The British eighteenth century used to be presented as the serene aftermath of the spectacular disruptions of the seventeenth century or as the quietly corrupt old regime against which a modernizing nineteenth century set itself. Both interpretations seriously underplayed the eighteenth century’s characteristic energy and dynamism. Whilst the traditional and conventional view does locate Britain’s ‘rise to greatness’ in this period, that interpretation was rendered strictly as a military and or imperial accomplishment achieved within a narrative of high oligarchical politics. Its likely, that its more enduring and important achievement lies in the domain of cultural perspective. A Cultural evolution that took a quantum hop into a new array of new subjects for investigation, from the body, sexuality and gender through habits of work and leisure to the institutions that produced and reproduced human experiences.
It was the first great age of conspicuous consumption.An age just prior to the mistrust and influence of what was called ”vagabond wealth”; wealth not tied to the land and tradition and created by the nascent industrial and commercial class. Colossal mansions spread out over acres and acres of landscaped countryside. Secure in their wealth, confident in their position, indulged by their countrymen, the aristocrats of eighteenth-century Georgian England did their thing, and in doing it , invented and established our present ideals of civilized living. English wealth from at home and the colonies led to the Grand Tour, a frequentation of Italy and a rediscovery of the Renaissance through art and antiquities of Florence, Venice and Rome in particular; home comforts and a sparkling social life acquired new meanings for the British, who began to identify and admire a civilization which had been based upon mercantile wealth and liberty.
In an economic context, commerce is central to an understanding of the cultural dynamics of the eighteenth century; the commercialization of leisure and the expansion of material consumption as a domain of personal expression are themes that were particularly prevalent. Commerce, however, also referred to social forms of human interaction. This sort of commerce – its idealization in theories of conversation, sociability and politeness in a culture of association – helped to configure many practices and institutions of culture.
Art and culture is inextricably bound with the notions of identity as well . This was a great era of appropriating culture; in this case from Italy, and to a lesser extent from France, and fashioning a national cultural identity; identity as a source of solidarity in a society, but also a matter of contestation. Cultural politics in action and representation being an expression of the desire for and clash over, power. A cultural history that shaped understandings of : politeness and impoliteness; taste and vulgarity; the patrician and the plebeian; sociability and solitude; ancients and moderns; reason, sensibility and sentiment; classicism and romanticism; public and private; sociability and domesticity; virtue, luxury and commerce; professionalism and amateurism; metropolitanism and provincialism; culture and nature.
”Man is the crown of God’s creation and as such he possesses many good attributes. These are best cultivated when man is granted a measure of liberty. But man is also a fallen creature, beset by proclivities that are harmful to himself and to society. Among these are overweening pride, the thirst for power, the love of luxury and of adulation, and all manner of other dark impulses”….
…. Life was a perpetual succession of enthusiasms. Wherever these wealthy gentry went, they gambled. It was the national mania, but the nobility led the way. Their great passion was horse racing, and they organized the Jockey Club, formalized the rules of racing, and set up an elaborate racing calendar so that great races never conflicted in date. And, of course, they established the racing classics; the Derby was named after the Earl of Derby, an obsessed racing man, and the St.Leger at Doncaster was named after his northern counterpart, Colonel St. Leger.
But horses assuaged only a part of their passion for gambling. In London, the young noblemen took over coffee-houses and turned them into private clubs whose main business was gambling at cards. Charles James Fox, the distinguished Whig politician and hero of the Westminster public, gambled away two fortunes at Brooks’s before he reached middle age. Indeed, before he was sixteen, he and his elder brother had got through about $50,000 apiece in three days. The earl of Sandwich found it impossible to drag himself away from the Faro tables even for supper, so he dined there on two slices of bread stuffed with meat. Women gambled as passionately as men. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, beautiful, elegant and wanton, had no more self-conat cards than she had at love. She runed herself beyond repair by her extravagant bets.
Cards and horses were major addictives, but so were prize fighting, cock fighting, and above all, cricket. Cricket developed its elaborate rules in the eighteenth century and became popular because it provided such a rich and complex situation for gambling. One could gamble not only on the result but also on an almost infinite number of chances within the game. If the ladies and gentlemen grew bored with the usual round of horses, cards and games, they could and did gamble on anything. The few betting books that survive from the eighteenth century betray better than any other source the feckless abandon of young aristocrats who might bet on the fertility of a duchess, or a raindrop running down a pane of glass, or, perhaps more startling of all, whether, before the year was out, Lord Cholmondeley would copulate a thousand feet above London in one of the new balloons.
But gambling was not all extravagance and loss. In the 1780’s the young bloods developed a passion for racing each other in their carriages from London to Brighton. Like present Formula racing, they and their carriage builders poured ingenuity and money into creating flimsy but extremely fast phaetons, which they drove with exceptional speed and skill. With Tommy Onslow, who once won twenty-five guineas from the Prince Regent by driving his phaeton and four at a gallop through two narrow gateways twenty-five times without touching them, Sir John and Lady Lade were aces at this sport.
