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MONTHLY BLOG 148, Tracking down Eighteenth-Century Optimists and Pessimists in order to write The Georgians

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2023) 

Image 1 Laughter, being detail from Hogarth’s Laughing Audience (1733);
and Image 2 Tears, being early C19 cartoon in Getty Images 1179326076

This BLOG is also published on Yale University Press website:


Many people have asked, since the publication of my book on The Georgians1 , why I note on the dust-cover that I am an optimist. There is a reason (apart from the fact that it’s true). But to explain, I need to take a step back. So please bear with me while I tell you first about how I decided to introduce my cast of eighteenth-century Britons.

While studying this fascinating and formative period of history, I long pondered how to start my book. In fact, I begin by defining my operative dates and my choice of book title. Then I quickly outline where the Georgian Britons lived – and in what numbers. But what then? I did not want to proceed with well-known stories about great men or great battles or great inventions – though all those things do come into the analysis at suitable points.

So I decided to provide a cultural overview of what people in the eighteenth century thought of their own era. Obviously, the surviving evidence came chiefly from the literate, who were able to record their views – although I also take note of popular songs and sayings. But I searched widely among the less well known and the completely unknown, as well as among the famous. It was the equivalent of tapping into Georgian journalism, both reflecting and trying to influence contemporary attitudes.

And the method that I used was to collect all the eighteenth-century statements that I could find, which took the form of a dictum: ‘It is an age of xxx’ (a common formulation) or a ‘century of xxx’. All these commentaries had to be made in the moment and of the moment. I was not interested (for this purpose) in people’s retrospective verdicts. But I wanted to know what they thought at the time – without any fore-knowledge of the outcome.

It took me years to amass a collection; but there was great fun in the search, as I looked into eighteenth-century novels, plays, poems, letters, diaries, guide-books, journalism, sermons, songs, sayings, and so forth. Usually, the quest was carried on alongside my ‘normal’ research. And it had the very good effect that I always kept my eyes open and was never bored.

Eventually, I had amassed over 700 ‘ages’, from contemporary observers from the mid-seventeenth century up until the present day (2023). Several hundred of them came from Georgian Britons. I then set myself, without any pre-set assumptions, to review and classify them.

A fairly sizable group defined the times in terms of material goods. And that category became more and more notable in the course of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus it’s no surprise to find people writing about ‘a telegraph age’ (1868); ‘the age of television’ (1958); ‘the computer age’ (1963); ‘the age of electronic messages (1990); and so forth. (Note that these claims indicate when innovations were noted, not literally their first invention).

Were there equivalents in the eighteenth century? Yes, there were. Thus an onlooker defined the era in 1736 ‘an age of Equipage’2 – the smart term for a coach and a team of horses; or in 1756 as ‘this age of Vauxhalls and Ranelaghs’,3 referring to the new vogue for attending public pleasure gardens.

But much the largest category throughout the collection was the one I classified as ‘mood’. Some of the most frequently repeated claims were those expressing doubt: as in ‘an age of uncertainty’; ‘an age of anxiety’; ‘worrying times’. One British commentator in 1800 was completely woeful: ‘Never was the world in so calamitous or so perilous a state as at this moment’.4 (Hard not to laugh; but it was written in all seriousness).

Other onlookers, meanwhile, were full of hope, detecting ‘light’; ‘improvement’; even ‘an age in which knowledge is rapidly approaching towards perfection’. (The last quotation came from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1776, when in euphoric vein).5

Reviewing the gamut of ‘mood music’, it was clear that there was a systematic division between optimism and pessimism. Furthermore, while pessimists always remained vocal, the cultural predominance in Georgian Britain was increasingly tilting in favour of optimism. Eighteenth-century identifications of ‘progress’ in particular fields were becoming welded into the nineteenth-century cliché: ‘an age of progress’. One popular song, circulating in 1830, was full of excited anticipation about the march of inventions. It imagined that people could peep into the future, and the chorus urged:6

Open your eyes, and gaze with surprise
On the wonders, the wonders to come!

