The Gentry in Wales and England, 1500-1700; & The Family and Relationships, 1500-1900, England, France and the USA

Published in History Today
  • The Gentry in Wales and England, 1500-1700
    Felicity Heal and Clive Holmes - Macmillan, 1994 - xvi + 473 pp. - £45 (hb). £14.99 (pb)
  • The Family and Relationships, 1500-1900, England, France and the USA
    Rosemary O'Day - Macmillan, 1994 - xix + 34s pp. - £40 (hb). £12.99 (pb)

R.H. Tawney argued in 1941 that the English Civil War had its origins in the attempt of the gentry class to win political power, commensurate with its social and economic gains in the previous century. The 'gentry controversy' dominated Civil War historiography for the next twenty-five years. When the present reviewer was interviewed for a university job, a kindly committee set him the task of explaining the controversy, as if to somebody who knew no history, he didn't get the job. By the time (in 1965) that Lawrence Stone published his The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1551-1641 it would be hard to find somebody who did not know about the 'gentry contmroversy'. Indeed the life by then had gone out of it: it had become the staple diet of Ph.D. regional studies.

But Stone’s work transcended the controvcrsy which had given rise to it. Its origins showed in its periodisation: why stop at 1641, other than to bring the aristocracy to the Civil War precipice? And also in the 'crisis' of the title: Stone’s research on the peerage actually subverted the idea that class was undergoing a peculiar crisis in 1641. Only by redefining 'crisis' was Stone able to retrieve his thesis (and title). These clumsinesses, thirty years on, seem venial beside the book's merits: a remarkably full, rounded picture of a class, in both its social and economic dimensions.

And this is what Felicity Heal and Clive Holmes now give us for the gentry class in their excellent new study. They generously acknowledge their debt to Stone. But note, too, the differences. No focus on 1641 here: ‘1500-1700’ is about as eloquent a statement of lack of interest in the origins of the Civil War as anything could be. But it is more than that. It is a recognition that the longue duree in which historians can measure change must cover at least two centuries (Rosemary O'Day, in her book on the family, covers four). And note also the non-appearance of 'crisis' in the title. That does not mean that they are indifferent to the real strains imposed on the gentry class over this period of time; only that these cannot be encapsulated into a neat formulation explain the origins of the Civil War. They argue, at the end of their rich study of the gentry from many different perspectives (lineage, wealth, education, family, politics, education, civility, piety and belief), that it was a class that had 'objectively' triumphed in post-Restoration England, and paradoxically had 'subjectively' experienced defeat. The politics of eighteenth-century England would be shaped by these mutually contradictory assumptions.

The text is related through- out to the pictorial evidence. Tombstones, chapels and portraits are structural to their argument, not ornamental extras. There are many colourful anecdotes culled from a wide range of sources, but they are harnessed to a judicious and balanced argument. To give one example. Joan Thirsk wrote in 1968 a famous article on the plight of younger sons in the seventeenth century. If there was a rise of the gentry, she argued, it was at the expense of their younger brothers. Her essay mixed solid empirical evidence with Orlando's plight in As You Like lt, Thomas Wilson's The State of England, 1600 and Leveller and Digger propaganda; similarly, Heal and Holmes are as ready to raid Tom Jones as they are the Public Records office for their source material. Thirsk's essay ends with the abortive colony launched for younger sons in Tennessee in 1879 by Thomas Hughes (of Tom Brown's Schooldays fame). The experiment collapses with the colonists' ennui: devastated, according to a local paper, by the failure of the London Punch to arrive on time.

Heal and Holmes are aware that 'revisionism has now reached younger sons' and are able, from their own researches, to show many instances of how familial loyalties were able to circumvent the structural problems posed by primogeniture. But revisionism is not enough. Their reading has also provided them with powerful counter-examples of occasions where these same structural disadvantages defeated the strategies to get round them. Thus in the end Thirsk is refined, not discarded.

Rosemary O'Day on the family covers a wider span of time than Heal and Holmes, and a comparative element is injected by relating England to France and the United States. There are five chapters in her book, each one containing a helpful, short conclusion. The first two, in her own words, are ‘avowedly methodological’. The first shows the limitations of demography, in confusing family with household. The second shows the dangers in the use of literary evidence, in mistaking prescription for description. The next two are descriptions of family forms over four centuries. The simple nuclear family is revealed as a complex article on History Workshop in 1980; labels of 'patriarchy' are demonstrated as inappropriate. Her last chapter shows how the imposition of a middle-class ideal distorts our understanding of what made working-class families tick.

Sir John Norris, piqued by his wife's behaviour, arranged that a chapter of Ecclesiastes on the obedience of women should be read out at family prayers. Lady Norris responded by sending for the Bible and tearing a page from it. This arresting vignette tells us about the quasi-public nature of household prayers, the limits of patriarchy, gentry devotion and much else besides. It comes from Heal and Holmes, but it could equally well have come from O'Day or Thirsk. Tawney's 'rising gentry' may be a dead duck, but not his way of writing history. The two volumes under review are both solid and professional but they are more than that. They have a Tawney-like respect for the individual's story: the human element is never lost in the statistics.

William Lamont is the co-author of The World of the Muggletonians (Temple Smith, 1983).

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