Customs in Common 
by E.P. Thompson.
Merlin, 547 pp., £25, October 1991, 0 85036 411 6
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Edward Thompson’s Customs in Common is described as a ‘companion volume’ to his The Making of the English Working Class, and rises to the occasion. It has the wide range of reference, the densely-textured documentation, a special quality of charged impressionism (sometimes tendentious, more often honourably concerned with generous perspectives and panoramic insight), the embattled moral fervour, which established the earlier book as a classic of historical scholarship and indeed of English letters. It has some occasional irritants, an overheated self-concern, a raw sense of personal slight, a dogged self-indulgence which, as at pp. 302-303, will make a bad joke, apologise for it in a note, thank a reader of the manuscript for pointing it out, keep it in for the sake of the reader’s comment, and tell you he’s doing all this and why. These are a small price to pay.

The book was ‘intended as a single closely-related argument’ but comes over as some-what more miscellaneous than this suggests, partly because it was interrupted by other activity, both scholarly and political. But there’s also a quality of abundance, shared by the earlier book, which resists the constrictions of ‘closely-related argument’, though Thompson is sometimes given to accesses of strenuous simplification, designed to bring things to an order his evidence doesn’t allow them to have. A conspicuous example is his study of ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd’ (1971), reprinted here with a sequel which takes account of the ensuing debate: the readiness to refine or revise is the generous obverse of some reductive impulses.

The studies collected here are concerned both with specific popular customs and with a ‘customary consciousness’ which Thompson sees as characteristic of an 18th-century outlook, and more largely of the English popular mind at a formative stage. He thinks of custom ‘as ambience, mentalité, and as a whole vocabulary of discourse, of legitimation and of expectation’. You could in this sense have new customs, or appeal to custom to claim new ‘rights’ or assert ancient liberties. A paradoxical phenomenon of ‘a rebellious traditional culture’ is identified in this period, though ‘tradition’ implies ‘steady permanence’ whereas ‘custom was a field of change and of contest.’ In a familiar scenario, this ‘customary consciousness’ was shattered by the Industrial Revolution and its demographic consequences, a contested issue among historians which lies outside my competence. Another such issue is whether 18th-century England may properly be called, as in the title of Paul Langford’s recent book, ‘a polite and commercial people’: a title which draws from Thompson the observation that ‘historical conferences on 18th-century questions tend to be places where the bland lead the bland.’

It’s hard nowadays to think of ‘bland’ as having a favourable sense, but the 18th century is as it happens a time when it did. By an odd irony, it appears in just such a sense in what is perhaps the century’s most famous declaration of the sanctity of custom, Burke’s lament over the maltreatment of the French Queen in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. ‘All the pleasing illusions … which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society’ were threatened, in Burke’s view, by the rude violence of the mob and the new philosophy ‘of light and reason’. This is not, it would be safe to say, Thompson’s favourite text, but it brings home the extent to which the attachment to ‘custom’, the idea of it as ‘second nature’, also dominated the outlook of the ‘patrician’ culture of the old regime, and of its great canonical authors, Swift, Pope, Fielding, Reynolds, Burke (most of them, incidentally, non-patrician by birth or social rank). Thompson long ago remarked, in The Making of the English Working Class, how ‘in the name of freedom Burke denounced, and Paine championed, the French Revolution,’ and conservative as well as radical ideologues saw themselves as maintaining ancient ‘rights’ and deploring constitutional slippages or infringements.

The idea of the naturalness of custom, of acculturation as simultaneously a process of deliberate instruction and spontaneous flowering, is especially strongly embedded in Burke’s rhetoric of ‘bland assimilation’, where ‘incorporated … sentiments’ and ‘superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination’, are seen not only as mutually reinforcing but as more or less synonymous. This blend, in its high patrician aspiration, achieves what is perhaps its culminating expression in English in the poetry of Yeats, where it derives directly from Burke (and is, like his, an out-sider’s or quasi-outsider’s aspiration). Such organicised conceptions of culture as second nature extended to the constitution of states, as well as to the socialising of persons and the evolution of social customs. Yeats said Burke ‘proved the State a tree’, and Burke’s great evocation of the British oak was matched on the revolutionary side by the image of the Tree of Liberty, also often an oak: an irony compounded by the fact, recently pointed out by J.G.A. Pocock, that the cover of some editions of Burke’s Reflections, including Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Penguin, show the planting of the Liberty Tree and not Burke’s ancient oak.