Lady Lade swore like a fishwife, and in fact Sir John first made her acquaintance in a brothel in one of those rare occasions when he left his stables. Bankrupted by his passion for gambling, he finished his life happily enough as a coachman on the London to Brighton run, which he had done much to improve. The racing phaeton , like the racing motorcar, brought great technical improvement both to vehicles and to roads.
The social theory of the time was best exemplified by Edmund Burke; with the basic idea being an unparalleled degree of social, religious and economic freedom with the caveat that the established institutions of government and the existing structures of English civilization are not to be toppled. Burke lived in a time of enormous change which brought in its wake decades of political ferment and, finally, the explosion of the French Revolution. An astute observer of human nature, he was impelled by events to analyze the structures of the societies that civilized man had built and to look for common patterns in history. He hoped thereby to assist his own country, Great Britain, in averting the disaster that had befallen the French and, at the same time, to help his countrymen appreciate better those things that allow men to enjoy a measure of personal liberty and contentment within a framework of political and social order. The radicals of the French Revolution proposed fundamentally to refashion life in accordance with their new ideology. Burke grasped the mortal danger in such experimentation and pledged his considerable gifts in trying to halt that Gadarene rush to calamity.
”Burke is most remembered as the chief philosophical opponent of the ideology that gave birth to and nurtured the French Revolution, and of that Revolution itself. It is especially in the last of his writings, published in the 1790s near the end of his life, that the major elements of his political philosophy were brought together. Less discerning men, some even among the British aristocracy, had been swept up by the wild optimism surrounding the collapse of the _Ancien Régime_ in France. Burke saw matters more clearly. Writing with a passionate eloquence born of crisis, he demonstrated how the upheaval in France threatened to undermine the whole of the foundation of the order of life as it had been accepted among civilized men for over a thousand years and threatened the whole of Christendom, including his own country.”
Burke’s view also prevailed in literature as well. In the eighteenth century the novel had not yet been understood as a vehicle for the real reformist, except perhaps in Godwin’s use of it in Caleb Williams. The failings of social institutions are seen as a kind of cumulative failing of corrupted individuals, like Justice Thrasher in Amelia, who in their turn produce more corruption. The depredations of individuals upon one another produce social evils. Thus to improve society, the heart and mind of the individual must be reformed, but the structure remains. Brooke and Day criticize the education of aristocrats rather than the class structure itself.
In Nature and Art Inchbald reserves her primary anger for William, the powerful and callous man who destroys Hannah by willfully seducing her; only secondarily does she lament the support his individual action takes from the structures of society. Like Godwin and Bage, she sees the need for societal safeguards to protect the individual from abuse, but the abuse itself stems first from distorted relationships among men. Even Holcroft, whose Hugh Trevor comes very close to attacking the institutions themselves, stops short and attacks instead individual corrupted members such as the bishop and Lord Idford. Only Godwin carries through the logical premises of his novel to indict directly not only corrupt individuals but the institutions that corrupted them. In Caleb Williams the tyranny of society is so oppressive that nothing can save Caleb or Falkland.
The abuse of power is a common theme in the eighteenth century novels of protest and so too is the misuse of power— the first being deliberate, the second in error. Certain scholars have remarked on the depictions of arbitrary power that are so frequent in these novels, but it has not been noted that many of the novels attribute the misuse of power to misguidance rather than to malice. Brooke, Day, and Inchbald suggest that aristocrats are badly educated and that an education in benevolence and usefulness for them would create a better society.
Godwin, in one context, attributes Falkland’s character to his education in an outdated chivalry. Education is seen as a tremendously powerful force, and although several of these novelists complain that it is misused in many cases, especially with upper class children, they also suggest that society has an extraordinary potential for good precisely because of the promise that a socially healthy education holds out. In Anna St. Ives Holcroft insists that it is possible to “contribute to the great, the universal cause . . . the general perfection of mind.” While young William in Nature and Art is the unhappy product of his education, his cousin Henry is the wonderful human being his education should make him.
Belief in the power of education as a force for the improvement of society colors the protest, for it suggests that there is a relatively easy and likely cure for much of what is wrong. Brooke, Day, Inchbald, Holcroft (in Anna St. Ives), and Bage all imply that any man will choose goodness and productivity if he is enlightened to those goals, and a society of such enlightened men will be a juster society. Except for Caleb Williams, the various protests are made within this context. The prevailing spirit of these novels is that the failings of society, once they are exposed, will be ameliorated by rational men of good will.
The attack on arbitrary power is largely fueled by this expectation, for the notion of arbitrariness is antithetical to rationality. Arbitrary power is attacked in most of the better known novels. While government is left standing, and its continuity is not in question, the same cannot be said about the extent to which traditional relationships are questioned.
By the 1790s the assumption that parents have unlimited authority over their children merely by virtue of their parenthood is no longer accepted. Parents are to be judged by the same rules as everyone else. A stupid parent should not be respected; a tyrannical parent should not be obeyed. It is each person’s duty to become the most productive member of society he can be, and anything that interferes with that goal, a bad or misguided parent included, must be avoided. In these later novels, reason rather than custom is the ideal mover in human affairs, and so in Anna St. Ives for example, it is not acceptable to say, as Evelina does, that one must obey a father just because he is a father. One must obey only the dictates of one’s reason….