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Review essay: reform and social change.

Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800. By Joanne Bailey (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii plus 248pp., $65.95).

Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850. By Arthur Burns and Joanna Innes (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii plus 349pp., $70).

The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914. By Margot C. Finn (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xii plus 362pp., $70).

The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, vol. 1: Industrialisation, 1700-1860. By Roderick Floud and Paul Johnson (Cambridge and New York: 2004. xix plus 536pp., $70 hb, $26 pb).

Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth Since the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 1.: The Story. By Peter H. Lindert (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xvii plus 377pp., $65).

The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England. By Susannah R. Ottaway (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiv plus 325pp. $70).

Whether a revision or a fresh approach and however much they differ in perspectives, the half dozen Cambridge University Press books reviewed here overlap in subject matter and themes. These may be subsumed within such general categories as "reform" and "revolution" or more specific ones of industrial, agricultural, commercial, consumer, and financial revolutions. While these labels certainly provide an umbrella for the substance of the books reviewed, they fail to convey the notion of a social revolution which was also occurring. Because social along with economic and political change left its mark on the era of reform and revolution, it, too, deserves consideration. The books reviewed here embrace crucial aspects of this change and are therefore congenial for treatment in a single essay.

One obvious overlap is chronology: each volume touches on or is lodged in the eighteenth century. Some, like Margot Finn's on credit and Peter H. Lindert's on Growing Public, advance into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while Joanne Bailey's dips back into the seventeenth and barely arrives at the threshold of the nineteenth in her exploration of marriage and marital breakdown. Floud's and Johnson's first volume of the Cambridge Economic History spans just over a century an a half, from 1700-1860. Although Burns and Innes' collection of essays on reform touches two centuries, its window on the topic is fairly narrow, only the seventy years from 1780-1850. Susannah Ottaway's volume on old age is the only work which sticks exclusively to the eighteenth century.

Three works--Finn's, Bailey's, and Ottaway's--complement each other remarkably in their reviews of family, consumption, welfare, household, and money matters. Their kinds of sources also match as well: besides reliance on the usual archival material of wills, accounts books, parish registers, and the like, both Finn and Ottaway use literary works and diaries. There is occasional overlap in the subject matter: both Lindert and Ottaway discuss the poor law in some detail, the former in the broader context of "poor relief," which he carries into the twentieth century and the latter as it regards the eighteenth-century aged. Ron Harris' article on "Government and the economy, 1688-1850" in the Cambridge History also discusses poor laws, old and new, while Burns/Innes and Finn simply mention the poor in their writings, the former about the law reform in the introduction and the latter variously but most frequently in the context of petty debts and law reform. In discussing life after failed marriages, Bailey also dwells on economic hardship and the periodic necessity of poor relief.

Law and lawyers indeed form a recurring topic in these works. Bailey speaks of the diverse legal services which attorneys offered married couples. Finn cites various contexts, the most intriguing being fictional representations of lawyers, a favorite late eighteenth-century literary genre. Such lawyer fiction was often crammed with what lawyers knew best about credit matters--"pawning, money-lending, small claims litigation and imprisonment for debt" (p. 13). In The Cambridge Economic History Pat Hudson mentions attorneys ("Capital and Credit") as facilitators of credit, a theme which surprisingly has escaped Finn's attention. Michael Lobban's article on law reform in Rethinking the Age of Reform neatly places appeals for judiciary reform in the context of "Old Corruption" which so tarnished parliament.

Consumption is another topic addressed variously: The Cambridge History devotes a chapter (Maxine Berg's) and parts of others (e.g. Hans-Joachim Voth's on "Living Standards" and Jane Humphries' on "Household Economy") to it, and, not surprisingly Finn touches on "consumer culture" and "retail revolution" as they impinge on credit. Bailey, Ottaway, and Kathryn Gleadle, whose article on physiological reformers appears in Burns and Innes, also pay homage to consumption. Gender/family are recurrent themes in several works. Bailey is, of course, the prime example, although Ottaway's essay on old age also explores gender differences. Finn's discussion of women's acquisition of contractual rights is one of the high points of her work on credit.

Reform, although the dominant idea of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, emphatically asserts itself in just one of these works--Burns' and Innes' Rethinking the Age of Reform. Even there the emphasis is on reforms rarely considered. C. Knick Harley's essay in The Cambridge History on "Trade, Discovery, Mercantilism and Technology" briefly discusses repeal of the Corn Laws while Ottaway relates reform to poor laws. Though she does not label it as such, Finn devotes the latter portion of her book to reforms that revolutionized credit in modern England.

Demographic change merits consideration by several authors. E. A. Wrigley's chapter on "British Population During the 'Long Eighteenth Century'" in The Cambridge History is the most obvious example. David Mitch's on "Education and Skill of the British Labour Force", also in The Cambridge History, Bailey on marriage, Ottaway, on aging, and Lindert, on social spending, are also driven by demographics.