Details of these contrasting attitudes are explored in Georgian Britain, ch. 3 ‘Voices of Gloom’ (pp. 41-55); and ch. 4 ‘Voices of Optimism’ (pp. 56-70). The classification refers to viewpoints – not necessarily to individuals throughout a lifetime. Some people’s moods veered frequently. Yet these powerful and rival attitudes vividly introduced the adventurous times through which Britons were living – during an unprecedented era of exploration, spreading literacy, applied inventions, parliamentary rule, popular riots, religious pluralism, sexual frankness and experimentation, colonial acquisition, urban and commercial growth, rising global power – and participation in the contentious trade in enslaved Africans. (For more on all these themes, see within The Georgians).

Finally, having outed countless optimists and pessimists (and a few waverers in between),7 I thought that I should out myself as well. In fact, I am not a Panglossian – unlike the character in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), who believes that ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Yet I am psychologically with the growing Georgian mainstream. Let’s innovate for improvement; but, if generating errors (plenty of those in the ei ghteenth century, as the book explains), then let’s speedily reform. And, above all, let’s live with hope. A great motto in itself – and a crucial one for authors!

1 See P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP, 2022; paperback 2023); and for associated website, entitled Georgian Witnesses, see: www.thegeorgiansdeedsandmisdeeds.com

2 Anon. [E. Jones], Luxury, Pride and Vanity, the Bane of the British Nation (London, 1736), p. 7.

3 J. Buncle [T. Amory], The Life of John Buncle, Esq: Containing Various Observations and Reflections … (London, 1756), Vol. I, p. 460.

4 J. Bowles, Reflections on the Political and Moral State of Society … (London, 1800), p. 128.

5 J. Bentham, A Fragment on Government (London, 1776): preface, opening sentence.

6 Song by W.H. Freeman, Three Hundred Years to Come (c.1835): see https://musescore.com/song/three_hundred_years_to_come_a_comic_song-2326061. One cheerful forecast was that future earthlings would be able to hitch a lift on a passing balloon to attend a party on the moon … Well, not yet!

7 For the debates, see variously T. Harries, The Rule of Optimism (London, 2022); E.C. Gordon, Human Enhancement and Well-Being: The Case for Optimism (London, 2022); but compare with R. Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism and the Dangers of False Hope (London, 2010); and M. van der Lugt, Dark Matters: Pessimism and the Problem of Suffering (Princeton, NJ., 2021).

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Silhouette of Samuel Johnson,
after Joshua Reynolds

It takes more than compiling a famous Dictionary to achieve the celebrity of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84).1 A huge, strapping, ungainly and constantly twitching figure of a man, he startled newcomers on first acquaintance. Yet he had a mesmerising personality, allied to great erudition and unforced eloquence.

Moreover, his contemporary fame was quickly turned into a long-lasting mythology, on the strength of not only his own writings but also a collection of admiring biographies. These included Thomas Tyers’ Biographical Sketch (1785); Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786); John Hawkins’ Life of Samuel Johnson (1787); and Arthur Murphy’s Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson (1792). They preserved vivid memories of the man himself and his conversational powers.

And, of course, the culmination of this sequence was the compendious Life of Johnson (1791) by James Boswell (1740-95).2 This account became a famous work in its own right. It was part literary biography, part Boswell’s account of the friendship between the pundit and his eager young friend-and-questioner. And when Boswell followed the Life with a shorter volume entitled Dr Johnson’s Table Talk (1798), Johnson’s reputation as a great conversationalist was sealed – complete with the consolidation of his moniker as ‘Dr Johnson’. That was not the preference of the man himself – but it successfully encapsulated his learned reputation for posterity.

Simultaneously, too, the joint names of ‘Johnson & Boswell’ became a classic formula for a great talker with his every word, caught by an eager young friend in tow. In reality, the two men were far from always together. Boswell was a young man of 22, just setting out on his legal career, when he first met Johnson, then aged 53 and already an established pundit. Thereafter, they socialised together and famously travelled together in 1773, when they visited the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. But they were not inseparable. And after his marriage in 1769 Boswell often spent parts of the year in Scotland.

