The Georgians, A Forum: Part 2

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by Dave Smith, University of Warwick

As a specialist researcher it’s refreshing to read a general history, especially one which is such a good read as The Georgians. I enjoyed the thematic approach and the elasticity of the periodicity. The time-shifts at the end of chapters connect the reader to historical themes such as film, song, literature, material culture and imagery. My favourite is on Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields which I recommend, especially by candlelight.

As my area of research is popular politics I looked at chapters nine and ten on the negotiation of political power. I liked the separation of the ‘Indoors’ and ‘Outdoors’ political worlds, ‘indoors’ being a euphemism for the exclusivity of elite power and also literally a physical barrier to wider participation as discussions were usually conducted behind closed doors. The term ‘Outdoors’ is used more elastically, to include a wide range of political activity from the emergence of Coffee house culture and the street politics of Chartism and insurgency. 

The ‘Indoors’ chapter charts the emergence of party and behind-the-scenes negotiation which backgrounded the introduction of state powers of legislation and taxation as well as the distillation of ministerial roles into many of the offices of state. Her reference to the Namierist “Glue of Patronage” resonates with the recent comeback of David Cameron into the Cabinet. So perhaps we are still in the Georgian era? This chapter is also strong in recognising the establishment of the concept of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition as a necessary foil to limit the power of the incumbent party of government. Corfield applies a geometric analogy to contrast the oblong rectangular nature of the adversarial chambers of state with the less rigid structures of the open forums of the streets. The chapter ends with a fascinating account of Edmund Burkes’s 1788 indictment of Warren Hastings arbitrary use of power illustrating a function of the House of Commons as a chamber of accountability. 

In the ‘Outdoors’ chapter, Corfield charts the emergence of regional newspapers and the later predominance of London dailies. I like her description of the press as a ‘great echo chamber of public debate’ and it’s great to read vignettes such as the one about free speech advocate and mayor of London Brass Crosby. I didn’t know he was the origin of the saying ‘bold as brass’. We are treated to a navigation of the complexities of categories of constituencies and ways of conducting contested elections, a process which Corfield defines as ‘collective proto-democracy’ and which was surprisingly more participatory than we imagine with women excluded by custom rather than law, the 1832 Reform Act bringing much of this local variation to an abrupt close. 

Cartoon depiction of the Spa Fields riot, printed 1817

Corfield doesn’t give Edward Thompson an easy ride, picking up on his tendency to read too much co-ordination and solidarity into the often-spontaneous eighteenth-century street rioting by what he termed the ‘Plebeian Crowd’. But as Corfield says, quoting Horace Walpole, this was the “century of crowds” and she has strong sections on the rise of Reform associations in the 1790s including the London Corresponding Society and later on Luddism. Her analysis of the strength of the Chartists at grass roots level in the form of Chartist churches dovetails quite nicely with my own work on the importance of community when considering the power of reform crowds.  

I would have preferred to see some coverage of the post-war political crisis in the form of the Spa Fields and other meetings in the years leading up to Peterloo. I couldn’t find any reference to the leaders of the reform movements. We are introduced to Joseph Sturge but not to Henry Hunt or Fergus O’Connor and there is no mention of the Birmingham Political Union in the section on the Great Reform Bill. But these criticisms shouldn’t detract from the strength of these chapters in giving the general reader a feeling of the operation of what Corfield calls the negotiation of political power.  

The Georgians is a great read and, while on the one hand Corfield pinpoints the emergence of the concept of Britishness, she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to identifying the flipside of eighteenth century industrial capitalism in its twenty-first century legacies of climate change or the compromising, in the eyes of posterity, of the reputations of various eighteenth century dignitaries for what is now considered their shameful participation in the slave trade. The book is engaging and would inspire budding scholars to read further.  

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