Published online by Cambridge University Press: 10 January 2014
The narrative stories of nineteenth-century British history have been pulled seriously out of joint. At one time, not too long ago, the master narrative of nineteenth-century history seemed fairly straightforward. The nineteenth century raised the curtain on the modern age; its politics, economics, social relations, and culture presaged the world we know from our own times. If there was one organizing principle that the historiography privileged above all others, it was the idea of change. This was the century of growth and change—generally of a progressive kind. But new stories are now being told that force us to reconsider this picture. The spotlight is being directed toward themes of continuity that challenge the representation of the nineteenth century as the moment of modernity. It is this shift from change to continuity as the basic organizing principle of the field that is the starting point for this article.
The touch of continuity is everywhere. The traditional historiography rested secure in the conception that the nineteenth century was shaped and dominated by the fact of Britain as the first industrial nation. But current research has dissolved the Industrial Revolution into the long-term trends of economic growth; now the very name itself is jeopardized. Whereas the nineteenth century was once regarded as the age of the bourgeoisie, it is the landed elites and their various allies who now occupy center stage. The urban middle class has been returned to the provincial peripheries.
1 See my “Does the Notion of Victorian England Make Sense?” in Cities, Class and Communication: Essays in Honour of Asa Briggs, ed. Fraser, Derek (Hassocks, Sussex, 1990)Google Scholar, for an early formulation of this argument, which I intend to develop more fully in a book tentatively titled “Contest and Containment: Britain, 1680–1880.”
2 For this new political history, see the recent books by Vernon, James, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, 1815–1867 (Cambridge, 1993)Google Scholar; and Parry, Jonathan, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn., 1994)Google Scholar.
3 See Cannon, John, Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth Century England (Cambridge, 1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1660–1832 (Cambridge, 1985)Google Scholar; Langford, Paul, A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783 (Oxford, 1989)Google Scholar, Public Life and the Propertied Englishman, 1688–1788 (Oxford, 1990)Google Scholar; and Cronin, James, The Politics of State Expansion: War, State and Society in Twentieth Century Britain (London, 1991)Google Scholar.
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5 See Trevelyan, George Macauley, British History in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1922; 2d ed., London, 1937)Google Scholar; Evans, Eric, Forging of the Modern State (London, 1983)Google Scholar; Corrigan, Philip and Sayer, Derek, The Great Arch (Oxford, 1985)Google Scholar; Briggs, Asa, Age of Improvement, 1783–1867 (London, 1959)Google Scholar; Perkin, Harold, Origins of Modern English Society (London, 1969)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Young, G. M., Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1900)Google Scholar; Porter, Roy, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1982)Google Scholar; Gatrell, V. A. C., Britain, 1800–1870 (Harmondsworth, in press)Google Scholar; Harris, Jose, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870–1914 (London, 1993)Google Scholar.
7 For representative examples both of the recognition of continuities and their treatment as anachronistic survivals, see Clark, G. Kitson, The Making of Victorian England (London, 1962; reprint, London, 1994), pp. 59–63, 206–10, 277Google Scholar, and An Expanding Society: Britain, 1830–1900 (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 10, 12–13, 18, 20, 28Google Scholar. Quote is from The Making of Victorian England, p. 64.
8 See Perkin.
9 Houghton, Walter, The Victorian Frame of Mind (New Haven, Conn., 1957), pp. 1–4Google Scholar. Houghton's quote is on p. 1; Thomas Arnold is cited by Houghton on p. 4. Note how Briggs warns against this historical borrowing when he remarks that “any modern interpretation of what many outstanding Victorians considered to be an age of improvement should be coolly critical and not simply derivative.” But he ends up by adopting the “commanding themes” as defined by such Victorians. See Briggs, , Age of Improvement, pp. 3–4Google Scholar. Of course, this does not mean that everyone approved of this transition—or of certain aspects of it. On the complicated relationship between medievalism and Victorian culture, see, e.g., Girouard, Mark, The Return to Camelot (New Haven, Conn., 1981)Google Scholar; and, of course, Clark, Kenneth, The Gothic Revival (London, 1928)Google Scholar.