Thompson’s account of ‘customary consciousness’ shows the living social reality which underlies these conceptual patterns and the formal iconography, especially on the demotic or ‘plebeian’ rather than the ‘patrician’ side. (The terms, not in every way satisfactory, are his.) What remains as an important subject for exploration are the interactions between the two, and their expression in both high literature and popular culture. One may hope that he will turn his attention to this. He is exceptional among historians in the breadth and responsiveness of his reading, his willingness to study the evidence of literary texts, and his awareness of the different registers of imaginative and discursive utterance. Few historians I have read can be more confidently trusted not to mistake a satirical sarcasm, a lyrical modulation, or a fictional character’s speech, for a statement of fact or a direct expression of an author’s opinions. There is no attempt, in the present book, to take on a systematic enquiry of this sort. There are, however, some significant encounters with literary or fictional texts, most of them deeply enlightening. A small number invite debate.

In Chapter Two, Thompson cites a famous passage from Fielding about high people and low people as evidence of a highly polarised ‘cultural fissure’ between ‘patricians and plebs’. He seems to see this as validating his own use of the ‘bi-polar vocabulary’ to which critics of his earlier work have objected on the grounds that it left out of account ‘any role for the middle class’. He is now ready to qualify his analysis though not to abandon it, and prefers to speak anyway of a ‘bi-polar field of force’, with intermediate elements tending in one direction or the other like scattered iron filings on a magnetised plate. The deployment of interacting and conflicting social energies is vividly and eloquently brought out.

His use of the Fielding passage, however, overlooks an altogether different kind of intermediate element, ascribing to Fielding a perception of polarisation where the principal emphasis is instead on an infinite gradation of petty discriminations across the entire social spectrum. This takes in postilions, footmen, squires’ gentlemen (or ‘gentlemen’s gentlemen’, in the Wodehouse phrase, which is in fact much older), squires, lords, royal favourites and the sovereign. If there are ‘two Parties’, then ‘these two Parties, especially those bordering nearly on each other, to-wit the lowest of the High, and the highest of the Low, often change their Parties according to Place and Time; for those who are People of Fashion in one place are often People of no Fashion in another: And with regard to Time, it may not be unpleasant to survey the Picture of Dependance like a kind of Ladder.’ The passage suggests not binary polarity but a lunatic proliferation, mimicking the ‘Ladder of Dependance’, the great scheme of subordination, in an unstable and ceaselessly mutating state of self-adjustment. You would not guess this from Thompson’s account of the ‘Dissertation concerning high People and low People’, nor that it comes from the novel Joseph Andrews, and not from ‘An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers’, a socio-legal tract to which a note inadvertently refers us (an unusually literal way of mistaking imaginative texts for discursive documents, and unusual in Thompson in any form).

The chapter’s title, ‘The Patricians and the Plebs’, might seem simplifying in a similar way, but it’s taken from a passage in Defoe’s The Great Law of Subordination Consider’d; or, the Insolence and Unsufferable Behaviour of Servants in England Duly Enquir’d Into (1724), which is cited as an epigraph. Defoe is complaining about uppity servants and saying that if things go on as they do, ‘the Poor will be Rulers over the Rich, and the Servants be Governours of their Masters; the Plebij have almost mobb’d the Patricij … in a word, Order is inverted, Subordination ceases, and the World seems to stand with the Bottom upward.’

Defoe’s words, as well as his title, show that apocalyptic visions of a world turned upside down, partly through a perceived collapse of social hierarchy, were not confined to conservative or ‘Augustan’ sensibilities, like Pope’s or Burke’s, nostalgically attached to lordly perspectives, an attachment heightened by their own lack of lordly status and by the failure of real lords to live up to lordly standards. Defoe’s lack of lordliness was of a different sort, deeply committed to trade, coloured by Nonconformism, Modern rather than Ancient in intellectual allegiance, and consequently indifferent to, or even contemptuous of, those ‘ancient Altars’ (Pope’s phrase for the great works of the Classical tradition) which, in a specialised and glamorised form, provided the old order with its models of value and its sense of cultural legitimation.

