


18th-Century Jokes

Thomas Keymer, 2 August 2012

Compassion was invented in the 18th century, or so the story goes. Sensibility and sympathy were the wellspring of benevolent action and the glue of society (Adam Smith). There were no qualities more admirable ‘than beneficence and humanity … or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others’ (David Hume). Fashionable poems deplored slavery and child labour, and wrung...

Cough up: Henry Fielding

Thomas Keymer, 20 November 2008

‘There are certain Mysteries or Secrets in all Trades from the highest to the lowest, from that of Prime Ministring to this of Authoring,’ Fielding announces with mock pomposity in Joseph Andrews. In a work published just days after the fall from office of Sir Robert Walpole – ‘prime minister’ in a sense that had no constitutional legitimacy at the time, and...

The Unspeakable Edmund Curll

Thomas Keymer, 13 December 2007

Samuel Johnson would not have had the term ‘Curlism’ in mind when he expressed regret that, even as his dictionary was being printed, ‘some words are budding, and some falling away.’ Yet it is a good enough instance of the shifts that Johnson deplored. ‘Bowdlerism’ still survives in the vocabulary of publishing to denote prudish expurgation; Curlism, which...

You can’t prove I meant X

Clare Bucknell, 16 April 2020

When poets or printers weren’t clever enough with their ambiguities and disguises, the law moved in. Until the second quarter of the 19th century, those convicted of seditious libel – or obscene...

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The Unpolished Pamela

John Mullan, 12 December 2002

Samuel Richardson’s account of a servant girl’s defence of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious master (‘Mr B’), given in her own letters, made what we now...

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