20 November 2015

We are the new Georgians


Sometimes it seems as if Britain is surrounded by existential threat. Armed extremism, financial  upheaval, cultural confusion – all can feel like they could break a brittle, uncertain society. But these are only the headline concerns of the day. Deep beneath the headlines there is another country where real change happens, sometimes slowly, and sometimes not. At this level Britain really is in a state of transformation. It is nothing to do with terrorism, or politics, or religion. It is a lot to do with new machines, new materials, new algorithms, and new patterns of behaviour. These are things that are changing the shape of minds as well as environment, and what is really striking is just how relaxed Britain is about it. To find a historical parallel for this era of peaceful redrafting of the fundamentals one has to go back at least two and a half centuries. It is Georgian Britain that offers the best guide to what is happening today, and some clues to what might happen next.

The eighteenth century saw the emergence of the modern in Britain. If the seventeenth century is the far distant country of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton, where men plucked their beards and sharpened their swords before stepping into the street, the eighteenth century connects much more readily to now. It was when the unshackling of British society began, and when the British consciousness was remade.

And it happened by stealth, a revolution without convulsion. Consider: the early Georgian age saw unprecedented conceptual innovations such as the invention of private life, and the possibility that an adult’s thoughts and behaviour were not the business of the squire or the parson. Anonymity became a welcomed reality, as cities grew and urban existence began to be celebrated as an end in itself – Johnson’s verdict on London could hardly have been imagined in an earlier age. The moralising of the puritan age became noticeable by its absence, except in caricature. The influence of mainstream organised religion declined precipitously – the number of churches offering daily services in London fell by almost half in the twenty years from 1714. As Montesquieu reported, religion in England ‘excites nothing but laughter’. Dissenting systems of belief did flourish, yet numbers were small. England became a place where, according to Defoe, ‘each man goes his own byway to heaven’.

Manners relaxed, as the starch was washed out of social life. Married couples began addressing each other by their first names. Parents became interested in their children. Visitors from the buttoned-up continent commented in amazement on the habits of society ladies who would put their feet on furniture whenever it suited them. Spending on fashion and frivolity increased dramatically, and not just in the town: ‘I meet milkmaids on the road with the dress and looks of Strand misses’ wrote Admiral John Byng. Society became much less formal, and much more indulgent. As Lord Chesterfield advised his son: ‘pleasure is now, and ought to be, your business’. These changes in mood and behaviour are echoed in the present era’s explosion in services – the bars and restaurants and shops devoted to fripperies that have transformed the face of almost every British town for the better.

The sex industry also grew exponentially, and was highly visible. In fact Georgian Britain could easily match our present age for raunchiness. Anyone who thinks today’s online pornography and prostitution sites such as Punternet and Adultwork are purely modern instances should familiarise themselves with Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, or Kitty’s Attalantis – practical user guides to the eighteenth century sex trade that were cried up openly on street corners rather than distributed under the cover of the internet.

Mobility increased. A French visitor to England late in the century wrote ‘nobody is provincial in this country. You meet nowhere with those persons who were never out of their native place, and whose habits are wholly local.’ Religious and racial prejudice diminished. In the seventeenth century obvious outsiders like Jews and Africans could expect to be pelted in the street; by the eighteenth they were more likely to walk unmolested to work. Public cruelties abated fast; trials for witchcraft were forgotten, and juries became increasingly reluctant to return capital sentences (the rate of executions in London fell sevenfold from the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries).

Society took on a self-absorbed, even narcissistic tone. Portraiture of others and the self increased – the successful society painter Jonathan Richardson spent the latter years of his life repeatedly drawing his own portrait and reflecting on his own stream of consciousness. Diary-keeping became widespread, finding its most complete expression in the obsessive self-recording of James Boswell. These were the blogs and selfies of the era.

Above all, the early Georgians experienced a data revolution. Machine reproduction of words and particularly images expanded many times over. By the end of the century there were fourteen London morning newspapers, while print shops selling coloured engravings sprouted everywhere. Pictures and words were spread and shared in informal forums such as the 2,000 London coffee houses in business by 1700. Content made fortunes. Alexander Pope received £4,000 for his translation of the Iliad, and another £4,000 for his Odyssey; painter Joshua Reynolds died worth over £100,000 (at a time when £200 a year would support a respectable family). The mass market in intellectual property had been created.

These changes point to a radical transformation of outlook. Yet even as the upheaval took place, early Georgian society remained essentially relaxed. It helped that the economy was stable – there was almost no inflation during the first half of the eighteenth century, and the prices of manufactures gradually declined. Only the financial economy was volatile. And from today’s perspective, that is not all that sounds familiar. Britain was also profoundly out of step with the rest of Europe, which remained socially and economically constricted. By comparison continental society was immobile, its manners were stifling, and innovation was discouraged by over-regulation (in Berlin in the last quarter of the century almost half the population were either soldiers or bureaucrats; in London the staff of considerable ministries could often be counted on two hands).

This was early Georgian Britain: unreformed, thoroughly corrupt, superficially static, but actually undergoing a shift in consciousness. The British excel at pretending to change the way things are run, while concealing real alterations within. Although there are million differences between that age and this, the similarities are also startling. The lack of moral prescriptionism, the essential confidence and readiness to absorb change and resist shocks, are similar. Then as now the only real threat to what the newspapers like to call our ‘way of life’ was a disinclination to let it evolve – and today there is only little sign of that.

But eras end. The eighteenth century concluded with an upsurging fear of bloody French-style revolution, and the end-of-century repressions of liberty that saw the state build more power to intervene, more surveillance, more law, more punishments. The eighteenth century age of unanxiety gave way to the hyper-anxiety of the nineteenth century. That outcome is also available.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.