Georgian Attitudes Revealed


A street in Norwich
© AW Savage, 2017

There are times when I’m looking through some primary document and find myself brought up short by a comment that reveals an outlook or attitude that would never be acceptable today. A time when the only possible response is “What!?” It helps to remind me that social attitudes in the past were sometimes very different from those that prevail nowadays; and that judging past situations by present standards is both futile and pointless. Indeed, much of the worth of an interest in history is the constant reminder that context changes meaning; and that maintaining perspective is an essential part of reaching a sound understanding of any subject.

This happens most often when I glance through eighteenth-century newspapers. Take these examples. All come from a single page in The Norfolk Chronicle for August 26th, 1797.

Devotion (Not) Rewarded

This first story is rather a long one, so I will summarise the earlier part. It concerns a young man who formed a “tender connection” with a young lady by whom he had a child. His rich father however said that he would disinherit him if he did not “break off the connection”. All this happened while he was still at school. When he came to go to university, he promised to do as his father had asked. Secretly, the young woman dressed as a man and went to university with him, where she joined him in the study of the Ancient Classics. This she did so well that she won several prizes.

At the end of their university studies, the two next entered the Middle Temple to study the law. Once again, the young lady dressed as a man, applied herself diligently to her work and shone in the law as she had at the University.

After all this, the young man dumped her.

You can easily imagine the response there would be today. Unstinting praise for the devotion, hard work and cleverness of the young woman. Universal condemnation of the heartlessness of her lover. Not in 1797! Here’s what the newspaper wrote at the conclusion of the article:

After such constancy, few minds, we hope, are prepared to imagine the fate of the fair unfortunate; for she is now abandoned by her lover, a prey to grief, and with acquirements [sic] that, in her sex, are rendered almost useless in her progress through life by the custom of the world. The mother of the Gentleman has settled an annuity on her, but the philosophy of the schools does not prevent her from being inconsolable.

Barely a word of praise for her devotion. Nothing about her ability and hard work. No words of condemnation for her lover. Nothing really but an acknowledgement that all her learning would now be useless to her — even for bringing her consolation.

A Scientific Experiment

I will quote the next article verbatim.

Madame Blunet brought 21 children into the world in seven births. The French Academy, desirous, like Juno in Ovid, to know which contributed most to the success of this extraordinary fertility, whether the man or the woman, in order to ascertain the facts, proposed that Mons. Blunet, should make an experiment with his maid. He did so, and she presented him with three male infants at the end of nine months.

That’s it.

I love the euphemism “make an experiment with his maid”. Presumably, both wife and maid were expected to go along with this in the cause of scientific curiosity.

Damned Foreigners!

My final excerpt comes from a piece describing a visit to China by Sir George Staunton in which, according to the article, “they had an opportunity of seeing and examining almost everything that the country offers most curious, being continually accompanied by several persons of the highest dignity and authority in the Empire, who had it in charge every degree of attention and respect should be shown to them.”

After commenting on China’s vast population and the ingenuity shown in producing sufficient food for them, the writer turns to what he clearly sees as that nation’s greatest strength.

The most wonderful thing in China is the uniting so many millions of people under the influence of regular government. This is facilitated by the authority of age and experience over youth and ignorance, which is established by the laws, and confirmed by the immoral [sic!] usages of China.

Even so, the writer cannot leave the subject without a burst of British disdain for these damned foreigners; one that manages to draw in the French as well!

The Chinese are far inferior to the Europeans in scientific knowledge; but they greatly resemble the French, de la veille Cour, in vivacity and urbanity, in an overweening conceit of themselves, and in manifest airs of conscious superiority over strangers with whom they converse. They value and cultivate arts only in proportion to their utility.

Maybe the newspapers haven’t changed that much in 250 years.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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4 Responses to Georgian Attitudes Revealed

  1. Louise says:

    Well, for the scientific experiment, they did not even think to proceed the other way round, didn’t they ? Propose Madam Blunet to “make an experiment with”, say, her gardener ?


    • No way! However, she may have been glad to avoid an eighth pregnancy. Besides that, what they did proved nothing. We now know multiple births come from the release of multiple eggs. The man has nothing to do with it, save in the normal way. What the Blunets really needed was a vasectomy.


    • No way! Of course, we now know what they did do proved nothing, since multiple births depend on multiple eggs being released and implanting – or on one fertilised egg dividing. Nothing to do with anyone’s sperm. Of course, what M. Blunet really needed was a vasectomy — unless some of those seven births were due to the gardener!


  2. noelleg44 says:

    Would that the politically correct ideologues here in the US would listen to you. Instead they are tearing down anything related to the southern side of the Civil War since it offends them.


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