I don’t usually write ‘opinion’ pieces. What has caused me to make this exception is a week or two spent reading about the many radical demonstrations, ‘seditious’ sermons and writings and outright riots which marked Norfolk during the eighteenth century, reaching a peak in the period between 1790 and 1795.
The question it leaves me with is this. Why is this turbulence routinely ignored in historical fiction, popular biographies and even many best-selling history books?
As a follower of all kinds of writing about the eighteenth century, the sheer amount and vehemence of anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric in the period came as a major surprise. I guess social historians interested in the working class are sniggering at this point, since they will say they knew about it all along. But even if that is so, my main point remains valid: why does so little of the real instability, conflict and disunity of the period in Britain show up in current histories, biographies and historical fiction?
One possible answer is the prevalent fashion in writing history and biography: so much focus on the minutiae of daily lives, clothes, manners and experience; so little space left for including radical thought and argument.
Much current social history is a necessary corrective to the narrow focus on battles, military leaders, famous men and national politicians which was the fashion for so long. It’s not wrong — far from it — but it does seem to me to run the danger of producing just as narrow a picture, if one extended in the opposite direction.
Our Short Attention Span?
Then there are popular TV history programmes, like the ones made by Dr Lucy Worsley — carefully researched, wonderfully presented, but tending to focus on the surface of the times, with much dressing-up and re-enacting of amusing or exciting events. Great fun, of course; but, since TV programmes are generally unsuited to exploring a topic in any great depth, leaving an impression in many minds that what they show is all there was.
History does not fit easily into hour-long programmes with plenty of visual interest; nor is it always simple, light-hearted or sexy. Much of the past arose from choices and actions based on serious, complex, lengthy and even tedious arguments with no visual component at all.
Emphasis on Breaking Past Taboos?
Another current fashion is to delve into areas which were unmentionable in the past: sex (especially gay sex), adultery, bigamy and the full range of unusual human relationships.
Again, I applaud this as necessary and often interesting. But were people of the time so wrapped-up in who was sleeping with whom and exactly how they were having sex, that they never considered the wider issue of who set society’s moral and legal standards; and whether they were logical, useful or even appropriate?
Ignoring the Role of Religion?
Religion and religious differences are both routinely ignored, which is a much more serious omission. Religion typically provided both the language and the modes of argument used in eighteenth-century political controversy. Today most people either think religion is a purely personal matter, or rarely think about it at all. Religion is not something to argue about. Tolerance is always assumed to be the best way.
That definitely was not the case in the eighteenth century. Forget abstruse questions of rival theologies. Religion was intensely political. It wasn’t long since English people had fought and killed over variant understandings of 2000-year-old writings. Here’s what *The Annual Register* said in 1795:
The publication of Mr. Burke’s sentiments on the French revolution, and the subsequent answer [by] Mr. Paine, in his celebrated performance, styled The Rights of Man, were the first signals to the ministerial and popular parties in this country, to engage in that violent and acrimonious contest, which is not yet terminated. These two famous performances revived, as it were, the royal and republican parties that had lain dormant since the Revolution in 1688. They now returned to the charge with a rage and animosity equal to that which characterised our ancestors during the civil wars in the reign of King Charles the First …
Georgian and Regency religion was not far off being as touchy a political topic as the various versions of Islam are now.
Did you accept the idea that social and political structures were laid down by God, with the king at the top and everyone else in set unchangeable ranks below? Did you believe it was God’s will that you should know your place and be content with your lot in life? Did you believe only the established church could properly interpret God’s will and commandments? If so, you were exactly the kind of person most acceptable to the established order.
But what if you asked awkward questions? What if, like Baptists, Independents and Primitive Methodists, you rejected the notion of any ecclesiastical hierarchy? What if you thought that you could understand God’s will by reading the Bible for yourself? The Primitive Methodists for example, especially strong in East Anglia, were very happy to challenge the status quo. Indeed, they were the godfathers of both modern trade unionism and much of today’s left-wing thought.
What of those like the Unitarians, also strong in East Anglia, Quakers and various Deists, agnostics and atheists who rejected all or part of the idea of Jesus as a divine figure; seeing him only as a prophet or wandering Jewish preacher? Maybe some of his teachings were worth following; maybe others were not. In every case, what mattered was to use your own mind and experience as your guide through life. How seditious was that?
In Georgian and Regency times, then, religion and politics were more or less the same thing. Fear of foreign domination was translated into antipathy to Roman Catholics. Dissent was seen as an outward sign of some hidden tendency towards disloyalty to the crown. To be a Tory was to be a loyal Anglican. To be a Dissenter almost certainly made you a Whig.
Religious belief was also seen as the underpinning of all law and morality. Take belief away and neither would count for anything. To be an avowed Deist or atheist branded you as seditious, immoral and untrustworthy almost regardless of anything else. There are even a few who still believe that today, especially in America, despite abundant proof that atheists can be just as moral and law-abiding as anyone else; and that even being a religious ‘professional’ did not prevent some people from behaving both immorally and illegally, for example in the sexual abuse of children.
Distortion by Historical Novelists?
If these are the worst offenders at producing a pretty, ‘Walt Disney’ view of the period — ladies in beautiful gowns flirting with handsome rakes in rich velvet coats — they have good cause. Most people read fiction for entertainment and an escape from the hardships of everyday life. Romance is just that: an idealised world where good always triumphs in the end.
They even have the greatest of eighteenth-century novel writers on their side. Jane Austen cannot have led such a sheltered life as to be unaware of the turmoil around her. Yet she chose to ignore it in her writing, hardly even mentioning the war with France.
Yet it’s also true that in ignoring the social upheavals of the time, historical fiction writers are not just falsifying history — not that much of a problem in fiction — they are also denying themselves a huge range of plot options and areas for character development.
Where does this leave me? I guess with the exciting feeling that there are large areas of eighteenth-century history that are being ignored by almost all but academic historians — and by some of them as well. Even better, I can see a mass of options for providing my own fictional characters with new problems and opportunities for action. Best of all, I now have a vast, fresh field of potential topics for this blog!
But to be serious for a moment, what it tells me is that it is harder than most of us think to take off the distorting goggles of our own times and see the past in its own terms. Perhaps we should all try— professional historians, amateurs like me and historical fiction writers too — to be very clear where our vision ends and the reality of past lives continue beyond our sight. We may need to select and simplify, but we have no need to distort as well.