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From Rank to Class: Innovation in Georgian England

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Penelope Corfield finds that economic progress and new self-awareness in language and gesture disturbed the tranquility of the ‘Age of Elegance'.

'The swinish multitude' in Hogarth's famous cartoon of the effect of cheap drink on the masses, 'Gin Lane'Society in eighteenth-century England has often been depicted as static, harmonious, unchanging verging upon the torpid. In caricature: a world in which an obsequious peasantry stood endlessly doffing their hats to a complacent gentry, in a tranquil countryside.

Professor Perkin, for example, has pointed to the dynamism of trade and economic change, but nonetheless dubbed the old society of England before the Industrial Revolution as a 'classless hierarchy', further defined as 'an open aristocracy, based on property and patronage'. Peter Laslett attributed even less significance to urban and commercial expansionism. He argued that the landowners were the only social group to exhibit cohesion in wielding wealth and power. Traditional England was therefore a 'one-class society'. All other potential interest groups were fragmented, divided, and usually deferential. Rank and hierarchy reigned supreme, and there were no signs of dangerous modernisms, such as 'class consciousness' or 'class conflict'.

Yet these interpretations are now coming under increasing challenge. Recent research into popular politics, riots, urban growth, commercial dynamics, the professions, the family, women, literacy, the history of dress -to name but a few aspects of the 'new eighteenth century' - collectively suggest that the simple 'hierarchical' model is far too simple. It was a complex, changing, and often uncertain society. The traditional theory of the old ranks and orders was in considerable disarray. Instead, there was a new sense of challenge, of flux, of innovation.


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