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.

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