What sort of conversationalist was the great man? He was both pugnacious and witty. Johnson enjoyed the company of lively debaters, whether men or women. Their smart questions and bold assertions were great triggers for his own conversational flights. He did not seek to deliver monologues. Thus, while he was notably combative, he did not drown out others or bore them by relentless talking. Boswell once referred to Johnson as ‘tossing’ and ‘goring’ his conversational opponents, like an angry bull disdaining the impertinence of pursuing matadors. Such bouts were somewhat theatrical, attracting crowds to enjoy the jousting. And indeed conversational gatherings, whether discussing politics, literature, science, farming, sex, or all of those, were very much a staple of eighteenth-century social life.3

Above all, Johnson was good at epigrammatic summaries: or eighteenth-century sound-bites. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. So the observant Doctor dismissed politicians who yelp about their love of country to conceal their nefarious dealings. (Yes indeed). ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life …’ (Yes again). ‘When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully’. (No doubt). Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’. (No! Boo! Shame!)

Well, there is the fun and stimulus of the renowned Dr Johnson. Enough to set one thinking and more than enough for grand arguments as well.

Today, fittingly, the Dr Johnson Society celebrates the life of this great ad hoc controversialist with an annual convivial Supper. It is held in the Guildhall in Lichfield, his birthplace, in September, on or near the anniversary of his birth. And it forms part of a weekend of imaginative celebrations in that city.4

Finally, too, other relevant talks, guided walks and festive events are organised at Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, in the City of London.5 This fine townhouse has survived wars and turmoil for over three hundred years. It’s well worth a visit from all interested in eminent Georgians – and in Samuel Johnson specifically. The man who wrote favourably on ‘The Art of Biography’ (The Rambler, 1750) would no doubt be tickled that later generations still enjoy his conversational ‘punch-power’ … But he would certainly find something about which to disagree: ‘Sir! when a man is tired of argument, …’.


1 Among many works, see W.J. Bate, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Berkeley, Ca., 1998); D. Nokes, Samuel Johnson: A Life (2009); and H. Kingsmill (ed.), Johnson without Boswell: A Contemporary Portrait of Samuel Johnson (2022).

2 P. Martin, The Life of James Boswell (1999); A.R. Brooks, James Boswell (2019); and D.J. Newman (ed.), Boswell and the Press: Essays on the Ephemeral Writing of James Boswell (Lewisburg, Pa., 2021).

3 See P. Clark, British Clubs and Societies, c.1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World (Oxford, 2000); L. Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends who Shaped An Age (New Haven, 2019).

4 For the Johnson Society (Lichfield), see https://johnsonnew.wordpress.com

5 See https://www.drjohnsonshouse.org

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

What does it take for individuals to disappear from recorded history? Most people manage it. How is it done? The first answer is to die young. That deed has been achieved by far too many historic humans, especially in eras of highly infectious diseases. Any death before the age of (say) 21 erases immense quantities of potential ability.

After all, how many child prodigies or Wunderkinder have there been? Very few whose fame has outlasted the immediate fuss in their own day. A number of chess-masters and mathematicians have shown dramatic early abilities. But the prodigy of all prodigies is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who began composing at the age of five and continued prolifically for the remaining thirty years of his life. His music is now more famous and more widely performed than it ever was in his own day. Mozart is, however, very much the exception – and his specialist field, music, is also distinctive in its ability to appeal across time and cultures.

A second way of avoiding the attentions of history is to live and die before the invention of writing. Multiple generations of humans did that, so that all details of their lifestyles, as inferred by archaeologists and palao-anthropologists, pertain to the generality rather than to individuals. Oblivion is particularly guaranteed when corpses have been cremated or have been buried in conditions that lead to total decay.

As it happens, a number of frozen, embalmed, or bog-mummified bodies from pre-literate times have survived for many thousands of years. Scholars can then study their way of life and death in unparalleled and fascinating detail. One example is Ötzi the Iceman, found in a high glacier on the Italian/Austrian border in 1991, and now on dignified display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology at Bolzano, Italy. His clothing and weaponry reveal much about the technological abilities of Alpine hunters from over five thousand years ago, just as his bodily remains are informative about his diet, health, death, and genetic inheritance.1 Nonetheless, the world-view of individuals like Ötzi are matters of inference only. And the number of time-survivors from pre-literate eras are very few.22014-5-Pic1 OtzitheIceman

Ötzi the Iceman, over 5000 years old but initially thought to be a recent cadaver when discovered in 1991:
now in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Bolzano, Italy.

