English Society in the Eighteenth Century 
by Roy Porter.
Allen Lane/Pelican, 424 pp., £12.50, April 1982, 0 7139 1417 3
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British social history, for so long in protracted adolescence, seems finally to have come of age. The work of two generations of researchers, led by such avatars as Alan Everitt, Peter Laslett, J. H. Plumb, Lawrence Stone, Keith Thomas and E. P. Thompson, now constitutes a substantial body of knowledge that has transformed our conception both of British history and of what constitutes legitimate historical inquiry. The modish topics of birth and death, the family, sex, marriage, leisure, crime, ceremony and ritual have begun to supplant the time-tested topics of the more traditional curriculum. What began as periphery is now core. This development is much more of a mixed blessing than its chief proponents admit it to be. At its worst, social history degenerates into the antiquarian elevation of the picayune, and even at its best it raises intractable problems of historical explanation that are very rarely tackled head-on. It is significant that the sum of the parts of the most successful books on British social history is nearly always greater than their whole.

To say this of Roy Porter’s Pelican social history of 18th-century England is not to denigrate his remarkable achievement. This is a brilliant work of synthesis. Almost every recent monograph and essay is skilfully woven into Porter’s account, and no good anecdote or bon mot is omitted. Scholars will admire his incisive condensation of complex historical controversies, and the reader less familiar with the period and its reasearch will relish both the fascinating detail and the wealth of information that the author provides. Porter has triumphantly accomplished what many regard as the impossible task of writing a book that is valuable both to historians and to that curious fiction of the modern publisher, the ‘general reader’.

Porter’s picture of 18th-century England is boldly drawn. In essence, he delineates a nation with a stable though flexible political order, a dynamic and developing economy, and a rich and expanding culture. He opens his account by emphasising the diversity of Georgian society – the different experiences of town and country, of rich and poor, of male and female. He then examines the forces which he believes to have sustained and stabilised the social hierarchy: its permeability, its lack of marked class distinctions and, above all, the polymorphous adaptability of the élite. The patricians, he argues, were by turns both capitalist and paternalist – eager to innovate yet protective of the values that they themselves were eroding. And while they ruthlessly exploited the political system for the spoils that it offered, they also mouthed the ‘sedative rhetoric’ of constitutionalism. Social arrangements, state power and political ideology all conspired to perpetuate the position of those whom Porter somewhat infelicitously calls ‘top people’. The power of the patricians was sustained by other forces designed to maintain the social order. The family, community custom, education and religion were all, Porter argues, means by which the social fabric was repeatedly re-woven. An elaborate skein of institutions and mores held together a polity that otherwise threatened to unravel.

The resilience of the Hanoverian social hierarchy and political order seems all the more remarkable in the light of the changes in material and moral life that Porter discusses in the second half of the book. Commercialised agriculture, domestic commerce, foreign trade, and the swift construction of an economic infrastructure with such services as banking, advertising and retailing, broke down traditional relationships, created a monied and commoditised society, and prepared the nation for the great leap forward that the economy took in the 1780s. The consequences of this transformation were everywhere to be seen. Greater prosperity for nearly all classes, albeit unevenly distributed, led to the production and purchase of more consumer goods, to more entertainment and recreation, and to the wider dissemination of élite culture.

Affluence and opportunity generated new values. Men and women sought to emulate the taste of their superiors; egoism and personal gratification – the pursuit of happiness – acquired a degree of respectability. As a result, manners and morals were less constrained and more relaxed. Invention and innovation, together with a secular idea of progress, replaced a resigned providentialism. It was, according to Porter, a ‘tonic time’ to be alive. Though a minority of the population lived in dire poverty, and though there were many instances of cruelty and barbarism, the age was imbued with an ‘infectious gaiety and sense of fun’. Indeed, Porter’s predominant image of Georgian society, even though he is at pains to qualify it, is essentially Rowlandsonian: the bottom-pinching, back-slapping, bonhomous and bawdy world of the village alehouse and the city tavern. Gluttonous, inebriate and lubricious, Georgian Englishmen, and, to a lesser extent, women, are depicted as notable for their appetite rather than their restraint.

This lust for life, which Porter describes with more than sneaking approval, also excited a much more jaundiced and censorious response. As he shows in his final chapters, the extraordinarily rapid growth in the economy after 1780, the rising cost of poverty which accompanied population increase, together with the deep political fissures that emerged during the American and French revolutions, redoubled the concern of the nation’s rulers to discipline and constrain the populace and to ensure the continued authority of the landed élite. New ways, some more subtle, some more direct, were developed to sustain power: ‘the perils of neglect’, as Porter puts it, were replaced by ‘the pains of attention’. Greater supervision and control – of children, the profligate, the mad, criminals and the politically radical – kept people in their place. Voluntary associations such as the societies for prosecuting felons, for the reformation of manners, for the defence of property, signalled a greater willingness on the part of the prosperous to participate in the regulation of their social inferiors. Yet in this way the patricians survived the rancorous 1790s, remaining the protean but potent landed class which ruled the first industrial nation.