Defoe’s lamentation seems practical rather than nostalgic. Despite the historic reverberations of ‘the great law of subordination’, with its evocation of a world governed by ‘degree’, the concern here is with a situation in which servants challenge masters, rather than one in which intricacies of the hierarchic chain are subverted or disturbed. He is complaining of a functional disorder more than of violations of degree, and his polemical point precludes much interest in that range of social gradations which is the subject of Fielding’s irony about high and low people. The appeal to the ‘great law’ is largely metaphorical, heightening the rhetoric of crisis rather than expressing a literal faith, and focused on mundane notions of law and order rather than on an elaborate cosmology or its reflection in a finely-graduated class-structure. Defoe’s terms ‘patrician’ and ‘plebeian’ imply not so much the unimportance or non-existence of intermediate links, as their irrelevance to his broad functional point. His use of the Latin form of both words has a defamiliarising force which tends to block any suggestion that they apply to English class divisions except in the immediate functional sense, and his binary conception of class – conflict is more provisional and ad hoc than the use Thompson seems to want to make of it.

The valuable part of Thompson’s discussion lies not in the simplified taxonomy, but in a probing analysis of Defoe’s perceptions of the breakdown of deference. He ‘interrogates’ Defoe’s ‘text’ (the cant usages may for once be used literally of Thompson’s specific procedures, and the energy of restless questioning to which he subjects both the phrasings he cites and the social inferences he draws from them) to discover, in particular, ‘what were the institutions, in the 18th century, which enabled the rulers to obtain, directly or indirectly, a control over the whole life of the labourer, as opposed to the purchase, seriatim, of his labour power?’ In this sense, his interest is as functional as Defoe’s, and he is concerned to chart the transition from a system of household servants or retainers to one of paid employees, ‘the erosion of half-free forms of labour, the decline of living-in, the final extinction of labour services and the advance of free, mobile, wage labour’.

In an account of the decline of ‘paternalist control over the whole life of the labourer’, and the mobile labourer’s freedom to choose or change his master, Thompson cites from Defoe’s book an exemplary scene in which a magistrate questions a cloth-worker accused by his employer of neglect:

Justice. Come in Edmund, I have talk’d with your Master.

Edmund. Not my Master, and’t please your Worship, I hope I am my own Master.

Justice. Well, your Employer, Mr E –, the Clothier; will the word Employer do?

Edmund. Yes, yes, and’t please your Worship, any thing, but Master.

Thompson has two main comments. One concerns ‘a large change in the terms of relations: subordination is becoming (although between grossly unequal parties) negotiation.’ The other notes the refusal of deference to ‘my Master’ but the survival of deference to ‘your Worship’, the Justice. It is not a transfer, of course, but a retention of one mode of deference and not the other. Thompson’s skill, a social acuteness as well as a literary acumen, resides in this instance in his perception that the deference to the magistrate is not a mere survival but in some sense an ‘overflow’ from the other:

The deference which he refuses to his employer overflows in the calculated obsequiousness to ‘your Worship’. He wishes to struggle free from the immediate, daily, humiliations of dependency. But the larger outlines of power, station in life, political authority, appear to be as inevitable and irreversible as the earth and the sky. Cultural hegemony of this kind induces exactly such a state of mind in which the established structures of authority and modes of exploitation appear to be in the very course of nature. This does not preclude resentment or even surreptitious acts of protest or revenge; it does preclude affirmative rebellion.

The general formulation shows Thompson at his masterly best. There is a powerful understanding of social forces which remain unexpressed, and a sharp (though I think incomplete and ultimately inexact) perception of subtextual implications. Thompson has caught the exaggerated quality of Edmund’s deference, to which the term ‘overflow’ seems broadly apt. He calls it a ‘calculated obsequiousness’, and this would be a penetrating inference from the bare text as he cites it.

In the totality of Defoe’s scene, however, what Thompson reads as obsequiousness is indeed both excessive and calculated, but comes over as a pointed insolence: a transparent mock-courtesy, a cheeky concession to social forms combined with an ostentatiously knowing awareness of the limits (legal as well as social) to which he could go. Defoe not only dramatises this with some insistence, but makes the Justice strongly aware of it. ‘He spoke so warily, with a kind of saucy Good-Manners, with your Worship, and your Worship at every word; that tho’ it was manifest he ridicul’d the Charge, and ridicul’d you [the employer], yet he was mightily civil to me; and as he said indeed, I could not lay him by the Heels for answering me that he had nothing to say to you.’ This contains the ‘resentment’ registered by Thompson, but the protest is hardly ‘surreptitious’, and the atmosphere in context is hardly as he perceives it. The example suggests a greater eagerness to make local historical applications than to test them against the total character of the document under scrutiny.

