The Georgians, by Penelope Corfield

A new history of the 18th century that is both comprehensive and wise.
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Penelope Corfield clearly has a knowledge of – and love for – her subject. The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th Century Britain provides a comprehensive overview of the period, whilst garnishing the account with plenty of insight and detail.

What is particularly refreshing about Corfield’s study is that she doesn’t sit in dour or disapproving judgement of the Georgians. She is not blind to some flaws, but the author is keener to point out the achievements, heroes and virtues of the oft maligned age. There was a rigid class structure, but it was not without fluidity. Parliament and politicians could prove corrupt, but the House of Commons could also champion our rights and liberties. The British were guilty of profiting from the slave trade, but which nation did more to encourage its abolition? The country wasn’t just Gin Alley. It was Beer Street too. Britain – and London in particular – was a great seat of culture, commerce, innovation and civilised society. Do not be swayed by those who would make us wholly ashamed or our history or antecedents. The Georgians were responsible for more deeds than misdeeds. They should be celebrated, as opposed to just puritanically condemned. Both the “elite” and “lower orders” seemed to have a love of fun and booze. The two may not entirely be unrelated.

As you may imagine, the book is populated with plenty of great figures from the age – including Edmund Burke, Nell Gywnn, Beau Brummell and Dr Johnson, to name but a few. Corfield also quotes well from various participants, to highlight both the differences and similarities between the eras of then and now. “The people of England are never so happy as when you tell ’em they are ruined.” In short, like other periods in our history, there is more that unites us than divides us.

I would have preferred more material weighted towards the crime and criminals during the period, but that is a small criticism. Whether you are familiar with the age, or one wishes to be introduced to the Georgians, there is much that will satisfy you in this wonderful and wise account.

The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of 18th Century Britain, by Penelope Corfield is out now and published by Yale University Press.

Richard Foreman is a writer and publisher, and the author of Turpin’s Assassin