This synopsis of what I take to be the main themes of Porter’s book cannot do justice to its chief strength: namely, its richness of example. Social historians pride themselves on their powers of ‘thick description’: on their ability to evoke the feel and texture of an age. It is here that Porter excels. He ranges far and wide, from princes to paupers and from the metropolis to the smallest hamlet. Stay-making and corsetry, prisons, rural festivals, diet and housing, bordellos and sex therapists, domestic gadgets like the toothbrush, industrial processes such as iron puddling, ballads and pamphlets, paintings and plays, work and wages, balloons and bastardy are only a fraction of the topics covered by this breathtaking narrative. Indeed, so rich is the feast that at times its superfluity renders it indigestible. There is too little time for rumination. Scarcely have we swallowed one succulent dish than the author gorges us with another. The overall effect is often cloying, though I concede that I would rather bloat than starve.

Most social historians have been beset with at least one of several abiding sins. They tend either to omit politics altogether or to treat it as an epiphenomenon of social forces; they also frequently disregard ideologies or trivialise them as rationalisations. And finally they suffer from the absence of intermediate explanation. By this I mean that most explanations are either very local and particular – why Terling in Essex or printers in London changed in the way that they did – or they operate at a fairly high level of abstraction. There is rarely any middle ground. The abstract arguments tend to be either functionalist or evolutionary: institutional arrangements are unendingly explained by the way in which they served to hold society together, and, if all else fails, we seem to be addicted to explaining novel social phenomena by the rise of capitalism (or the growth of the market), or the eternally upward trajectory of the bourgeoisie. I am not, of course, arguing that capitalism and the bourgeoisie never arrived, nor that some institutional arrangements were not only intended to preserve the power of the élite but actually succeeded in doing so. But all too often a generalised description of an extremely ill-defined or assumed social process is used as a convenient surrogate for an explanation of a discrete historical phenomenon. Moreover the frequently ahistorical nature of these generalisations – their lack of temporal specificity – is demonstrated by the gay abandon with which they have been applied to almost every period of British history from the late Middle Ages to the present day.

Porter’s account runs into some of these difficulties. Admittedly he does not neglect politics. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to power, politics and the law. But his picture of politics and political ideology is a simple one. Despite the occasional caveat, he sees both the institutions of state and the rhetoric of constitutionalism as functioning primarily as a means of sustaining social power, of perpetuating the ‘unthreatened superiority’ of the ‘proprietorial classes’ and preventing a general critique of government and society. There are several problems with this line of argument. First and foremost, it treats those who held political power and operated the spoils system – in this case the Whigs – as representative of a class, which they clearly were not. There were many of precisely the same patrician social background who did not enjoy what Porter describes as ‘the protective, insulating shell of the state’ because of their (usually Tory) political beliefs. Collapsing the political into the social, a favourite disappearing trick of the social historian, denies both political institutions and ideology the degree of autonomy that it is not difficult to demonstrate that they had. Equally, the rhetoric of constitutionalism and the ideology of the rule of law, both of which were undoubtedly used to justify Whig hegemony, were also potent means by which the political regime could be attacked. A legitimating ideology is usually a double-edged sword.

Porter’s response to such criticism is implicit in his condemnation of much dissident rhetoric as ‘self-serving’ and in his dismissal of criticism as ‘within the existing scheme of government’. Opponents of the ‘great proprietors’, he argues, whether they were disgruntled politicians or angry and rioting members of the labouring poor, offered no viable alternative policy: there was, as he puts it, ‘no programme of socialist revolution, no manifesto of modernity’, and therefore no prospect of radically reworking either politics or society. Stability was the order of the day.

This is both an anachronistic argument and one that trivialises the sorts of conflict that occurred by treating them as partial or failed instances of modern political movements and ideologies rather than understanding them in 18th-century terms. It also means that the overall impression that Porter conveys, despite his frequent qualifications, is of a ruling class that enjoyed much greater unity of purpose and far more confidence and equanimity than was actually the case. He underplays the very violent disagreements that occurred within the landed classes even at the height of oligarchy – ‘shadow-boxing’ is a typical term – and minimises the very frequent and often extreme expressions of patrician anxiety about the position of the landed classes.

If the main thrust of Porter’s discussion of the state and of political ideology is to demonstrate their use as a form of social cement, the same is true of his account of religion and education. Georgian religion, he argues, ‘rubber-stamped social power and property relations, generally ingrained already’. Once again we are offered an abstract, functionalist (and monocausal) explanation for what was, as Porter’s own detailed account shows, a complex and many-faceted phenomenon. One can sympathise with the desire, especially in such a general and wide-ranging account of society, for a simple and easily grasped conceptual scheme for the discussion. But the juxtaposition of rich detail and very broad generalisation leaves any reader not entirely absorbed by the fascinating evidence with a feeling that far too much explanatory weight is placed on one or two basic ideas. This is also true, for example, in Porter’s account of cultural development, where the concept of ‘emulation’ dominates the discussion. What is lacking is a more considered account of the many disparate motives for political and religious belief, for the pursuit of prosperity and happiness, and for the desire to acquire a refined and literate sensibility. As a result, too much of the discusion has a one-dimensional quality, as if a single cause or idea explained all.

Porter can justifiably complain that I am using him as a whipping boy, chastising him for faults which originate in the work of others. His remarkable synthesis points out how much we have learnt about all aspects of everyday life in 18th-century England: but it also indicates how much further we have to go before we are able to conceptualise this material adequately. Recent thinking – both Marxist and non-Marxist – in the sphere of social and political theory has been especially critical of the types of explanation beloved of the social historians whose work Porter summarises. No one, whether expert historian or curious general reader, will fail to learn much from Porter’s bustling book. Not only has our knowledge of 18th-century English society been enhanced: we can also learn a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of social history.

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