Defoe’s treatment of Edmund has other resonances, which it would doubtless be unreasonable to expect Thompson to attend to in a study not primarily concerned with that author. But they have a suggestive bearing on the issue of class distinctions, their extraordinary complexity, and the subtlety of their operation in an author whose importance and representative status reside in the fact that he not only belonged outside rather than within the social groups whom we think of as dedicated to the promotion of an idiom of social superiority or exclusiveness, but maintained an adversarial posture towards them. When Defoe portrays Edmund’s adeptness at providing legal, or legalistic, cover for his own flaunted bad faith, it is sometimes possible to detect, beyond the official complaint about unruly underlings, an undertone of genial complicity. Edmund’s protestations to his Worship the Justice that ‘I am an honest Drunken bellow,’ who will ‘work for nothing but Money’, occasionally display the lineaments of a roguery which folk-tradition and some kinds of fiction insist on portraying as amiable: ‘and why should I work if I do not want Money? would anybody work if they had Money enough? … if in the Morning I have enough to spend for that Day, that’s enough to me.’

The work in which Edmund is given this extensive fictional exposure is a forthright polemical tract, but it belongs to the period of Defoe’s most intensive fiction-writing, and was published soon after most of his novels (several of which show sympathy for social delinquents and for roguish ingenuity). Questions arise in such a case about the relations between fictional sympathies and officially held opinions, over and above the subtextual complications inherent in any discourse. The episode of Edmund’s recalcitrance ends not with the resolution of any of the social or legal issues, but with the simplified punishments of a moral fable or picaresque adventure, two related modes which simultaneously activate the moralist and fiction-writer in Defoe: ‘There was a great deal of farther Discourse between them, in which Edmund was at last so saucy, that the Justice found he was half-Drunk, and set him in the Stocks, and took care afterwards to have him punish’d too for some other Mis-Behaviour; but all the Justice or the Clothier cou’d do, cou’d not make him finish his Piece of Work, till he pleas’d, and that was a good while after.’

The fictional putdown is clear. Edmund deserves to be set in the stocks, and any covert sympathy for him is firmly circumscribed. He is placed in a situation, however, which was distantly familiar to his author, once referred to by a loftier pamphleteer as ‘the Fellow that was pilloryed, I have forgot his Name’. This was said 15 years earlier, and the loftier writer, Swift, was later to identify Defoe in a note, without removing the pretence of having ‘forgot his Name’. It would be excessive to attach an autobiographical significance to Edmund’s predicament, though a vestigial reinforcement of complicities already engendered by the fiction would not be unthinkable. As to the punitive aspect, which is the dominant one, it is interesting that for all Defoe’s concern with ‘subordination’, Edmund’s putdown belongs to the sphere of moral retribution rather than the caste-conscious snub. There is no trace of the Swiftian uppishness, an uppishness not wholly accounted for by its ad hominem character, since Swift extended it elsewhere to the broad class of servants also targeted in Defoe’s tract. That Swift, in strict terms of caste, was no lordlier than Defoe, and claimed no lordliness anyway, is an irony deeply embedded in the idiom and conventions of 18th-century class-consciousness. The case belongs, in unexpected ways, to Fielding’s dissertation concerning high and low people, though not as that is described by Thompson. Perhaps it complicates Fielding’s analysis as much as Thompson simplifies it.

Two fascinating chapters on specific customs, the sale of wives and ‘rough music’, have the added interest for students of literature of providing extended footnotes to Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. ‘Rough Music’ is a wonderfully wide-ranging study of the shaming ritual, broadly approximating to the French charivari, known as the skimmington or (as the Casterbridge folk call it) the ‘skimmity-ride’. Such rituals, usually concerned with some form of sexual or marital misconduct, ranged ‘from the good-humoured chaffing of the newly-wed to satire of the greatest brutality’. (Lucetta Farfrae, towards the end of Hardy’s novel, dies of the shock produced by this jeering, in an interesting replay of the old tradition which counts the killing of the victim as one of satire’s archetypal powers.) Many details of Hardy’s account are placed in a densely informative context of recorded folk practices: ‘the din of cleavers, tongs, tambourines, kits, crouds, humstrums, serpents, ram’s-horns’, the parading of effigies of the victims, the processional and theatrical elements.

