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

Freya Johnston

Squalor & Sublimity

The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain


Yale University Press 470pp £25

For the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins, who died in 2010, the 18th century was the finest and the vilest of times. Never before or since had there been so much elegance; and yet, for all that, Jenkins could not wholly regret living in a much uglier period:

if we are in danger of breaking our hearts over this spirit of beauty which has vanished from the earth, it is our duty to remember that there existed with it, ignored or tolerated, a state of squalor and wretchedness which, to this relatively humane and hygienic age, is nearly as difficult to visualize as its heavenly obverse.

Numerous philanthropic institutions may have been founded between the late 17th and the early 19th centuries, but relief for the poor was highly restricted in scope, as well as unsystematically implemented. Begging – even if it was not always prosecuted – remained a crime, subject to a wide range of punishments. In the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, twenty-six new pieces of vagrancy legislation were introduced, ensuring that official responses to beggars became increasingly severe. Hard labour, whipping and removal were regularised and by the

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