Friday, 3 February 2017

England in 1780

Few writers can live solely from their writings. Thomas Love Peacock [1785-1866] was no exception. He began work as a clerk in a City office and in late 1818 took up a well-paid and responsible job at the India House where he worked for almost forty years. In taking his post with the East India Company, Peacock became a high-ranking civil servant and chose amateur status as a novelist. His writings, particularly Nightmare Abbey [1818] and Crotchet Castle [1831] ridiculed the poets of the Romantic Movement and political economists in their quest for scientific progress and 'the march of the mind'. Mr Crotchet lists certain great controversies he would like to see settled in his lifetime: "the sentimental against the rationale, the intuitive against the inductive, the ornamental against the useful, the intense against the tranquil, the romantic against the classical". Peacock, like other contemporary social critics, was trying to make sense of a Britain of increasing contrasts. Thomas Carlyle stated in Signs of the Times in 1829 that: "Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age, which with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand.... Our old modes of exertion are all discredited and thrown aside...."

In his Autobiographical Fragments, probably written in the early 1820s, the poet John Clare expressed an alternative view:

My hopes of bettering my station with the world was agen and I started for Wisbeach [in Cambridgeshire] with a timid sort of pleasure and when I got to Glinton turnpike I turnd back to look on the old church as if I was going in to another contry. Wisbeach was a foreign land to me for I had never been above 8 miles from home in my life and I coud not fancy england much larger then the part I knew. At Peterboro Brig I got into a boat that carrys passengers to Wisbeach once a week and returns the third day a distance of 21 miles for eighteenpence.... one of my worst labours was a journey to a distant village name Maxey in winter afternoons to fetch flour once or sometimes twice a week. In these journeys I had haunted spots to pass as the often heard tales of ghosts and hobgoblins had made me very fearful to pass such places at night it being often dark ere I got there....

William Cobbett wrote of Sheffield in his northern tour of 1830:

The ragged hills all round this town are bespangled with groups of houses inhabited by the working cutlers. They have not suffered like the working weavers; for to make knives there must be the hand of man. Therefore, machinery cannot come to destroy the wages of the labourer. The home demand has been very much diminished: but still the depression has here not been what it has been, and what it is where the machinery can be brought into play....
 
The England of the 1780s was in some respects 'modern', an 'age of machinery' as Carlyle maintained. It was an England of rapid industrial change where a growing population was being drawn to the expanding towns and cities of the north and midlands. It was a land of canals and newly surfaced roads feeding economic growth. But it was also an 'old' country in which going to a different part of the country was viewed as going to a foreign land and where a belief in the supernatural remained. In the 1780s, the tensions between change and continuity were unresolved and in some ways they remained unresolved in 1846. These pressures were more obvious outside England. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland the distinction between innovation and tradition was starker and resistance to change often took on a strongly nationalist character. Attitudes to particular crops grown in Ireland illustrate this distinction. The cultivation of turnips was seen as innovative by many rural labourers and, perhaps more importantly, as an English innovation. Turnips were destroyed in the fields just as some believed they were destroying their lives. By contrast, the potato, introduced by the English in the seventeenth century, had become an accepted indeed essential part of Irish cultural, as well as dietary, life. It is not surprising that some nationalists of the Young Ireland movement were able to represent the potato famines of the 1840s as part of a deliberate policy of genocide by English government. For many contemporaries Britain was a country of opposing poles: improvement and resistance, modernity and tradition, change and continuity, Englishness and cultural and linguistic nationalism, north and south, rich and poor. As is always the case, reality was far less clear-cut and far more complex than the rhetoric suggested.

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