Everyday Life and the Eighteenth Century

Christina Lupton, University of British Columbia



The aim of this course, which I taught for the first time in 2005, was to introduce students to historical documents (diaries and autobiographies), fiction, and theory as distinct but related ways of describing eighteenth-century life. I wanted the students to come away from the course feeling that they had gained a sense of what life was like for different groups of people in the eighteenth century while keeping in sight the kinds of documents they were relying upon to give them insight. As a literature course, I also wanted the seminar to explicitly explore the questions of literature’s relationship to history through questions of form as well as content—my hope was that by the end of the course students would be able to express in their own terms the argument that fictional accounts of history might be truer than autobiographical ones, and to articulate some version of the dialectical relationship between reality and its representation.



I taught this class as an upper level majors seminar of 17 students in a department where most students will have had no exposure to classes smaller than 40 before their graduating year. Many of the English majors in my department also see themselves as less-than-serious students, with the more diligent of their peers being streamed early on into our successful honors program. Although all our majors must complete one course in eighteenth-century literature over the course of their degree, few of them specialize in a period and most of them have little or no idea about the eighteenth century (or any other period) in its historical specificity. The format I designed for this class was therefore aimed at bringing the students quickly up to speed on seminar-style discussion, and on providing them efficiently (i.e., in easily readable forms) with a great deal of digestible information about eighteenth-century customs and material practices that would equip them for later discussions and papers.



The readings for this course were paired, with many sets of two offering a seemingly straightforward example of fiction as the counterpart of a “history” in the form of an autobiography or diary. Evelina was paired, for instance, with Burney’s Diaries (now available in a very teachable Broadview edition), and Moll Flanders with Journal of the Plague Year. Students also read the dry and seeming factual diary of Thomas Turner next to Boswell’s obviously literary London Journal. As these combinations suggest, the syllabus itself invoked, as well as complicated, the idea that different kinds of texts offer true and fictional counterpoints to each other. Its chronology meant that students did much of the work of confusing these categories right at the beginning of the course, with Journal of the Plague Year already making it difficult to distinguish between literature and history, and by mid-way through the course students tended to call on these kinds of distinctions in more nuanced ways.

Of all the readings, Turner’s Diary is the least obviously pleasurable, with its seemingly endless repetition of details about money and diet, but it was probably the most interesting on the reading list pedagogically. Students came eager to disclaim the text as repetitive and pedantic, but they were clearly fascinated by what such barren descriptive ground concealed and revealed, and they could see the way Turner relies on factual language more than facts. An upshot of having such a non-literary reading on a literature course was that it prompted good discussions, in class and in the papers, about the nature of “the literary” in Boswell’s writing. As a pair of texts, these two were probably the most successful in allowing students to generate their own conclusions about the nature of representation while also making two very different kinds of eighteenth-century experience evident to them. Despite the distaste most students showed for this diary, many ended up choosing to write on it.

The last two readings on the syllabus were Wollstonecraft’s’ A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, which I paired because both use autobiography together with lines of political argument. This allowed us to continue thinking about the way individuals represent experience as motivated in different ways, while also giving students a glimpse of Britain as a empire and a country secure in its global outlook. By the end of the course, students were able to talk about these texts in terms of the real limits and possibilities given to eighteenth-century subjects, and to think about the discursive strategies involved in the writing of autobiography as a practice of social critique.



The most successful aspect of this course was its format. We met once a week on Wednesdays for two hours, giving students a whole week for each of the major readings. On or before Tuesday night, the students were asked to “post” a one page response to the readings on the class website. These postings were popular with the students – they read other class members’ contribution, responded to many of them, and often “posted” twice in one evening. At the beginning of each week and on the same website, I provided a set of two or three questions designed to serve as optional prompts to the postings and to encourage further reading. These, for instance, were the questions the students were given as prompts for their postings on Turner’s Diary:


Does Turner seem to warrant analysis as an individual? To what extent does his life seem like the life of a character? Does it have a trajectory in the way that other lives we’ve read about do or is it more cyclical?


In the community that Turner describes there is a strict adherence to hierarchy. To what extent does this represent a field of stability and to what extent of progress? How might the category of ‘hierarchy’ allow us to refine the category of ‘class’ and the novelty of the literature recording class as intimately bound up with the life of individuals and their advancement ?


