The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain, by Penelope J. Corfield
Yale University Press, 2022
Compared to their more sober-sided nineteenth century descendants, the Georgians can seem like vaguely parodic characters in some long-running eighteenth century sitcom, complete with powdered wigs and hilariously nasty habits. All rollicking good fun until the Victorians loom up to make everything dour, genteel, and musty. But does that tally with the facts? The title of Penelope Corfield’s book, highlighting the “Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th Century Britain,” does make that era sound like an extended saucy romp in which a fatuous and morally lackadaisical nation lurched its way through successive decades of knockabout depravity. However, for those who have bought Corfield’s book hoping to revel in a salacious feast of eccentric impropriety, the disappointing news is that the title seems to have been chosen with an eye to attracting passing trade rather than as a pithy summation of the contents. Instead, what The Georgians offers is an extensive thematic overview of the age in question, attempting to summon up several key aspects of the world that confronted our eighteenth century ancestors. In the process, the author’s propensity to draw significant parallels between aspects of the Georgian age and our present society does occasionally grate, and eventually becomes more of an affectation than an engaging way of keeping the reader interested. That small quibble aside, there is much here to relish in Corfield’s wide-ranging knowledge of her subject.
Although it is always a dubious strategy to retrospectively compartmentalise history into finite eras, Corfield makes a convincing case for the onset of the eighteenth century as a watershed (of sorts) in how the British nation came to understand its collective identity. Perhaps a key factor in this process was the merging of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707 to form the legislative body known as the Kingdom of Great Britain, as emblematised by the figure of Britannia, although the extent to which individuals in far-flung parts of this kingdom identified as ‘Britons’ is debatable. Indeed, identity --in terms of whether the average person thought of themselves as a Georgian, with all the connotations now associated with the name-- is a question about which Corfield makes some interesting observations in the preliminary section of her book.
From there, we are escorted into eighteenth-century Britain and presented with some thought-provoking facts: the average height was five feet five inches for men and five feet one inch for women; smallpox was an endemic chronic disease; rotten teeth were rife; and French Huguenots represented the single biggest influx of migrants throughout the period (which sparked the usual weary balderdash about the degeneration of British society). Alongside such worldly woes, a miasma of spiritual angst was in the air, a result of the ripples of outrage provoked by the 1689 Acts of Toleration, which allowed the average God-fearing Christian some measure of consumer choice in deciding on a suitable religious sect. This caused great anxiety amongst certain clergymen, who saw it as the thin end of the wedge that would inexorably lead to all sorts of turpitude or, as one evangelical reformer put it, “We have dexterously preached the people into downright infidelity.”
On the obverse side of such gloomy societal misgivings, Georgian culture often seemed to revel in what Lawrence Sterne defined as “this age of levity,” as a perusal of Sterne’s bewilderingly wonderful Tristram Shandy will reveal. Indeed, the Georgians (or at least those whose voices we can still experience in print) seem to have been big on evoking their times in pithy plaudits, characterising it as “an age of refinement and luxury,” “an age of gallantry and gaiety,” “the age of pleasure,” and, as a grand finale, “an age of the greatest light and knowledge that has been for above these twelve hundred years” --all of which seems endearingly chipper. A general feeling of significantly accelerated cultural enlightenment seems to have prevailed in the public sphere. Great strides in science and philosophy were acknowledged, with no less than Jeremy Bentham proclaiming that “we live in a busy age in which knowledge is rapidly advancing towards perfection.” This view was echoed by Mary Wollstonecraft, herself an icon of feminist advancement in the Georgian period: “this spirit of enquiry is the characteristic of the present century.” Meanwhile that key figure of eighteenth century science, Joseph Priestley, warned that despots who sought to hold back the tidal wave of progress in order to preserve their archaic privileges should rightly “tremble even at an air pump or an electrical machine.” Indeed, the sense of working towards the banishment of the choleric darkness that had beset earlier centuries in order to shed new light upon the world of human experience had its substantive correlate in the introduction of oil-fired street lamps, followed in the 1790s by gas lamps, which lit up townscapes across Britain in hitherto unimaginable ways.
