Saturday, March 5, 2022

Penelope J. Corfield's "The Georgians"

Penelope J. Corfield is professor of history at Royal Holloway, London University; president of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies; and an optimist. Her books include Time and the Shape of History and Power and the Professions in Britain 1700–1850.

Corfield applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain is highly germane to the book’s argument as a whole. The era was one of invention, exploration, creativity and learning – including learning from things that went wrong. One theme that the Georgians publicly discussed with new frankness was human sexuality. And that included acknowledgement of the power of desire, often described as being ‘on fire’. In the later eighteenth century, one ardent lover gave the term a fascinating techno-update. He claimed (page 99) that, when he first met the young woman with whom he scandalously eloped: ‘a kind of electrical fire shook them to their souls’. Thus the latest findings in experimental science were quickly borrowed to explain erotic attraction.

Then page 99 probes the unbuttoned discussions of sexual matters in Georgian novels and plays. Male impotence – a theme rarely discussed outside medical circles – was brought centre stage in Oliver Goldsmith’s successful comedy She Stoops to Conquer (1773). It stars a bashful young gentleman of good breeding who is psychologically conflicted. He can relax sexually only with women who are his social ‘inferiors’. Cue an enterprising young lady who resolves to overcome his problem. She ‘stoops’ socially to pass herself off as a maidservant. The bashful hero then manages to look this ‘lowly’ young woman in the eye. And slowly, slowly, Goldsmith depicts the growth of genuine affection and social ease between them. It’s beautifully done. Eventually, the maidservant’s true identity is revealed and the lovers are publicly united. The play’s sub-plot was full of somewhat more traditional rustic comedy, to palliate this frank exposition of the fragility of male sexual virility.

Not surprisingly, page 99 continues by showing that the Georgians’ unbuttoned discussions shocked and horrified many traditionalists. They agonised that the era’s ‘frightful’ moral ‘depravity’ was a portent of imminent national ruin. Well, Great Britain has more than survived. However, the Georgians’ innovations – and their long-term consequences – remain highly controversial. Page 99 reveals that the Georgian debates covered all fields of human endeavour, including the most intimate; and it invites readers to read on….
Visit Penelope J. Corfield's website.

--Marshal Zeringue