What does the space that is represented here feel like? From what position is it seen and experienced? How does the reality of country life play into or conflict with images of the English countryside and its lifestyle?


A reviewer of the journal (in JSTOR: The English Historical Review, Vol 102, No 404, Jul 1987, 727-728) writes “here is a world in which friendship, marriage and commercial dealings fit together to protect and expand upon a small fortune. However, it is not a world based primarily on the primitive accumulation of capital, but rather on a careful use of a range of practices, some old, like barter with small farmers or family apprenticeship, some new, like the use of specialized London…wholesale trade” (728). Does this correspond with your sense of economy expressed in the journal, and, if so, what does this say about Turner as an economic individual in the sense of Moll, Boswell, etc?


I stipulated at the very beginning of the course that students were free to re-use material from their postings in their final essay, for which they would have to devise their own topic.

The most innovative part of the course format was that every third week there was no new assigned reading—instead we met and discussed the “pair” of readings that we had read over the two previous weeks. This gave students an opportunity for revisiting their earlier reading in a way that is rare in undergraduate courses, and it was generally these weeks of revisiting and comparing the readings that produced the best discussion. Students still had to do their “postings” on these weeks, so they were being asked to engage actively in comparison of the texts before class met, but because they had no new primary reading they had more time in which to prepare for class. Here are the questions on Wollstonecraft and Equiano:


To what extent do Wollstonecraft and Equiano share the ideals of either Enlightenment or Romanticism? How do these two periods come into focus or blur through these two texts?


Despite his own position as the object of commerce and trade, Equiano has no qualms about he spread of market capitalism. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, does. How do these two argument stand up to each other?


The eighteenth century is, among other things, the time when the nation state emerged, making something like national identity possible (see, for instance, the introduction and first chapter of Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson). Do Equiano, Wollstonecraft (or for that instance, Burney) suggest that national identity provided a meaningful way for people to understand themselves?


Wollstonecraft and Equiano introduce such different subject positions to the literary landscape – the universal subject with his imperial vantage point seems less and less likely to serve in the case of such authors – and yet it is these two authors who are in many ways most wedded to such a position. What do you make of this paradox?


These “free” weeks were also the weeks in which student presentations took place. They presented in pairs, assigned at the beginning of the course. Their assignment as presenters was to talk for 10-15 minutes about a way of comparing or connecting the two texts we’d read in the preceding weeks by way of a third perspective, historical or theoretical. This required the students presenting (4 on any of these presentation days) to prepare hard by doing extra reading of their choice.

In these weeks, as in others, my role as seminar leader included minute taking. I posted the minutes of each discussion to the class website a day or two after class, and students were able to look back over the topics of our discussions. This was quite an interesting exercise: though by no means central to the course content it was part of the infrastructure that allowed students to use those third “free” weeks as a time of revision and extra reading in the most profitable way. Offering summaries of the class discussion from previous weeks meant that they were able to see developing lines of argument and to revisit their own contributions to discussion as thoughts they wanted to follow-up through elective reading on that third week.


Secondary Reading

Theories of everyday life and of the subject were definitely an important part of this course, but I did not foreground them as part of the reading. As my posting questions and presentation assignment suggest, I tended to direct students to a range of secondary texts on their “free” weeks, often assigning questions that invited them to look at chapters from Foucault, Goffman, E.P. Thompson, or Bachelard. Although this way of introducing theories of everyday life risked a lack of rigor, it had the advantage that students had little time to become daunted by theory but had instead to put these complex texts to work immediately, and somewhat instrumentally, in the service of their own arguments. In preparing the class I put a whole selection of texts on reserve in the library and I used my role as seminar leader to give short presentations on these texts when it seemed appropriate to the primary reading. I spoke, for instance, about Foucault and the Panoptican in the context of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, and then about de Certeau’s critique of Foucault in respect to Moll Flanders as a character, and the novel as a genre resistant to some of Foucault’s categories of control. My list of secondary texts was included on the syllabus (below). Although many students also used articles, called up electronically, I found that having this strong sample of books on reserve, and having the weeks in which reading was not actually assigned, worked to get students into the library a bit, away from the close-readings that articles offer, and into terrain where they found opportunities put relatable but not directly related books to work with their primary readings.



