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.
This chapter examines Edmund Spenser's involvement in the Irish legal system and suggests how it may have influenced his later conception of Irish law in A view. It assesses the nature of Dublin civic and cultural life and how it would have appeared in the 1580s. The chapter charts Spenser's involvement in a significant debate that took place in Rathfarnham soon after he arrived in Ireland. Many aspects of Dublin life would not have seemed that much different from life in Westminster or Cambridge, especially if Spenser was staying in Dublin Castle as he had lived in Leicester House. As the writings of Bryskett, Stanihurst and others demonstrate, Dublin had no rivals as the cultural and intellectual centre of Ireland, leaving its mark on English settlers such as Edmund Spenser.
This chapter first outlines some of the issues and problems raised by Scotland and Scottish history for English readers in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign. It then shows how closely engaged William Shakespeare was with questions generated by his understanding of Scottish history, concentrating especially on Hamlet, a play that has already been persuasively read as a work informed by an understanding of Scottish affairs and politics. Hamlet's last action before he dies is to kill Claudius, showing that his soliloquy has a prophetic purpose in the plot. Claudius's reign bears striking similarities to that of Kenneth III. A key reign in George Buchanan's History of Scotland was that of Kenneth III, who ended the long tradition of elective monarchy in Scotland. Buchanan's sense of the significance of Kenneth's reign is encapsulated in the version narrated in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of Scotland.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.