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William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture.

Dr. Dyck's study of William Cobbett (1763-1835), one of the greatest English polemicists, is no ordinary or traditional biography. Dyck succeeds in explaining many components in Cobbett's remarkable career from countryside crow-scaring to election to the mother of parliaments at that moment towards the end of his life when its oligarchic characteristics mere slightly diluted by the famous Reform Act of 1832. Cobbett has attracted distinguished biographers from across the political spectrum, including G.K. Chesterton, G.D.H. Cole, Asa Briggs, and Raymond Williams; shorter pieces have been penned by people as diverse as William Hazlitt, Leslie Stephens, A.J.P. Taylor, and Michael Foot. Cobbett's exotic personality, a unique concoction of contradictory egotistic idiosyncracies, spawned ideological inconsistencies, themselves flooding forth for over forty years in a profusion of studies, tracts, homilies, and above all journalism, which comprise the complete works of this enigmatic colossus. But none of Dyck's predecessors - including his fellow North American George Spater in a massive two-volume work - generated the incision manifested here.

Dyck's sheer originality will engage the polymorphic interests in Cobbett, which embrace so many disciplines, including history, literature, linguistics, philosophy, and politics. Cobbett spent his boyhood as a self-perceived "sort of labourer" in rural Surrey where his father was a classic dual-occupationist running a small farm in tandem with a pub. As a youth, the son joined the army, and subsequently spent some years in the infant U.S.A., before returning to England and launching himself as a campaigning journalist. Cobbett fiercely supported the younger Pitt's ideologically driven leadership of the European ancien regime's war against revolutionary France, which also engineered the so-called "reign of terror" repressing the indigenous populist movement for political reform of the British state on democratic principles. In the first decade of the nineteenth-century, Cobbett re-entered farming now in his own right, abandoned his brand of High Tory politics in favour of a neo-democratic form of populism and campaigned in his virulent fashion through his newspaper, the Political Register. The Register became a major bugbear for a succession of English governments, not only for its relentless radical critique, but for its one over-riding object, the politicization of the burgeoning rural proletariat which threatened the aristocratic establishment in the bastion of its power, namely the countryside. Its proprietor was eventually prosecuted - unsuccessfully - for riot incitement over the last labourers' revolt, the Captain Swing insurrection of 1830. If that establishment conceded limited constitutional reform with the 1832 Act, the main beneficiaries were from the principally urban commercial and industrial middle class. The complete failure of the reformed state to adopt Cobbettite prescriptions for remedying the dreadful plight of the rural working class, in favour of doctrinal laissez-faire solutions abolishing public make-work schemes, critical child-benefits and most other allowances in-aid-of desultory wages, with the notorious Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, drove Cobbett in the last year of his life into advocating fundamentalist solutions almost at one with the land nationalization advocated by the Spenceans, once a target of Pittite tyranny.

It is not surprising even from this inadequate outline, that Cobbett's trajectory, evidentially underpinned by millions of printed and spoken words, from the man himself, his commonly ephemeral and fractious high-profile allies, and his multifarious enemies promiscuously ensconced from cowshed to Cabinet, presents an explanatory nightmare. Dyck's analysis roots Cobbett in his countryside context, and more precisely that of a traditional rural popular culture from which he sprung and which he tried to defend against the devastations of what historians once described - and now ought to reconsider reinstating - as the agricultural revolution. That revolution was as much social as economic, and was driven by a rapid intensification of agrarian capitalism. Expressed simply, Cobbett fervently believed in a countryside organized to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and sought to reverse a situation in which the interests of the vast majority - the workers - were sacrificed to a minority including the profit-maximizing larger farmers, their grandiose predatory landlords, and their congenital appropriators - the tithe-exacting Anglican clergy. He demanded the "three B's" - bread, bacon, and beer - in moderate abundance for agricultural labourers, best achieved if employment was maximized under a system of smaller, labour-intensive farms, with working ("round-frock farmers") as opposed to gentleman proprietors, and a restoration of cottage-manufacturing to boot, for Cobbett was no enthusiast for the emergent, factory-based form of industrial capitalism either. His analysis in part of what had gone wrong hinged on his identification of the development of social class in the countryside. In de facto recognition of the need for a working-class consciousness to initiate a counter-revolutionary reversal of this situation, he sought to accelerate the indigenous growth he detected - if Dyck is correct - of that escalating consciousness emanating from workers' experiences.

Dyck's decoding of Cobbett is to a limited extent underpinned by frequent resort to the evidence contained in popular rural song, problematic though such a source must be. Ironically, Cobbett's conversion to opposition to enclosure was somewhat belated, though no less vigorous for that; hatred of this brand of class-robbery was well-represented in populist lyrics long before he exploded on to the scene. But Cobbettite targets including taxes, pensions, sinecures, and other central components of old corruption ("the thing") certainly did find their way into new compositions dating from the early nineteenth century. In chapter four Dyck explores what he conceives as "The battle for the pedlar's pack" in which broad and song-sheets infused with oppositional messages ousted the establishment-oriented ditties of loyalist hacks, to be flogged for the consumption and song of plebeians in their subterranean strongholds in homely pubs and beershops. But beyond this, Dyck rarely goes, in the main eschewing the evidence contained in non-Cobbett sources, in favour of drawing on the findings of that recent phenomenon, namely the practitioners of the new rural history, more concerned with people and community than orthodox "plough and cow" agricultural historiography. Although there are exceptions, when Dyck does engage with this material, his unfamiliarity is manifest, exemplified by his reference to the "government informer" relaying intelligence from one of Captain Swing's insurrectionary epicentres, Battle in Sussex, who turns out to be no less a personage than the treasury solicitor, engaged not only in orchestrating the repression of the revolt, but amassing evidence which his political masters hoped would nail Cobbett himself. Dyck's decoding of Cobbett himself is very different from successfully recruiting rural labour to E.P. Thompson's class-conscious standard, spelled out with over-riding reference to urban and industrial workers in that classic work on the period, The Making of the English Working Class.

Moreover, Dyck manifests some naivety even towards Cobbett himself. Dyck seems incapable of fully appreciating the rhetorical and polemical nature of so much of Cobbett's writing. To give but one example, Cobbett's repetitive praise of the ancient system of living-in servitude, whereby younger and unmarried workers boarded with the farmers, eating - and drinking - at their employer's table, naturally overlooked the adverse side of this relationship. Hence no Cobbettite emphasis - though plenty of other evidence exists - on the dictatorial conduct of many farmers, secure in the knowledge that their, rather than the servants' accounts of events, was more likely to be believed if legal recourse was taken to the magistracy, for example in cases of sexual exploitation of lasses, which appears to have been not uncommon. As his contemporary, the famous improving agricultural propagandist Arthur Young wrote - in Cobbett's own newspaper - "there is too often a lust in the exertion of great talents, which on many occasions has done no slight mischief to the cause of truth." The real question of confirming class-conscious rural workers in England by the 1830s, cannot be answered by either Cobbett's or, on this evidence, Dyck's talents, though this book has much for those historians currently so engaged. Cobbettite ambiguity still rides rural English historiography, echoing the delightful variant articulated by the Rector of Meonstoke, "I don't know what period he belonged to, but I had the pleasure of burying him."
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Author:Wells, Roger
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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