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Popular culture and performance in the Victorian city. (Reviews).

Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City. By Peter Bailey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x plus 258 pp. $59.95).

The publishers offer us nine vintage Bailey essays, all published previously (one in this journal) between 1977 and 1996, with an engaging new introduction which (like other recent Bailey products) embraces the turn to autobiographical reflexivity and, in this case, represents the author to himself and to his readers as that classic English Victorian construct (a favourite term of abuse in the Billy Bunter stories), the 'cad'. And it is true that throughout his academic career the author has enjoyed celebrating the ruses and stratagems of those who know the rules well enough to break them in subtle ways and avoid the worst consequences of their transgressions. As he says, such an attitude is a common product of the journey so many of us made from the provincial lower middle or working class, by way of the local grammar school in the 1950s or 1960s, to Oxbridge or some equally implausible seat of learning, learning to conform to the expectations of alien environments while trying to retain some roots in our ol d culture. For some the resulting contradictions could not be resolved, or the new identity proved impossible to sustain, as some of the sadder case-studies in Jackson and Marsden's study of northern working-class grammar-school boys of the 1950s demonstrated. Bailey was quicker on his feet, though it was not until he completed his escape from Oxford to Canada that he found academic engagement and began to enjoy himself. He seems to be capable of juggling multiple identities on the surface while retaining a sound core of personal and academic integrity (I hope he will forgive this attempt at friendly analysis from this distance); and these characteristics stand him in good stead as the sort of historian who can deconstruct and dismantle without making the whole enterprise seem dispiritingly meaningless, alert as he is to shape-shifting and the power of different angles of vision to seem to alter the nature of what is perceived. Meanwhile, he has always worn theory lightly, being aware of the insights it can o ffer without falling in thrall to orthodoxies or becoming enslaved by jargon, and contriving to use it effectively while gently mocking its histrionic excesses.

My admiration for the Bailey oeuvre should be abundantly clear from the foregoing. I think he deserves to be right up there with the superstars. Readers with an interest in modern British history, or popular culture, or just well-written, innovative, brainstorming historical writing, should hasten to make his acquaintance if they have yet to do so. There is always something to argue with, but that is part of the enjoyment: his first book, Leisure and Class in Victorian England, was based on premises about the monolithic nature of attempts to impose middleclass 'respectability' which failed to stand the test of time (including his own later work), but it lives on as one of the best introductions to the issues and debates that it framed. These are life-enhancing contributions, the more so for their nimble responses to the shifting sands of historical and theoretical fashion. It should also be emphasized that Bailey is the most courteous of opponents: he prefers to take what is positive from others rather than t o attack perceived deficiencies, and it is in keeping that he sees the 'linguistic turn' and related developments as fecund in opportunities for new kinds of history, rather than (as some would have it) pulling the rug from under the discipline. This is positive but not Panglossian, critical but never defeatist thinking.

The chapters themselves cover the main themes of Bailey's academic career: Victorian middle-class leisure and its discontents, the paradoxes and dilemmas of 'respectability', music-hall and the relationships between performers, performance and audience, representations of the female in popular culture, and a Corbinesque attempt to get a purchase on the meanings of noise in Victorian England. The individual pieces were all reasonably accessible in their original form (one is reprinted from Past and Present); but it is good to have them together within a single volume, slightly updated in bibliographical terms, pulled together (very informally) and definitely enhanced by the new introduction. In all sorts of ways Peter Bailey is an attractive role model for a new generation of social and cultural historians, and this anthology would make a challenging and enjoyable introduction to the field for history students. But it also continues to provide inspiration and provocation to the old lags, who were already in hi s debt twenty years ago and are even more so now.
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Author:Walton, John K.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:774
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