Back to the Land

Published in History Today

This is a delightful survey of the wish to live and work in the country that was so striking at the end of last century and into the Edwardian period. And, as the author rather relentlessly reminds us, it was also prevalent in recent years. Indeed, the two periods have other aspects in common – Marsh might have dwelt more on the fundamental reasons that these movements took place. Many in the West in the 1960s and early 1970s experienced profound doubts about the benefits of the industrial world. They were post-Depression babies with a sense of unlimited possibilities. Some were willing to take extreme action, politically and socially. So too were quite a few men and women in England at the end of the nineteenth century. The country was in some economic distress, but it was still rich; just the sort of world that would lead some of its more imaginative residents to attempt new solutions.

As Marsh makes clear, almost all of the figures involved with the movement were members of the middle class – the workers and the poor were rarely free agents; they were acted upon rather than taking the initiative. Such was the case of the members of C. R. Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft. In the vote to move from the East End of London to Chipping Campden, they were heavily influenced by their leader. The battles against enclosures of commons and the closing of footpaths could only be won when funds were available, generally from wealthy individuals, to fight the good fight. But there is no doubt that at the end of the nineteenth century there was a deep sense that the rural world was in danger of being lost, and that it was necessary to listen to the preaching of John Ruskin, William Morris and Edward Carpenter, and attempt to achieve a change of heart and life.

The particular form that pastoralism took in the period covered in this book was of course shaped by the times – a distaste for industrialisrn and the machine, and an intense belief in the need for preservation. The National Trust was founded in 1895; folksongs were rediscovered; such great privately-owned monuments as Stonehenge were bought for the public; and public bodies acquired commons and forests. All such stories are well told in this study, and Marsh is particularly adept in presenting her figures – frequently eccentric and extreme – in their fullness and humour, without patronising or minimising them. We are now capable of recognising that the leaders of these movements might be silly, yet at the same time that they were genuinely attempting to improve the quality of life for everyone. Many of them did have that infuriating, quietly-stated style of conveying that there could be no question of the total correctness of their views. But they were not without considerable effect.

Marsh appears to treat the 'back-to-nature' movement of the last century, and that of our own day, as if it were something new, while in fact both are part of the continued love of the countryside of the English tradition: the belief that virtue is likely to have a rural habitat – and vice an urban one. What was different, as she does point out, and may have made the movement less realistic, was that the great majority of England's population now lived in cities.

In the course of a short book, a wide range of activities are touched upon, including arts and crafts in the countryside, new schools such as Abbotsholme and Bedales, the Peasant Arts Fellowship, rational dress, and vegetarianism. Despite their radicalism, class aspects maintained themselves. The book reproduces an advertisement for a rational dress supplier which cites that the goods are 'as supplied to Viscountess Harberton'. These movements profoundly questioned many of the values of English bourgeois society along William Morris' lines but they did not follow him in his call for revolution.

Marsh appropriately ends her study with a sketch of Letchworth Garden City, suggesting both its absurdity and its success, partially achieved, ironically, through allowing a corset manufacturer to come to town. Here was a successful gathering of people, houses, and light-manufacturing, that was both a garden and a city, suggesting that the ventures which immediately preceded it in fact had positive results. Yet Marsh seems to undercut herself in her very last page asking, 'How far have we yet come to terms with fact that the city is here to stay?' Is she right in saying on the previous page: 'Given a free choice, we would all live in the country'? She does not appear to recognise that the English are both intensely urban and intensely rural, bourgeois and anti-bourgeois, and quite sensibly wish to have the best of both worlds. Some felt that urbanism had gone too far. At the end of the nineteenth century, Back to the Land tells us about the movements and individuals who, with many failures and some striking successes, such as the National Trust, attempted to reverse that trend, to our lasting benefit.

Peter Stansky


Back to the Land: The Pastoral Impulse in Victorian England from 1880 to 1914

Quartet, 1982; 264 pp.



June issue

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