John Homer’s Odyssey

Claude Rawson

  • Customs in Common by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 547 pp, £25.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 85036 411 6

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.

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