Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-Century England

Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-Century England

Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-Century England

Crossroads of Power: Essays on Eighteenth-Century England

Excerpt

STUDY-CIRCLES of working men, when asked what subject they would like to take, almost invariably answer with a request for 'economic history'. Political history, they reason, is about kings and statesmen and wars, while they want to learn about 'the likes' of themselves -- as all the other classes and professions did before them. But how much of that desire is satisfied by stories about the enclosures, the spinning-jenny, the Poor Law, the Factory Acts or the Free Trade controversy? Students are landed once more in the sphere of legislative enactments and of Government measures; for these are 'documented' and can be easily dished up, whereas the tale of those ordinary men and women about whom they want to know is buried in casual remarks, in crevices of unknown texts -- pins in haystacks. In the correspondence of the upper classes remarks occasionally occur which throw a flood of light on the life and condition of 'the lower orders', but will anyone ever collect and blend them into a picture? Why, even a history of the rank and file of what may best be described as 'the political nation' is seldom attempted; biographies of famous men still hold the field, though hero-worship is no longer the creed of the writers. But, then, a biography has well-defined limits, a natural sequence and an established practice, and can be compiled by an individual writer in a reasonably short time; nor is it attempted unless materials are ready to hand. Lastly, the public is accustomed to read biographies, and so they continue to be produced.

In biographies, as in plays, the central figures act and speak, the others being mere dummies in the background, 'citizens,' 'soldiers', etc. In most cases the biographer does not profess an exclusive interest in the psychology of his 'hero' and would not deny the importance of the men who surround him; and yet they . . .

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