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British Sociability in the Long Eighteenth-Century

Challenging the Anglo-French Connection


Edited by Valérie Capdeville & Alain Kerhervé


Studies in the Eighteenth Century Series

Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2019

Hardcover. xvi+304 p. ISBN 978- 1783273591. £65


Reviewed by Claire Boulard Jouslin

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3




The present volume is the fruit of several years of academic and international sociability—including seminars and conferences co-organised by the general editors Valérie Capdeville (Université Paris 13) and Alain Kerhervé (Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest) between 2015 and 2019—and is meant to complement Annick Cossic’s six-volume collection La Sociabilité en France et en Grande Bretagne au siècle des Lumières (Le Manuscrit, UBO, 2012-2017), which compared the French and British forms of sociability and explored some of their main features—their emergence, places of  sociability, their  aesthetics and forms of resistance to that sociability.

Unlike Cossick’s collection, British Sociability in the Long Eighteenth Century : Challenging the Anglo-French Connection offers to tackle the national construction of sociability between 1660 and 1815, a subject which has not been given much attention in the numerous scholarly works recently published on sociability. This elegant volume constitutes a neat collection of fourteen chapters written by veteran and junior scholars. Their studies are presented in chronological order and provide an insight into the various places of sociability in existence in Britain—squares, clubs, tea-table, masonic lodges, salons, radical societies—as well as into such various forms of sociability as conversations, letters and toasts. It also illustrates how Protean, paradoxical and difficult to define the concept of sociability is.

The book is divided into three parts (‘Emergence of new political and social practices’, ‘Competing models of sociability’ et ‘Paradoxes of British sociability’), which are introduced by a summary of each chapter. It is completed with a general bibliography and a general index, which are most useful.

As indicated by the full title of the book and by the editors’ introduction, the argument of the book is threefold. It maintains that the features of British sociability are distinct from that of the French; that these British specificities emerged and developed from the Restoration and lasted well beyond the French Revolution. Finally, it claims to revise the standard scholarly view that British sociability was constructed in imitation to the hegemonic French model of sociability. It therefore implies that the origins of British sociability were first and foremost political.

This collection of studies somewhat qualifies such a confident title. Reading the various studies raises the feeling that reality was far more complex than suggested and that the distinctly British features of sociability did not seem that numerous—neither was the construction of sociability blatantly denying French influence nor was it as Francophobic as the title suggests.

Brian Cowan’s masterly bibliographical overview of seventeenth-century English sociability (‘Restoration England and the history of sociability’), which opens the first part, happily sets the history of sociability into a much longer historical timeline. It also warns against the double temptation of reducing sociability to a long eighteenth-century phenomenon, and of defining it simplistically as a harmonious eighteenth-century Habermasian outcome which would reflect J.H. Plumb’s myth of a stable 18th-century British monarchy. From the outset Brian Cowan highlights the complex, contradictory and paradoxical nature of sociability in Britain. Although he acknowledges tensions in Anglo–French relations in the Restoration period, Cowan also cautions readers against underestimating Francophilia and its impact on the development of sociability in Britain.

So, as Michèle Cohen put it in her preface to the book, what made British sociability so British? The book tentatively provides some direct and some more oblique answers to this intricate and vast question in the second and third parts respectively. It seems that if gender segregation was at the heart of British sociability, as the chapters by Valérie Capdeville (‘Club sociability and the emergence of new “sociable practices” ’), Markman Ellis (‘The tea-table, women and gossip in early eighteenth-century Britain’) and Jane Rendall (‘Gender and the practices of polite sociability in late eighteenth-century Edinburgh’) show; and if British painting academies suggest that they were more socially mixed than their French counterparts, as is evidenced by Elizabeth Martichou (‘Amateurs’ vs connoisseurs in French and English academies of painting’), the intense Britishness of British sociability is still to be explored.

So is the anti-French ideological construction of British sociability. Alain Kerhervé, who examines the codes of British epistolary sociability and concludes that they seem to be more socially opened than the French, also points out that it is hard to give a clear-cut answer since the epistolary guides he observes very much relied on French manuals. Thus the question mark to his chapter’s title (‘A theory of British epistolarity?’) suggests that caution is necessary when dealing with the political, anti-French foundation of British sociability.

It is however undeniable that forms of sociability in Britain did reflect the Anglo-French political rivalry, as P.Y. Beaurepaire’s chapter on ‘Masonic connections and rivalries between France and Britain’ shows; or that they could strengthen individual patriotic convictions. In her article titled ‘Competing models of sociability,’ Annick Cossic-Pericarpin confirms Jeremy Black’s conclusions on the nationalist effect of the Grand Tour on British travellers (The British Abroad : The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century, 2003) when she argues that Tobias Smollett settled back in England with restored health but also with the deep conviction that British liberties guaranteed superior forms of sociability than those of the continent.

In the same way, the third part uncovers sociable practices and some literary and journalistic representations of sociability that were directly linked to politics (read Emrys Jones’s chapter, ‘Friendship and unsociable sociability in eighteenth-century literature’, and Ian Newman’s ‘The anti-social convivialist’, for instance). It shows that while creating a “plebeian sociability”, some societies constituted a sometimes difficult initiation to democracy. A case in point is provided by Rémy Duthille (‘Respectability vs. Political agency’), who analysed the tensions generated by the necessity for the members of the London Corresponding Society to respect the codes of middle-class respectability, which made it difficult for them to voice radical demands inspired by the French Revolution.

However, if we agree with Linda Colley’s seminal study Britons : Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992) and its claim that Francophobia and the rejection of French values (religion, fashion, etc.) was one major component of the construction of Britishness, we remain unconvinced by the argument of this collection of essays that a specific desire to reject French sociability was the driving force behind the overall construction and evolution of British sociability. Part of the reason for such scepticism may lie in the absence of studies about the way French forms of sociability were perceived and represented in Britain. One wonders in particular whether it is accurate to claim, for the entire period, that French sociability as a whole was only portrayed as harmonious and hegemonic in Britain. Moreover, even though the third part of the book investigates forms of resistance to sociability which proved that currents of Imanuel Kant’s later, paradoxical concept of unsocial sociability (1784) were at work in Britain (read for instance, Allan Ingram’s ‘In company and out : The public / private selves of Johnson and Boswell’), one sometimes fails to understand why this concept should become the hallmark of British sociability and why such paradoxes should in particular distinguish the British from the French forms of sociability at the same period.

Despite those reservations, this collection of essays on British Sociability in the Long Eighteenth Century is stimulating and invites readers to explore further the definition of sociability and the complex interrelations between sociability and such concepts as those of civil society, of the self and of conviviality.



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