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'The Working Class of People': an early eighteenth-century source.

Scholars in eighteenth-century literature and culture have long assumed that the term 'working class' was anachronistic for this period and that the concept as well had to await the full-fledged Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx. Almost predictably, OED offers as its first entry for the term a source from Robert Owen in 1813 and leaves the impression that the constituency involved is mainly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century formation. E. P. Thompson, surely the most distinguished historian on the subject, also emphasizes that the 'working class' in the modern sense of a group identity does not make itself felt before the last three decades of the eighteenth century.(1) Although not specifically addressing the question, Thompson appears to assume that the term 'working class' itself is a nineteenth-century coinage. Flaunting this traditional view, however, a pamphlet published in 1735 and attributed to Samuel Richardson employs the phrase 'the Working Class of People'.

The pamphlet is entitled A Seasonable Examination of the Pleas and Pretensions of the Proprietors of, and Subscribers to, PlayHouses, Erected in Defiance of the Royal Licence. With Some Brief Observations on the Printed Case of the Players belonging to Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden Theatres (London: Printed for T. Cooper, in Paternoster-Row, MDCCXXXV). Both Alan Dugald McKillop and the authors of the standard biography, T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, have attributed this pamphlet to Richardson on stylistic as well as on conceptual grounds.(2) Despite the general similarities of this pamphlet's content and tone to Richardson's known work, however, the utter failure to use this term ever again in his later and much more familiar publications raises at least some doubt regarding his authorship. But if this usage so early in the eighteenth century is possibly unique, it could be that Richardson and others of his class at that time felt more comfortable with such terms as 'servants', 'apprentices', 'labourers', and 'the deserving poor' or simply 'the poor'.(3) Like others in the sentimental tradition, Richardson was not inclined to use the term 'mob' to denote the lower classes.

Before examining the context of this 'anachronistic' term in A Seasonable Examination, however, it is useful to consider the general points made by Thompson concerning the concept of 'working class' in its late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical contexts. Against the commonplace that the eighteenth-century society is 'paternal' or 'patriarchal', Thompson sees a much more complex structure where, since the Revolution of 1688, money becomes the absolute standard of power and, as in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, tends to equate lords and criminals alike in unchecked activities of economic parasitism (138-42). Perhaps the most remarkable part of Thompson's overall argument is his dismissal of any notion that the middle class in the professions and in trade and manufacturing had an inhibiting effect on this parasitism: 'Such a class did not begin to discover itself (except, perhaps, in London) until the last three decades of the century' (142).

Thompson's tentative exception of London from this alleged lack of class consciousness is prudent, as we shall see, in light of A Seasonable Examination. Despite the supremacy of Whig oligarchic power during the first seven decades of the century, however, Thompson identifies four important means of putting restraints on financial and political exploitation: (1) 'the largely Tory tradition of the independent lesser gentry'; (2) the Press; (3) the Law; and (4) 'the resistance of the crowd'. Without giving much credit to the middle classes in determining the outcome of this power struggle, Thompson goes on to argue that the main social structure comprised the reciprocal gentry-plebs relations. Behind much of Thompson's polemic against the existence of a real class consciousness in the eighteenth century is, not surprisingly, the spectre of the French school of Marxist theory represented by the late Louis Althusser.(4) It is the lack of any concern for empirical fact that disturbs Thompson the most in his discussion: 'It is easy to suppose that class takes place, not as historical process, but inside our own heads' (146). Again, given his disposition, in answer to Althusser, to counter any suggestion of class consciousness in the early eighteenth century, Thompson probably overstated his own case. The 1735 pamphlet attributed to Richardson is surely an embarrassment to his argument about a classless society until approximately the last decades of this century.

In support of Thompson's view that neither king nor parliament could stem the tide of the oligarchical Whigs in the early century, A Seasonable Examination opens with the complaint that the proprietors of the new and unlicensed theatres were flaunting both the Crown and the London magistracy who had tried 'to put a Stop to such a great and growing Evil, as it is justly called in the Preamble to the Bill now under Consideration of the Legislature' (5). Since the 'enemies' in this pamphlet are clearly the proprietors and subscribers to the various playhouses to be erected, all of whom are sufficiently endowed to cause such social evil, the author is really attacking people of his own rank as well as the upper classes involved in the subscriptions, including the various newspaper owners who had printed their advertisements for these illegal theatres. Mimicking financial expertise, Richardson concedes the losses that would accrue to the proprietors and subscribers by the proposed bill. With subtle irony, he even works out the possible losses per share if their project failed. In the end, however, he suggests that such a financial sacrifice would be worth preventing the corruption of the youth of both sexes and the harm to the families of 'honest Tradesmen' (9).

