Curio(u)s: A Miscellany of Literary Tidbits

Contributed by Christina Morin

the beggar's opera

As I was reading through the recent posts here on Pue’s Occurrences, it struck me that a blog is, for all intents and purposes, a twenty-first century equivalent of that peculiarly eighteenth-century literary form: the miscellany. In very general terms, a miscellany is, according to the OED, ‘[a] mixture, medley, or assortment; (a collection of) miscellaneous objects or items’. In literary terms, it’s ‘[a] book, volume, or literary production containing miscellaneous pieces on various subjects’. Working from this definition, my little summaries of eighteenth-century novels and review of contemporary adaptations of eighteenth century plays could be pretty accurately described as a miscellany, too – a Reader’s Digest of eighteenth-century fictional and dramatic greats (abridged). 

While I have mixed feelings about this thought, primarily owing to caution ensuing from an as yet short but somehow all too long teaching career, in this context I prefer to think, along with Samuel Johnson, that ‘[i]t is by studying the little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible’. Here, of course, I am grandly interpreting the literary précis as one of these so-called ‘little things’, and I offer forth my (admittedly highly biased) musings on eighteenth-century literature hoping first and foremost to entertain. I’d be lying, however, if I didn’t admit to being completely elated when a reader responded to my first post to say that he had actually gone out and read Castle Rackrent. (Bless you, Patrick!) So, in the interest of integrity and full disclosure, I confess that my literary soul finds great delight in the thought of inspiring in the average Pue’s Occurrences reader, if not a love of, at least a curiosity in, the eighteenth-century lit I hold dear … which, of course, in a hopefully not too pained or painful Derridean fashion, brings us back to the idea of ‘little things’. A ‘curio’, in OED speak, is ‘[a]n object of art, piece of bric-à-brac, etc., valued as a curiosity or rarity’. It is, in other words, something that inspires curiosity, and so, reader, I offer a few more thoughts on another eighteenth-century favourite in the hopes that it will similarly inspire your curiosity. 

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), referred to recently in the title of Kevin O’Sullivan’s post on August 5th, is a satirical piece of theatre aimed at underlining the corruption endemic to eighteenth-century London society. Parodying a wide variety of theatrical forms, including the Italian opera then immensely popular amongst theatre-goers, The Beggar’s Opera introduces thieves and highwaymen as its central characters. Peachum is, as his name indicates, a ringleader of sorts who earns a pretty penny ‘peaching’ on the thieves that steal for him once they’re no use to him anymore. His daughter, Polly Peachum, falls in love with and clandestinely marries the highway robber, Macheath – the play’s villain/hero – not realising that he’s already involved with the jailer’s daughter. Comedy ensues as the various characters variously burst into song, drink themselves silly, steal pocket watches and petticoats, and, most importantly, stab each other in the back. As they do so, Gay’s characters repeatedly point out, albeit humorously, how little difference there is between the thieves of London’s grimy underworld and the politicians and statesmen of London’s upper classes. Peachum, for instance, at one stage declares, ‘In one respect indeed, our employment [i.e. thievery and ‘peaching’] may be reckoned dishonest, because, like great statesmen, we encourage those who betray their friends’. Peachum goes on to dismiss the average politician – and Gay is careful to make subtle but recognisable reference to Sir Robert Walpole – who ‘thinks his trade as honest as mine’. Ultimately, the moral of the story is that corruption and vice infiltrate all classes of society and all professions – obviously, a timeless message with clear resonance for Irish society today.

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3 Responses to “Curio(u)s: A Miscellany of Literary Tidbits”

  1. Patrick Walsh Says:

    No problem Tina! I have to admit the Beggar’s Opera along with Pope’s Dunciad are also on my to be read soon list, so it looks like you might be inspiring my reading habits again… Great post btw.
    Could I also recomend to readers Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, ostensibly the story of a highwayman but also a satire on the robbing, corrupt nature of the politicians of the time, something worth considering in our current politico/economic climate perhaps?
    Is there anything else you, or other readers, can recommend on from this period dealing with corruption, finance etc., in particular I am interested in literary commentaries on the reactions to the South Sea Bubble and Walpole’s attempts to ‘skreen’ his wealthy financier friends, itself reminiscent of contemporary events!

  2. Tina Morin Says:

    Hi Patrick! Sounds like a great reading list! Jonathan Wild was actuallly a real life criminal in eighteenth-century London who became a bit of a celebrity in his day. The Beggar’s Opera and Fielding’s Jonathan Wild are just two of the works that engaged with Wild’s story while also offering commentary on contemporary society. Off the top of my head, I can’t offer too many suggestions, but let me have a think, and I’ll get back to you.

  3. Tina Morin Says:

    Sorry – I should’ve said that Gay based Macheath specifically on Wild’s story.

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