Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850

Article excerpt

ARTHUR BURNS AND JOANNA INNES, EDS. Rethinking the Age of Reform: Britain 1780-1850. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv + 346, bibliography, index. $70.00.

This volume contains a fascinating set of essays which may ultimately re-shape the historiographical contours of the "age of reform." In drawing together these pieces, the editors, Arthur Burns and Joanna Innes, have focused more on "reform as aspiration" (1) than on the achievements of various reform movements between 1780 and 1850. Careful attention is given to the ways in which contemporaries employed terms such as "reform," "reformation," and "reformer." In this sensitivity to the language of reform, two strands are evident: one pertaining to the amelioration of corrupt laws and institutions and the other to the rectification of moral failings. The vast majority of the essays deal with "middle class" reform movements. The editors maintain that in the vast literature surrounding the period, "the study of middle-class reform has rather languished" (68). They hope this volume may help encourage renewed interest in middle-class movements. The work also invites further examination of working-class reform projects in light of the strands of reform rhetoric and aspiration which Burns and Innes identify.

Innes and Burns have provided an expansive introduction which gives an outstanding survey of the historical context and historiographical debates surrounding the "age of reform." One might have hoped for more exploration of the implications of their collection for the broader historiography of the period, particularly as it relates to working-class movements. That said, the introduction will provide an excellent starting point for individuals new to the field. Innes also provides the first piece in the collection, which serves as another sort of introduction to the volume. Many of the essays seem informed by her careful examination of the ways in which the word reform was understood in the period and of shifts not only in the way the word was used but in the ways the use of the word was contested. Innes argues that as the term reform became more prominent, it came to be used in a much more specific manner, i.e., to refer to parliamentary reform. However, in discerning this shift, she also concedes that this new understanding never entirely precluded other uses of the term. …

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