Chapter 4 covers the period from the Civil War/War of Three Kingdoms to the Restoration. It argues that it is important that the Civil War is explored in terms of class conflict because of the varied and radical ideas that were generated, which either saw the war in terms of social strife, or, more frequently, saw it as an opportunity to eradicate such problems and establish or restore a more egalitarian order. The Levellers sought to establish new social and political principles that would facilitate equality. Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers attacked enclosure and the appropriation of the common land, hoping and believing that their social experiments would inaugurate a return to the values that had been lost since the Norman Conquest. Their Royalist opponents, Isaac Walton and Robert Herrick, shared the Diggers’ belief in the need for a common culture based on agrarian values, while urban radicals such as John Milton had a somewhat elastic representation of the ‘people’, one that elided thinking about class. John Bunyan was another critic of the commercialization of society and the disappearance of common rights and land. The chapter concludes with a comparison of the writings of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and Aphra Behn. While Rochester is relatively thoughtful about gender differences, he is blind to issues of class. Behn desires the equality of the sexes in her erotic poetry, but a re-establishment of a hierarchical social order in her novel, Oronooko.
Chapter 1 outlines the principal issues in the study of class and applies them to the history of England – then a ‘united’ Britain – from the late Middle Ages to the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution. The chapter shows how unstable English society was in the late fourteenth century. Ravaged by the Black Death, it was seriously under-resourced with pressures on both knights and peasants, as well as urban society, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the predictable result. An analysis of a series of revolts throughout the late Middle Ages enable us to understand the fractious nature of late medieval society in England, one in which class consciousness developed as both a reality and a concept. While we cannot see an obvious transfer of power from one class to another, we can observe social relations changing as the material conditions of existence alter. The move towards a more commercial and commercialized society was accelerated by the sale of monastic lands after the Reformation and subsequent technological developments enabled the development of agrarian capitalism. There was a significant growth in urban society, most pronounced in London, which precipitated further class conflict. Class distinctions were as often local as they were national. By the end of the eighteenth century, England was a country characterized by, in E. P. Thompson’s words, class struggle without class society. Daily life has always been structured in terms of class: if issues of class are ignored or disguised literary history is accordingly distorted and impoverished.
Chapter 3 explores the issue of class relations in the Renaissance. Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum (published in 1583) has an elaborate taxonomy of social ranks from those born to govern down to those who cannot rule ‘and yet they be not altogether neglected’. The classification of social strata was applied to literary texts by George Puttenham, indicating that class and literature were connected by contemporary literary theorists and that writers in Renaissance England certainly had the intellectual tools at their disposal to think about class. The chapter explores the economic prospects and social assumptions of a number of writers, most of whom came from the ‘middling sort’, many of whom felt themselves over-educated given their prospects – one reason why they gravitated towards writing. A number of plays are analysed, including Arden of Faversham, which explores the social changes inaugurated by the Reformation and the availability of cheap land; The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which examines fantasies about work and holiday; and Massinger’s A New Way To Pay Old Debts, which laments the destruction of stable social values and the rise of the unscrupulously wealthy under James I. Edmund Spenser demonstrates an acute sense of class status in the Amoretti; Richard Barnfield represents Lady Pecunia, an allegorical representation of wealth. The chapter concludes with an exploration of the career of John Taylor the water poet, a writer whose work expresses the anxieties of uncertain class status and who fashions himself as someone outside social systems, able to speak truth to power.
The epilogue points the way forward to the development of class relations in the nineteenth century and the increasing importance of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s pamphlet, An Address to the Irish People (1812), made the case that the working classes of Ireland and Britain had a common cause in their need to overthrow tyranny in order to advance the cause of justice and equality. Shelley was an unusual pioneer in making these connections and understanding that historical processes united people beyond their immediate context. The political arguments advocated in his later writings are informed by his understanding of the interconnected nature of Britain and Ireland, and a wider sense of global injustice that would become apparent to more writers in the nineteenth century.
Chapter 6 studies the relationship between literature and class from the onset of the agricultural revolution to the impact of the French Revolution. Adam Smith saw the benefits of the division of labour, which could create hitherto unimaginable prosperity. Others saw a future characterized by alienation from nature and the destruction of stabile communities. While enthusiasts for ballads and the poems of the bardic Ossian looked to recover what they could of the past, the middle-class cult of sensibility, introduced by Henry McKenzie’s novel, The Man of Feeling and other works, created a culture that enabled readers to condemn what they witnessed without having to take action. Frances Burney’s novels condemn the exploitation of servants, and the ways in which a culture of politeness is deployed to disguise vicious class bullying. George Crabbe and William Cowper demonstrate that other writers were also aware of the increasingly dangerous class divisions that were emerging in the 1780s. Robert Burns also developed his belief in a common humanity, writing in support of the American War of Independence against British occupation. Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution led to a number of responses. Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine argued that the upper class had to be removed in order for society to progress. William Blake opposed Adam Smith’s belief in the division of labour through his integrated artistic practices; William Wordsworth (and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) produced poetry that used ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’.
