Who's Who

British History 1815-1906; & Society And Economy In Modern Britain

Published in History Today 1992
  • British History 1815-1906
    Norman McCord - Oxford University Press, 1991 - xx+ 518pp. - £45 (hardback), £12.95 (paperback)
  • Society And Economy In Modern Britain 1700-1850
    Richard Brown – Routledge, 1991 - xvi + 473 pp. - £40 (hardback), £12.99 (paperback)

Modern textbooks are a tricky assignment, akin to academic hand-holding in a time when social chaperonage is quite out of fashion. A combination of ease and discipline is demanded, and a 'modest omniscience which issues opinions without opinionatedness has to be artfully contrived. The novice reader wants security, which means a steady supply of digestible and reliable reference information; but excitement in the possibilities of independent exploration must not be repressed or dulled. And, since by the nature of things these exercises are reviewed by other escorts, the routine must be sufficiently refreshened to stimulate the jaded. Both these books satisfy the minimum desiderata. They are comprehensive in coverage, at least to such an extent as is unreasonable to demand much more; and their organisation of themes and subjects is well considered. They are also alike in their liberal use of subdivisional and sectional headings to label particular issues within chapters. How far this practice is decided by publishers' instructions is unclear, but this reviewer is inclined to protest when it is so excessive. It gives off the sensation of a supermarket, packaging bite-size paragraphs as if micro-waved for limited attention spans. The continuous narrative, which displays the historian's traditional story-telling art, is surely preferable.

Norman McCord's volume is part of the successful series, Short Oxford History of the Modern World, under the general editorship of J.M. Roberts. It is a companion to T.O. Lloyd's, Empire to Welfare State: English History 1906-1985, now in its third edition. The amplification of England into Britain from Lloyd to McCord should be noted and applauded, and Richard Brown's economic and social history essays the same. The excursions in McCord read occasionally as bolted-on extras but the overall effect is not artificial and, as well as isolating differences, illustrations of general points are nicely drawn from the four national corners. Brown is more ambitious but perhaps less successful, since he is rather too fond of Hechter's internal colonialism thesis, He is a somewhat self-conscious multi-cultural fellow, who gives us Caerffili rather than Caerphilly, although his text and maps are not always agreed whether Caernarfon and Dolgellau are more politically correct than Caernarvon and Dolgelley.

This little difference is symptomatic. McCord's work has a relaxed authority and individuality which Brown's does not. Brown is formidably well read in recent publications. In this he outpaces McCord whose Gladstone, for instance, is mostly that of Magnus not Matthew, and whose Whigs are sired by Southgate rather than by Brent or Parry. McCord makes up for these deficiences (which are mostly on the party political side) by deft deployment of arguments and material derived from a host of unpublished theses and from his own original researches. Brown cannot rival this range and facility and his work ultimately wearies by its second-hand recitals. Dense with references to and quotations from other historians' work, Brown's book devotes too much space to telling us what others think and not enough to fashioning his own position. It has a scissors-and-paste feel to it and the authentic Brown is difficult to identify, except perhaps in the inoffensive banalities which pass for philosophical asides on the nature of history, and strenuous solemnities about 'conventional' views to be avoided when in truth their seductive power is about as lively as Aunt Sally. Still, Brown's book will rightly earn wide sales among school sixth-form and first-year undergraduate audiences as a plain man's guide through difficult terrain, clarifying concepts and traversing pitfalls in documentation.

McCord's market will be sizeable also, although the author's ardour to limit the significance of the role of government, class, and radical politics will raise hackles in some quarters. The style is mostly cool, matter-of-fact, suddenly sparked by an arresting sentence, protesting about the 'inherent bias in the historical record, which tends to record things which have gone awry, while neglecting the continuance of relatively satisfactory normality' (p.121). McCord's paupers are not mere helpless victims of circumstance, otherwise paragons of virtue. Thus, this on the late-nineteenth century Poor Law: 'The elderly did not always grow old gracefully, and the poor and the sick were not always pleasantly pathetic. It is understandable that ratepayers' enthusiasm for generous relief policies was often limited' (p.416). McCord is unsentimental about (some will say, unsympathetic to) organised labour, in trade union and party activity. He also has no patience with class explanations of historical development, dismissed as Marxist abracadabra. This reviewer is not at all upset by this, only wishing to remark that, by so resolutely seeking to prove the three-class model a fiction, McCord fails to allow that myths which have the power to influence minds and actions do become part of social and political reality.

Finally, it may be salutary to indicate a few errors, not in a spirit of one-upmanship, but so that they may be corrected in inevitable future reprints. In McCord, an explanatory foot-note is repeated on pp.45, 77; Keir Hardie was defeated by the former Conservative MP at West Ham in 1895, not by a Liberal (p.587), and Clitheroe, far from being a hopeless seat for the Liberals and won by Labour from the Unionists in 1902, had been Liberal in every general election since 1885 (p.400). There are
throughout small differences between McCord's election statistics and those of the standard authority, F.W.S. Craig. In Brown, the same details of farm size are repeated on pp. 58, 267; St Germans is placed in Devon, not Cornwall on p.24; the Malthusian proposition is not well defined on p.42, where it seems as if Malthus and Adam Smith agreed; a crucial sentence explaining population growth is made nonsense by the word 'mortality' when 'fertility' is meant, on p.30, and another on the registration of births on p.32 is meaningless; Maudslay not Maudsley on p.84; 1824 not 1924 on p.103; Telford was born in 1757, not 1727 on p.135; Deane not Dean on p.160; Pease not Pearce on p.230; there are better railway resorts to choose than either Scarborough or Southend (p.244); anglicised not anglicanised on p.280; 1739 not 1793 on p.294, and Sumner on p.347. Brown also confuses his Charlottes on p.331: it was the princess who died in 1817 (the queen died in 1818). Most bizarre of all, has Lawrence Stone become Laurence Sterne on p.215?!

  • P.J. Waller is the editor of Politics and Social Change in Modern Britain (Harvester, 1987).

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