An Introduction to the 18th Century

Welcome to Back in the Day

Back in the Day aims to be a gentle and fun introduction to the world of Eighteenth Century Britain.

The British Eighteenth Century was a world of contrasts and extremes, from the fiery preaching of John Wesley to the seemingly universal availability of gin. From the beautiful music of composers such as George Frederick Handel, the lovely paintings of Allan Ramsay and Joshua Reynolds to the stark reality of poverty, disease and violence for the urban and rural poor.

It is an odd but noticeable thing that there are few costume dramas set in the 18th Century, certainly in terms of British TV and films (Outlander being a notable exception). There are few 18th Century novels still read today, those of Danie Defoe (Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders) and Fanny Burney (Evelina, Cecilia) being the rare exceptions.

Possibly because in some ways it seems a rather frivolous time, compared to the more industrial 19th Century, and a less troubled time compared to the politically tumultuous 17th Century it has been largely overlooked by contemporary historical novelists and film-makers alike.

If I was to present my reasons for finding 18th Century Britain exciting and intriguing I would present them in no particular order as:

  1. The Music of Handel, in particular his Oratorios Messiah , and Esther, his Concertos and his violin Sonatas;
  2. The paintings of Allan Ramsay, amongst many others, the portrait of his second wife Margaret Lindsay, of David Hume and of Flora MacDonald
  3. The struggle between the Houses of Stuart and of Hanover for control of the British Isles, the most notable milestone in which, being the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46;
  4. The figure and legend of Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, and his decline and fall;
  5. The diaries and novels of Fanny Burney, in particular her first novel Evelina, which is similar in some ways to Jane Austen, but with more humour and arguably far more realism;
  6. William Hogarth, who never shied away from the seamier side of life, and is best known for his drawings and engravings of prostitutes, con-men, gin-drinkers and the corruption and merry-making of 18th Century elections;
  7. The elegance of the pottery of Josiah Wedgewood;
  8. The career of Britain's first Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and his more than twenty year grip on political power;
  9. The career of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and the man who was said to have saved Britain from a French-style Revolution;
  10. The puncturing of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, Britain's first modern banking and property crash;
  11. The diaries of James Boswell, a Scot best known for his biography of Samuel Johnson, a witty and often searingly honest writer, best described by the modern phrase as a "chancer";
  12. The Union of the English and Scots Parliaments in 1707, an event much looked back upon as either a disaster or a success story but much debated in recent years;
  13. The poetry of Rabbie Burns, Scotland's national bard;
  14. I could go on, the proverbial list is endless!

I have very conveniently ignored what some may regard as the most interesting and well-documented part of the 18th Century, the last decade, which saw Britain entering a war with France that was to last for the next 25 years!