Tag Archive for: the georgians

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)

To celebrate the imminent publication of my book on The Georgians 1, my next set of BLOGs commemorates significant Georgian milestone dates: one for every month of the year.2 No problem for January. It must be Burns Night: Tuesday January 25th.

The hero is Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, the evocative Scottish poet and song-writer (1759-96).3 He fully deserves celebration. Not least for writing the world’s most sung song, Auld Lang Syne, which hymns the poignancy of partings and of affectionate remembrance.4
Rituals at Burns Night suppers include the ceremonious arrival of a special dish of haggis. It contains meat offal (heart, liver, lungs), minced and cooked in a special bag with fillings of oatmeal, onions, suet, and seasoning.5 The degree of ceremony adopted remains a matter of choice. But the grandest ritual sees a Scottish piper in full regalia, playing in a procession, in which the dish of haggis is proudly paraded. It’s then eaten, washed down with Scottish whisky. (These days, too, vegetarian and non-alcoholic alternatives are available).

Annual meetings in Burns’ honour began among his friends, from 1801 onwards – only five years after his death. Other convivial groups began to do the same. Within ten years, a critic denounced the spread of the custom. In 1811, he detected a positive ‘Burnomania’.6 What term would he have to invent in 2022, when there are at least 200+ Burns Clubs globally? In 1885, these were organised into the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF): its motto ‘Educate – Celebrate – Promote’.7

Clearly, the ‘mania’ has become settled and institutionalised. And it shows no sign of flagging. All the organised Societies host their own Burns Night suppers. But there are, in addition, many gatherings, which are spontaneous and ad hoc local initiatives. Thus the estimated figure of some 2,500 Burns suppers world-wide in January 2021 was probably too low. Meanwhile, an amiable venture from Glasgow University’s Centre for Burns Studies encourages revellers everywhere to share their memories, via an interactive Map.8

What is Burns’ special gift that generates such enthusiasm and loyalty? One component is undoubtedly Scottish national pride in his achievements. The strength of that cultural link should not be underestimated.9 And the Scottish diaspora over the centuries has taken Burns admirers world-wide. Yet it is completely wrong to assume that people from other nations don’t appreciate his work, even if they may need coaching in some of his less easily understood dialect usages. Indeed, the fact that many of his poems are known firstly as songs makes them easily memorable – the heartfelt musical meaning overriding any obscure terms.

Burns is thus a poet and song-writer for all times and peoples. His special gift consists in conveying richly complex thoughts in language of piercing clarity. He is simple but not trite. Loving but not soppy. When he is wryly melancholic, he is not bitter.

Who can resist raising a glass each year to the author of sentiments like ‘My love is like a red, red rose’; ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that!’ ‘O would some power the giftie gie us,/ To see ourselves as others see us’; ‘Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!’; and yet ‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet/ For the sake of Auld Lang Syne’.

All that, and the tribute taps into a tradition that now dates over 200 years. Burns was a Georgian radical who thought that people should be judged on their merits, not by their birth or titles. And his own merit is as radiant today as ever.


1 P.J. Corfield. The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP., London, 2022), pp. 470: publication date 22 January 2022.

2 Ibid., pp. 389-91.

3 The first biography was published soon after his death by R.H. Heron, A Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797); a relatively recent one is by R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011).

4 [M.J. Grant], Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture (Cambridge, Open Book publication, 2021).

5 Affectionate references to this quintessentially Scottish dish go back to Burns’ poetic address To a Haggis (1786), in T. Burke (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Burns (Ware, Herts, 2008), pp. 133-4, setting a trend for familiar commemorations, with successors like W. Foolie, The Scots Haggis [in verse] (Edinburgh, 1821); and D. Webster, The Scotch Haggis: Consisting of Anecdotes and Jests, Curious and Rare Articles of Literature …  (Edinburgh, 1822).

6 W. Peebles, Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns Considered … (Edinburgh, 1811).

7 Consult website http://www.rbwf.org.uk (accessed 10 Jan. 2022).

8 Report in https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2021/january/headline_769448_en.html (accessed 1o January 2022). The map will eventually be featured on https://www.scotland.org/burns.

9 C.A. Whatley, Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People (Edinburgh, 2016); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1734 (Leiden, 2015).

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