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11 Briggs, Asa, Victorian Cities (London, 1963)Google Scholar. Eighteenth-century history revolves around these themes; see, e.g., Langford, A Polite and Commercial People and Public Life and the Propertied Englishman; McKendrick, Neil, Brewer, John, and Plumb, J. H., The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England (Bloomington, Ind., 1982)Google Scholar; Porter, Roy and Brewer, John, eds., Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993)Google Scholar; Borsay, Peter, ed., The Eighteenth Century English Town: A Reader in Urban History, 1688–1828 (London, 1990)Google Scholar; Speck, W. A., Stability and Strife (London, 1985)Google Scholar; Earle, Peter, The Making of the English Middle Class: Business, Society and Family Life in London, 1660–1730 (London, 1989)Google Scholar; Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1832 (New Haven, Conn., 1992)Google Scholar; Money, John, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands (Montreal, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Jenkins, Philip, The Making of a Ruling Class: The Glamorgan Gentry, 1640–1790 (Cambridge, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
12 For the best statement of the new econometric history of the Industrial Revolution, see Crafts, N. F. R., British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 1985)Google Scholar. For some restatements of the discontinuity argument, see Mokyr, Joel, ed., The British Industrial Revolution: An Economic Perspective (Boulder, Colo., 1993)Google Scholar; and Berg, Maxine and Hudson, Pat, “Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution,” Economic History Review 45, no. 1 (February 1992): 24–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is important to note that the question of continuity in economic growth was always recognized, but, as in the general histories, it was ultimately pushed aside; see Deane, Phyllis, The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 1–5Google Scholar. A good recent attempt to rescue the term “industrial revolution” by defining it as the process of raw material substitution is Wrigley, E. A., Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England (Cambridge, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a sensible overview, which raises the difficulties of periodization, see Lee, C. H., The British Economy since 1700: A Macroeconomic Perspective (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 1–23Google Scholar. And for the relationship between historiography and contemporary events and moods, see Cannadine, David, “The Past and the Present in the English Industrial Revolution, 1880–1980,” Past and Present, no. 103 (May 1984), pp. 131–72Google Scholar.
13 Anderson, Perry, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” in his Towards Socialism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), pp. 11–52Google Scholar, originally published in New Left Review in 1964; Seymour, Charles, Electoral Reform in England and Wales (Archon reprint, New Hamden, Conn., 1970), pp. vii–viiiGoogle Scholar; Arnstein, Walter, “The Myth of the Triumphant Victorian Middle Classes,” Historian 37, no. 2 (February 1975): 207–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
14 See Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1660–1832 (n. 3 above), and Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cambridge, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a sensible critique of Clark, see Innes, Joanna, “Jonathan Clark, Social History and England's ‘Ancien Régime,’” Past and Present, no. 115 (1985), pp. 165–200Google Scholar.
15 See Parry (n. 2 above), a book that may do for nineteenth-century political history what J. C. D. Clark has done for the eighteenth; Mandler, Peter, Aristocratic Government in the Age of Reform: Whigs and Liberals, 1830–1852 (Oxford, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jenkins, T. A., Gladstone, Whiggery and the Liberal Party, 1874–1886 (Oxford, 1988)Google Scholar; and Harling, Philip and Mandler, Peter, “From ‘Fiscal-Military’ State to Laissez-Faire State, 1760–1850,” Journal of British Studies 32, no. 1 (January 1993): 44–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also see the important article by Rubinstein, W. D., “Wealth Elites and the Class Structure of Modern Britain,” Past and Present, no. 76 (May 1977), pp. 99–126Google Scholar.
16 Calhoun's, CraigThe Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (Chicago, 1982)Google Scholar was an early opening of this perspective and first used the term “populist” to describe lower-class ideology. This was followed by Jones, Gareth Stedman, “Rethinking Chartism,” in his Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982 (Cambridge, 1983)Google Scholar. And, of course, this perspective has been carried to its fullest expression in Joyce, Patrick, Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1840–1914 (Cambridge, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Vernon, Politics and the People (n. 2 above); and Briggs, Asa, Chartist Studies (London, 1959)Google Scholar. On Tichborne and other similiar mid-century movements, see McWilliam, Rohan, “Radicalism and Popular Culture: The Tichborne Case and the Politics of Fair Play, 1867–1886,” and Taylor, Miles, “The Old Radicalism and the New: David Urquhart and the Politics of Opposition, 1832–1867,” both in Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850–1914, ed. Biagini, Eugenio and Reid, Alastair (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar.
17 See Fraser, Derek, Urban Politics in Victorian England: The Structure of Politics in Victorian Cities (Leicester, 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clark, J. C. D., English Society, pp. 394–409Google Scholar; O'Gorman, Frank, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734–1832 (Cambridge, 1989)Google Scholar, “Campaign Rituals and Ceremonies: The Social Meaning of Elections in England, 1780–1860,” Past and Present, no. 135 (May 1992), pp. 79–115Google Scholar; and Vernon, Politics and the People, which essentially extends O'Gorman's analysis to 1867.
