The Georgians: a well-researched account of a ‘dazzling’ period
Penelope J. Corfield’s aim is to cover the ‘whole of British life’ from the 1680s to the 1840s in this book
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Penelope Corfield, an emeritus professor at Royal Holloway, has set herself a “formidable task” in this book, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Her aim is to cover the “whole of British life” from the 1680s to the 1840s. And for the most part, she succeeds: this is a well-researched account of a “dazzling” period – one of great advances in science and industry, as well as “military glory and overseas conquest”.
A particular strength of Corfield’s account is that she “finds lots of room for eccentric and contradictory voices”. She highlights such unconventional figures as Worcestershire resident John Tallis, who spent 30 years in bed with a peg on his nose, believing that “fresh air” was dangerous. “Even the handshake gets a look in”: Corfield attributes its rise to improved standards of hygiene, as well as the “meritocratic character of the booming towns and cities”.
The 18th century can feel closer to our age than the Victorian period that followed, said Wynn Wheldon in The Spectator: it was the age of constitutional monarchy, the rights of man, “loveable rogues” and “sexual libertines”. Resisting the fashionable tendency to put the past down, Corfield celebrates the achievements of the period, and stresses how they echo “in our own times”. It was the Georgians who “united the four home nations”, and designed the Union flag; today when we consider our most beautiful towns and cities, it is generally “Georgian terraces” we think of.
But Corfield isn’t afraid to remind us of how startlingly different life back then could be, said Andrew Taylor in The Times. The age of consent was 12 for boys, and ten for girls; few men were taller than 5ft 5in; and pickpocketing goods worth more than a shilling was a capital offence. Packed with “good things”, The Georgians is “a delight”.
Yale University Press 488pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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