Everyday Life and the Eighteenth Century

English 490: Section 003 (Winter 2005)


Meeting Time : Wednesday 1- 3

Location: BUCH D 305

Instructor: Christina Lupton

Office: Buchanan Tower 426, Ph. 228 2358

e-mail : clupton@interchange.ubc.ca

Office Hours: Wed 10-11 and by appointment


Required Texts:

Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders(1722)*

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Thomas Turner, Diary of Thomas Turner (1754-65)

James Boswell, London Journal (1762-63)

Fanny Burney, Journals (1768-1839)* and Evelina (1778)*

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)*

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1795)


*These four texts are available in the bookshop as a package of four for the price of three in the excellent Broadview editions.


Secondary texts (on 2 day reserve)

Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (good with Moll Flanders)

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol 1.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Cultural Critique , Vol 52 (on Everyday Life) available as e-journal

Ian Watt, Rise of the Novel

EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (good with Thomas Turner)

Cynthia Wall, Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (includes good chapters on Sewers and Street life)

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Patricia Meyer Spacks, Imagining a Self: autobiography and novel in eighteenth-century England(good on Boswell)

Kristina Straub, Divided Fictions : Fanny Burney and Feminine Strategy

Julia Epstein, The Iron Pen: Frances Burney and the Politics of Women's Writing

John Barrell, An Equal Wide Survey

Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (on Turner)

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes (perhaps alongside Wollstonecraft)



1st Essay: 20% (5 pages)

2 nd Essay: 40% (8 pages)

Web CT discussion entries 20% due every Tuesday by 10pm

Presentation 10%

Participation and attendance 10%


Course Schedule



7 th Sep: Introduction; Writing exercise; generate reading questions.

14 th Sep: Moll Flanders; assign presentation groups – please e-mail by Monday if you have a preferred presentation partner.

21 st Sep: Journal of the Plague Year

28 th Sep: Moll Flanders and Journal of the Plague Year; groups 1 and 2

3 rd Oct: First Papers due, 4pm in the English Office



5 th Oct: Boswell, London Journal

12 th Oct: Thomas Turner, Diary

19 th Oct: Boswell and Turner; groups 3 and 4



26 th Oct: Burney’s Diaries

2 nd Nov: Evelina

9 th Nov Burney’s Diaries and Evelina; groups 5 and 6



16 h Nov: Equiano

23 rd Nov: A Short Residence

30 th Nov: Equiano and A Short Residence; groups 7 and 8


Final papers due on Dec 9th




Your entries should be about 1 page long and should focus on the reading for that week. They are due at the very latest by 10pm on the night before the seminar. If you look closely at one passage or section, make sure you give a page reference. The entries will be available for everyone to read and I will use them when preparing for that week’s discussion. At the end of the course, I will assign a grade to your entries as a series of 12.


The WEB CT page will contain not only your readings, but a list of reading questions for each novel, and a summary of each week’s seminar. These summaries should be useful for future postings, revision, and paper topics. I will be responsible for putting each of these up – the reading questions for each text will be up one week before it is due to be discussed, and the summaries with 48 hours of the seminar.



Every third week will be a presentation class. This means that two groups will be responsible for leading the discussion, one group in each half of the seminar. The presentations should take up no more than 10 minutes but presenters should be prepared to carry through their ideas, ask and answer questions, etc over the course of the hour. Because the presentations will not be introducing new primary material, I expect them to significantly develop either a comparison of the two texts and to introduce new secondary material pertinent to the reading. The secondary readings on reserve are intended to be helpful in this regard. These presentations will be graded with the same grade given to all members of the group.



There will be no topics for your final papers, so you need to take responsibility for carving out an area of interest for yourself as the course progresses, and talking to me about this well before the end of term.



In Practice

The success of this course was most evident in the engaged atmosphere of the seminars, and in the highly original papers that students wrote, many of which went on to win prizes in the Department last year. I think of its success having been the result of the fairly long but pleasurable weeks of new reading broken up by the weeks of revisiting these readings with specific questions about method in mind. I also remember several animated discussions between joint History-English majors and advocates of the novels from which we all learnt a lot. My sense, having come away from the course and read the evaluations, is that students were genuinely grateful to be asked to ask questions about what makes fiction fictional, and to be given the chance to read things like Boswell’s London Journal (which they love, of course) with these questions of its relation to reality squarely on the table. Modest though the number of texts I assigned for this course was, I also think it was the right number, and I had the feeling that students did as much reading as they ever do for a course with this reading list as their starting place.