Georgian Time


Henry Pether, Greenwich Reach, Moonlight, c. 1854

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

The Georgian era was an acutely time-conscious one; and people in growing numbers began to produce brisk summary verdicts upon their own era. In fact, it is often tricky to identify the full trends of the times whilst living through them. (Try helping future historians by writing a pithy summary of the early twenty-first century in the form of a diary, blog, or tweet.) But defining the times remains a popular form of instant journalism. Books published in 2000, for example, pronounced upon the current “Age of Globalization,” “Age of Virtual Reality,” “Age of Uncertainty” (a perennial favorite), or, more starkly, this “World of Lies, Hype, and Spin.” Authors who make such generalizations are not under oath. There’s nothing to stop them from adopting extreme views to make a point and then later changing their minds. These same qualifications applied to the Georgians who named the long eighteenth century. Nonetheless, their summary verdicts provide historians with a good starting point.

Over two hundred pithy Georgian dicta about “the age,” “the times,” or, more rarely, “the century” have to date been identified. (There are always more to find.) By the early nineteenth century, the practice of age-naming was commonplace. For the young philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1831, it was especially characteristic of a society in transition: “The idea of comparing one’s own age with former ages, or with our notion of those which are yet to come, had occurred to philosophers; but it never before was itself the dominant idea of any age.”

In fact, the age-naming process had begun much earlier than Mill imagined. Yet his general point was a good one. Georgian commentators were characteristically aware of change, whether they approved or disapproved, and were keen to convey their views to others. About half the Georgian age-namings expressed shades of woe and despair. Some were apoplectic; others mildly nostalgic. Their cultural negativism was, for the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1794, metaphorically located “a thousand fathoms deep in the dead sea of pessimism.” This particular abstract noun was at that date a novelty. Yet attitudes of woe, gloom, and deep despair were not.

“What Driveling Times Are These!”, Penelope J. Corfield, Lapham’s Quarterly

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