Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Georgians (The Book)

The so-called "long 18th century," the era in British history associated with the accession of the House of Hanover and the reigns of the four Georges (1714-1830) is recreated magnificently in this latest book by London University Professor of History, Penelope J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain (Yale U. Pr., 2022). 

In her book, Corfield explores multiple aspects of 18th-century British life at a time when even the very notion of "British" was itself still novel and in need of deeper definition and exploration. Corfield considers contemporary pessimistic perceptions of decline and loss and simultaneously optimistic perceptions of progress and - quite literally - light. Her book takes us on a tour of the highs and lows, the bright and bleak of evolving British culture and society - in politics and economics and science and religion and domestic arrangements - balanced by profound continuity, most notably in the renewed role of the monarchy.

Particularly useful, especially for a contemporary American audience, is the book's treatment of the evolution of British political institutions - particularly parliament and political parties - during this period. This is important for two reasons. The first is that American appreciation of 18th-century British politics has historically been distorted by the American Revolution and the revolutionary ideology's deliberate falsification of British policy and the respective roles of King and Parliament. The second is that the evolution of British politics during this period was completely at odds with what was happening on the continent. The 18th-century European experience was one of increasingly un-British political absolutism culminating in a correspondingly un-British self-destructive revolution. Popular American history (to whatever extent history is still taught and learned in America) reinforces the first distortion, while academic political philosophy focuses (understandably enough) on un-British continental developments in philosophy and political theory.

Comparably insightful is The Georgians' treatment of the evolution of 18th-century civil society and its social classes, which were, in the author's words in social ferment. Again, this provides a much more thorough portrayal of Georgian society than modern readers, armed with contemporary ideological obsessions, are familiar with - especially perhaps when it comes to gendered roles and relationships. Most notably, the Georgian era was characterized  by a "new breadth and diversity of role open to emergent meritocrats from all backgrounds."

The 18th-century was the first scientific century, that is, a time in which growing scientific knowledge and discoveries translated into (relatively) rapid technological change. In this, it began a pattern that would be increasingly characteristic of subsequent centuries. We are accustomed to thinking of historical "progress" - primarily filtered through the mass experience of technological change.

Such an era inevitably saw a certain loosening of previous social conventions. Corfield highlights how this was a time when people stated dressing as they pleased (rather than as prescribed by law) and when the egalitarian handshake began to make inroads into social interactions.

The Georgians could n ever have anticipated our post-modern urbanized and globalized world, but the society they were evolving in the end had much more in common with what was to folloow than with what had preceded it.

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