Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Politeness, sociability, and the literary world

Two of the dominant values of the Georgian era were 'politeness' and 'sociability'. Together they give an insight into the values of the period, its leisure pursuits, and its intellectual interests.  


The term, derived from the Greek polis (city state), carried implications of good breeding and sociability. ‘Politeness’ united (most of) the aristocracy, gentry, and middling sort in a common culture of ‘gentility’. They frequented the spa towns of Bath, Tunbridge (not yet Tunbridge Wells) and Buxton. Those who could afford to do so spent the winter in London where they attended plays and concerts, and retreated to the countryside in the summer where they paid ceaseless calls on their neighbours and attended the provincial theatre and assemblies. Like Jane Austen's Fanny Prince in Mansfield Park, they subscribed to circulating libraries. See here for another account of circulating libraries.

Newspapers and periodicals

In 1695 Parliament had made the momentous decision not to renew the Licensing Act that had required all published works to gain government approval before publication. This was followed by what the historian Julian Hoppit (A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727, Oxford, 2000) has called ’an explosion of printed matter issuing from the press, be it books, pamphlets, sermons, journals, or newspapers’. One foreigner noted that 
‘England is a country abounding in printed Papers’. 
These catered for a reading public eager for news and the expression of opinion.

The Daily Courant (1702) was the first daily newspaper. 

Members of polite society also read periodicals, The Tatler, The Spectator, and (from 1731) The Gentleman's Magazine.

Title page of The Gentleman's Magazine
from 1759.

Coffee Houses

These periodicals were designed to be read not merely in the home, but in coffee-houses. The coffee-house, an institution that had existed in England since the reign of Charles II.  Men (and only men!) would sit at tables, read the newspapers that were supplied and drink the newly fashionable drink of coffee. In 1714 there were probably 650 in London and Westminster. In 1791 a German resident of London (Frederick Augustus Wenderborn) published a travel guide for continental readers. He estimated that London alone then had three thousand coffee houses compared to a mere six or seven hundred in Paris. He warned his readers that they would find the locals hunched over newspapers, diligently reading. He was not the only foreign observer to comment on the newspaper-reading habits of the British public

Sociability and pleasure gardens

Another key Georgian term is ‘sociability’. The Georgians enjoyed a wide range of leisure activities that created shared open spaces. These were particularly prevalent in London. Already one of the largest urban concentrations in the world, it generated a diverse entertainments industry. The best known site for public entertainments was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. There is a good short account in Penelope J. Corfield's booklet, Vauxhall: Sex and Entertainment: London's Pioneering Pleasure Garden (History and Social Action Publications, 2012). 

The Gardens in 1751
Public Domain

The gardens had existed from the 1660s, but in the 1730s they were given a makeover by a new manager, Jonathan Tyers. He retained the wooded characteristics of the site but he hung oil lamps from the trees. He added gravel walks, obelisks, ornamental arches, and (in 1743) a Rotunda. The gardens hosted concerts, dances, pantomimes, and masked balls. There is an informative blog post on the cascade here.

On 21 April 1749 the gardens hosted a full rehearsal of Handel’s 'Music for the Royal Fireworks', composed to celebrate the ending of the War of the Austrian Succession the previous year. Over twelve thousand people paid half a crown (more than doubling the normal entry fee) to attend, causing a three-hour traffic jam of carriages on London Bridge.

With an entry free of one shilling, Vauxhall was not reserved solely for the genteel classes. It was an environment where crowds could relax and were relatively free of the normal social conventions. However, it is unlikely there was much social mixing. Ordinary people came to watch the upper classes rather than socialise with them.

Samuel Johnson: literary celebrity

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Georgian politeness and sociability, and the ready availability of printed material gave rise to the cult of celebrity. Gossip magazines and newspapers printed anecdotes (not always accurate) of the private lives of famous people. The cult of the celebrity was accompanied by the rise of the celebrity-hunter. The most tenacious of these was the Scottish lawyer, James Boswell, who made it his life’s work to ‘collect’ famous people. While abroad, he visited Voltaire and Rousseau but his greatest acquisition was Samuel Johnson.

Boswell rightly recognised Johnson's greatness:

  1. He wrote the first major English dictionary.
  2. He was the centre of a dazzling literary and artistic circle.
  3. He wrote poems, a novel, literary criticism, and an innovative work of travel.

He is (thanks largely to Boswell) the most quoted Englishmen after Shakespeare and Dickens.

He arrived in London from his native Lichfield, an unsuccessful schoolmaster, in March 1737, in the company of his former pupil, David Garrick. He began to write for the Gentleman’s Magazine, reporting parliamentary debates that he never attended. His most significant career opportunity  came when a group of booksellers hired him to compile a new English dictionary, the equivalent to the great works on the continent. The contract was signed on 18 June 1746. Johnson was to be paid 1500 guineas, out of which he had to defray the cost of his copyists. Delivery was to take three years. In fact, it did not appear until 15 April 1755.

Some of Johnson's definitions have become famous, giving a good insight into his many prejudices. 

  1. Oats: ‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’
  2. Network: ‘Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.’ Reticulated: ‘Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.’ [any the wiser?]
  3. Pension: ‘An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.’
  4. Whig: the name of a faction

'Dictionary Johnson' was now a celebrity. His famous meeting with Boswell, the great celebrity-hunter of the age took place in May 1763. His enjoyably indiscreet Life of Johnson appeared in 1791, after the great man's death.

The Club

In 1764 Johnson and his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds founded the Literary Club that met at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street. There were originally nine members, including the writers, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith. Others were later added by election.They included David Garrick, Adam Smith and James Boswell.

A representation of the Club, dating from 1851
All the characters are easily identifiable.

The Bluestockings

The Club was masculine space, from which women were excluded. But many of its members also belonged to another group, the Bluestockings, led by a group of women in imitation of the French salon, where men and women met together on more or less equal terms. It's leader was the wealthy widow, Elizabeth Montagu. Members included Elizabeth Carter, translator of the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, Fanny Burney, the author of the best-selling novel, Evelina, and the playwright, Hannah More. More's poem, 'The Bas Bleu', written in 1783 and published three years later, set out the bluestocking ideal of witty and learned conversation.

'The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain' by Richard Samuel,
a celebration of the bluestockings,
was exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1778. 


  1. The twin concepts of politeness and sociability lay behind a thriving Georgian public culture.
  2. This culture was reflected in newspapers, magazines and periodicals, many of them read in coffee houses. Books were read in the home or in circulating libraries.
  3. The Literary Club founded by Johnson and Reynolds created a sociable space for intellectual culture.
  4. The Bluestockings tried to create a similar public intellectual space for women.

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