18 This is, of course, in contrast to an earlier generation of historians like Foster, John, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (London, 1974)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; or Harrison, Brian, Drink and the Victorians (London, 1971)Google Scholar. For a very different interpretation of popular constitionalism that emphasizes its oppositional capacities—and that was also one of its earliest formulations—see Belchem, John, “Republicanism, Popular Constitutionalism and the Radical Platform in Early Nineteenth Century England,” Social History 6, no. 1 (January 1981): 1–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar. And for an interpretation that emphasizes the diversities in popular constitutionalism, see Epstein, James, “Understanding the Cap of Liberty: Symbolic Practice and Social Conflict in Early Nineteenth Century England,” Past and Present, no. 122 (February 1989), pp. 75–118Google Scholar. For the historiographical origins of this recent emphasis on the convergence of Liberalism and working-class politics, see Tholfsen, Trygve, Working Class Radicalism in Mid-Victorian England (London, 1976)Google Scholar. This argument has recently been restated, fused with elements of Vincent's, John pioneering Formation of the Liberal Party, 1857–1868 (London, 1966)Google Scholar, and spiced with more attention to the politics and political language of the relationship in Biagini, Eugenio, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 (Cambridge, 1992)Google Scholar, which suggests a “charismatic” theory of Gladstone's appeal. For the new lib-labism, see Eugenio Biagini and Alastair Reid, “Currents of Radicalism, 1850–1914,” chap. 1 of Biagini and Reid, eds.
19 For examples of the unproblematic use of sources such as middle-class-owned provincial newspapers to represent the beliefs and assumptions of the plebeians, see Biagini's Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform, the very title of which illustrates the borrowing from Victorian Liberalism, for which it is a panegyric. David Mayfield and Susan Thorne have rightly remarked that by making the cognitive relationship of subject viewing object “the explicit centerpiece of their researches [Stedman Jones and Joyce] render the problem of social relations and social power … meaningless from the very outset (long before any empirical encounter with the archive)”; see their “Reply to ‘The Poverty of Protest’ and ‘The Imaginary Discontents,’” Social History 18, no. 2 (May 1993): 219–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar, quote on 232. For the eighteenth century, of course, see Thompson, E. P., Customs in Common (New York, 1993), pp. 21, 24–26Google Scholar.
20 The reference to Saussure is in Jones's, StedmanLanguages of Class, p. 20Google Scholar. Saussure regarded language as the product of social forces, as a social institution, as a system of signs that do not derive meaning in an arbitrary way but from social forces and facts. See de Saussure, Ferdinand, Course in General Linguistics (New York, 1966), pp. 9, 15, 67–69, 113, 114–15, 122Google Scholar. See also Cullen, Jonathan, Saussure (London, 1976)Google Scholar; and Harris, Roy, Reading Saussure (London, 1987), pp. 64–69Google Scholar. For a fierce, but telling, critique of the linguistic turn as it is practiced in this field, see Palmer, Bryan, Descent into Discourse (Philadelphia, 1990)Google Scholar, and “Critical Theory, Historical Materialism, and the Ostensible End of Marxism: The Poverty of Theory Revisited,” International Review of Social History 38 (1993): 133–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
21 The quote is from Joyce, Patrick, “The Imaginary Discontents of Social History: A Note of Response to Mayfield and Thorne and Lawrence and Taylor,” Social History 18, no. 1 (January 1993): 81–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the remark about times moving on is on 84. It is difficult to find any sustained attribution to a body of linguistic or other theory in Joyce's Visions of the People. And, as Epstein has remarked, it is not clear how seriously to take Joyce's commitment to poststructuralism given the sharp distinction between his assertions and his actual historical practice. See Epstein, James, “The Populist Turn,” Journal of British Studies 32, no. 2 (April 1993): 179–89Google Scholar. But for an assertive though curiously slight claim for postmodernism's superiority over materialism, see Joyce, Patrick, “History and Post-Modernism,” Past and Present, no. 133 (1991), pp. 204–9Google Scholar. For intelligent reflections on this body of scholarship see Mayfield, David and Thorne, Susan, “Social History and Its Discontents: Gareth Stedman Jones and the Politics of Language,” Social History 17, no. 2 (May 1992): 165–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lawrence, Jon and Taylor, Miles, “The Poverty of Protest: Gareth Stedman Jones and the Politics of Language—a Reply,” Social History 18, no. 1 (January 1993): 1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Joyce replied to the former in “The Imaginary Discontents of Social History: A Note of Response to Mayfield and Thorne and Lawrence and Taylor.” Mayfield and Thorne responded in “Reply to ‘The Poverty of Protest’ and ‘The Imaginary Discontents.’” Vernon, James weighed in with “Who's Afraid of the ‘Linguistic Turn’?” Social History 19, no. 1 (January 1994): 82–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar, in which a list of postmodernist authorities was provided along with apologies for his and Joyce's rudeness.