Chapter Five begins with an analysis of Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain and Moll Flanders. While Defoe’s geographical survey sees a united England and Scotland working together to increase the prosperity of its inhabitants, the novel explores the nature of class divisions. In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela the union of the aspirational, virtuous Pamela and the rakish upper-class Mr. B functions to revivify what might otherwise be a moribund social order. For labouring class poets such as Stephen Duck, whose example inspired the subsequent popularity of such writers, life was undeniably complicated, often hard. Duck’s rapid rise left him with anxieties and a sense of deracination that was exploited by his detractors. Mary Collier, who responded to Duck’s criticism of female indolence, explored the conflicted ways in which women labourers existed within communities of women, as well as agricultural workers. Like Duck, there is a genuine anger in her work, one that laments the lack of opportunities of the many who can never really recover from a lack of education. By 1750 the traditional rural ways of life were disappearing as farming became more mechanized, and many who would once have been employed as agricultural labourers became domestic servants. The chapter concludes with a comparison and contrast of Henry Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones (1749), and Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1750). While Fielding’s narrator looks back with nostalgia to a rapidly disappearing way of life, Gray’s acknowledges its class-bound limitations.
The introduction argues that an understanding of class relations is vital to an understanding of English literary history. A reading of sections of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Sea, The Sea (1978) and E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) demonstrates that writers understood that class determined peoples’ lives in both trivial and significant ways. Karl Marx was right to claim that all existing history has been that of class struggle and argues that class divisions existed well before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modernity, despite claims to the contrary. Representations of class, and an understanding of the nature of class, are intimately intertwined with the history of literature, which is why both have to be studied together, the one illuminating the other. The history of class without literature and literature without class results in an impoverished understanding of both. Political analysis that concentrates on gender and race makes little sense without an understanding of class, further indicating the need to consider and analyse social class as represented in literary texts as well as a determining factor in how literary texts are produced. The introduction also includes an overview of the book and a reflection on aspects of class structure that appear not to have changed.
This book explores the intimate relationship between literature and class in England (and later Britain) from the Peasants’ Revolt at the end of the fourteenth century to the impact of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. It demonstrates how literary texts are determined by class relations and how they represent the interaction of classes in profound and apparently trivial ways. The book argues throughout that class cannot be seen as a modern phenomenon that occurred after the Industrial Revolution but that class divisions and relations have always structured societies and that it makes sense to assume a historical continuity. The book explores a number of themes relating to class: class consciousness; class conflict; commercialization; servitude; the relationship between agrarian and urban society; rebellion; gender relations; and colonization. After outlining the history of class relations in England and, after the union of 1707, Scotland, five chapters explore the ways in which social class consciously and unconsciously influenced a series of writers including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Taylor, Robert Herrick, Aphra Behn, John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, Daniel Defoe, Stephen Duck, Mary Collier, Frances Burney, Robert Burns, William Blake and William Wordsworth. The book concludes with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s An Address to the Irish People (1812), pointing to the need to explore class relations in the context of the British Isles and Ireland, as well as the British Empire, which a future work will analyse.
Chapter 2 examines issues of class, hierarchy and class consciousness in the late fourteenth century, principally through a study of three major works: William Langland’s Piers Plowman, in particular the relationship between this literary text and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381; Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and its relationship to the genre of medieval estates satire as well as social reality; and John Gower’s Vox Clamantis. Piers Plowman emerges as an excoriating attack on the corruption of English society in the late fourteenth century, as principles of profit threaten to sweep away the last vestiges of society’s moral order. Langland celebrates the dignity of ordinary labour but concludes that a self-sufficient, functioning society cannot be achieved until a point in the distant future, if at all before the return of Christ. Instead, the task of the dutiful Christian citizen must be to save souls not society. Chaucer has often been contrasted to Langland as a poet who sneered at the pretensions of social climbers. Through an analysis of The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale the chapter shows that, like Langland, the more urban-focussed Chaucer also saw a society in disarray, falling prey to the forces of greed and commercialization. His satirical attacks are less concerned with individual classes than the failures of the collective whole. In contrast, Gower has no problem in blaming the rebellious peasants for England’s social ills and, accordingly, he dehumanizes them as ignorant beasts.
Tristram Hillier made a distinctive and distinguished contribution to twentieth-century British art, moving from abstraction and surrealism to representational painting with elements of quasi-surrealism. His first visit to Portugal, in 1947, was of great importance. It arose out of a crisis in his private life: his Irish Protestant wife, Leda, had objected strongly to his recent return to the Roman Catholic Church and even threatened divorce proceedings. From a professional point of view, the visit was highly successful. The essay clarifies the context, dating, and itinerary of the visit, with full use made of the Hillier files in the Tate Gallery Archive and letters in the possession of the artist’s family. It gives special attention to scenes in the city of Viseu, presenting and discussing his paintings of Cathedral Square and the Church of the Misericordia and his very fine drawing, made en plein air, on which the Cathedral Square painting is based. The drawing, in private ownership since 1948, has not been published before. It and the painting executed months later in the artist’s studio in Somerset make a fascinating study in comparison and contrast.