THE PLEASURES OF THE IMAGINATION: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century by John Brewer, HarperCollins pounds 30

After Mrs Thatcher's vulpine declaration that there is no such thing as society, we know how easily a culture can be dismantled. John Brewer's long, polymathic history shows what hard and expensive work it took to create that culture in the first place. Until the late 17th century, England - the land and all its cultural spoils - belonged to aristocrats, who graciously allowed their inferiors to breathe the same air. Brewer describes the sudden transformation brought about by middle- class enrichment and the extension of literacy during the Georgian decades.

A Bristol milkmaid now wrote poems, adopting the pseudonym Lactilla; so did a thresher, while a former footman set up shop as a publisher. Artists, no longer courting the favour of high-born patrons, sold their wares in an open market. Tabloids on Grub Street sang the rowdy praises of vulgarity. Dramatising the battle between Ancients and Moderns, Pope and Swift complained that classical values were being debauched. But their imprecations went unheeded. The new culture based itself, like the consumer economy which made it possible, on the ready gratification of appetite. Its purpose, as the essayist Addison fecklessly remarked, was to stimulate "the pleasures of the imagination". In the 18th century, life meant liberty, which was hedonistically glossed as the pursuit of happiness.

Brewer's book is best when describing the provision of spaces where happiness could be pursed with impunity - the coffee house for instance, which was a genteel alternative to the libertine court and the uncouth tavern, and had books as part of its furniture, or the higher-minded debating club: the burghers of Newcastle enthusiastically enrolled in a Society for Mental Improvement. Because culture must allow for dissidence, other settings pushed back the bounds of propriety. The artists' studio was a place of dalliance, where the raffish and the respectable fraternised: Joshua Reynolds painted tarts in the morning, and toffs (who were late risers) in the afternoon. Opera houses separated music from any liturgical or official function, and made it a self-sufficient, self-glorifying delight. "Myself," as the beatified trollop trills in Handel's Semele, "I shall adore."

Sometimes mellifluous happiness pursued you, and during Handel's Rinaldo in 1711 the audience was dive-bombed by platoons of sparrows and finches, released from the stage. The pleasure-gardens at Vauxhall served as an alfresco art gallery, where Hogarth exhibited his paintings and Roubiliac set up his statue of Handel playing a lyre en deshabille, with a slipper lolling off his foot. But the gardens also contained shadowy supper boxes and risque alleys, hide-outs for those whose happiness craved the cover of darkness.

A culture is an arena of conviviality, a forum of shared pleasures. Georgian London, whose reconstruction Brewer so meticulously describes, catered to a new kind of human being, defined in Addison's Spectator as "sociable man". Milton rousingly called a great book "the precious life-blood of a master spirit." Oliver Goldsmith dispensed with the lofty notions of preciosity and mastery, and with the bloodshed: for him, to read a book was like gaining a new friend. By the end of the period Brewer covers, the sense of entitlement absolved individuals from the chore of having to read the books a national tradition had bequeathed to them: a character in Jane Austen remarks that "Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution." Here are the beginnings of that proprietorial anti-intellectualism which still defines the English attitude to culture.

After the ideological schisms of the 17th century, revised covenants ensured an armistice between members of the community. The vogue for oratorios, performed by ever-larger groups, paid tribute to a shared humanitarianism, not religious faith. When the diarist Richard Marsh heard Handel's Messiah in 1784, he rejoiced that "many thousands of spirits" were "actuated by one soul", socially harmonised by music. The debating clubs solemnly legislated against inebriation, fined members for insulting each other, and sometimes banned religious and political controversy. Because the pursuit of happiness also meant the acquisition of wealth, there were good mercantile reasons for keeping the peace, and the journalist Richard Steele referred to politeness as "the commerce of discourse".