In contrast to the broad-brush sloganeering by which the Georgians sought to describe their age, Corfield proceeds to dig down into the reality of their daily lives. Unlike earlier eras in which the domestic dwelling was often shared by an extended group of relatives, the Georgian period saw a shift to smaller groupings of kindred living together, which would foster the idea of a “stable family sanctum” as the preferred image to display to the world: an early example of the nuclear family. Whereas hitherto marriage-worthy partners had been largely selected by their respective parents, potential spouses were now more likely to be sized up by the eligible bachelor or maiden in question, in order to satisfy social expectations of what engineering a ‘good marriage’ entailed. Having said that, the evidence is that by and large such matches appear to have played out in the all-too-familiar arrangement of the husband controlling the purse strings whilst his wife ran the household, in an age when, under common law, a husband was legally permitted to physically chastise his wife, albeit within the bounds of so-called ‘reasonableness.’
In terms of intimate personal relationships, as Corfield points out, “the Georgians' open preoccupation with sexual matters was sufficiently distinctive that it later prompted a degree of middle-class backlash from the mid-nineteenth century.” In the titles of such popular 1730s tracts as A Nuptial Dialogue Between a Pert Young Lady and an Old Fumbling Libertine, the Georgian Age in all its bawdy irreverence swims into view. The truth behind the stereotypical lasciviousness was that there does appear to have been a marked increase in sexual liberation for men and women alike, dependent, of course, on whether socioeconomic circumstances allowed. This was the era of the legendary libertines, famous royal mistresses, and the bizarrely named ‘Monks of Medmenham’ who frequented the Hell Fire Club, a distinctly seedy gathering of like-minded individuals who indulged in a series of drunken orgies with some token paganism thrown in. Whilst eagle-eyed moralists continued to condemn the very idea of same-sex relationships, in practice a tacit sense of toleration prevailed as long as discretion was observed. This unspoken acceptance of those who lived outside the normative boundaries of conventional sexuality was probably most genteelly encapsulated in the lesbian relationship between Eleanor Ponsonby and Sarah Butler, the much-feted ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ who contentedly co-habited for fifty years.
A rise in literacy rates may have had a significant impact on the reappraisal of social conventions. In reaction to the burgeoning print culture, conservative voices expressed concerns about the dangers of allowing the poor access to new worlds of knowledge, lest they should get ideas above their station. Furthermore, allowing women greater educational opportunities could only overtax the female brain. Nevertheless the Georgian hoi polloi, men and women alike, defiantly insisted upon reading for pleasure and instruction. Reading aloud (especially newspapers), whether to a domestic group or in a coffee house setting, was a popular pastime, whilst the rise of subscription libraries catered to the solitary reader. In an age when booksellers often profitably doubled as publishers, literary reviews also rose in popularity amongst an increasingly lettered population. The educational benefits of spreading formal instruction in numeracy also contributed to the country’s economic and social transfiguration.
Such advances took place in the context of a political system which confined the monarchy to a more strictly ceremonial and constitutional role than hitherto: the last British king to appear in the field of war was George III (at Dettingen, Bavaria, in 1743). This allowed the king’s ministers to become “the de-facto heads of the executive, they were the ‘secret’ kings, below the throne but actually heading the government.” This power shift in the nation’s constitutional checks and balances allowed leading politicians to play a more dominant role in overseeing the country’s fortunes, thus setting the stage for the three longest unbroken premierships in the nation’s history (those of Walpole, Lord Liverpool, and Lord North). Not that the Tories and their enduring adversaries, the Whigs, presided over a peaceable domain now that a political settlement was being forged which side-lined monarchy’s autocratic instincts. There was little sense of an irenic national destiny in an age when the American Revolution exposed the mother country’s precipitously arrogant attitude to its colonists, whilst back at home the danger of French revolutionary-style insurrection stirred up a volatile feeling of panic amongst the ruling class.
