Friday, June 6, 2014

The age of shopping

I.R. and G. Criukshank, British Library 838.i.2
I have been having a hard time wrapping my mind around Goethe and this blog lately. Partly it's a case of actual physical obstruction (a bedroom was painted) and partly other intellectual activities (a talk on Sylvia Townsend Warner at the New York Public Library on May 29). This morning, however, I read something in The Times Literary Supplement that may jump start me again. It was a review in last year's Christmas issue of the TLS (yes, I am far behind there, too) of an exhibition at the British Library entitled Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain. "Georgian" here refers to the four Georges who ruled Britain from 1714 until 1830, and the title of today's post, taken from the TLS review, refers to the growth of consumer society in Britain in that era, assisted along by international commerce and trade. "From the East Indies came sugar, coffee, tea," writes Norma Clarke, professor of English at the University of Kingston, and "the ritual of the tea table was a centerpiece of Georgian politeness."

There is, however, no "downstairs to this upstairs, no servants or exploited laborers," Professor Clarke writes, in her annoying review. Thus, while it is true, as she admits, that "jobs and new entertainments drew people to London and rapidly expanding cities," the exhibition fails to mention the Enclosure Acts "that drove them off the land." All in all,  she writes, "1714-1830 was quite a good time to be born in Britain if you were dealt a decent hand in the aspirational middle classes, and did not have to call in the doctor too often."

Does this sound like modern carping or what? Professor Clarke's criticisms disregard the considerable enlargement of the "middle class" produced by the rising tide of commerce. The enjoyment of coffee and tea, as the Cruikshank caricature shows, seems to have extended its reach down to the lower orders as well. Slavery, war, exploitation, child labor, and so on are all part of the human past, but it also cannot be denied that the prosperity that began to be produced in the Georgian era was also accompanied by tremendous progress in many material areas of life. In the West and increasingly in the rest of the world, people live better than ever before because of such material progress. We should be grateful to our forebears for that inheritance.

As I have mentioned in numerous posts, it was the rise in prosperity occasioned by trade that began to acquaint Germans with the French and the English and vice versa, both in consumer good and in literary products, and, in the end, made "Europeans" of them all.

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