22 I have found the following pieces helpful in exploring the question of postmodernism: Lyotard, Jean-François, “Futility in Revolution,” in Toward the Postmodern (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1993), pp. 87–114Google Scholar, and The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, 1984)Google Scholar; Barthes, Roland, The Rustle of Language (Berkeley, Calif., 1989)Google Scholar; Kellner, Hans, Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison, Wis., 1989)Google Scholar; Ray, William, Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction (Oxford, 1984)Google Scholar; Hassan, Ihab, The Postmodern Turn (Columbus, Ohio, 1987)Google Scholar; Docherty, Thomas, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (New York, 1993)Google Scholar; Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (Basingstoke, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Spiegel, Gabrielle, “History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 65 (January 1990): 59–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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24 See Spiegel. Joyce, in “The Imaginary Discontents of Social History,” p. 84Google Scholar, has contrasted the absence of grand narratives in nineteenth-century history in comparison to the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries as a sign of the greater theoretical sophistication of those working in the former field. But it should be clear from this article that in the skeletal form of periodizations grand narratives continue to shape even the work of revisionists.
26 Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982–1985 (Minneapolis, 1993), p. 52Google Scholar.
27 See Fraser, Nancy and Nicholson, Linda, “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism,” in Docherty, , ed., p. 419Google Scholar, who go on to deny that postmodernism should foreswear large historical narratives or macro analysis of social phenomenon.
28 The category of the “social” has been questioned by Jean Baudrillard; see Joyce's two references to it—without much elaboration—in “History and Post-Modernism,” and his “Imaginary Discontents of Social History,” p. 82, although I have been unable to find the work there cited. But there seems to be some confusion on this matter, because Vernon in “Who's Afraid of the ‘Linguistic Turn’?” p. 96, allows the social and social-structural approaches. In its indeterminacy this is a very postmodern position, I suppose. For a critical appreciation of Baudrillard, see Best and Kellner, pp. 114–28.
29 For the difficulties with beginnings and endings, see Kellner, pp. 7, 60–63.
30 Arnold Toynbee was one of the first to use the term “postmodern,” which therefore has good Anglo-Saxon roots, although it has now been captured by the French and slavishly adopted by the Americans. Toynbee referred to post-1875 as the “postmodern” age, characterized by anarchy, turmoil, revolution, and the collapse of the Enlightenment ethos. These were exactly the qualities that Young found in the late Victorian age. Others have pointed to the prefiguring of postmodernism by conservative theorists in the fifties like Daniel Bell, who spoke of a postindustrial society. For these remarks, see Best and Kellner, pp. 6–9; Young (n. 5 above), pp. 157–87. For an excellent critique of postmodernism from the viewpoint of historical materialism as well as the specific reference to architecture, see Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, 1989), p. 356Google Scholar. also see Ankersmit, F. R., “Historiography and Postmodernism,” History and Theory 28, no. 2 (1989): 146CrossRefGoogle Scholar.
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43 See E. P. Thompson (n. 19 above), pp. 1–15, on the way “custom” underlay the plebian political consciousness of the eighteenth century, and pp. 410–11, 442, 451–53, 456, 476–77, 505, 511, 517–18, 528–29, on the chronology of wife sales and rough music. Also see McWilliam (n. 16 above), pp. 44–64.
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48 See Seymour (n. 13 above), p. 193, for corruption. Seymour fully recognized the way 1832 changed little in the operation of politics, and his findings have been confirmed by Gash and others. But Seymour's work is marred by the framing of the issue of political reform as one of aristocracy versus middle class. See also, of course, Gash, Norman, Politics in the Age of Peel, 2d ed. (Hassocks, 1976)Google Scholar; Phillips, John A., The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs: English Electoral Behaviour, 1818–1841 (Oxford, 1992), quote on p. 303Google Scholar, and also his Electoral Behaviour in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters and Straights (Princeton, N.J., 1982), pp. 306–7Google Scholar.
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