Public debate about the government’s approach to national and international issues coincided with, and was enabled by, the appearance of more and more newspapers, alongside parliamentary reports by journalists who came to see themselves as the ‘fourth estate,’ a term coined in 1787. As for the constitutional landscape in which journalists and MPs wrangled with one another, Corfield is at pains to point out that the overfamiliar image of systemic corruption at election time, with voters either bribed or threatened into choosing the ‘correct’ candidate, isn’t the whole story. Alongside the infamous ‘rotten boroughs’ there were several large ‘open’ constituencies in which no wealthy aristocratic patron held sway, and where the franchise, which extended as far the ‘middling sort,’ meant that the outcome of elections was usually taken as a true representation of the will of the majority, thus inaugurating a state of ‘proto-democracy’ several decades before the Great Reform Act of 1832. Having said that, this was still a period in which a system of open voting was used, in which the elector had to cast his vote by approaching the polling booth and declaring aloud his name, address, electoral qualifications and candidate of choice; this, not surprisingly, did make voters mindful of their own physical and economic well-being should they fall foul of the more pugnacious party organisers. However, Georgian citizens in general were not easily cowed by authority figures, if the frequent accounts of protests and riots are anything to go by. Enfranchised and disenfranchised alike would take to the streets over food price rises, unemployment, and unpopular taxation. Often this unrest took place in public spaces such as market squares, and occasionally took on a festive character: at the Nottingham Goose Fair Riot of 1766 giant cheeses were rolled down the street, one of which knocked out the mayor whilst he was attempting to reassert control over the restless populace. More often than not, though, these protests were violent and sometimes deadly, with several accounts of mobs lynching the targets of their rage. Conversely, as notoriously exemplified by the Peterloo Massacre, the authorities had no qualms about using excessive force to maim and slaughter those involved in unarmed and peaceful assemblies. Out of this widespread socioeconomic dissent arose a number of reform associations who sought to air their grievances in an organised, systematic manner which transcended localism and sought to expose injustice on a national platform. In the late Georgian period, organisations such as the London Corresponding Society forged links with other radical bodies across the country and called for major reforms such as universal adult (male) suffrage and other fundamental democratic changes. In response, successive governments used imprisonment and banning orders in an attempt to eradicate the ‘enemy within,’ tactics which are still familiar today.
Other subjects covered by Corfield which focus more closely on the daily experiences of our Georgian ancestors include the age’s new approach to the treatment of mental disorders, particularly pertinent given George III’s battle with porphyria (diagnosis disputable). There was also the relief of poverty by charitable associations, alongside the rise of workhouses. As for the punishment of offenders, branding and whipping at the cart’s tail were becoming socially unacceptable, but public hangings were still regular events. For those criminals fortunate enough to escape the horrors of capital punishment, transportation was another way of ensuring that they no longer troubled this country’s law-abiding citizens.
Indeed, the custom of sending undesirables to the outer reaches of the Empire indicates the extent to which Britain took its colonial outposts for granted. Via a combination of “power, ad hoc acquisition and competitive energy,” the country’s overseas land grabs continued to mount up, even if occasionally checked by similar French ambition and the body blow of American Independence. Meanwhile in India, episodes of appalling brutality towards the native populations manifested the nervousness of that vast land's colonial government. Back on these shores, dealing in the slave trade would earn an avaricious merchant more than enough to build an extravagant mansion in the leafy countryside.
Setting aside the inconvenient fact of such barbarities, the concept of ‘civil society’ and social connectedness became a way for Georgians in the upper-middle and aristocratic classes to convince themselves that theirs was an intrinsically more peaceable and flexible society then hitherto. As shown in the novels of Jane Austen, a network of high-status families deployed a steely gentility amongst themselves (at least on the surface) in hopes of affirming their place in the social order, and perhaps financial good fortune via patronage or a lucrative marriage for their offspring. However, not all wealthy Georgians played the game of urbane decorum, with William Beckford a case in point. 'Britain’s richest commoner,' Beckford used his profits from enslaved labour to become “a fabled art collector, sexual adventurer, MP and phantasmagorical Gothic novelist,” and, via his commissioning of the looming neo-Gothic pile that was Fonthill Abbey, an important architectural patron. However, for all his potential to become the epitome of Georgian connoisseurship, Beckford was “a man with the temperament of an outsider who eventually became a recluse and saw polite society as nothing more than an agglomeration of ‘wild beasts.’” Those who couldn’t compete financially with Beckford and his ilk but who, none the less, carved out an important and influential economic niche for themselves formed part of the increasingly influential class known as the middling sort, who no longer saw themselves as “despised tradesmen, pettifogging lawyers, quack doctors and so forth,” but rather as the dynamic arbiters of the country’s moral providence, a development which would reach its Pecksniffian apogee in the century to come.
Meanwhile, the lower orders were themselves in a process of transformation, from the indigent or labouring poor into an increasingly skilled and urbanised workforce who were developing their own sense of social identity. The ripples of societal disorientation that this brought with it led one rather nervous wag to remark that “We are a nation of gentry. We have no such thing as common people among us; between Vanity and Gin the whole species is utterly destroyed.” In contrast to such haughty witticisms, the great iconoclastic radical Thomas Paine summed up the socio-economic schism in terms of “two distinct classes of men in the nation, those who pay taxes – and those who receive and live upon the taxes.” The recognition that the lower classes were actually the working classes and, as such, deserving of respect for their skill, allied to the economic benefits that their labours brought the nation, elicited a sometimes-grudging admission from those who employed them that they were no longer dealing with --as eighteenth-century economist and philosopher Edmund Burke put it-- the “swinish multitude.”
