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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: October 2020



Mapping the generational contours of the eighteenth century does not present an orderly picture of cultural change but a cluttered array of crossing points as various causal factors interweave to produce a rich and vibrant social fabric. Concentrating upon a specific locality has brought the fine detail into view, making a pattern of change discernible that is neither parochial in nature nor localised in scope, but is instead indicative of profound social and cultural transformation in a national, and ultimately imperial, context. This was a momentous generational transition. The cultural landscape had been fundamentally redrawn as the mid-century children grew up. Age relations were transformed, as were attitudes towards the concepts of rank, gender, and place; and the interconnected nature of these social categories intensified the consequences of this cultural shift.

Generational Steps

This change was not a revolutionary event. It was not enacted by a single generation. Two generational steps had been taken, two interrelated stages of transition in which age relations were reimagined as part of a complex, and often contradictory, network of cultural relationships. Perceptions of age cannot, therefore, be understood in isolation. During the early decades of the century, for instance, age was closely linked to the concepts of gender and rank because both masculinity and social status had been qualities that were acquired with maturity. Prepubescent boys lacked the necessary physical traits to be classed as male. But more than this, the independence of a householder was an adult male preserve. In contrast to this public male status, the private domestic sphere was perceived as effeminate and was linked to the dependent position of both women and children. Paradoxically, imported luxuries and cosmopolitan ideas were also linked to effeminacy and youthfulness, in contrast to a masculine authenticity that was rooted in custom and tradition, and so dependent upon age and experience. No less incongruously, the concept of politeness had been associated with both the mature masculine public sphere and youthful cosmopolitan effeminacy. All of this confounded the various definitions of domestic as an antonym to public, foreign, and natural (or uncultivated), adding a spatial dimension to the overlapping social categories of age, rank, and gender.

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