Street theatre as a dimension of crowd politics, a theme on which Thompson always writes vividly, is also, though more mutedly, an element in wife sales. On this custom Thompson supplements, and partly overlaps with, a book-length study by the ethnographer S.P. Menefee, Wives for Sale (1981). Thompson and Menefee have between them collected some 400 cases, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, though Thompson reports that as late as 1913 ‘a young married woman gave evidence in a Leeds police court … that she had been sold for £1 by her husband to a workmate who lived in the next street.’ Thompson restricts his analysis to the period 1760-1880, in which he finds 218 authentic cases. By the time of Hardy’s novel (1886), the practice seems to have become sufficiently rare to provoke outraged disbelief in some of his readers, unless these were unusually sheltered from folk customs or locked into a mode of squeamish denial. It had long been considered by foreign commentators as a British phenomenon, and it is amply recorded in the 19th century in a wide variety of British texts.

Wife sales seem generally to have been conducted in highly structured ways, as public or semi-public rituals at a market, fair, or other prominent place, and more often in the nearest town than in the village to which the parties might have belonged. They were advertised, sometimes by the town-cryer. A halter was often placed round the neck or waist of the person to be sold. The sale might take the form (sometimes merely simulated) of an auction, and there was often a pre-arranged buyer, likely already to be the woman’s lover. The sale was absolutely conditional on the woman’s consent.

The opening chapter of Hardy’s novel contains some of these features and lacks others. Henchard’s wife is sold at a fair, and she goes through the motions of agreement after first attempting to dissuade her drunken spouse. There is even a form of auction. But there is no halter, which in turn reflects a more important difference, namely that the sale is sudden, un-advertised, the result of a brutishly drunken impulse on the vendor’s part. Thompson concludes that Hardy, though a ‘superbly perceptive observer of folk customs’, relied in this case ‘on newspaper sources’ which tended to be ‘enigmatic and opaque’ on some of the ritual features. Sources cited by Menefee suggest that some of the smallest details of Hardy’s account derive from recorded information, which may or may not imply a more specific awareness than Thompson gives him credit for. What Thompson himself ignores is the particular aptness to Henchard’s character that his enactment of a ritual transaction should have been impulsive and stubbornly and impetuously individual. He is noted throughout the novel for ‘the suddenness of his … moods’ and his ‘headstrong faculties’, which Hardy emphasises as showing in Henchard’s later career ‘the same unruly volcanic stuff … as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair’. It would not have been in character for him to conduct a strange and inhumane transaction conventionally and in cold blood.

Thompson’s larger conclusion, which he says was not evident to him in the Sixties when he began his research, is that the historical practice must be clearly distinguished from the version which Hardy’s novel has popularised or mythologised: ‘we must remove the wife sale from the category of brutal chattel purchase and place it within that of divorce and re-marriage.’ Wife-selling acted as a substitute for divorce at a time when divorce or annulment were virtually unavailable to any but the rich and highly placed. It ‘was invented in a plebeian culture which was sometimes credulous or superstitious, but which had a high regard for rituals and forms’. The ritual was often regarded as a marriage, and its forms sometimes assimilated to those of the marriage service. People were confused as to its proper legal status. When Susan Henchard believed that her new ‘husband’ Newson ‘had acquired a morally real and justifiable right to her by his purchase – though the exact bearings and legal limits of that right were vague’, she seems to have reflected some of the socially convenient indeterminacies that belong naturally to the situation. Thompson reports the case in 1823 of an ex-soldier called John Homer, who had maltreated his wife and forced her against net will to be bought out by her own brother. He then thought this entitled him to marry again, and was transported for bigamy.

Life’s little ironies also produced a wife-purchaser called Thomas Hardy in 1786, and the sale of a wife called Mary Whitehouse in 1773 (‘value, one shilling. To take her with all her faults’). Thompson is testy about the readiness of anthropologists to invoke tribal parallels to the customs of the English working class. I was once shown an exam answer by a West African student, who said that Henchard had been forced by poverty and drink to sell his only wife at the fair. Thompson has a point. So, I suppose, did the African student.

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