How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories. Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry? … The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life.
George Eliot's words in an 1856 essay on W. H. Riehl's Natural History of German Life provide an indicative starting point for this collection, encapsulating many of the myths and stereotypes that have typically dominated cultural ideas of rurality. Art and literature, Eliot argued, had long depicted a vision of rural life as a world of idyllic ploughmen, buxom maidens and rosy-faced children – a vision, she contended, that was far from the ‘truth of rustic life’: ‘no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry’.