During the 18th-century, there was an explosion of growth in the number of people spending time reading. Amongst the many reasons for this, two stand out. Firstly, the importance of ‘politeness’ and sociability amongst the middle and upper classes. To be a success in polite society demanded an ability to converse fluently and intelligently on a wide range of subjects. Secondly, the growth of available leisure time amongst the same groups encouraged activities to fill that time. Reading was one of them. It required no physical prowess, cost relatively little and was deemed entirely suitable for young people and women — provided their choice of books was kept under review. However, as we shall see, a good many women refused to let their reading matter be limited by anyone.
The Culture of ‘Politeness’
The Georgians defined the essential nature of the society of their time as one based on politeness and civility. In practice, this meant those who mattered — the middle classes and the upper class elite — were expected to embrace certain basic Enlightenment values. Gone was the reliance on religion alone to provide ethical guidance. Belief in the divine right of certain people to rule had been replaced by notions of rationality in government as much as elsewhere. Superstition and the writings of long-dead Classical authors were being replaced by scientific enquiry and experimentation. Most pervasive of all, upper-class England had become an intensely sociable environment. Clubs proliferated. To be part of society meant a constant round of public and private engagements: dinner parties, balls, concerts, the theatre, assemblies and meetings of every kind. Those who aspired to shine needed the ability to converse in an intelligent, well-informed and persuasive manner on a wide variety of subjects of general interest. While the rich could send their children on The Grand Tour of Europe to provide them with the necessary knowledge and polish, the less wealthy turned to reading as a means of achieving a similar outcome.
As a result, serious reading began to focus on a new range of subjects. Previously the literate classes had sought to better their understanding of topics such as theology, philosophy and law. They now turned to subjects much less likely to provoke disagreement and rancour. One of the hallmarks of politeness was to avoid sectarianism, bigotry and conversations likely to lead to angry quarrels. Civility demanded that any disagreements should be limited to rational discussions, and be capable of an amicable resolution. Then, as now, one of the quickest ways to ruin a pleasant conversation was to introduce politics or religion.
Indeed, foreigners attributed Britain’s growing commercial success in part to the general atmosphere of tolerance which prevailed as much in conducting business as in public assembly rooms and private parties. The British, they explained, were willing to do business with almost anyone, of any race, religion or outlook, so long as that business could be conducted profitably. Jews, for example, played a major role in British commerce throughout the century. There were minor outbreaks of anti-Semitism, but nothing that was allowed to interfere with mercantile interests. At the same time, British merchants traded happily with the Arab world, with the Indian subcontinent, with China and with all the Catholic countries of Europe. Tolerance was good for business.
Of course, life wasn’t composed entirely of serious occasions. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that reading purely for personal pleasure was a Georgian discovery.
‘Reading for Pleasure’
As the 18th-century progressed more and more people saw reading as one of the great pleasures of life; something to be savoured in private and avidly discussed amongst friends and family.
It’s no coincidence that the growth of the novel was also an 18th-century phenomenon. While novels could be seen as providing a greater insight into other people’s lives and ideas, the primary purpose of reading them was always pleasure: an enjoyable and generally harmless way of passing the time. The puritans and moralists of the day railed against such frivolous activity, but to no avail. They claimed that reading novels would tempt respectable women into infidelity and lasciviousness. No one took any notice. By the end of the century, novels had become the commonest books available in most of the circulating libraries which had grown up all over the country.
A measure of the impact of reading should not be limited to books. The eighteenth century also saw a massive growth in the number of newspapers, magazines and pamphlets reporting on every topic under the sun. While the discussion of partisan politics in purely social environments was generally frowned upon, people aspiring to ‘politeness’ were nevertheless expected to be well informed on a wide range of matters of current interest.
This increasing interest in current affairs was not without its issues — even dangers. As literacy spread from the upper classes, through the middle classes to the artisans, shopkeepers and local tradesmen, it facilitated the spread of ideas of every kind, not just those that were deemed acceptable to the ruling elite. People were tempted into exploring radical ideas and questioning the status quo. Look at the rapid spread of the writings of Tom Paine, especially when the second part of “The Rights of Man” was made available at only sixpence a copy. While the government of the time did all it could to limit the publication of anything it deemed seditious, it never quite succeeded. Reading opened Pandora’s box, releasing terrors as well as treasures.
One of the side-effects of this interest in polite conversation was to provide new opportunities for women to take part in society outside the home. Not only were many of them participants on an equal level with men in the mass of conversations which took place in both public and private settings; many became the leaders of important salons devoted to the discussion of serious ideas. These ‘bluestockings’ had a significant impact, not only on society in general, but in many cases on the thinking and opinions of some of the most important men in the land. No one was allowed to them what to read or what to discuss, though mostly they adhered to the ‘ban’ on contentious political and religious matters. Towards the end of the century, even this was ignored by writers such as Harriet Martineau and Mary Wolstencraft.
I don’t think it is too fanciful to compare the impact of the increased appetite for reading in the eighteenth century to the effect of social media in our own. Both allow information and ideas to flow more freely. Both make it harder for governments to impose any kind of censorship. Both contain a great deal of rubbish, falsehoods and opportunities for confidence tricksters and agitators. At the same time, both increase people’s awareness of the world around them and provide the means for a great deal of pleasurable social contact. The explosion of new ideas which began in the eighteenth century led to reform in the nineteenth, and eventually to the undermining of the previous ruling elite. What our obsession with social media will lead to is anybody’s guess. So far, the one thing that can be said for certain is that the Georgian virtues of reason, politeness and civility seem to have been excluded in favour of emotionalism, dogma and rancorousness. We can only hope that the outcome will somehow still be beneficial in the long term.