The Pursuit of Pleasure Was All That Mattered; Gender Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830.edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery (Yale: Pounds 40)

The Birmingham Post (England), February 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Pursuit of Pleasure Was All That Mattered; Gender Taste and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830.edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery (Yale: Pounds 40)


Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Eighteenth century England was politically unsavoury and in a sexual sense totally devoid of morals with hygiene which could be judged only by comparison with the nearest sewer.

And things haven't changed all that much by the first quarter of the 19th century both in England and North America, a period of flagrant hypocrisy where God spoke only to the affluent middle classes while in England, at least, a veil was drawn over the rest of an impoverished cruelly-misappropriated society.

This was a world where the streets stank, faces were pitted with smallpox scars, virginity was sold to the highest bidder and unwanted new-born babies were left to rot in the gutters. The pursuit of pleasure was all that mattered.

In comparison to other centuries the access to material things was unprecedented. Silk, scents and social graces were the things one rated above all else and British Atlantic was a trade route which brought (sometimes via Europe) beautiful things to these shores which most people found irresistible.

You could choose in the London shops from oriental silks and fabrics generally, lacquer furniture, blue and white porcelain, glass from Peking, jade, Chinese paintings, carved ivory and much more.

The British East India Company also exported fine tea and exotic fruits while the British silversmiths and the great porcelain companies at Chelsea, Derby and Worcester created the table furnishings for the tea ceremony.

Artefacts unrivalled even today where their prices at the great antiques fairs reflect their quality.

Clearly, the theatre was connected to trade and obviously the dramatists mocked the fashions of the day and derided the immorality which was practiced as young men scoured London, Bath or anywhere else for heiresses with a fortune to spare.

Joseph Surface in Sheridan's playThe School For Scandal chases Maria for her money. But he was only one among many. Sadly, once married the husband inherited automatically his wife's fortune and many a young man squandered the money at cards or horseracing neglecting his duties on his wife's estate.

Women were not immune to the temptations of the gaming tables. One heiress lost the lot at cards. By birth she could carry the title, Lady Glendow-er. But she got through so much money and fell in to the hands of the moneylenders that she was known in London society (punning on the Welsh hero) as "Owing Glendower". …

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