The 18th century was a time of great cultural disturbance, primarily due to religious issues. The long time tensions between the state church and the Puritans finally erupted into full-blown chaos and revolt. Beginning with the beheading of King Charles I, through an intermittent ‘people’s rule’ by Cromwell and the reestablishment of the empire, a formerly complacent nation was faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The monarchy’s power was deeply entrenched within British society, yet dissatisfaction with the existing system continued to increase. The monarchy proved time and again to be more concerned with their own affairs than the lives of their subjects, and a series of incompetent leaders following Queen Elizabeth only heightened the problem. Yet can a nation cleanse itself through blood? Where can a nation turn after their leader dies at their own hands?
After the rule of Cromwell, the nation desired a stability that was not yet to come. The Cavalier Parliament epitomized how much of an impact religious issues had on the political arena. The new establishment focused on punishing Puritans and Puritan supporters. It became so extreme that clergy members were excommunicated and the Act of Conformity was declared. Such religious discrimination had not occurred since the reign of Mary, who forcefully returned the nation to Catholicism while she ruled. During her time, many people were tortured and burned as heretics. Studying these accounts, it is easy to understand how the Witch Hunts in the American colonies and the Communist scares of the 1950s could have occurred. We have a long tradition of fear and establishment terrorism.
As if there weren’t enough problems simply from ideology, plagues and other disasters added to the misery and disorder. In 1665 England was terrorized by the Bubonic Plague, and only a year later was the great Fire of London. The problems snowballed from there: more invasions, revolutions, etc.
It seems natural and fitting that a new form of writing would evolve out of new and trying times. When people are experiencing something new or going through difficult times, they want a medium to express their thoughts and sentiments. The establishment had failed them, and so they did not want to rely on antiquated, traditional forms. They wanted a new voice to embody their new values and lifestyles. The novel provided an excellent venue: it would not only entertain, but also teach and give voice to the author’s divers agendas (usually political and/or religious).