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07Jul

Meet the Georgians by Robert Peal review – tales from Britain’s ‘wildest’ century

Twelve stories of magnificent – if not moral - lives recall the fun and fizz of an unjustly overlooked period of British history

The way Robert Peal describes Georgian England, you’d be mad not to want to live there yourself. In “Merrie Englande” – he uses the term without irony and a fair shot of wistfulness – everyone is high on a trifecta of chocolate, sugar and gin. No one seems cross, although there must have been some almighty hangovers, and sex sounds polymorphous and unproblematic. In the period known as the long 18th century, suggests Peal in his euphoric introduction, you could love any way you chose, get giddy on spirits and dress in a positive rainbow of new colours imported from Britain’s nascent empire. Religion, moreover, was reasonable and unflustered by sin.

Peal knows it’s not really like this of course – in the 18th century most people couldn’t afford sugar, homosexuals were hanged and John Wesley founded Methodism in order to make people feel guilty about absolutely everything. Still, Peal’s aim in this avowedly populist book is to rescue the Georgians from collective cultural amnesia. For some reason we tend not to do them at school, jumping instead from one puritan to another, Oliver Cromwell to Queen Victoria. Nor do they crop up much in historical novels and costume dramas, ceding instead either to the Tudors (Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory) or the neo-gothic (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke). Editors of popular history magazines will tell you confidentially that putting a Georgian on the front cover, as opposed to a Plantagenet or a Nazi, just doesn’t shift copies. They are not what you’d call catchy.

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