The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain by Penelope J. Corfield

For many people in Britain’s long 18th century, it was blindingly obvious that they lived in an era of irreversible national decline. Some called it a “Cheating Age”, others a “depraved Age”, still others an “Age of Vice”. For the firebrand Anglican preacher Henry Sacheverell, it was an era of “Sensuality, Hypocrisy, Lewdness, and Atheism”.

And even ordinary people’s letters betrayed a deep horror at the collapse of public morality, the travails of the economy and the catastrophic record of the nation’s fighting men abroad. “Formerly One Englishman was said to be the equal to Three Frenchmen,” an Essex grocer wrote in 1794. “But now the degenerate Brood cannot stand their ground against the scum of that rising nation of Men, their Sans Culottes.”

You would hardly guess from all this that, in reality, the Georgian age was one of the most dazzling episodes in British history: an age of science and industry, wealth and innovation, artistic excellence, military glory and overseas conquest. But one of the strengths of Penelope Corfield’s survey of the Georgians is that she finds lots of room for eccentric and contradictory voices.

An emeritus professor at Royal Holloway, she sets herself the formidable task of covering the whole of British life from the 1680s to the 1840s, touching on everything from tea and teeth to sex, slavery, sport and religion. Even the rise of the handshake gets a look-in: a “new style of egalitarian greeting”, Corfield says, that reflected improved standards of cleanliness as well as the meritocratic character of the booming towns and cities.

For the firebrand Anglican preacher Henry Sacheverell, 18th-century Britain was an era of “Sensuality, Hypocrisy, Lewdness, and Atheism.”

Who were the Georgians, then? They were short, Corfield says: men stood about 5ft 5in, women four inches shorter. The most common elements in their diet were bread and cheese; they used more soap than their predecessors and wore easily washed linen shirts instead of the “sordid and filthy” woolen undergarments of old.

Most were intensely patriotic, rallying behind their new national flag, the Union Jack, as well as their new anthem, God Save the King, written in the 1740s to celebrate the second Hanoverian monarch, George II. More could read and write than ever before, with male adult literacy reaching about 66 percent by 1840. And they were more skeptical than their predecessors, less likely to believe in devils, fairies, witches and magic. Even the evangelical revivalist John Wesley encouraged his followers to heed the call of human reason, “this precious gift of God”

What Corfield’s thematic chapters capture, though, is just how eccentric some of the Georgians were. The second Baron Rokeby, briefly MP for Canterbury, withdrew from public life to devote himself to swimming in his private unheated pool. An even more unconventional figure, John Tallis, spent more than 30 years in bed before his death in 1755, explaining that a curse had warned him to beware of fresh air. Tallis lay wrapped in blankets in a darkened room in a Worcestershire inn. But not even the peg on his nose could save him from the fate that awaits us all.

And then there was sex, always an entertaining element of a book on the Georgians. People were having more sex than ever before, Corfield says, perhaps because they were in better health.

About a third of brides, she thinks, were pregnant on their wedding day. Some had exotic tastes: a divorce case in Norwich in 1707 turned up evidence of “group sex, voyeurism and bisexual spanking”, and in 1791 a London prostitute was tried and acquitted for murder when her client’s autoerotic asphyxiation game went horribly wrong.

In Anstruther, Fife, the Beggar’s Benison club held regular pornography readings and group masturbation sessions. And the Georgians even had their own “sexpert”, a man called James Graham who ran a Temple of Hymen with a special impotence-curing “celestial bed”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the priapism of the age, he went bankrupt.

The Georgians even had their own “sexpert”, a man called James Graham who ran a Temple of Hymen with a special impotence-curing “celestial bed.”

As Corfield notes, this was not merely an age of innovation at home; it was the heyday of British expansion abroad. Slavery made people rich, but it also inspired an impassioned abolitionist campaign at home. “We are all guilty,” William Wilberforce told the Commons in 1789. However, as the poet William Cowper memorably noted, one of the greatest obstacles to abolitionism was simply the apathy and self-interest of most ordinary people, which sounds very familiar. “I pity them greatly. But I must be mum,” runs Cowper’s ironic couplet about the plight of the slaves. “For how could we do without sugar and rum?”

Corfield’s book is full of such intriguing little nuggets. In effect it’s a gigantic compilation of facts and quotations, arranged in chapters with titles such as “Exploring Sexualities” and “Georgian Voices of Gloom.”

Frustratingly, though, she stubbornly shuns any hint of narrative or character. Because the book is entirely thematic, we don’t really get a sense of change over time: one quotation might come from the 1690s, the next from the 1780s.

Potentially exciting moments come and go in a few words: the Seven Years’ War, arguably the world’s first global conflict and a pivotal moment in the making of the British Empire, gets half a sentence. The titanic characters of the age, from Dr Johnson to Charles James Fox, are mentioned in passing, if at all.

And even some of her intriguingly strange little stories are thrown almost casually away, leaving the reader panting for more. “At Nottingham’s Goose Fair Riot in 1766,” she tells us, “giant cheeses were rolled along the street, one knocking out the mayor, who was trying to reassert control.” But that’s it. Come on, professor, tell us more about the cheese!

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and the author of numerous books, including Who Dares Wins, Never Had It So Good, and The Great British Dream Factory