The third way of avoiding historical attention is to live a quiet and secluded life, whether willingly or unwillingly. Most people in every generation constitute the rank-and-file of history. Their deeds might well be important, especially collectively. Yet they remain unknown individually. That oblivion applies especially to those who remain illiterate, even if they live in an era when reading and writing are known.

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air’, as Thomas Gray put it eloquently in 1751 (in context, talking about humans, not horticulture).3 One might take his elegiac observation to constitute an oblique call for universal education (though he didn’t). Yet even in eras of widening or general literacy, it remains difficult for every viewpoint to be recorded and to survive. In nineteenth-century Britain, when more people than ever were writing personal letters, diaries and autobiographies, those who did so remained a minority. And most of their intimate communications, especially if unpublished, have been lost or destroyed.

Of course, past people were also known by many other forms of surviving evidence. The current vogue in historical studies (in which I participate) is to encourage the analysis of all possible data about as many as possible individuals, whether ‘high’ or ‘lowly’, by making the information available and searchable on-line.4 Nonetheless, historians, however determined and assiduous, cannot recover everybody. Nor can they make all recovered information meaningful. Sometimes past data is too fragmented or cryptic to have great resonance. It can also be difficult to link imperfect items of information together, with attendant risks: on the one hand, of making false linkages and, on the other hand, of missing real ones.

Moreover, there are still many people, even in well documented eras, whose lives left very little evidence. They were the unknowns who, in George Eliot’s much-quoted passage at the end of Middlemarch (1871/2): ‘lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’.5 She did not intend to slight such blushing violets. On the contrary, Eliot hailed their quiet importance. ‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’, she concluded. A realist might add that the same is true of the ‘bad of the world’ too. But again many lives remain hidden from historic record, even if the long-term impact of their collective actions and inactions has not.

Finally, there is concealment. Plenty of people then and now have reasons for hiding evidence – for example, pertaining to illegitimacy, adultery, addiction, crime, criminal conviction, or being on the losing side in warfare. And many people will have succeeded, despite the best efforts of subsequent scholar-sleuths. Today, however, those seeking to erase their public footprint face an uphill task. The replicating powers of the electronic media mean that evidence removed from one set of files returns, unbidden, in other versions or lurks in distant master files. ‘Delete’ does not mean absolute deletion.

Concluding the saga of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), the bipolar anti-hero Michael Henchard seeks to become a non-person after his death, leaving a savage will demanding ‘That I be not buried in consecrated ground & That no sexton be asked to toll the bell … & That no flowers be planted on my grave & That no man remember me’.6
2014-5-Pic2 Non-person

Non-Person © www.idam365.com (2014)

Today: yes, people can still be forgotten; or even fall through the administrative cracks and become a non-person. But to disappear from the record entirely is far from easy. Future historians of on-line societies are going to face the problems not of evidential dearth but of massive electronic glut. Still, don’t stop writing BLOGs, tweets, texts, emails, letters, books, graffiti. If we can’t disappear from the record, then everyone – whether famous, infamous, or unknown – can take action and ‘bear witness’.

1 For Ötzi, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi.

2 See P.V. Glob, The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, transl. R. Bruce-Mitford (London, 1969); D.R. Brothwell, The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People (London, 1986).

3 T. Gray, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), lines 55-6.

4 See e.g. Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913: www.oldbaileyonline.org; London Lives, 1690-1800: www.londonlives.org; Clergy of the Church of England Database, 1540-1835: www.theclergydatabase.org; London Electoral History, 1700-1850: www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

5 G. Eliot [Mary Ann Evans], Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871/2), ed. W.J. Harvey (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 896.

6 T. Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character (1886), ed. K. Wilson (London, 2003), p. 321.

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