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Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Petit (eds.), Adventure : An Eighteenth-century Idiom. Essays on the Daring and the Bold as a Pre-modern Medium

New York : AMS Press, 2009. 343 pp. ISBN: 978-0-404-64858-9
Jeffrey Hopes
p. 280-284
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SOUPEL, SERGE, COPE, KEVIN L. and ALEXANDER PETIT eds.. – Adventure : An Eighteenth-century Idiom. Essays on the Daring and the Bold as a Pre-modern Medium. New York : AMS Press, 2009. 343 pp. ISBN: 978-0-404-64858-9

Texte intégral

1In their foreword, the editors of this volume of sixteen essays note that the meaning of the word “adventure” changed in the course of the eighteenth century, moving from the somewhat passive notion of something that happens to someone, to a more active, dynamic sense of making things happen: “Happenstance fell into the background, while grandeur, risk, and novelty entered the spotlight” (xi-xii). Whilst this is a somewhat contentious statement (adventure in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was already used to designate a commercial and business venture), it does point up those qualities which lent “adventure” its conquering and later imperial aura and which explain the appeal of adventure stories to a widening reading public. The editors rightly insist on the need to confront “the hard world of travels, speculations, explorations, confrontations, cultural exchanges, and discoveries” (xiv) which characterize the term in the eighteenth century but the majority of the essays in this collection, almost exclusively focused on British concerns, address a “softer” world of literary and often metaphorical adventures. Whilst the world of exploration, conquest and confrontation is constantly in the background, it rarely occupies centre stage, which no doubt explains why the title of the book refers to “adventure” as an idiom and a medium, a form of writing rather than an activity.

2Within these parameters, the essays proposed here have much to offer, though reading them one after the other is a somewhat disorienting experience akin to a hazardous journey through a varied and (sometimes) unpredictable landscape, from the bracing vistas of the Scottish expeditions of Boswell and Johnson and of Thomas Gray as recounted by Allan Ingram, Pierre Carboni and William Roberts, to the dense thickets of Norbert Col’s reading of Gulliver’s Travels, the watery ventures of Henry Fielding on his way to Lisbon (Andrew Varney), Lord Orford on the Fens (H.J.K. Jenkins) and the unfortunate protagonists, and indeed author, of William Falconer’s The Shipwreck (Victoria Bridges Moussaron), to the intergalactic metaphysics of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (John Baker). Discerning a common thread to these contributions is not always easy and at times the definition of “adventure” comes perilously close to “something that happens.” The division of the volume into four parts, “Adventures of the Mind,” “Adventures in Genre,” “Places of Adventure,” and “Adventure as Social Process” is itself somewhat arbitrary, and the reader in search of a coherent exploration of the place of adventure in eighteenth-century life and thought is likely to be frustrated. However, if approached as a journey offering numerous “points of view” and insights into the predominantly literary representation of adventure, there is much of interest to be found.

3I will begin at the end with James P. Carson’s essay on the black Caribs of St. Vincent, one of the few contributions to address the “hard world” of adventure referred to in the foreword and to venture beyond British shores. Adventure here is a matter of colonial encounters, commercial ventures and chance encounters which Carson pertinently contrasts with a providential world-view. But it is above all the way that such encounters (between the black Caribs from Africa, the native red Caribs and their colonial intruders) forge varied and changing senses of identity, which is at the heart of this essay. For other, fictional, encounters we turn to the narratives of Defoe and Swift, the first the subject of three contributions, the second of two. Yannick Deschamps expertly charts Defoe’s spying activities in Scotland as an agent of Robert Harley and his propagandist writing in favour of the Union, while Gerald J. Butler proposes a revisionary (or rather anti-revisionary) reading of Roxana in which he attempts to restore it to the picaresque tradition, shorn of the interpretative excretions of authorial intention and supposed irony which successive critics have applied to it. This is a salutary corrective to critical excess, even though one feels that it is only one side of a complex equation and that Defoe’s authorial moralising cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. Habib Ajroud proposes an ambitious reading of “The Economy of Adventure” in Defoe’s novels. Ajroud identifies not just the mechanics of Defoe’s adventures but above all the attractions of adventure narratives for their readers, though those previous travel narratives which founded such readerly expectations would have merited a mention.

4Jean Dixsaut’s reading of Gulliver’s urinary fire-fighting and his subsequent tortuous and largely dishonest justifications of his actions strongly suggests (though this is never made explicit) a satire on early imperial interventionism (“for the good of the natives”) and the propaganda which would increasingly surround such expeditions. Norbert Col’s reading of Gulliver explores the contradictory and ultimately irreconcilable demands of history and morals, resulting in the incapacitation of history to deliver any moral lessons whatever. Here again, the satiric import of such discursive difficulties merits further analysis.

