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About 20 years ago, Britain’s Channel 4 showed a fascinating multi-part documentary on the Georgians.

The Georgians (1714-1837) were divided into two camps: God-fearing families and the underground movement of libertines who revelled at secret clubs in London.

While a pater familias might read an improving book, including the Bible, to his family after supper, young homosexuals were preparing for a night out, hidden from view, where they played the role of pregnant women with cheese wheels stuffed up their shirts.

The Victorians followed. Morality reigned supreme, at least on the surface.

Where is Britain today?

On July 28, 2021, The Times‘s Laura Freeman posited that we are probably closer to the Victorians, where everything came in for censure. We are no different in our moral outrage, criticising everything, from the lack of mask wearing to school curricula (emphases mine):

What a dreary period we’re living through; what a tutting, humourless lot we’ve become. Lace your corsets tighter, girls. Gentlemen, tip your stovepipe hats. Ours is a finger-wagging age. “Shame!” goes the cry. Shame on Matt Hancock for his undistanced grabbing. Shame on the chancellor who attempted to test and release. Shame on the health secretary who dared to say “cower”. Shame on Carrie for her Prince Regent tastes. Shame on JK Rowling, shame on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Shame on the panic buyers, the holidaymakers, the nightclubbers and shame, shame, shame on the man who put a firework up his bum. Shame, most of all, on any comedian who cracks an off-colour joke. The howl goes up on Twitter: We Are Not Amused.

How very Victorian it is, this purse-lipped Ruskinism, this prim pretence of moral outrage. It may be a myth that the Victorians covered their piano legs lest polished curves inflame the passions, but bodies were rigidly buttoned and gloves resolutely kept on. Let no Victorian daughter go out without her white kid gloves and let no modern Miss board a train without her floral facemask. We can just about cope with an ankle, but not an uncovered nose.

When details leak of the Downing Street decor, we clutch our jet necklaces and invoke William Morris: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” No useless Lulu Lytle cushions, then. Meanwhile, like Thomas Bowdler with his Family Shakespeare, “in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family”, we want to clean up the curriculum, sanitise our school set-texts. May no improper word or deed corrupt our kiss-curled Little Nells. All new Young Adult books must now pass the pince-nez test of the publisher’s “sensitivity reader”. On Twitter we are horrified, appalled and disgusted. We have fainting fits, demand cancellations, resignations and a bottle of sal volatile.

Laura Freeman says we need to look at the Georgian era to rebalance the spectrum, but several problems emerge with her suggestion. We are too dumbed down to appreciate either satire or liberty. By the way, my English class in high school had to read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal one Friday afternoon:

Recognise that when Jonathan Swift — or today’s Substack equivalent — writes A Modest Proposal he isn’t actually advocating that the Irish eat their babies. Allow for irony. Accept that authors ought to be mad, bad and dangerous to follow. Byron had to be accused of incest, sodomy and assorted infamous crimes before he went into exile. All the modern author has to do is grope for the old word for woman.

Talking of groping: how I would have liked to see Gillray let loose on Hancock, or Hogarth engrave a satire on the No 10 flat. It isn’t that Hogarth never shook his head or taught a lesson. This is the man who invented the Modern Moral Subject, but the moral had to make you laugh along the way. Hogarth understood that sin is fun and vice is nice until it isn’t. That’s why we drink and cheat and lie and shop until we drop with debt.

In his chapter on the journalist and politician John Wilkes, [author Robert] Peal tells the story of Wilkes’s imprisonment in April 1763 for criticising the “odious measures” put forward in that year’s King’s Speech. When Wilkes was taken to court, his supporters cheered from the gallery. The judge demanded silence. He would not be swayed by a rabble.

“That is not the clamour of a rabble, my Lord,’’ replied Wilkes, “but the voice of Liberty, which must and shall be heard!” Not even the King could cancel Wilkes.

So, unpurse those lips, unlace those stays and with Alexander Pope proclaim: “The man that loves and laughs, must sure do well.”

No, that would never do in 2021. British society, on the whole, is too far gone. Many begged for lockdowns last year and cancel culture reigns supreme.

We are now in two camps.

One, dominated by the media, the Left and the elites, is fully in the Victorian one: demanding facemasks, lamenting our EU exit and calling for various academics to resign for not holding ‘correct’ social views.

The other, less influential but more prevalent among the rest of the population, including tradesmen and other small business owners, is Georgian: appreciating a good laugh, a walk down to the pub and, well, fun.

It seems as if we will remain ‘Victorian’ for quite some time yet.

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