Country Life

David Cannadine

  • The Victorian Countryside edited by G.E. Mingay
    Routledge, 380 pp, £25.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0734 5

In 1972, Routledge and Kegan Paul published The Victorian City: Images and Realities, edited by H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolff, a Wagnerian epic in which history went to town in exuberant, zestful and flamboyant fashion. Understandably, the two volumes won immediate and widespread acclaim as a tour de force of entrepreneurial inspiration and editorial skill: ‘a study in superlatives’ was the response of one ecstatic reviewer. Now, nearly a decade later, the old world has been called in to redress the balance of the new, and we can take equal delight in this companion venture. Like its predecessor, it is a brave and sumptuous piece of publishing – carefully designed, handsomely bound and profusely illustrated. Even at £40 the set, it is a bargain.

It is, in a sense, ironic that these two mighty enterprises should have come to fruition in this particular order. For, as befitted its concern with the counting house and the suburban villa, there was an element of the parvenu about urban history, reflected in the almost naive sense of adventure which pervaded the Dyos and Wolff volumes. After nine hundred pages of text, they could still record that their abiding impression was ‘not of having brought our subject to a finish, but of having barely opened it up’. So The Victorian City was more the manifesto of urban history than urban history itself: the contrast between the images and realities of the city seemed unconvincing; all too often, urban England meant the ‘great wen’ and little more; many important subjects such as crime and standards of living were ignored; and a large proportion of the contributions came from literary critics rather than historians.

Rural history, by contrast, could boast a much more venerable and respectable pedigree. The Agricultural History Society celebrated its Silver Jubilee five years ago, and its Review has published much sustained and important research over the years. The Agrarian History of England and Wales traverses the academic landscape at a pace reminiscent of a three-horse plough team, but at a cost more suggestive of a combine harvester. And, in the last twenty years, as the thousand-odd items in The Victorian Countryside’s bibliography eloquently testify, there has been a veritable explosion in research, with articles, books and dissertations flooding forth on many aspects of rural life, from estates to education, labourers to landowners, potatoes to poachers. So, instead of sowing the seeds of a subject, The Victorian Countryside garners an academic harvest rich, varied and substantial.

And yet, despite this venerable and lively historical tradition, to which these volumes are a worthy monument, agricultural history has never attained the glamour status which has been bestowed upon its upstart urban neighbour. In popular terms, this may be because of the very different relationship which these two subjects have with contemporary perceptions of the urban and the rural environment. For the many who spurn and despise the city, and regard urbanisation as a cultural and environmental disaster, urban history provides ample ammunition. But the corresponding veneration (much of it mindless, ignorant and superficial) which is widely felt for the countryside is undermined rather than reinforced by many of the findings of agricultural historians. For those many who feel, in Ronald Blythe’s words, ‘the almost religious intensity of the regard for rural life in this country’, much of this book – preoccupied with squalor and strife, poverty and pain – will be the enemy rather than the handmaid of such devotional ignorance.

It should also help to correct the bias inherent in many scholarly studies of modern Britain. For, despite all the labours of the agricultural historians, much economic and social history of the modern period gives the impression (sometimes, perhaps, unwittingly) that the life and economy of rural England had become so marginal to mainstream developments as to be hardly worth bothering about. From the 1780s, the conventional wisdom would have us believe, the ‘wave of gadgets’ swept triumphantly across the land, as spinning jennies, railway engines and blast furnaces banished turnips, barley and guano from the centre of the economic stage. Preoccupied with the all-conquering industrial revolution, with the ‘age of great cities’ which it brought with it, and with the seemingly inexorable rise of working-class consciousness and middle-class democracy, 19th-century historians tend to dismiss rural England in (at worst) a few curt phrases, or (at best) in one obligatory chapter on ‘agriculture’ or ‘the land’.