These constitute an excellent assortment of books, each in its own way opening new or revising old perspectives of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. Clearly, those containing the most diverse content are Floud's and Johnson's first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain and Burns' and Innes' Rethinking the Age of Reform. The former is essentially an update, or in some respects a revision, of an earlier work: it is an enlargement of Floud's and Donald McCloskey's The Economic History of Britain since 1700, the first of a two volume set which concludes about 1980. The present volume of sixteen chapters, three more than the earlier Cambridge version, assigns full chapters to consumption; the extractive industries; money, finance, and capital markets; government and the economy; household economy; Scotland; and the industrial revolution in global perspective. There is one fewer on agriculture; trade and technology are combined in a single chapter; and such general ones as "The Eighteenth Century: a Survey" and "Social Change and the Industrial Revolution" have been either deleted or integrated in the new work.

The editors of The Cambridge Economic History have advertised readability as well as scholarship in presenting this work as a "lucid textbook for undergraduates and postgraduate students." Of the fifty international scholars participating in the three volume venture, nineteen have contributed either in the editing or writing essays for this first volume. Among these Joel Mokyr (industrial revolution), Pat Hudson (industrial organization and structure), Wrigley (population), Robert C. Allen (agriculture), Patrick K. O'Brien (industrial revolution in global perspective), Berg (consumption), Voth (standard of living), Ron Harris (government and the economy), and T.M. Divine (Scotland) stand out. Besides a broad and enlightened approach to "economic history", this work contains a superb bibliography, excellent tables, and convenient listing of contents leading into each of the chapters. No doubt these features are useful for textbooks, and they are a boon to general readers as well.

Burns' and Innes' Rethinking the Age of Reform is, like The Cambridge Economic History, a multi-authored volume of essays. This work is rightly called "a fresh look at the 'age of reform' from 1780, when reform became a common object of aspiration, to the 1830s." This "freshness" stems from Rethinking's innovative subject matter rather than its being merely a rehash of political reform. While it does, indeed, nod to the political, the Old Corruption, in treating institutional reform, it contains imaginative approaches to moral reform. Certainly, this volume's fourteen essays show how pervasive the notion of reform was in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England. The editors introduce this work with a rambling and sometimes repetitious introduction, which Innes follows with an intriguing reworking of the book's subject--"Reform in English Public Life: the Fortunes of a Word." In treating reform as "aspiration" she traces the evolution of its meaning from the 1780s to the 1830s and 1840s--from its having been discredited by the excesses of the French Revolution to its resurgence with passage of the Reform Act in 1832.

The breadth of reform covered in Rethinking is evident in the inclusion of such institutional topics as the church (Arthur Burns), Parliament (Philip Harling), medicine (Ian A. Burney), the London stage (Katherine Newey); and national art institutions. Art institutions figured as vehicles of moral as well as institutional reform in that they provided "rational recreation" to replace vices to which the working classes were believed addicted. While moral reform dominates David Turley's reassessment of the anti-slavery movement and Gleadle's fascinating look at gender and domesticity, it is also present in Harling's exploration of Old Corruption in "conceptualizing" Parliamentary reform from the 1790s until 1832. There is a mix of the moral and institutional, as well, in Hennifer L. Hall-Witt's piece on Italian opera. She suggests that demands to reform the opera in King's Theater were in some respects but a subterfuge for parliamentary reform: the patrician power identified with opera, after all, controlled the unreformed Commons. Michael Lobban's article on law reform is one of the most illuminating in the book. Harkening back to Matthew Hale and William Sheppard in the seventeenth century and forward to Dickens' belated Bleak House (1853) critique of an unreformed Chancery, he focuses principally on judiciary reform in the first years of the nineteenth century.

Not all reform was necessarily internal to England. Three essays link Britain's internal reform with events or issues outside the realm. That colonial matters impinged on parliamentary reform should surprise no one, yet the subject has scarcely been explored. The relevance of the present essay may be measured in Miles Taylor's conclusion that colonial interests were quite as important as rural ones at home in shaping parliamentary reform in 1832. Jennifer Ridden's account of Irish reform is refreshingly from the Irish rather than British vantage point and depicted as neither England's problem nor undertaking. Jonathan Sperber's comparison of reforms in England with those on the Continent between 1789 and 1848-51 leads to a not unexpected conclusion that there were more differences than likenesses and that opposition to reform was more formidable in Great Britain and Ireland than on the Continent. Still, the author has taken an inventive approach in exploiting the theme.

In all, Rethinking the Age of Reform is an important work, one which stresses the pervasiveness and diversity of reform. Its inclusion of art, theater, opera, medicine, empire, and other topics generally alien to the conventional notion of reform as parliamentary reform will make it a welcome addition to literature regarding England's era of reform. Further, the very current bibliography incorporated in the notes suggests Rethinking as a kind of handbook on the subject.

In our enchantment with eighteenth-century consumption we are too often neglectful of that which made purchasing and consumption possible, namely, credit. As the blurb on the dust jacket of Margot Finn's remarkable The Character of Credit notes, "Personal credit relations were ubiquitous in English consumer markets, binding family members, friends, neighbors, customers and tradesmen in tangled liens of mutual obligations." In such a context Finn examines this social and legal history of debt and credit by delving into diaries, memoirs, and novels as well as the usual archival records. She ponders the impact of gender, family, and class in this wide-ranging study. Her analysis of credit in the literary genre and detailed and original treatment of the evolution of imprisonment for debt, small claims litigation, and domestic credit contracts that culminated in the Married Women and Tortfeasors Act of 1935 deserves special praise. Taken together they are crucial to an understanding of the credit relations which fueled the English economy from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The nearly thirty pages of bibliography make this work another invaluable reference. It is surprising that Finn fails to mention country lawyers in their role as conduits of credit between clients and investment sources in the City.