5Two essays are devoted to James Boswell. Allan Ingram explores his typically self-conscious approach to adventuring, anticipating later recollections of joy and achievement. The mixture of spontaneity and careful planning (notably of Johnson’s “encounters”) and the interplay between Boswell’s own discovery of and adventures in London and his return, as adventurer, to his native Scotland, illustrate the subjectivity of adventure as experience. Pierre Carboni focuses his attention on Boswell’s romanticized account of the Young Pretender’s post-Culloden escape from Scotland and the piquant meeting of Samuel Johnson and Flora MacDonald. Carboni points up the contrast between the magnetic attraction that such adventures exerted on Boswell and his Hanoverian loyalties.

6Two other prominent representatives of prose fiction figure in this volume. Andrew Varney parallels Henry Fielding’s own “adventure” on his voyage to Lisbon (one of the passive variety given his vast weight and chronic ill-health) and the adventures of the text of his A Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, whilst Hélène Dachez explores “The Adventure of Sense(s) in Richardson’s Clarissa.” Here the adventure consists of the constant tension between Richardson’s description of sensual perception in all its forms and his overlaid religious condemnation of sensuality, culminating in the sensual ellipsis of the rape, one which cannot efface the aesthetic sensuality of the reading experience.

7“Adventure” is massively male-gendered, something that Guyonne Leduc’s account of Hannah Snell’s cross-dressing as a soldier in Scotland and in India both challenges and confirms. Leduc demonstrates how the hybridity of her cross-dressing and of her narrative mirror each other, though the attempt to link these narratives to Moll Flanders and Roxana is not wholly convincing. It is a pity that Snell is the only female author to figure in this collection for the courage, effort and ingenuity demanded of adventurous women often far exceeded that which men provided as a matter of course. Other cross-dressers such as Charlotte Charke or Christian Davies, travellers such as Mary Wortley Montague or Mary Wollstonecraft, and the sexual adventures of George Anne Bellamy, Lady Vane and other “scandalous” women would have merited a place in this volume.

8Male adventurers, and male authors, dominate then, and as colonial expansion gathers pace in the course of the century this domination is accentuated. Victoria Bridges Moussaron places William Falconer’s poem The Shipwreck (1762) (written during the Seven Years War) in a classical tradition tainted with nationalism and incipient romanticism. The poem’s technical details attest to a new readership attune to naval affairs, though one to whom the pathos of a hero whose death at sea follows his father’s refusal of his marriage to his fiancée provides the necessary sentimental substrate. Less grandiose are Thomas Gray’s adventures in Scotland and the Lake District as recounted in his little-known and unedited Journal, though Gray also uses the language of the sublime and anticipates later Lake District aficionados. William Roberts usefully alerts us to this neglected travel narrative. Lord Orford’s Fenland cruise in 1774 was clearly a fairly light-hearted affair though H.J.K. Jenkins points to the way Orford’s journal recounts it as if it were a major admiralty enterprise, echoing Cook’s voyages to Australia and New Zealand. Most interesting here are the simple technical details of the voyage and the way this modest excursion provides an almost ironic commentary on adventures on the high seas.

9Finally, two essays take us into the spiritual adventures of two of the century’s major poets, William Cowper and Edward Young. Elisabeth Soubrenie compares Cowper’s spiritual crisis with that of John Bunyan, but one which has opposite effects, Cowper’s despairing sense of spiritual abandonment contrasting with Bunyan’s steadfast faith in providence. John Baker takes us into the nocturnal, poetic adventures of Edward Young whose Night Thoughts are seen as displaying “the poetry and adventure of travel, and the adventure of imagination” (68). Baker’s analysis of the way this “astral voyaging” (73) is constantly reined in by the poet’s didactic purpose is both convincing and stimulating, revealing the contradiction between an almost Spinozist vision of God in nature and the strongly economic and commercial connotations of his use of the word “adventure.” Baker’s essay combines the worldly and the other-worldly dimensions of “adventure,” revealing Young as a complex avatar of Enlightenment pessimism.

10Taken as a whole these diverse essays should provoke further reflection on the way the notion of adventure in the eighteenth century embodies “the boundless energy of an age in which movement and ambition had pride of place” (327) as Serge Soupel remarks in his afterword.

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Jeffrey Hopes, « Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Petit (eds.), Adventure : An Eighteenth-century Idiom. Essays on the Daring and the Bold as a Pre-modern Medium »XVII-XVIII, 69 | 2012, 280-284.

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Jeffrey Hopes, « Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope & Alexander Petit (eds.), Adventure : An Eighteenth-century Idiom. Essays on the Daring and the Bold as a Pre-modern Medium »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 69 | 2012, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeffrey Hopes

Université d’Orléans

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