But, as these volumes demonstrate quite emphatically, such a view is an oversimplified distortion of what actually happened. As late as 1851, agriculture was still the largest single occupational category, the great estates could boast a capital value and annual turnover which no railway company could rival, and more people were living in towns like Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester than in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham. Half a century later, the rural élite continued in control as the governing élite, England remained predominantly a horse-drawn society, and the country’s claim to be the greatest sporting nation in the world rested on rural, rather than urban, pursuits Even in the 1930s, Stanley Baldwin’s rhetoric (‘to me England is the country and the country is England’) could tap memories of rural childhood which were commonplace among the over-forties. Great Britain may have spawned the world’s first industrial revolution: it was also – before, during and after – the world’s premier agricultural nation.

So, as an antidote to rural romanticism and a corrective to scholarly bias, this book is greatly to be welcomed. Inevitably, in such a multi-authored venture, there is some contradiction, overlap and repetition in the text. But, like The Victorian City, The Victorian Countryside is a triumph of editorial expertise and endurance, with 39 diverse and distinguished contributors brought tidily together. Not the least of the editor’s achievements is his success in getting D.C. Moore to write two essays which, while still characteristically eccentric, are also uncharacteristically lucid. And, as befits a book on a subject widely and deeply researched, it has a more solid and scholarly feel to it than did The Victorian City. Flimsy constructs such as image versus reality have been dispensed with; the text is tighter and less interdisciplinary; the Eng Lit people are kept firmly in their place.

The first section, on ‘The Land’, establishes the bounds and limits of the subject. Four essays explore the general economic and social context, describing the decline of rural isolation, the rise of the international economy in agricultural products, and the impact which these developments had on the appearance of the landscape and on patterns of population growth and migration. R.J. Olney and Alan Gilbert investigate those two bastions of the English landed establishment, the county constituencies and the Church of England; and Messrs Howell, Gray and Cullen survey agriculture, tenurial relations and politics on the Celtic fringe. Finally, the view shifts from realities to images, as three contributors consider the varied picture of rural life conveyed by 19th-century writers, poets and artists. In so varied a survey, no coherent themes emerge, but the appetite is whetted for the more structured sections which follow.

Part Two is devoted to a rigorous examination of the rural economy. Some of the essays are precise, well-researched pieces into easily defined topics, such as Macdonald on model farms (‘expensive, trivial and ultimately ephemeral’), Goddard on agricultural societies, both metropolitan and provincial, and Sykes on the links between agriculture and science. In his account of the growth of mechanisation, E.J.T. Collins reminds us that steam had an impact in the country as well as in the town. And in two heroically-generalised pieces, B.A. Holderness speculates on the background, wealth and recreation of farmers, and summarises the varied and evolving links between the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy. Rather surprisingly, there is nothing in this section on country banking or the credit mechanism. What was the significance of cash in the countryside? How were wages paid and rents collected? Which way did the aggregate capital flows go by this time: from country to town, or vice versa?

In terms of its novelty, the high point of the book is Part Three, on ‘Country Towns and Country Industries’. In the past, almost all the sustained work on this subject has been done (most creditably) by amateurs: Hill on Lincoln, Newton on Exeter and Brown on Colchester. The ‘Banburys of England’, to use Alan Everitt’s phrase, have attracted little attention from either rural or urban historians. Here, however, this omission is authoritatively repaired. Chalklin gives us a characteristically thorough briefing on the size and functions of such country towns. Kerr investigates the country professions: the clergy, apothecaries, lawyers and surveyors (but again, no bankers). Chartres, in two quite excellent pieces, explores the petty bourgeois world of shopkeepers, carriers and publicans, and the varied and contracting tasks of the country craftsmen. The rural proletariat (both male and female) also gets its due, and in the concluding essay, David Hey reminds us of the industrialised villages that lurked in the countryside. Here, fully revealed for the first time, is the world of the rural town, with middle-class, skilled artisans and labourers in vivid and original abundance.