There is some debate amongst historians as to how and when a working class ‘consciousness’ truly emerged, with E. P. Thompson stating that the 1790s were a defining moment in this respect. What actually constituted the working-class experience during this era ranged widely, from hard and grimy manual labour to the provision of skilled services. However, within this spectrum everyone could potentially face sudden unemployment and grave hardship in an economic downturn. Whilst some in the lower classes maintained a jingoistic pride in their country’s much-trumpeted superiority over old enemies such as the French, an increasingly significant contingent took stock of the flag-waving propaganda and found it irrelevant to their lived experiences. One manifestation of this historic turn was the increased realisation that collective self-help, in terms of working-class communities pooling skills and resources, would offer a measure of protection against economic misfortunes imposed from above. A significant manifestation of this spirit of communality can be seen in the rise of the nascent trade union movement, which made its impact across the country from the Lanarkshire colliers to the Spitalfields weavers. Inevitably such organisations elicited hostility from the government, which in 1799 and 1800 passed two acts to prevent ‘unlawful combinations.’ This, in turn, provoked the formation of unofficial and less law-abiding organisations which carried out activities such as machine-breaking in an attempt to halt the progress of mechanisation, perceived as injurious to workers’ livelihoods. Nevertheless, legitimate trade unions did survive despite ever more repressive attempts to eradicate them, as displayed in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who, in 1834, were transported to Australia after being convicted under an archaic law against taking collective oaths.
As in today’s society, a sure-fire way to divert the population’s attention away from serious socio-political issues was to dangle celebrities before the collective gaze. However, unlike our present bunch of immortals, many of whom are famous for being famous, Georgian celebrities earned their renown for a varied assortment of reasons. They ranged from international figures such as Giacomo Casanova and George Frideric Handel to home-grown personalities often known for their literary talents like John Clare, Ann Yearsley aka 'the Bristol Milkwoman and Poetess,’ and Stephen Duck, a Wiltshire farm labourer known as ‘the Thresher Poet.' Regardless of the actual poetic talent that such individuals possessed (which in Clare’s case was considerable), they also had a novelty appeal, whilst the likes of Addison, Defoe, Johnson, and Pope achieved an altogether more elevated renown in the discerning Georgian literary circles that they inhabited. Theatrical celebrities were also much in evidence, such as Peg Woffington (a Dublin bricklayer’s daughter), the much-celebrated actor and impresario David Garrick, and Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson who, when she wasn’t trodding the boards, pursued another career as the mistress of the Prince Regent, later George IV. Indeed, Robinson’s fame as a high-status courtesan was shared with several other renowned figures such as Fanny Murray, Kitty Fisher, and the enduringly memorable Emma Hamilton. In art, Sir Joshua Reynolds ruled the roost as President of the Royal Academy (much to the chagrin of the then little-known William Blake, who loathed Reynolds' whole approach to painting), whilst the likes of Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, and Joseph Wright of Derby produced works which remain as acclaimed today as when they were created. Add to these such other celebrated figures as William Wilberforce, Captain James Cook, Robert Walpole, Thomas Chippendale, and their female counterparts such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Burney, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Elizabeth Inchbald, and the sheer hustle and bustle of Georgian culture becomes readily apparent.
In the final section of the book Corfield summarises the “long view” of the Georgian age in all its “turbo-charged” diversity. If it is famed in popular culture “for roguery,” dandy highwaymen consorting with cheery barmaids, it was also an era in which a lively electoral culture laid the foundations for franchise reform in the decades to come and some semblance of equality before the law began to be an important factor in the relationship between economic classes. Indeed, ‘rights,’ collective and individual, became an increasingly important subject of popular debate. However, such developments, alongside the improvements in physical and mental health, did not mean that the Georgian period would be a turning-point in the nation’s general well-being --not when the wretched repercussions of the industrial revolution were starting to be felt. Taken all in all, though, perhaps the Georgian period did represent something of a historic step-change in Britain’s history which, in many ways, laid the foundation for the nation that we inhabit today.--Mark Jones