Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Georgians and Their Manners

Georgians at The British Library (source)
The British Library usually has great exhibitions, and this one is no exception: Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (til March 2014). The occasion is said to be the 300th anniversary of the accession of King George I in 1714. George IV died in 1830. So a little over a century is covered. As the subtitle suggests, the Georgians years really were the years that made modern Britain - so much that flowered in that century is clearly evident today, or is an obvious precursor to modern-day life. The life of the middle-class, that is, for this is the century that made them. The poor are mentioned now and then; the great generals and statesmen hardly at all, the prostitutes (of which there were many) never. Even the four "Georges" are introduced only at the beginning of the exhibition. This is about the flowering of the British middle class, and all that has meant for the western world.

When George I was enticed over from Hanover to establish a new protestant constitutional monarchy (George never did learn to speak English), England was set on the road to the dominance that helped it establish one of the great empires. Success in continental wars, innovative manufacturing, improved transport systems -- the country was driven on by technological inventions and entrepreneurial drive.

A page from Thomas Chippendale’s first furniture catalogue of 1754. (source)
The emerging middle class proved to have the tastes of the middle class today. Design and fashion flourished, new entertainment arrived, a new consumerist culture emerged. The printing presses began turning out newspapers, magazines and marketing print en masse for the growing middle class of merchants and professionals. They had money, and they wanted new buildings, new parks. The middle classes formed about one third of the population of Britain by the end of the period. There were emerging concepts of taste and politeness as the middle classes emulated a small but powerful elite. They built and furnished their homes in the latest styles, shopped for luxury goods, socialised at balls and assemblies.

It's this time that I think we can 'blame' for the bizarre cult of politeness that infects the modern Briton even today. The middle class Georgians, in an effort keep up with the aristocracy, who probably couldn't give a toss about "manners", set out all kinds of rules of etiquette in widely read books. The Victorians continued the fad, and in the 21st century you can still find a kind of twisted version. 'Being polite' was elevated above being sensible, so that even today in Britain you may find yourself being berated, rudely, for being, er, rude. You've transgressed some esoteric Georgian rule of etiquette, perhaps. Walked too slowly? Bumped into someone? Looked them in the eye? Cue tirade.

This is Victorian, but you get the drift...
In Georgian times the cities were still rough places of dirt and noise and only gradually improved as
elegant new streets and squares were built. The time of George IV was the time of architect John Nash, responsible for The Regent's Park and it's glorious surrounding Georgian buildings (and for turning Buckingham Palace into a palace). Georgian taste ran to classical architecture, expansive lawns and exotically planted flowerbeds.

The population of Britain trebled to 24 million and the East India Company imported luxury goods like tea, coffee, and sugar. Shopping became a social activity (sound familiar?) The fashion industry was born. But on the dark side, many luxury goods depended on slavery for their production. The British anti-slavery movement emerged in the 1780s but was not abolished until 1807: a dark episode rarely discussed these days.

Georgian dancing at the Assembly Rooms. (source)
Sociability was central to middle class Georgian life. There was a huge increase in public entertainments. There were new theatres (dozens still around today), and Assembly Rooms for dancing and gambling. Pleasure gardens and masquerades were hugely popular.

Drawn from the copious vaults of the British Library, there is on display a number of wonderful written artefacts (also known as books). There are the small tomes on etiquette, music, or what to discuss over the tea-table. There are huge, gorgeous volumes with illustrations of wild flowers. There is a particularly poignant small leather attaché case filled with chits documenting a young beau's gambling debts, left behind when he had to flee to the Continent to escape his creditors.

Visit, and understand a little more about the curious creatures who are the British.

The floor of the final room of the exhibition is a giant map of Georgian London, with each individual street clearly visible.

Information from the brochure accompanying the exhibition.
Pictures from the British Library website, and this review.

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