The penultimate section takes us higher up the social scale into the world of the landowners. D.C. Moore describes the differences between aristocracy and gentry, and Eric Richards presents an elegant, well-evidenced survey of estate agents. Those already familiar with the work of Havinden, Beastall, Franklin and Carr on model villages, estate history, country houses and fox – hunting respectively, will find ample opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with familiar facts and arguments. And connoisseurs of the work of F.M.L. Thompson will be delighted by the originality and iconoclasm of his essay on ‘Landowners and the Rural Community’, easily the star turn in this section. Thompson suggests that sloth, narrowmindedness and lack of system were more characteristic of landed behaviour than aggressive exploitation or energetic paternalism. His account of hunting, shooting, education and charity challenges a variety of common beliefs, several of which are to be found in these volumes.

In Part Five, the world is turned upside down, and the rural proletariat is looked at as a social rather than economic entity. This section – vividly detailed and written with some passion – is not for the squeamish. Alun Howkins shows both the occupational diversity and regional variations to be found among the labour force. A clutch of essays explores the inadequate diet, low wages, poor education and bad housing which were the lot of country-dwellers, young and old. Neither crime and protest, on the one side, nor friendly societies and trades unions, on the other, seem to have accomplished much in the face of such disadvantages. By the time the reader puts this section down, there is little left of ‘the idyllic country scene, the sun-bonneted group of pretty, healthy children about the door of a rose-decked, white-washed dwelling, which has endured in the English national consciousness until the present day’.

No book as rammed down and brimming over as this can escape criticism for trying to do too little and succeeding, and/or for trying to do too much and failing. With only five thousand-odd words at their disposal, some of the contributors scamper across their territory with all the breathless hurry of a harried fox. It is, for example, remarkable that Alan Gilbert should write of the Church and the land with virtually no mention of landowners’ patronage, and that David Jones’s account of crime and protest should all but ignore poaching. The three essays on the aesthetic response to the countryside are little more than catalogues of names, quotations and pictures. And few of the contributors – with the conspicuous exception of Eric Richards – do anything like the necessary justice to the Celtic fringe. Victoria may have ruled the United Kingdom, but this book is very much confined to the countryside of England.

Whether there was such a thing as the countryside of Victoria is also open to question. As one of the contributors disarmingly admits, the dates 1837-1901 ‘have no great significance’ for the countryside or for any other major aspect of 19th-century life. As a result, the contributors choose a bewildering variety of chronological limits, starting at dates varying from the 1780s to the 1850s, and ending anywhere between the 1880s and 1930s. The great divide, it is clear, was at the end of the 1870s. What came before belongs to a relatively coherent period extending back a hundred years or more; what followed was a distinct phase which continued until the Second World War. Of necessity, a book which encompasses both of these periods in part, but neither completely, must be chronologically unsatisfactory. To say that it was an age of ‘transformation’ is hardly enough.

In one sense, too, these volumes are less successful than The Victorian City. For with all their superior scholarly substance, they are less coherent conceptually. Significantly, the introduction is largely a catalogue of what is to follow, and there is no conclusion which might have offered an overall synthesis or attempted to reconcile some of the contradictions in the text. So we get no real feeling for the whole interlocking process of economic, social, political and cultural relations, even though many of their component parts have been disentangled and described. How did the Victorian countryside work? Was it on the basis of power, conflict and exploitation? Or was it benevolence, reciprocity and consensus? Or (as F.M.L. Thompson suggests) were the relationships and interactions less positive, less self-aware? The Victorian countryside did hang together: this book does not, or rather does not explain how it did.

This is not a tidy conclusion, but then the Victorian countryside is not a tidy subject. As with most worlds we have lost, its rediscovery is a piecemeal, fragmented process. The book, however, is a magnificent milestone in that quest, which establishes the 19th-century rural past as a significant aspect of modern British history. However much they have ignored it in the past, future economic and social historians of Victorian England will be unable to dismiss agriculture or rural life in a perfunctory chapter on ‘the land’. The history of the country has finally come to town.