John Brewer

  • English Society in the Eighteenth Century by Roy Porter
    Allen Lane/Pelican, 424 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1417 3

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.

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