One danger posed by unregulated theatres is the encroachment on the customary time for labour. The author points out that except for the building trades, which usually end work by six p.m., most of the other tradespeople work until eight or nine, and that journeymen in these trades are urged to work even longer hours (14-17). Quoting from calculations already made in his earlier The Apprentice's Vade Mecum (1733), Richardson explains that since plays generally begin at six and end at nine, 'here are Three Hours in every Day that the young Man goes to the Play (which is near a Fourth Part of it) stolen from the Master, and, as it may happen, turn'd to the worse Use that can be possibly made of it, both for Master and Servant'.(5) Worse yet, instead of returning home immediately after the theatre, it is not infrequent that 'young Men' will visit some ale house to waste yet more time.

As if written exactly in answer to Thompson's point about the necessity of 'class conflict' while trying to define 'class' at all, Richardson is quite explicit about the danger of having labourers prefer the playhouse to their relatively harmless erstwhile pleasures in 'Billiard-Tables, Skettle-Grounds, and Bowling-Allies':

A Sign that the Diversions of the stage have taken no small Hold of the Minds of the lower Class of People in those Parts: And tho' the Stage, under a proper Regulation, might be made a rational and instructing Entertainment, yet, as it is now manag'd, and generally has been order'd, we cannot help thinking it a very improper Diversion to be planted among the Working Class of People, particularly. . . . (17)

Much more is at stake than the actual time 'stolen from the Master' by frequenting the theatres; rather, it is the fact that plays have ways of changing the spectator's consciousness and promoting social unrest.(6) Above all, Richardson dreads the consequence of raising expectations among the working class and undermining their loyalty to their employers. Not only are plays generally 'calculated for Persons in Upper Life' at the expense of ridiculing 'Trade and Men of Business', but they also tend to fetch their 'Heroes and Heroines from Newgate and Bridewell' (18). Perhaps the most ingenious argument against allowing the working class to frequent playhouses has to do with the luxury of social freedom itself:

Because of the Danger of the Mind's being too much diverted from Business by those Representations. If a Person has a Taste for 'em, as is justly observed, the Musick will always play upon his Ears, the Dancers will constantly swim before his Eyes: This or that Part of an applauded Actor will perpetually take up his Attention; and he will be desirous of seeing him in others, and so will want to trace one Player or other thro' every Scene, and every Season; and so by Degrees unhinge his Mind from Business, make his Trade undelightful to him, and allow, at most, but a second Place to his first Duties. (18.)

While giving vent to his fear of unhinging the poor worker's mind from his 'first duties' to his employer, Richardson betrays perhaps the root cause of his objections to unlicensed theatres the whole nightmare of a society that would fall into disarray once the lower classes were given equal access to the subversive pleasures of the theatre. Needless to say, his anxiety was shared by many of his readers in trade, and it would be unfair to single him out for being mean-spirited on this account.

Of chief interest here, however, is not simply Richardson's political and social motives for advocating stricter controls of the theatres but rather the proof given in his pamphlet that a class consciousness did indeed exist well before the nineteenth century. Thompson's parenthetical aside to allow the exception of London to his general theory of classlessness in this period was probably deserving of more intensive care than he allowed at the time of writing his essay. In any case, this pamphlet, even if providing a unique instance of the term 'working class' in the early eighteenth century, leaves no doubt that class conflict was alive and well long before Marx - or Althusser - came upon the scene.

JOHN A. DUSSINGER University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966 [1963]). For my purposes here, Thompson's essay 'Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?' Social History, iii (1978), 133-65, is more concise in identifying the specific criteria for defining the term 'working class' within its historical context.

2 I am using the British Library copy of A Seasonable Examination, 2B.M. 641.d.31. Alan Dugald McKillop, 'Richardson's Early Writings - Another Pamphlet', JEGP, liii (1954), 72-5. T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson, A Biography (Oxford, 1971), 54.

3 That Richardson seems almost deliberately to have avoided further use of 'working class of people' is evident in his moral dictionary and last published work, A Collection of Moral and Instructive Sentiments (1755), where no form of the word 'work' appears in his alphabetical references to his three novels.

4 'Althusser does not so much confuse thought and the real as, by asserting the unknowability of the real, he confiscates reality of its determinant properties, thus reducing the real to Theory', Thompson, 'The Poverty of Theory', in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York and London, 1978), 22-3.

5 The Apprentice's Vade Mecum: or, Young Man's Pocket-Companion (1733). Alan Dugald McKillop, 'Samuel Richardson's Advice to an Apprentice', JEGP, xlii (1943), 40-54.

6 In Richardson's 'Clarissa' and the Eighteenth-Century Reader, Tom Keymer gives a very sensitive reading of both The Apprentice's Vade Mecum and A Seasonable Examination (Cambridge, 1992), 145-9. Keymer stresses that Richardson was not against theatres in principle but simply wanted them to remain in the West End, safely removed from the City, where serious work was to be done.
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Author:Dussinger, John A.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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