Daily Life in 18th-Century England
Donna T Andrew
Daily Life in 18th-Century England, by Kirsten Olsen. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999. xiv, 416 pp. $45.00 U.S. (cloth).
Kirsten Olsen’s book is an overview of eighteenth-century England. Though it considers politics in Chapter One, the great bulk of the book deals with the quotidian, the mundane. It covers both London and the provinces, though it does “lump” provincial cities and rural places together. It notes class and race distinctions, though it avoids discussing any of the difficulties besetting either of these categories. It looks at housing and entertainment; transport and the economy; food, drink and health. It is illustrated with cartoons and offers the reader a few simple charts, plus a timeline at the end of each chapter.
It is hard to know the audience for whom this work is intended. A work of synthesis, it seems too specific for most highschool students and perhaps too elementary for most university ones. This problem of targeted readership is critical to a fair and adequate review. And yet the question is never resolved, never even addressed. In the absence of any explicit comment, let me note a few deficiencies.
First, and perhaps most serious, is the implicit assumption that one can speak at all of”daily life in eighteenth-century England.” It is not at all clearly established that there was such a thing as eighteenth-century England, except in a very limited chronological sense. Are we talking of “the long eighteenth century” which begins in 1660 or 1688 and goes on until 1815 or 1832? Or are there several periods encompassed within that longer time span: the Restoration, the period from the Revolution of 1688 to the ascension of the Hanovers, the early and the later Hanoverian kings? Even if we restrict our survey to only a hundred years, surely such things as fashions, diets, housing and economic change show enormous differences in periodization, in development and in outcome.
Take the topic of religion, for example. Given one small chapter, it is considered institutionally; Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Dissenters, and Jews. The role of religion is given four paragraphs at the chapter’s end. We are never told, however, the relationship of religion to politics, or to poor relief, or to the family and marriage. Even if one is not an advocate of J.C.D. Clark’s notion of this as England’s ancien regime, most historians would agree that religion is both more central and more complex in its role and interactions than such a survey even hints at.
Since the eighteenth century is not periodized, we miss several temporal transformations. Thus, in her consideration of “The Crown and Parliament,” Olsen contends that “Britain’s monarchs were becoming less important just as Britain was becoming more important. . . little by little, royal power receded.” While this telling has the virtue of clarity, surely it is wrong to say that the monarchy was being rendered powerless when George III, late in the century, was able to impose his prime minister on parliament. Later she notes that “agitation to expand the electorate… was barely uttered in the eighteenth [century] except as a small radical yelp during the 1790s.” This entirely ignores the activities of John Wilkes and the Wilkites, of the many supporters of the American Revolution and of the Association Movement in the 1780s. Focussing on continuity, Olsen has lost sight of change, of temporal as well as spatial embeddedness. There are also a number of major assertions unsupported by any positive and only slender negative evidence, such as Olsen’s view that “Most people, even the poor, believed in the [class] system in its ideal form.” Her evidence for this is the absence of a French-style revolution in England. My questions are: how does she know what “most people” believed; and, what is the connection between revolution or its absence and degrees of acceptance of the social structure? I am not arguing here that I think Olsen wrong (though I do think she is) but rather that she has insufficiently adduced and provided her readers with historical evidence for her positions.
Finally then, while it must be said that this book is clearly written and wellillustrated, it is hard to know to whom one would wish to give it. It homogenizes the eighteenth century, smoothing out discord, stressing continuities without argument, presenting a society differing only in the details from Olsen’s vision of twentieth-century America. Neither society is or was as uncontested as she suggests, neither as bland as she implies.
University of Guelph Donna T. Andrew
Copyright Canadian Journal of History Dec 2000
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