Wednesday 15 March 2023

Penelope Corfield's 'The Georgians' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

 The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met at the house on the 7th of March to discuss Penelope Corfield’s The Georgians, a broad sweep through the long eighteenth century, taking in literature, politics, economics and a whole host of other disciplines.

There was a little joking at the length of this eighteenth-century, which sometimes went back as far as the 1660s and as far forward as the 1840s but Corfield noted that her desire in the book was to follow themes throughout the period, examining the constant tension between continuity and change. In taking this step back, the book seeks to ask questions about the nature of the society that produced such a distinctive moment in British (and world) history. There was also an interest in comparing what people now make of the Georgians to what they made of themselves with one of the starting places of the book being a collection of statements people living at the time made about what was happening around them. 

The responses of the Georgians picked up on a number of different themes, from Johnson talking of ‘an age of innovation’ to the personal letters of private people talking about ‘an age of politeness’. However, all these ‘ages’ can be broadly categorised as optimist or pessimist. Corfield comes right out and declares her optimism and did so again in the meeting, possibly a brave thing to say in an age of doomscrolling but one backed up by the fact that certain advancements of the Georgian era, from increased literacy to widening forms of democracy are still with us today. 

Fitting for a book which draws a picture of trends, the discussion of literacy involved lots of different areas. We spoke about the habits of reading out-loud as a public good, with workshops delegating someone to read to people as they were working, not too dissimilar to many modern uses of audiobooks. We also discussed the role Britain’s protestant and mercantile traditions in creating a desire for literacy from the bottom up, a state pushed literacy not being in place until 1870 (and too late for even this book’s reach). Corfield even includes a section on the less discussed rise in numeracy, pointing out the fiendish mathematical puzzles posed in The Lady magazine, answered in following weeks by skilled amateur mathematicians.

The Georgians is a refreshingly democratic piece of history, while it happily uses comment and anecdote from famous names, its conception of change (and continuity) are treated as broad, sociological functions. There’s a striking chapter about the change in lower-class consciousness, from being ‘the poor’ to ‘the working class’ and a discussion of the formation of early trade unions called combinations. As such, it’s a history that includes everybody without apportioning blame or glory.

We had a spirited discussion on social mobility, talking how people like the son of a penniless bookseller could become a leading intellectual figure. With a growth in urbanisation, wider platforms of discussion and a decline in court favour could lead to plutocrats sitting at the same tables of aristocrats. This could also lead to those who felt they hadn’t received their own fair shares, with characters like Richard Savage believing his (alleged) noble birth and his (pretty genuine) talents should have given him a better deal. This is not to say the Georgian era was a meritocracy (and is any age?) but there was a notion that talent and merit could bring a person further in life than ever before. 

The book, and the evening, started with Corfield saying that what drew her towards the eighteenth-century is that it was terra incognita, barely touched by a-level or even undergraduate history. This means it’s still an era with lots to give and lots to say and where fledgling academics still have space to make a name. She told us an anecdote about one of her students who was searching the letters captured from Spanish ships and held, often unopened, in British archives. This student not only got to open many of these letters for the first time but discovered the earliest written records of the Basque language - a discovery that made him something of an academic celebrity in his home town. 

A distinctive feature of The Georgians are the elements at the end of each chapter called ‘Time Shifts’. These take a theme from the chapter and pull it forward into the modern day, either encouraging the reader to visit a museum or landmark, read a particular short text or watch a film. Corfield conceived of these as a teaching-aid, bringing the time up to date.

There are times where The Georgians could be described as a comprehensive skim through the era, with many intriguing aspects which want filling out a little. It’s very possible these were filled out in the original draft of the book, which had been twice as long. Fuelled by enjoyment and a surfeit of material, she had handed in a whopper of a manuscript and was told to cut it in half or void the contract - whether this feeds into the potential sequel, is yet to be decided.

After a dense conversation that could probably have lasted twice as long, the meeting was called to an end, with the now traditional wander for some pizza. There Penelope Corfield asked us all if we were optimists ourselves… much like the book itself, it was a good prompt for discussion.

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