Adam Nicolson takes an intimate look at the 17th century’s diarists and letter writers and how they produced the first great age of self-depiction.
Part 1: The Written Self
Adam Nicolson traces our modern sense of self back to the time when ordinary people first took up the quill. At a time of great upheaval, writing was both a means of escape and of fighting for what you believed. Account books became confessionals, and letters weapons against the authorities. From an ambitious shepherd to a Quaker woman imprisoned for her conscience, rising literacy allowed people to re-write both the country’s future and their own.
Part 2: The Rewritten Universe
Adam Nicolson explores the 17th century’s contradictory attitudes towards the nature of reality. While a puritan struggled to accept God’s will, an early naturalist accepted nothing without testing it first. How did God work? How did the world work? What was our place within it? These questions overflow from the era’s diaries and notebooks, famous and unknown alike. Curiouser and curiouser, spreading literacy allowed explosive ideas not just to be recorded but shared, as Adam reveals the texts that rewrote our world.
Part 3: A World Re-Shaped by Writing
Author Adam Nicolson traces the roots of today’s globalised Britain to a 17th-century golden age of writing and communication. He reveals a century on the move, a time when London tripled in size and more than 200,000 people emigrated in search of work or God. And it was writing that made this new mobility possible.
Through the very words that kept them afloat in this mobile world, we meet a puritan family split asunder across an ocean, a lowly sailor able to document strange new worlds for those at home and a slave-trader laying the foundations for a new world economy. All these characters remoulded the medieval world into the one we recognise today. Their writings both reveal this turbulent world to us and helped write the change itself.