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".

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform