The Eighteenth Century

The Eighteenth Century

The Eighteenth Century

The Eighteenth Century

Excerpt

The self-portrait of an age rarely coincides with the likeness created by posterity. Certainly the men and women who lived in Britain 200 years ago would have been surprised by many of the labels subsequently attached to their times. That once popular but now unfashionable phrase, the age of reason, would have made a sort of sense although it was not contemporary currency. Equally, an age of political stability did not always feel quite like that to those facing dynastic struggles and constitutional upheavals; a period of agricultural improvement was experienced by many country people as a time of disruption and decline. It is only the hindsight of a revolution to come which makes 'pre-industrial' at all intelligible as a term to describe this stage in social evolution. The commonest literary or cultural label, 'Augustan', was used at the historical juncture to which it refers. It was originally applied to the age of Charles II, but came increasingly to cover the aspiring self-image of living writers who strove to identify themselves with imperial Rome. But it did not take long for the phrase, together with the concept it represented, to acquire an air of irony, if not downright unreality. The term survives as a textbook formula: few students of the period today would talk of the Augustan age, except as a neutral historical shorthand which enables them to point without describing or explaining.The least objectionable labels are the most modest -- the Georgian era or the Hanoverian century. In fact . . .

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