That seventeenth century again

Following John Selden’s Table Talk, I decided to stay with the seventeenth century and read Dorothy Osborne’s Love Letters. Covering the years 1652 to 1654, when Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, they are a reminder, if nothing else, that even in moments of crisis, life continues. Marriages have to be arranged, gossip passed on, brothers assuaged and admonitions made to lovers who write short letters. These letters, written by Dorothy Osborne to William Temple in the last two years of their seven year courtship, show her to have been a woman of strong character, equally strong opinions, witty, literate, socially well-connected, who withstood the disapproval of her family so as to marry the man she loved. The very antithesis of John Selden’s life of legal documents and charters. However, having read it, I really have little idea how it helps me form a literary taste.

Had you asked a literate Roman in the last years of the Republic what defined literary taste, he would have likely told you it was the reading of Greek authors. His grandson, educated in the time of Augustus by the innovative teacher Q. Caecilius Epirota, who included Virgil’s Aeneid in his curriculum, would have told you it was by reading the Roman greats. Dorothy would have advised you to read the latest French novel while Dr Johnson would likely have thrown a copy of his Lives of the Poets at your head and told you to make a start there. Having browsed online Gladstone’s library it would appear that his idea of literary taste did not include Jane Austen.

Bennett’s literary taste, however, was broad, stretching from The Venerable Bead’s Ecclesiastical History via Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense to the modern editions added by Frank Swinnerton such as Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow. In 1938 to have read all these books would have set you back £87 18/- 6d, worth, according to, a hefty £4,380.00, using the retail price index as a reference point. Quite a sum to pay to form a literary taste. Perhaps we have lost the habit of reading widely. Bennett lists 327 authors and 562 works, all of which, I am sure, he had read. Perhaps too it is a question of time. I read on the journey into work and then in the last half hour of the day. Is it possible to form a literary taste, as defined by Bennett, keeping to this timetable? Does Dorothy Osborne fall into the category of enjoyable and interesting but not necessarily culture forming?

Questions to ponder in the future. Now it’s time to plot a hedging-your-bets coordinate of (4,5), slipping uncomfortably, once more, into Virginia Woolf territory.

Leave a comment


  1. Neil Charles

     /  January 15, 2012

    I’m very much enjoying these occasional pieces. Witty and thought provoking!

  2. Cheers J! Nice to know you’re enjoying the blog.


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