The discussion of cultural property often invoked an intellectual laissez- faire. When 18th-century booksellers defended their monopoly of classical authors, those who opposed perpetual copyright insisted that the public interest required "free circulation of knowledge and information". Shares in ancestral figures were now freely available, secular versions of the relics treasured by pilgrims: at Stratford-on-Avon a factory industriously turned out chairs and tables carpentered "from a mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare in his garden". To confer cultural value entailed fixing a price tag, even if the object being evaluated was a view which no one could own. The poet Thomas Gray, visiting the Lake District in 1769, admired Derwentwater through a Claude glass which miniaturised the landscape and made it look portable, like a souvenir of itself. The scene in the glass, he smirked, "would fairly sell for a thousand pounds".

The imagination's pleasures could be mercenary, and also lubricious. The petit-bourgeois profiteer Robinson Crusoe is one of the 18th century's mythical figures; the libertine Don Giovanni, compulsively gratifying different appetites, is another. Among the characters retrieved from obscurity by Brewer is the dilettante and debauchee Sir Francis Dashwood, painted by Hogarth at his impious devotions: monastically cloaked, sanctified by a halo, he kneels to adore a flagrant, supine statuette of Venus.

Hogarth had no objection to such paganism, and sacrilegiously mocked the picture dealers who imported "ship loads of dead Christs, Holy Families, Madonnas, and other dismal dark subjects". In 1780 the Royal Academy put its casts of antique statuary on show at Somerset House. The plaster torsos had a blamelessly educational function: they were used to teach the students how to draw in the approved neoclassical manner. Never the less, all those pendulous Grecian groins provoked comment, and a critic called the display "a temple of Priapus ... the terror of every decent woman". Even science had its flushed lapses from decorum. In The Loves of the Plants, his poetic guide to the Linnaean classification of species, Erasmus Darwin eroticised botany, and "suggested that female forms were often polygamous in the natural world".

Brewer writes well about the theatre as a resort of amorality. Actresses were imps of libido: Peg Woffington carved up her rival Anne Bellamy with a stage dagger while performing in a tragedy by Nathaniel Lee. Dr Johnson gravely forbade himself to visit Garrick backstage, because "the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities". In this culture, where individuals had become aware of their slippery mutability and their capacity for self-invention, other, more psychological dangers attached to the theatre. Diderot analysed the paradox of the actor, who counterfeits emotion without feeling it. But what if the actor actually did experience the passions which he tore to tatters? Cultivating sensibility and sensitivity, people were now conduits for an excitement which might destroy them. When the musicologist Charles Burney remarked that Garrick was looking old, Johnson dolefully concurred: "no man's face has had more wear and tear."

The values of pleasure and happiness, benign and altruistic enough to begin with, could easily be transvalued, or rendered perverse. Richardson's Clarissa analysed sensibility as a female ailment, a potentially fatal malaise; the novelist took advice on the subject from George Cheyne, an entrepreneurial physician who claimed that the human body was a fraught and jangled assemblage of nerves - a smaller version of that vibrant "sensorium of the world" extolled by Sterne in Tristram Shandy - and peddled cures for its self-induced neurotic upsets. Among Richardson's admirers was the Marquis de Sade, who, in his pornographic narratives of vice triumphant and virtue trampled, got rid of the moral alibis which protect Clarissa and showed that pleasure overlaps with pain. Johnson detected a demure sadism in a sentimental novel published with Richardson's assistance. He admonished the book's author, Frances Sheridan: "I know not, Madam, that you have the right, upon moral principles, to make your readers suffer so much."

This walk-on by the revolutionary Sade warns that the story told by Brewer does not end quite as promptly and conveniently as his estimable book pretends. He believes that "by the early 19th century most of the cast and set of props of what we now regard as the nation's cultural heritage were in place". But a culture is not an accumulation of products, finished when the museum is full. It is a process, and it works dialectically - always changing in the vain hope of resolving internal contradictions. Romanticism went on struggling with tensions which the 18th century merely finessed: the conflict between Christian morality and a religion of nature, the different claims of public order and personal freedom. Brewer's consumerist comedy might have turned tragic if he had gone on thinking about it. Within a cen- tury, the pursuit of happiness had become a less liberal and more self- destructive affair, which the French decadent poets called "the systematic derangement of the senses".

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