How can we fully appraise the eighteenth century without appreciating the behavior and thinking of the elderly and married couples about which Susannah R. Ottaway and Joanne Bailey write? In The Decline of Life Ottaway portrays the elderly as striving for independence and self-sufficiency as long as possible while at the same time staying involved with family and community. When they were unable to fend for themselves, they resided with children, grandchildren, or even more distant kin. Only at century's end were there perceptible changes in this pattern. Ottaway suggests that the elderly, notably the poor among them, increasingly lost their autonomy and were marginalized. Although there had been various kinds of outdoor relief in the era of the Old Poor Law, the New Poor Law brought in its wake a less congenial kind of residence, the work house. This long-overdue analysis with its thirty page bibliography fills an important need in poor law literature and on the social history of aging in the eighteenth century. With works of this sort the gaps in the history of aging, a field not all that old, are quietly being filled.

Bailey's Unquiet Lives, in many respects complementary to Ottaway, also contributes significantly to the social history of the long eighteenth century. While married life of the aristocracy is well documented, much less is known about that of the 'middling sort', the group Bailey addresses. Calling her book one about the ideology of marriage and marital roles, she examines marriage's meaning to both spouses. She is particularly concerned how region, social status, occupations, and rural/urban differences played in the relationship. Since this is a work about marital breakdown, the tables in the appendices spell out in quantitative detail the substance of her narrative. These include "types of marital conflict," "initiator of wife-beating and desertions coming to attention of JPs and parish authorities," and "occupations, estimated wealth or income of husbands who came before York, Durham and Oxford ecclesiastical courts as parties in matrimonial cases," and some two dozen or so additional topics and tables. The author's catalog of so-called "secondary complaints" (provision, property, household, adultery, male violence, financial conflict, children, drinking, female violence, bigamy, jealousy, and religion)--key to her methodology--represents an impressive yield of ordinary (emotional and material) causes which disrupted early modern households. The potential for coping with such problems appears in chapters on conflict resolution, marital roles (responsibilities for making the union endure) and material goods. The author also treats the marital power balance, sexual double standards, and even life after marital breakdown. It is all here--all that you ever wanted to know about marriage and its inherent risks. The focus on plebeian marriage fixed in a time of changing ideologies makes the work unique. Besides its elusive substance, it is lucidly written, beautifully organized, and painstakingly researched. Finally, the bibliography and appendices are enviable.

The most original work in this group, although arguably the one most out of place in this essay, is Peter Lindert's. Described by Jeffrey Sachs as "dazzling" (which it is) and praised for engaging in one of the "grand topics of economics--the rise of social spending" (which it does), Growing Public is essentially about the welfare state and the questions that constantly recur in its various metamorphoses. Social spending, as the author defines it, "consists of those kinds of tax-based government spending" (p. 6) such as welfare, unemployment compensation, public health expenditures, housing subsidies, and public schooling. While enumerating these suggests, rightly, a present day perspective, the book nevertheless fits as well into the eighteenth-century mold. Lindert's point of departure is the Old Poor Law and the arguments which raged from the 1780s until 1834 surrounding poor relief. Indeed, the accursed social spending questions at the end of the eighteenth century are strikingly reminiscent of the "taxing and spending" polemics which distort the genuine needs of health care, education, social security, and welfare in our own day. After treating the Poor Laws and their ramifications, the author is especially attentive to public schools, both before and since 1914, and social spending since 1800 in terms of the last century's world wars, Great Depression, democracies, women's vote, gray power, globalization, safety nets, and economic growth. Regarding present prospects for social spending, he cites especially the public pension crisis--caused by an increase of aging populations and diminishing support for pensioners. Lindert's advocacy for social spending, indeed, for redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, is effective because he masterfully presents very cogent arguments in a lucid writing style. In so doing he succeeds brilliantly in reducing complexity to seductive simplicity. Like the others, or perhaps even more so, this work is profuse with tables, notes, and bibliography.

The books considered above, while possessing at once a uniqueness and commonality of viewpoints, are important for shedding new light on the society of a new age. Paul Johnson, one of the editors of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, said it well in the preface of his Birth of the Modern. He regards "the fifteen years 1815-30 as those during which the matrix of the modern world was largely formed" although he recognizes that there might be dissenters who would opt for the decade of the 1780s to commence such a thesis. No matter which decade, the books cited in this review essay offer new and thoughtful insights for explaining Johnson's "the birth of the modern".

By Albert J. Schmidt

The George Washington University, Quinnipiac

University College of Law

Washington, DC 20008
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Title Annotation:Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850, The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Industrialisation, vol. 1, Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth Since the Eighteenth Century; The Story vol. 1 and The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England
Author:Schmidt, Albert J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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