Sexual Tories

Angus Calder

  • The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present by J.F.C. Harrison
    Croom Helm and Flamingo, 445 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7099 0125 9
  • British Society 1914-45 by John Stevenson
    Allen Lane/Penguin, 503 pp, £16.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1390 8
  • The World We Left Behind: A Chronicle of the Year 1939 by Robert Kee
    Weidenfeld, 369 pp, £11.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 297 78287 8
  • Wigan Pier Revisited: Poverty and Politics in the Eighties by Beatrix Campbell
    Virago, 272 pp, £4.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 86068 417 2

Twenty-odd years ago I was lucky enough to hear the great Jeannie Robertson, then at the height of her powers as a singer in Scots of anything from ‘classic’ ballads to sheer bawdy. During a sunny lunchtime in Cambridge, after giving a formal recital, she sat outside a pub drinking, talking and singing. One of the ‘travelling people’, turned Aberdeen housewife, subsequently ‘discovered’ and launched as a public performer, she spoke of the time when King James had roamed the country as a gaberlunzie man as if it was just a moment before yesterday. What she sang seemed to her to be fact, or at any rate truth, and her historical sense collapsed chronology. I was moved to remember this by J.F.C. Harrison’s ‘coda’ to his fine new book: ‘As writers like Thomas Hardy have noted, there is a certain timelessness about the common people, which means that in the last resort their experience can be expressed by myth as well as by history.’

Yes, and the response of present-day common people to the Royal Family has to be understood – if we can ‘understand’ it at all – in terms of myth. But how does Professor Harrison’s suggestive conclusion fit his insistence on leaving most ‘great events’ and most ‘great men’ out of his book? He doesn’t deal with Scotland, where peculiar versions of feudalism once generalised a sense of family closeness between high and low such as Jeannie Robertson’s mythology expressed. Maybe English consciousness over the last few hundred years has been radically different. But what about that street ballad from the Napoleonic wars in which a young woman laments the loss of her lover, pressganged to serve on the Victory, and in which social protest does not prevent her acclaiming ‘the noble lord, bold Nelson’? What about the popular success of Shakespeare’s history plays, or the fame of ‘the People’s William’, Gladstone?

Professor Harrison, always patiently sceptical, might reply to these rhetorical flourishes: ‘Well – what? How on earth can we tell?’ G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate once added a postscript to their study of The Common People since 1746 suffused with Whiggish pleasure over Labour’s recent triumph in the 1945 General Election. They clearly believed that they understood the common ‘man’ and what was good for him. In 1746, outside a ‘small upper working class of skilled craftsmen’, the common man had, ‘it is not entirely unfair to say, no mind of his own’. In the days of Cobbett, he began to show gleams of intelligence, but then he relapsed. ‘The Chartists are more than anything else a pitiable people.’ However, the ‘Radical working man’ came along, supported Charles Bradlaugh and went on to found the Labour Party. ‘The men of 1946’, Cole and Postgate concluded, were cleverer still – look at how their earnest quest for information had forced their oppressors to ‘improve’ the technique of ‘deluding the masses’ through newspapers and magazines. These historians seemed to believe that the long march of the common ‘man’ could and should properly end in universal paid-up membership of the Fabian Society. Harrison, who once wrote a very good book on the history of adult education, can’t share that tempting delusion. He evokes the mysteriousness of the ‘common’ experience, lived outside written documentation. Yes, he agrees, Whiggishness is hard to avoid since it can plausibly be suggested that ‘the happiness of the greatest number (the common people) has increased, albeit very slowly and with many setbacks, during the past nine hundred years ... ’ But he thinks, unlike Cole and Postgate, that common people always had ‘minds of their own’, and that conceptions of existence other than those of benevolent utilitarians should be respected as and when we can strike through to them.

How, though? ‘The first and greatest problem is the scarcity of sources. We are dealing with that part of the community which was largely inarticulate.’ But since Cole and Postgate, historians have learnt some useful new skills. They have sought out forgotten or unpublished autobiographies by working women and men. The ‘archives of repression’ – records of court cases, reports by spies and so on – can be made to yield fresh insights. Folklore and oral testimony, archaeology and anthropology, can liberate us from the ‘tyranny of literary sources’, and computers can process statistics which help us to reconstruct Early Modern family life. So Harrison reproaches his own profession, quoting Hugh Trevor-Roper to the effect that historians in general are great toadies of power. They could have written the history of the common people, but have chosen not to. ‘The historian shuts himself off from ever finding the common people as they saw themselves, and then proclaims that the common people have no history, or history worth taking seriously.’

Harrison tells us that his book will not attempt ‘to use any particular theory of history or model of social change’. Yet its alignment is perfectly clear. He is working in the spirit of recent labour historians and oral historians, of feminist scholars searching for women’s experience ‘hidden from history’, and, further afield, of those who have recently transformed our understanding of black slavery in the New World and those who use oral and archaeological evidence to open up the histories of non-European peoples without traditions of literacy. He mistrusts sweeping generalisations and snappy conclusions, and to some of his allies his work will seem ‘under-theorised’. But they would all do well to have a look at it.

One has struggled uneasily trying to extract from standard textbooks some clear picture of what life under feudalism was like – they seem to assume that you know that already. Harrison provides such a picture in 32 pages. A specialist might detect oversimplification here, but her or his equivalent is unlikely to do so in Harrison’s masterly 120 pages on 1780-1880, the period on which his own research has centred. He does not find the Chartists ‘pitiable’ but points to their angry articulation of class consciousness, and to the huge size of their movement.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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