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By Peter Stansky | Published in History Today 1983 
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The Pastoral Impulse in Victorian England from 1880 to 1914 by Jan Marsh

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.


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