Scenes from Common Life

V.G. Kiernan

  • A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England 1381-1914 edited by Christopher Hampton
    Penguin, 624 pp, £7.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 14 022444 0
  • Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales 1790-1810 by John Bohstedt
    Harvard, 310 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 674 77120 6
  • The World We have Lost – Further Explored by Peter Laslett
    Methuen, 353 pp, £12.95, December 1983, ISBN 0 416 35340 1

J.F.C. Harrison has recently told us ‘about the people who are usually left out of history’ – such people as the maid-of-all-work in 1909 whose duties kept her busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.[*] Christopher Hampton gives us, in an anonymous 15th-century poem, a lament over women’s perpetual drudgery. His extract from the early feminist Mary Astell, writing in 1721, acknowledges that by comparison with Eastern women, who ‘are born Slaves, and live Prisoners all their Lives’, Englishwomen have an easy servitude, but ‘Fetters of Gold are still Fetters.’ By 1839 there was a ‘Female Political Union’ at Newcastle. Women and their uphill struggle are among leading themes common to both books. Hampton’s is an anthology of writings, stretching from Peasants’ Revolt to Great War, designed ‘to provide material for an alternative history of England which would put the radical progressive views of the people themselves at the centre of the narrative’.

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[*] The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present (Croom Helm and Fontana, 15 March.) The book was reviewed here by Angus Calder.