In Praise of Lolly

Linda Colley

  • The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialisation of 18th-Century England by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb
    Europa, 355 pp, £18.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 905118 00 6

The American historian J. H. Hexter once complained that the myth of an assertive and ascendant middle class had distorted accounts of almost every century of English history. Yet for the 18th century – a period in which the myth had at least some substance in reality – the charm of the bourgeoisie has proved discreet, indeed has often been discounted. In the 1950s and 60s Sir Lewis Namier and his clique concentrated almost exclusively on Georgian England’s political and parliamentary élite; in the 1970s and 80s E.P. Thompson and his comrades have stigmatised these same patricians while rescuing the plebs: both lobbies, it would seem, are as averse to describing the middling sort as they are to occupying the middle ground of historical controversy. The economic historians have been scarcely more forthcoming. Individual industries and their captains have been chronicled but not, thus far, what the embourgeoisement of the 18th century meant for the average English consumer.

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